Whether you’re an amateur just getting started in your long-term career, an experienced serial entrepreneur, or something in between, time management skills are critical for your success. Learning how to manage your time effectively will help you get more done every work day, increase efficiency, and ultimately increase your value to your company.
That said, “time management” is a bit of a vague term; if you tell someone they need to get better at managing their time, what are they supposed to do with that advice? In this guide, we’ll explore the constituents of time management as specifically as possible, look at some time management tips, and present a list of critical time management skills you can refine to become more efficient.
What Is Time Management?
Let’s start by specifically defining what we mean by “time management.” Time management is an exercise of control over how you spend time every day. Better time management means you’ll work more efficiently, which you can use to either reduce the number of hours you spend to accomplish the same results, or achieve more results in the same number of hours.
Most people strive for three priorities when improving their time management:
- Wasting less time. We all waste time, whether we like to admit it or not. The question is, how much time are you wasting, how are you wasting it, and why are you wasting it? If you’re wasting several hours a week on tasks that aren’t helping you achieve your main goals, or on distractions like social media, you can easily reallocate those hours to something more impactful.
- Accomplishing tasks in less time. Time management is also about finding ways to accomplish your important tasks in a smaller amount of time. If a task usually takes you an hour and you can now do it in 30 minutes, you’ll save 30 minutes every time you have to perform that task. These time savings can snowball quickly.
- Accomplishing tasks in order of importance. It’s also important to figure out a way to accomplish tasks in the right order; even if you’re highly productive, you could miss deadlines if you aren’t organized.
The Most Important Time Management Skills
So which time management skills are most important?
1. Saying no.
First and foremost, you have to be able to fend off others’ efforts at utilizing your time. Some tasks and responsibilities in your work life will do nothing (or almost nothing) to help you achieve your own goals. There will be clients that don’t advance your business, and duties that don’t help you learn or grow. Learning to identify these potential sources of time waste, and saying “no” to them can help you avoid them, instead directing your attention to the opportunities that matter. This is one of the most important time management tips for work, especially.
2. Goal setting.
You also have to be able to set and understand your own goals. Time management can mean different things to different people, and if you aren’t sure what you want, you won’t be able to prove in any definitive direction. For example, let’s say your main goal is leaving the office on time, while still getting the same amount of work done; if this is the case, you’ll need to focus on improving your efficiency. But if your main goal is improving profitability in your business, you’ll need to optimize your approach differently. Goal setting is also important on a smaller scale; for example, you can commit to spending three fewer hours on social media every week, so you can focus on more important tasks.
3. Stress management.
Everyone gets stressed at work, but if your stress levels get too high, they can severely affect your performance, rendering you unable to focus and in some cases causing you to miss entire days due to illness. Accordingly, managing your stress can help you manage your time. There are many strategies that can reduce your stress levels, including physical exercise, extra sleep, meditation, and more free time.
Learning when to delegate and how to delegate are is one of the most important time management skills for professionals to master. Chances are, there are tasks you do every day that someone less skilled or differently skilled could do just as well—and for less money than you’re worth. There may also be members of your team who have less on their plate, and are able to take on the extra work. In these situations, delegating the task is superior to trying to do it yourself. Assigning the task to the best possible person, and being thorough and clear in your assignment description, can help you improve even further.
Time management forces you to prioritize properly. Generally speaking, the best way to do this is to evaluate both the urgency and importance of each task on your to-do list. Urgency refers to how pressing a matter is; is this only relevant in the next few hours, or is it something that could potentially wait a month. Importance refers to how vital it is to your bottom line; will this help you achieve your long-term goals, or is it trivial at best? Combining these factors, you should be able to come up with an ordering system that lets you tackle your most significant tasks first.
Scheduling may seem straightforward, but there are two elements to scheduling that can greatly improve how you spend your time. First, there’s combating Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law is an informal adage that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, the more time you allocate for a task, the longer it’s going to take you to do it; you can fight against this by scheduling aggressively, with tight timeframes. Second, there’s finding the balance between rigidity and flexibility. It’s important to schedule as many tasks as possible, so you know how to plan and execute your day, but it’s also important to leave some wiggle room, in case new priorities emerge or some tasks take longer than you anticipated. This balance will be different for every job.
You’ll work more effectively, completing tasks in less time, if those tasks have your complete attention. If you’re distracted, even slightly, it can take up to 23 minutes for you to fully recover. Similarly, if you attempt to multitask, you’ll instantly lower your effectiveness at each task you’re trying to juggle. Learning to focus can be difficult, but it becomes much easier with the help of mindfulness meditation—and when you eliminate potential distractions in your work environment.
It should be no secret that better organized people end up spending less time on tasks. They know exactly where to find every file they need, and they never lose track of things like meeting notes. There are methods of organization that apply to different areas of your work; for example, we’ve written this handy guide on how to get more organized in Gmail. However, high-level organizational skills are going to be more useful overall. Come up with a system that fits with your work style, and be consistent with it. A proper system of organization is one of the most important time management tips for students, specifically.
Time management efforts are often obstructed by indecisiveness. In some situations, it’s important to take your time, consider all the variables, and only finalize your decision when you’re absolutely certain of it. In most situations, it’s better to make a high-level assessment, then move forward in one direction, adjusting along the way. Decisiveness saves time not only because it spares you from excessive hesitation, but also because it gives you the chance to gather more information as you begin your execution.
10. Patience (and opportunism).
Working on the most appropriate and/or powerful tasks can help you spend your time more wisely; this often requires both patience and opportunism. For example, if you’re investing in real estate, you’ll have to know which property deals to pass up, biding your time until jumping on the “perfect” opportunity.
