According to the 2021 Small Business Trends Survey, effective time management is the toughest challenge for nearly 1 in every 6 business owners. Students of all types and all ages are notoriously bad at time management. Time management can be especially difficult for people with ADHD, depression, or other mental disorders, regardless of their profession or life situation.
And yet, proper time management remains the staple of successful work and domestic life. Thankfully, it’s is a skill, not an inherent trait. With practice, you can strengthen those muscles until effective time management skills are second nature to you.
The benefits of time management are many. According to a University of Manchester peer-reviewed guide on stress management interventions in the workplace, (an excerpt of the eHandbook of Well-being) personal time management reduces stress by preventing stressful situations from occurring in the first place.
We’ve divided time management into three categories. Rather than discuss the same old project management tools, organizational skills, and time management apps you’ve heard about before, we’ve focused on addressing common time management problems. The suggestions for each problem are chock full of great time management techniques. These tips will help reduce your stress levels and develop a healthier relationship with time and your to-dos.
What is Time Management?
Time management is not one single skill. Psychologists have been breaking down time management into different component parts for years, and there’s no agreed-upon right way to do it. We break it apart this way:
- Tracking Tasks
- Scheduling Tasks
- Managing Motivators
Tracking your tasks is relatively straightforward. Keeping track of your daily tasks in one consolidated place, like a to-do list, is key. This list can be physical or digital. It can also involve setting goals, breaking larger tasks into smaller tasks, and setting priorities.
Problem 1: “I can’t seem to stick to a single method of tracking.”
There seem to be two kinds of people: people who have been using the same tracking method for their entire lives, and people who change tracking methods like they change clothes.
If you’re a member of the latter group, you’re not alone. If your tracking method is private and affects no one else, the solution is simple: accept that you’re unlikely to stick to one tracking method, and plan a rotation. There’s nothing wrong with switching between multiple methods if it works for you.
If other people rely on your task tracking, such as employees or coworkers, the best advice is to go with what is convenient. Eliminate whatever prevents you from using the current method, and incentivize yourself into using the method using whatever means possible.
Problem 2: “I can’t remember to new write tasks down.”
First, make sure that your method is as convenient as possible. Is it easy to use? Do you feel happy when you use it? If not, find a tracking method you’re more enthusiastic about.
Writing down tasks is also a habit. Pick a regular time and context to fill out your tasks every day. Don’t multitask this — it’s too easy to say you’ll do it later.
Some great options are before bed, on the toilet, while the coffee’s brewing, or before or after any other regular, daily ritual you have.
If you want to be successful at establishing this habit quickly, consider pairing writing your tasks with a favorite treat—a quick snack, your coffee, or maybe a small piece of chocolate. In this way, your daily planning will always be something to look forward to!
Problem 3: “I can’t figure out which task to do first.”
To figure out which task to do first, use the Eisenhower matrix. This categorizes tasks along two axes: urgency and importance. If it’s urgent and important, do it immediately. These are your priority tasks.
If it’s important but not urgent, schedule a time to do it later. If it’s urgent but not important, then delegate it. And finally, if it’s neither important nor urgent, don’t bother with it at all. It is an unimportant task.
What’s important? Great question. Things that have long-term effects on your business or life are important. If “important” is still too vague a word, try “consequential.”
Once you have everything sorted, tackle the important, urgent tasks first. Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Important, urgent tasks are your frogs.
This can also be a problem of having too many goals. If you have a list of tasks that all belong under different goals, you’re being pulled in too many directions to be effective. Choose one large goal, make SMART goals for it, and discard any tasks that don’t belong under that goal.
Problem 4: “All my time is eaten by putting out little fires or playing whack-a-mole.”
This is a two-part problem: first, playing whack-a-mole — being reactive with your time rather than proactive — is often a symptom of lack of systemization or procedures. Take the time to build standard operating procedures for the most common problems or tasks. This will make the task easier for your future self and any employees you eventually delegate these tasks to.
Second, put time in the calendar to figure out when you’ll work on larger projects, and who will work on them. Do this at least once a month, but once a week is good, too. Once you’ve delegated the common reoccurring problems, you should have time to address the issues at hand.
“But I work alone! I can’t delegate!”
In this case, you need to carve out weekly time to chip away at your large projects. Protect your time, even if it means setting smaller problems aside temporarily. If this doesn’t work, consider hiring a virtual assistant. They’re incredibly affordable and useful for both business and domestic tasks.
Problem 5: “I don’t understand how to break down tasks.”
When breaking down difficult tasks, a lot of people try to start by writing down the simplest, most accessible step first and working up from there. There are two flaws of this approach: first, it’s very easy to miss an essential step that doesn’t depend on the previous one, but is necessary for the end goal. Second, it’s tempting to generalize steps to “get to” the final goal faster. While this does make your list of steps shorter, the steps are neither accurate nor achievable.
Instead, start with your end goal. What needs to happen for you to achieve this goal? List everything. Here’s a simplified example: Louis wants to open a lemonade stand. He figures that to open his stand, he needs to write a business plan. He also writes down that he needs a sign, a physical stand to sell lemonade from, disposable cups, straws, lemons, water, sugar, and napkins.
