20 Time-Management Tips That Put You in Charge of Your Day
Sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Instead of lamenting your lack of time, make the most of the time you do have with these time-management tips.
Making the most of your time
It’s hard to learn how to be happy when you constantly feel swamped by too much to do. If your task list just keeps getting longer and longer, the number of hours in the day isn’t always to blame. If you know how to manage your time properly, you’ll start checking things off your list more frequently. Focusing on how to set goals and protect your non-negotiables is the first step to prioritizing your most pressing needs. Doing this will help you start to tackle your to-do list more efficiently to get the most out of your day.
What is time management?
Time management is the ability to use your time effectively during the day to accomplish what you want to get done. It’s an important skill, because without it, we find ourselves swamped at home and at work, with a to-do list that only ever seems to grow. Knowing how to manage time reduces hours in the day lost to procrastination, ineffective multitasking or lack of focus.
Nobody can be “on” all the time, and it’s essential to take time to rest, rather than try to be productive at every moment. So why is time management important? Good time management helps separate out the working part of your day from the resting part of your day, so that you’re able to accomplish what you need to and then take time to unwind. Without smart time-management strategies, the scales can tip too far to either side, and we find ourselves working longer hours than necessary or resting all the time and not accomplishing what we need to. Ultimately, time management is about balance.
1. Use Post-It notes to organize tasks
Before you begin your work for the day, it’s important to take a moment and consider everything you’re hoping to complete. A great way to do this is to visually map out your agenda using Post-It notes. “I arrange items based on priority/deadline and add other agenda items I would like to try to accomplish before the day ends,” Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, told Reader’s Digest. Each time Sweeney finishes a task, she crosses out the corresponding Post-It note.
“The act of physically crossing off makes me feel even more accomplished and keeps me encouraged to tackle more assignments as the week progresses,” Sweeney explains. Hanging Post-It notes above your desk is a smart organization idea and an efficient way to maintain a sense of urgency and stay focused on a task.
2. Wake up at the same time every day
Adopting a steady sleep schedule really does improve productivity. “I make it a point to wake up every morning at the same time so I stay on schedule. This is on the weekends, and holidays too!” Kristin Marquet, CEO of FemFounder, told Reader’s Digest.
While everyone knows that getting seven to nine hours of sleep strengthens our cognitive abilities, you may be surprised to learn that it’s important to sleep the same seven to nine hours each night. Experts have found that irregular sleep patterns can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms, which prevents biological processes from working favorably together. In turn, this can negatively impact our cognitive capacities, productivity and health. By maintaining a regular wake-up time, Marquet says, “I can think clearly, which means I can meet deadlines and get more stuff done overall.”
Bottom line? Committing to a consistent sleep cycle is a great way to optimize your efficiency and manage your time. Doing a digital detox to remove screens before bed is a great way to improve the quality of your sleep too.
3. Set a goal for every meeting
If you’re leading a meeting, make sure to set a goal before you step into the meeting, and let your team know the desired results beforehand as well. It’s easy to waste time in meetings if no one is aware of the result you want. This can also help to cut down the length of time you’re actually meeting, allowing everyone to get back to their desks and start working sooner. That’s why goal setting is one of the habits successful people do every day.
4. Don’t multitask
When you have a busy schedule, it can be tempting to open multiple tabs on your computer and flip back and forth between assignments. However, while it may seem as though tackling several projects at once improves your time management, it actually has the opposite effect. Multitasking weakens our attention spans, makes us prone to distractions and increases our processing times, according to researchers at Stanford University.
As a busy CEO, Marquet has been tantalized to improve her time management through multitasking, but ultimately found that it is “just not effective.” Now, rather than responding to emails as they emerge on her screen and working across numerous projects, Marquet says, “I only do one thing at a time, with laser focus,” also known as monotasking. Concentrating on each task separately enables Marquet to manage her time well, move quickly through her schedule and produce thoughtful, quality work.
5. Use a “do not disturb” function
Many companies use messaging applications such as Microsoft Teams or Slack to quickly communicate with one another. It can be convenient, but it can also be super distracting when you’re getting 10 notifications every 30 seconds while people discuss something in a group chat.
If you have an important task you need to focus on, utilize the “do not disturb” feature, and leave a status message saying you’re working on a project, so that people don’t get offended when you don’t respond right away. Setting yourself to Do Not Disturb on your iPhone can silence those pesky mobile notifications too.
6. Record how long each task takes
Tracking your time might sound like one of the most obvious time-management tips. But if you’ve ever misjudged how much work you could accomplish in a day, a week or even a month, chances are you didn’t really know how long each task would take to complete.
John Breeze, the founder and CEO of Happysleepyhead, advises that you “write down the time you start your task and the time you finish it,” in order to “determine your working pace.” After spending a week tracking how long it takes to complete a range of different duties, you will be better equipped to estimate how much time future assignments will take.