Productivity is highly dependent on personal motivation; people who are intrinsically motivated will always accomplish their work faster (and more thoroughly) than their unmotivated counterparts. If you’re able to sufficiently motivate yourself, even when you’re at a low point, you’ll always be able to spend your time more efficiently. The trick is knowing how to motivate yourself. Remind yourself of your long-term goals, and try to draw a line connecting this task to those goals. You may also consider rewarding yourself when a task is complete. Experiment to see what works, and be sure to check out out list of motivational quotes to get inspired!
Time management also requires you to document your work and ideas in an efficient way. For example, let’s say you’ve set a goal for yourself; have you written this goal down? Are you tracking it? Or is it just something that resides in your imagination? Documented goals are much more likely to be achieved. Similarly, you’ll want to document your ongoing work efficiently to keep yourself on task and working productively. For example, you’ll want to take detailed meeting notes so you can refer back to them in the future.
The first of three hallmarks of efficient communication is conciseness. Some people try to save time by rushing through their words. Rather than “wasting” time thinking through their message and editing it to perfection, they spill their guts instinctively and hit send. However, this is counterproductive. Writing and speaking concisely will take a bit more time, since you’ll have to edit your wording, but it’s worth the investment. Not only will the recipients of your messages spend less time in dialogue, you’ll also prevent miscommunications—which are a major source of time waste for everyone involved.
The second of three hallmarks of efficient communication is clarity. Conciseness will help you state your message in fewer words, but clarity will eliminate ambiguities. For example, let’s say there’s an issue with an unsatisfied customer that you’re trying to resolve with an employee. The phrase “take care of it please” is concise, but it’s also ambiguous; does “take care of it” mean give the customer a discount on their next purchase? Refund the order? Or come up with some solution on their own? Even if you feel like the implication is obvious, taking another minute to spell things out can spare you a lot of trouble.
The third of three hallmarks of efficient communication is thoroughness. Thoroughness is all about providing information in advance, rather than sending it piecemeal or leaving things unsaid. This is perhaps most important when making a request, or when assigning a task to one of your employees; if your employee doesn’t have all the materials they need to begin a task, it’s going to be delayed. Thoroughness, like conciseness, takes more time initially, but it’s an investment; if done correctly, it will save you far more time than it initially costs.
16. Time estimation.
Time management also means learning how to accurately estimate the amount of time a task will take. This will help you in several ways. First, you’ll be able to schedule tasks and meetings more effectively, assigning them a time slot that isn’t too short nor too long; this can help you cram more tasks into your workday without overwhelming you. Second, it will help you learn when you’re working inefficiently; if you exceed your time estimate significantly, you’ll know something went wrong. Time estimation can also help you prioritize, or learn when to delegate; if a task is going to take you a long time, but won’t help you achieve your goals, you can find a way to get out of it. Time estimation is one of the more difficult time management skills to master because of our natural inclination to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a task. It’s actually a cognitive bias known as the planning fallacy, and it affects all of us.
17. Resource allocation.
Resource allocation can also help you complete tasks more efficiently, and waste less time. The types of resources you allocate will depend on your role. For example, you might be assigning employees to different tasks; if you play to employee strengths, you’ll be able to get more done (as a team) faster, and spend less time making corrections. It’s also important not to over-allocate resources, or you’ll end up wasting time or making other tasks more difficult.
There are many situations that will call upon your outlining skills. In each of them, outlining will serve as a skeletal framework that will guide the rest of your work. If you’re writing an eBook, starting with a high-level outline of sections and subsections will help you complete it faster. If you’re hosting a meeting, outlining the course of the meeting will help you stay on track and waste less time. As with many items on this list, it may seem like an increase in time expenditure, but it’s ultimately an investment that will save you time in the long run.
19. Openness to change.
Most people have things they’d like to change about their job, like an overwhelming number of emails or always feeling behind, but they’re reluctant to change their habits to make a difference. Change begets change, so if you want to improve your time management skills (and your work experience overall), you have to be willing to adapt. Be open-minded about new techniques and new approaches, and don’t be afraid to change your core routine. Only through these adjustments will you learn what truly works.
Collaboration is a vague skill to learn, since you can collaborate in many different ways, on many different tasks. But if you want to spend your time wisely, you need to learn how to work well with others. Good communication can help you tremendously here, but the most important fundamental for better collaboration is adaptability; different people will have different preferences, styles, and habits, and you’ll need to make adjustments to yours to work efficiently with others. Learn how your partners work, and cater to them when possible. For help, see our guide on collaboration among employees.
21. Reflection and analysis.
The greatest tool in your time management arsenal is reflection. Think about how you’re spending your time, and look at the data, to analyze what’s going right and what’s going wrong. Most people are ignorant to the ways they waste time on a daily basis, and don’t understand how it’s possible to work more efficiently. By studying your own habits closely, and looking for opportunities, you’ll be far more capable of finding new outlets for growth. Just make sure you have a good tool to help you track your progress.
Measuring Your Time Management Progress
Honing these time management skills will improve how you allocate and spend your time, but how can you be sure you’re making progress? Are you really spending fewer hours on the demanding tasks that occupy your day? If not, what’s really holding you back?
The only way to tell for sure is by measuring and analyzing your progress. It’s important to track how you’re spending your time, how you’re managing you’re work, and how you’re improving over time.
There are many tools that can help you in this endeavor, but one of the most effective (and easiest to learn) is EmailAnalytics. Once integrated with your Gmail account, EmailAnalytics will help you track how many emails you send and receive, your average response times, and dozens of other variables—all with helpful data visuals, so you can intuitively glean new takeaways. If you’re interested in learning more about your own time management progress, sign up for a free trial today!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.