Let’s break down “write a business plan.” What does he need? Well, he needs to do market research to see how many customers he needs to be profitable. He needs to research the average cost of materials (his cups, lemons, etc). He should also calculate what his startup costs will be. Once he has all his information, he’ll need to write the plan, edit the plan, and maybe even have his local SBA chapter look over the plan.
Let’s go one more layer. What needs to happen to check off “do market research?” Well, he needs to either hire a market research firm or do the survey himself. In that case, he’ll need to design the survey, collect responses, etcetera, etcetera.
If you’ve wholly broken down a large task into its component parts, you will have a list of tasks that looks like a pyramid. I recommend doing this exercise on a large piece of paper or whiteboard.
The scale of the tasks at the bottom depends on your preference, but the rule of thumb is each basic task should take no more than 30 minutes. For things like research that could (in theory) go on forever, decide a maximum amount of time to spend on them, like three hours. You’ll then have six “30 minutes of research” tasks.
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.Mark Twain
Time management mechanics is about making a schedule, avoiding places with interruptions and distractions, and using your idle time efficiently. Now that all your tasks are in one place, make time to schedule them out. This is especially important! In 2019, a study showed that students struggle not because they aren’t able to manage their time efficiently, but because they don’t apply those time management skills to the long-term. Get your tasks into a calendar, friend!
Problem 6: “I’m bad at estimating how long something will take, so can’t stick to the schedule.”
Estimating how long something will take is also a skill. You improve this skill by over-estimating how long it will take, and then recording how long it actually does take. That way, you can rely on data from previous experiences rather than a guess.
In the meantime, stop scheduling by task and schedule by time block instead. So rather than saying, “I’m going to finish task A by the end of the hour,” say “I’m going to work on task A for an hour, whether or not I finish it.”
Problem 7: “Looking at my schedule makes me feel sick/stressed.”
If you’ve had bad experiences with time management and scheduling in the past, sticking to a schedule can become a point of stress. This is unhelpful! The whole point of having a schedule is being able to mentally set things down and not worry about them until the scheduled time. Your schedule should help you feel less stress.
If this is you, remember that your schedule doesn’t have to be perfect—it has to be functional. Your schedule serves you, not the other way around. It’s a memory aid and a protector of your future time.
As you try to adjust to a new time management strategy, be as patient and forgiving with yourself as you can. You’re going to goof up. Consider it an opportunity to alter your strategy to something that’s easier for you.
Remember, following a schedule and all that comes with that—being able to switch tasks quickly, setting things down even if they’re unfinished, recovering after interruptions—is also a skill. With practice comes ease.
Managing your motivators is about understanding what motivates you and putting in place the right pressures in place to succeed. People are motivated by a mix of internal or external factors. Some are motivated by both, some by only one, and others by neither.
Problem 8: “I can track and schedule tasks, but I can’t get started.”
This is a motivator problem. Everyone is either intrinsically motivated or externally motivated. If something is important to you but you’re not able to get it done, you often don’t have the right motivators in your life. If you’re not sure which one you are, take The Four Tendencies Quiz by Gretchen Rubin.
People who function best with external accountability, for example, usually struggle to start their own business. Without someone checking in on them, they have little energy to get things done.
Virtual assistants are lifesavers for this. They’re not just for CEOs or executives anymore — many people are using them. If you’d like one for your personal life, you can find individual assistants at affordable prices on any online labor marketplace like Fiverr or Upwork. If you’re looking for a VA to assist at work, a specialty business like Doxa7 is probably more your style. If you’re like the author, you’ll have both.
Problem 9: “I can schedule and start tasks, but can’t finish them.”
There are many reasons a task might be dropped in the middle. First, distraction is real. The most obvious solution is to limit your distractors and time wasters. Mute your mobile phone. Wear earplugs. Invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones if you have to. Entrepreneurs with ADHD or sound sensitivities will find that simple solution especially helpful. Some people find a repeating 10-minute timer is helpful for keeping them on task (you can find such timers on YouTube). This strategy is less of a time limit, and more of a way to keep track of passing time.
The second is to stop scheduling by task, and schedule by time block instead. So rather than saying, “I’m going to finish task A in an hour,” say “I’m going to work on task A for an hour, whether or not I finish it.”
This is especially helpful for people who are poor at time estimates. It keeps you from panicking when you haven’t finished what you said you would. Instead, relieve yourself of a bit of pressure. The goal is not to finish a project. The goal is to work on the project consistently for the time you allot. If you get distracted in the middle, you can add a bit of extra time at the end of the day. No pressure.
While relieving pressure to increase productivity seems oxymoronic, it’s not. It gives you the chance to breathe, think clearly, and make better choices.
This could also be a symptom of breaking off more than you can chew and becoming intimidated. If this sounds like you, try breaking your tasks into smaller pieces and keeping track of how long they take. You can either break the task apart before starting, or the moment you begin to feel intimidated.
Go forth and manage your time!
Whatever time management tips you go with, it’s important to keep in mind that both scheduling and the subsequent follow-through are skills. Successful time management takes practice, especially if it’s not in your nature. Be kind and forgiving with
Practice your solution until you’ve got work-life integration in the bag!