A century ago, improving time management was a top-down exercise.
Factory managers assigned swathes of workers to designated locations to do specific tasks for a predetermined period.
But today, time management is in the worker’s hands.
In fact, according to executives surveyed by IBM, the importance of behavioral skills has overtaken that of technical skills. And time management ranks as the second most important skill.
Yet most time management training programs fail. Most techniques go stale. And you end up back where you started.
But thanks to folks like Brad Aeon, there’s a growing body of research that hints at better, more nuanced, ways to improve your time management skills.
So this article will not be just a list of tips and tricks (though it will have many).
How Improving Your Time Management Works
In 2017, Brad Aeon asked the crowd at a TEDx event to think about what it would mean to them to improve their time management.
For most people, the aim is to feel better and be more productive. Yet searches for time management techniques often end in frustration, anxiety, and guilt.
- A stronger sense of purpose,
- Lower levels of depression,
- Greater life and job satisfaction.
So learning to rein in your time is worthwhile. And it is possible.
But there are factors, which most people don’t consider, that affect your ability to manage your time. Everything from your workstyle to your home country can affect what time management techniques work best for you.
Time Management Perspectives
To figure out what’s right for you first you need to look at time from three different perspectives.
Once you’ve done that, you can narrow your focus to the time management solutions that’ll work best for you.
Think of people you know and their attitudes and preferences for time.
Chances are, you can think of people who are especially aware of time. And people who prefer to multitask. And people who prefer to have distinct time boundaries between work and their personal life.
You can also think of the opposite kinds of people; those with low time awareness, a preference for focusing on single tasks and a propensity to make a clean break between work and personal time.
Where your preference and style fall within these continuums determine, in part, how you can improve your time management. (More on that later.)
Time Structures and Time Norms
Time structures exist uniquely within every organization, team, and culture, creating a system in which you can organize your time. Even in today’s age of remote work, you must operate within the timezones of your international clients or customers.
As Aeon explains, “Business hours, project timelines, cleaning schedules, and holidays exemplify time structures.”
Time norms are more subtle. They’re intangible, shared expectations that manifest through social pressures. For example, it’s generally more acceptable for a manager to arrive late to a meeting than it is for a direct report.
One common, often detrimental time norm is the tendency to associate time spent with productivity. This norm causes managers to perceive productive workers who spend less time working as underperformers and vice versa.
In short, time norms and structures are powerful. And any effort to improve time management has to be undertaken with an understanding of organization and teamwide norms and structures.
Fundamentally, time management is about making decisions about time, whether conscious or unconscious. And one of the biggest factors affecting how you make decisions about time is how you value your time.
For example, an independent contractor paid by the hour will tend to view their time differently than an employee.
In fact, the contractor may become intensely aware of the value of their time. This intense awareness often becomes counterproductive, leading to greater feelings of time pressure, which defeats the purpose of time management.
Still, while there’s certainly an ideal balance to strike, if you don’t highly value your time, you’ll have trouble improving your time management.
This is why doing time audits or tracking your time is a common technique for improving time management. The time audit exercise forces you to look at where you’re spending time which can (but not always) lead to a more accurate valuation of time.
Time management tools, software, and techniques
These three perspectives provide a useful lens for viewing tools, software, and techniques designed to improve your time management.
For instance, if you don’t mind, or prefer, fuzzy distinctions between work and personal time, techniques that require clear time distinctions don’t make sense for you.
Moreover, these perspectives imply limitations to the effectiveness of tools or techniques.
As Erich Dieroff explains, “[Time management] tools presume a person’s underlying skill set, but the skills comprising time management precede the effectiveness of any tool or app.”
With these constraints in mind, in the sections that follow, we’ll list tools, software, and techniques you can use to improve your time management.
Time Management Techniques, Software, and Tools for Individuals
Plan and track
Improving your time management is a bit like detective work. You have to know what’s going on to discover useful insights. To accomplish this, start planning and tracking how you spend your time.
You can plan your time in a calendar, project management tool, or even the old pen and paper. And for tracking time, a free tool like TMetric can do the trick. Integrate it with your apps and add its browser extension and you can track time from anywhere.
Pay attention to your productivity patterns
When are you the most productive? Are there tasks you prefer to do at certain times? How do interruptions like meetings impact your productivity patterns?
Answering questions like these will enable you to make better decisions about how you schedule your day.
In an increasingly chaotic world, you face an ever-increasing load of decisions. But the longer you go without a break, the lower your quality of decision-making. Because of this, routines and habits are invaluable tools.
Habits and routines effectively “automate” some of your time management decisions, leaving you with more mental energy.
For example, by establishing a routine of doing a block of deep work on Mondays and Tuesdays from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., the decision as to whether you immediately respond to a non-urgent email early Monday morning is made for you.
Time Management Techniques, Software, and Tools for Teams and Organizations
Review your team-level time norms and structures
To be a collaborative team, it’s natural and necessary to create structures that constrain team members’ behavior. But these structures and norms can often have negative effects on team productivity.
So take the time to assess time norms and structures at a team level.
Look at things like your team’s emphasis on deadlines, speed of work expectations, and autonomy of time use. Discuss these issues with your team and find out how they’re affecting team members’ ability to manage time.
If you budget time like money, the value of outsourcing is clear. At a minimum, you can free up your team’s time by outsourcing administrative tasks to a virtual assistant.
With freelance platforms, you can take it a step further and hire out development, graphic design, writing, and more.
Periodically review project management tech stack
The nature of your work and the makeup of your team determine which project management tool facilitates good time management. Since, at some point, both your work and your team will change, the effectiveness of your tools will vary.
So if you’re not periodically reviewing your project management stack as a team, you run the risk of using uncontrolled, time-management killing software.
A Note on Improving Time Management in Meetings
Meetings are notorious time-management killers. And they deserve a special approach to mitigating their unsavory effects.
After working with teams at Slack, Netflix, Zendesk, and many more, we’ve found that high-performing teams tend to follow these three simple meeting rules:
- Set an agenda
- Share the agenda in advance
- Follow through on properly documented action items
Through the exercise of setting an agenda, you reduce the frequency of unnecessary meetings. Then, by sharing the agenda, you prepare others so they’re ready to contribute, making the meeting more productive.
Finally, by documenting and following through on action items, you eliminate ambiguity about who does what and when. In indirect and direct ways, each meeting rule improves time management for you and your team.
Can You Really Manage Time?
The short answer is yes. The deeper answer is, it’s complicated.
Clearly, it’s possible to manage your time; you do it every day when you make decisions about how you’ll spend time. But does it actually work?
Again the answer’s yes, but it depends on what you mean by “work”.
When things go well, the benefits of effective time management training, techniques, or tools are:
- A stronger sense of purpose
- Lower levels of depression
- Greater life and job satisfaction
This, plus a few other positive impacts, is what happens when time management “works”.
On average, when you’re happier (i.e. less depressed, purpose-driven), you’re more productive. So you make better use of your time. The effect is indirect but undeniable.
In sum, the research hasn’t conclusively proven that time management results in greater performance. But, good time management does result in positive behaviors such as more creativity, generosity, and happiness.
And creativity, happiness, and generosity are desirable behaviors for any organization.