On a surface level, time management seems like it should be about managing time, but time is something that’s entirely out of our control. We can’t manage time anymore than we can manage space... but we can manage ourselves—and this is what time management is actually about. If you want to become more productive, it’s helpful to take a step back and look at your time management system. You might think you’re being as efficient as you can be, but are you really making the most of all the available tools, processes and techniques that can help you manage time better?
A time management system is a collection of methods, processes and tools that help to give you more control and direction over how you spend your time. It’s not about hacks—it’s about creating a sustainable and productive framework for governing your time. Here are a few things that make up a good time management system:
The 2-minute rule, the DRY principle, Eat The Frog, the rule of three—if you’ve tried any of these productivity techniques and they haven’t stuck, that’s fine. There is a whole industy built around creating and repackaging these hacks, and they exist purely to try and inject some novelty and discipline into your time management. They fall into the last “technique” category mentioned above, and are not in and of themselves a time management system. Crucially, not all of them will work for you.
If you continually feel you just aren’t getting the most from your time in spite of your efforts, you need to look a little deeper. More often than not, it’s the culture, behaviors and expectations around our work that limit the effectiveness of our time management system. Here are four of the biggest factors that might be holding back yours back.
One of the easiest ways you can improve your time management system is to start prioritizing your work. Time management and prioritization go hand in hand, and you can’t manage your time effectively without knowing what needs to be done, and when. Without prioritization, it’s all-too-easy to spend time focusing on work that might be urgent but isn’t actually important, just because the deadline is approaching—but a sense of urgency (particularly if it relates to someone else’s work) should never dictate how you spend your time.
A solid time management system starts with a to-do list—but not one that’s just a simple list of all outstanding tasks; one that’s actually prioritized. Ranking your tasks is essential to figuring out how much time you can allocate to them, so once you’ve made a list of all your tasks, figure out which ones are most important to you and can return the most value; then, prioritize them. You can always use prioritization apps to help strengthen your time management system: MyLifeOrganized and nTask allow you to rank tasks based on deadlines and your own priorities.
No matter how well your to-do list is prioritized, your time management system will always be sub-par if you don’t successfully manage distractions. In our digital world, it’s scarily easy to become distracted: from the constant influx of emails to the regular ping of Slack and Teams messages, distractions and interruptions are all around us in the workplace—and if you want to improve your time management system and gain control of your day, it’s vital to block distractions and manage interruptions.
The good news is that there are dozens of great anti-distractions apps that can help you out here—and adding them to your time management system can be one of the most helpful things you do. If you find your focus waning and end up visiting distracting websites too often, why not try out apps like StayFocusd and Mindful Browsing that restrict time-wasting websites? Each time we lose focus, it takes around 23 minutes to get back to where we were, so adequately managing distractions can play an enormous part in boosting our productivity.
One important thing to consider is that you can’t improve how you manage time, or your time management system, without understanding how you actually use your time in the first place. Since getting distracted or procrastinating is never our intention, we often have no idea how much time we’re actually wasting—so if you want to gain the necessary insight and self-awareness to make real changes to your time management system, you need to start tracking your time.
The good news is that nowadays you can use automatic tracking apps like Timely to reveal hidden time drains and show you how you actually spend your day without any manual input. A strong time management system relies on reviewing your time management practices, and this depends on being able to identify inefficient processes and understand how you work best.
A final aspect that often goes overlooked when talking about time management systems is the role played by expectations. We can take all the right steps to prioritize properly, block distractions, track our time and structure our day efficiently…. yet if the expectations of other people are limiting our options, our productivity will always be compromised. For example, you might decide to mute your email and focus on the important task in hand, but if people are expecting a response from you—or you feel it’s your duty to reply promptly—this can cause unnecessary stress.
It’s worth considering some of the main constraints on your time and headspace that cause the best laid time management plans to go awry, including:
Managing expectations—whether that’s client expectations or the expectations of your coworkers and employer—is a vital component of any successful time management system. It can be beneficial to take some time to actually think about the level of responsiveness required in your role, and what cultural shifts you would like to see in your workplace to make it easier to work on your own terms.