Additionally, this time-management tip can also help you “find out where exactly you’re wasting time” so you can improve your working methods and optimize your productivity, says Breeze. For example, if you’re spending too much time agonizing over wording your messages, brush up on your email etiquette to help speed up the process.
7. Schedule breaks throughout your day
Even the best time-management tips can’t change the fact that the human brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes at a time before it needs a break. Make sure to schedule in breaks throughout your day in between tasks. It will help you get more done in the long run.
Take a break to refill your water bottle, grab some lunch or just get away from your desk for a few minutes. Let your brain unwind from the last thing you did, and get ready to focus on the next task at hand. This is also a great way to work small moments of joy into every day—a short walk, a stretch or a hot drink all count!
8. Assign themes to each day of the week
When your profession requires you to work across divisions or contribute to many different operations, switching gears can be the most time-consuming part of your day. It’s hard to jump between assignments—trading a marketing hat for a sales hat, and then fumbling to grab your marketing hat again.
That’s why Laura Hertz, CEO of Gifts for Good, suggests assigning a theme to each day of the week. “Theming” our days “helps us become much more efficient, because we’re grouping similar tasks together” and “it establishes a rhythm of attention and focus,” says Hertz.
Plus, this time-management tip completely eliminates the long, wasteful minutes that you would otherwise spend shifting your focus between departments. Mondays might be dedicated to marketing, Tuesdays to administrative tasks, Wednesdays to meetings and so on. “Theming” your days is a quick, easy and organized way to improve your time management and efficiency. Maybe it could be the secret to a four-day workweek?
9. Don’t send the same email twice
If your job requires a lot of outreach or communication, chances are you spend a lot of time writing redundant emails. An easy tip to reduce the amount of time you spend emailing and increase the amount of time you have for important projects is to standardize your communication process. Put simply, never write the same message twice.
“If you write the same email more than a few times, save it as a template. Even if it’s just in your Drafts,’’ suggests Hannah Attewell, a success and business coach for Force of Nature Coach. Even if your emails do not follow the exact same format, you can save time by creating a template introduction that you copy and paste into every email.
While personalizing your emails can be important to fostering professional relationships, creating messaging templates will greatly improve your time-management techniques. You should also learn how to block emails to clear your inbox of spam, making it easier to see important messages.
10. Organize your email
You can save a lot of time by having an organized and uncluttered email inbox. If you get more emails a day than you can go through, use those Gmail hacks to keep your inbox tidy. You can set up canned responses, have emails automatically organized into specific folders as they come in and use Smart Compose to help you type faster.
11. Prioritize your tasks
Many people actually have difficulty recognizing the difference between urgent, important and standard tasks. Even when people do recognize that some projects are more important than others, procrastination often gets in the way of beginning our bigger projects first. This is one of the most foundational time-management tips: You have to prioritize.
Letting significant assignments take the backseat in your schedule is very dangerous, according to Jason Patel, former career ambassador at George Washington University and founder of Transizion. Patel reasons that “it’s easier to fill a tank using large rocks first and small pebbles second than it is to fill it with pebbles first and large rocks afterword. The same applies to your time. Prioritize and give your energy to the most important tasks first.”
How do you recognize which projects have the most value? “The importance of these tasks will depend on your company goals, growth and values,” says Patel. If you expect a project will greatly enhance your company’s success, make it a high priority. Otherwise, save it for later.
12. Learn how to say no
Your time is just as valuable as everyone else’s. If someone asks you for something that doesn’t align with your goals, politely tell them you don’t have time in your schedule and you need to focus on bigger things. If you want to buy yourself some time before declining an offer, tell them you’ll check your schedule and get back to them. This way you can plan out your day or week to see if you’ll actually have time to complete the additional task.
13. Plan your day the night before
When we arrive at work each morning, we’re faced with a daunting pile of assignments and no clue where to begin. In these groggy hours, we slowly sift through each task and waste the first block of our days constructing a schedule.
Although organizing might feel like productive work, it’s actually extremely time-consuming and inefficient. That’s why Romy Taormina, founder and CEO of Psi Health Solutions, suggests planning your day the night before. “Working out the logistics and priorities in advance will minimize last-minute changes, rushing and frustration, increase your chances of getting done what is most important” and enable you to “start off the day on a positive and productive note,” advises Taormina.
Plus, planning your schedule in the afternoon, while your brain is still in work mode, takes much less time than it does in the morning, when your mind is still fuzzy from sleep. Rolling out of bed to find that your outfit is already chosen, your meals are all lined up and your work can be started immediately is extremely gratifying. It’s also a great way to be more productive in your first hour of work.
14. Make your commute count
Whether you walk, drive or take the train to work, many of us have a period of the day that is lost in transit—literally. Instead of blaring music and staring mindlessly out the window, “fill time on your commute with tasks that can be accomplished” (providing you can do it safely), such as “taking phone calls or listening to a beneficial podcast,” suggests Lindsay Junk, president of YogaSix.
Even if you usually don’t bring work outside of the office, you might as well capitalize on this dull and necessary chunk of the day. Plus, scheduling quick conference calls or consuming helpful news on the go can help you foster professional relationships with co-workers or clients, meet deadlines and even slip out of the office at a reasonable hour. Hello, personal time! And if you’re lucky enough not to have a commute, here’s how to be successful working from home.
15. Leave your cell phones out of the bedroom
When you’re asleep, your brain is working hard to organize your memories and thoughts, but your body feels totally relaxed. As you’re waking up, that combination makes it among your most creative points in the day—perfect for coming up with new solutions or having entertaining thoughts. But adding a cell phone into that equation gets in the way of that creative flow.
“There is nothing on the internet that cannot wait for 20 minutes while you do some mindful breathing and think grateful thoughts,” writes Samantha Bennett in Start Right Where You Are. Use an alarm clock (yes, an actual clock!) to wake you up in the morning, and if you’re worried about emergency calls, leave your phone near the door, within earshot but out of arm’s reach.
16. Start the day with your most important work
As soon as you settle into your desk in the morning, get started on your most important work—the creative, strategic tasks that only you can do. If you start by checking your email or social media, you’ll end up wasting half your morning. “The next thing you know, two hours have gone by, you haven’t gotten to any of the important stuff and the rest of your day is crowded with meetings and calls,” writes Bennett.
Instead, set a timer for two minutes to skim your inbox for emergencies. If there’s nothing that requires your immediate attention, shift straight into your important work for a more productive morning that sets you up for a successful day.
17. Make replies prompt but not immediate
You should still be a reliable communicator, but dropping everything to answer people’s requests immediately not only forces you to adjust to their schedules and puts you off course, but it also doesn’t give you time to fully think out your reply. Bennett says she likes to wait 24 hours before responding to emails, calls and other messages.
“I find that this gives me time to prioritize, to consider people’s requests and give them a solid answer,” she writes. If you’re saying no to someone, no need to give a long-winded explanation—just be vague and thank the person for thinking of you as you kindly decline. It’s important to know how to set boundaries to allow yourself to focus on your work and your goals.
18. Put everything on the calendar
Your calendar shouldn’t be limited to big meetings and deadlines. Use it to schedule every little thing, from clearing off your desk to taking an afternoon walk. “I hear from people all the time: ‘I wish I had time to write a book,’” writes Bennett. “You do. You are just spending that time on other things.”
If you don’t write down nonessential activities, there’s a good chance you’ll let other tasks get in the way. In addition to these productive tricks to help you stop procrastinating, commit to blocking your time with a calendar. This will increase the chances that you’ll actually accomplish everything you’d hoped.
19. Be intentional with news consumption
Set aside dedicated time to consume news, rather than getting drawn into the 24-hour news cycle. Read the newspaper in the morning rather than scrolling through Twitter all day to find out what’s going on. And keep in mind that at its core, the news business is part of the entertainment industry, designed to tug your emotions and keep you engaged.
“When you let other people—particularly people in the entertainment industry—form your opinions for you, or tell you what’s important, you give away your power,” writes Bennett. Watch and read mindfully, asking yourself whether your opinions on current events are yours or theirs.
20. Seek out new media
“Get out of your rut,” writes Bennett. “Doing, watching or listening to the same things every day makes time feel like it’s slipping right through your fingers.” Instead of falling back on the same media, use one of many daily habits of naturally productive people and search the internet for new ways to learn and stay entertained.
Whether you’re into podcasts, games, meditations, craft projects or artwork, you don’t have to restrict yourself to mass-market media. Spending time making new memories and finding new media will help to enrich your life.
Additional reporting by Carley Lerner.
- Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation
- Kristin Marquet, CEO of FemFounder
- John Breeze, founder and CEO of Happysleepyhead
- Laura Hertz, CEO of Gifts for Good
- Hannah Attewell, success and business coach for Force of Nature Coach
- Jason Patel, founder of Transizion
- Romy Taormina, founder and CEO of Psi Health Solutions
- Lindsay Junk, president of YogaSix
- Samantha Bennett, author of Start Right Where You Are: How Little Changes Can Make a Big Difference for Overwhelmed Procrastinators, Frustrated Overachievers, and Recovering Perfectionists
- Money.com: “Waking Up at 5 a.m. Probably Won’t Make You More Productive. Here’s What Will”
- Fast Company: “Why You Need to Unplug Every 90 Minutes”