Time management is one of those issues we all face, but (ironically) don’t have the time to address.
But, as Benjamin Franklin once said, time is like money. Without being managed properly, how do you know where it’s going?
Unfortunately, the passage of time often feels like it’s completely out of our control. And on some levels it is. There’s no stopping it marching forward. However, when we learn to properly manage our time, we earn back a bit of control.
While we’ve written at length about each of these topics, this post is focused on simply the best scheduling, prioritizing, and time management tips we’ve uncovered from entrepreneurs, managers, and founders.
RescueTime gives you an accurate picture of how you’re spending your time each day. Sign up for free today and take back control of your time.
20+ Time management tips for more productive days
Understand where your time is going
- Why is time management important?
- Be realistic about how much work actually gets done in a day
- Find out where you’re wasting your time
- Set daily goals and alerts for how you’re spending time
- Build a morning routine that gives you momentum
- Give up on multitasking
Prioritize meaningful work (and delegate the rest)
- Separate the urgent from the important work
- Prioritize ruthlessly
- Use the 30X rule to delegate more tasks
- Bring “no” back into your vocabulary
Set up an efficient daily schedule
- Set schedules, not deadlines
- Schedule around time, not tasks
- Make time for interruptions and breaks
- Separate ‘Maker’ time from ‘Manager’ time
- ‘Batch’ activities throughout the week
Optimize your work environment
Protect your time (and your focus) from distraction
- Use strategic laziness to work on the right things
- Automate non-negotiable focused time throughout the day
- Use the Ivy Lee Method to end your day properly
- Don’t forget the benefits of free time
Time management is an evolving field and smart people are always finding better ways to control their days. We’ll be updating this post as we learn more about the best ways to manage our time.
Why is Time Management Important?
The average human lifespan consists of around 4,000 weeks. Which sounds like a big number. But when you consider how many of those days are spent at school or retired or sleeping, it paints a different picture.
As Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, wrote:
“It’s pretty clear that time is the more precious resource we have.”
With only limited time to do our most meaningful work, it’s natural to feel a certain level of anxiety. But time management isn’t about quelling the fear of wasting time. It’s about understanding the far-reaching benefits of using our time wisely.
When we manage our time properly we:
- Become more productive at work. Which means having a better work-life balance and more chance for promotion.
- Are less vulnerable to stress. Meaning we’re happier, healthier and less likely to suffer from burnout syndrome.
- Learn faster and are able to see compound returns on the time we spend on skills that matter to us.
- Have more of an awareness of the time we spend on unproductive activities.
- Can make more time for meaningful work and connect with a larger purpose.
With how impactful time management is can we really afford to continue leaving it unchecked?
Part 1: Understand where your time is going
We can’t control time. But we can learn strategies to help us get the most out of the time we do have. Here are some of the most powerful time management tips we’ve learned and implemented.
The planning fallacy: Be realistic about how much work actually gets done in a day
The simplest form of time management is to schedule when and what you’re going to work on. So, what do you do? You flip open your calendar and start plugging in the tasks that will fit into your 8-hour work day.
It’s simple. But unfortunately, this approach is flawed.
While you might be at work for 8+ hours, the amount of time spent working productively is considerably less.
How much less?
According to our own research, the average knowledge worker (someone who deals with information for a living, like a writer, developer, designer, or manager), is only productive for 12.5 hours a week. That’s roughly 2.5 hours a day.
Psychologists call this the planning fallacy—our bias towards being overly optimistic about how long a task will take.
It’s why we think our calendars look like this:
When they’re really more like this:
While we might think of time as a resource that we simply need more of, more time does not mean more productive time.
As Basecamp founder David Heinemeier Hansson wrote:
“Only plan for 4–5 hours of real work per day.”
Read our full guide to The Planning Fallacy and how you can learn to properly estimate your time each day.
Find out where you’re wasting time
Once you have a clear idea of how much time you actually have, it’s time to find out how you’re wasting time that could be better used.
According to a recent survey by Salary.com more than 30% of people admit to wasting more than an hour a day on social media and other unproductive activities. Now, the solution here isn’t just to try to go cold turkey. We all have limited willpower and constantly fighting our bad habits only leads to decision fatigue.
A better time management strategy, instead, is to find out where that time is going and gradually ease away from it.
One solution is to use a tool like RescueTime, which tracks your computer usage in the background, giving you a snapshot of how you spend your day.
Here’s an example of how this can help:
When writer Danielle A. Vincent was trying to finish the draft of her first book she kept missing deadlines. So she decided to start tracking her time to see where her time was going.
One month later, she discovered that 25% of her time (more than 40 hours a month!) was going to Facebook.
Charged with this information, Danielle made changes to when and how she accesses social media and got through her draft. The key was first understanding where her time was going.
Set daily goals and alerts to keep focused
Once you have a big-picture view of how your time is being spent, you can start to make more active changes. This starts with effective goal-setting.
Most people set goals they’ll never hit. Usually, this is because they aim too big and quickly get overwhelmed. Instead, proper goal-setting is all about breaking your big, audacious goals down into easily actionable tasks. And then doing them every single day.
In RescueTime, you can set up Alerts to let you know when you’ve been spending too much time on work you’ve marked as distracting. Alternatively, alerts can also inform you when you’ve hit a productivity milestone.
Here’s one of my alerts when I’ve spent 3 hours or more on writing in a day:
You can learn how to set up alerts in RescueTime here.
Outside of apps like RescueTime, there are other ways to set and track daily goals.
One method I’ve found useful is to break up my workday into 50-minute chunks with a 10-minute break in between each. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a version of the popular Pomodoro technique.
I then track each of these chunks on my daily to-do list, marking how many it took to complete a task. This way at the end of the day I have real-time feedback on how long tasks took me and where I might have been wasting time.
Goal-setting is one of the cornerstones of time management. Read our full guide to effective goal-setting here.
Build a morning routine that gives you momentum
Time management starts from the moment you wake up. And with the right morning routine, you can set yourself up for a day of productive, meaningful work.
A morning routine gives you a chance to start with positive momentum that will carry you through the rest of the day. It also lets you set your priorities and focus.
While each routine should be individually tailored, there are a few key qualities you should aim to hit:
- Overcome sleep inertia by skipping the snooze button and starting your morning with activity and excitement
- Clear your mind by journaling or writing your daily to-do list
- Set the tone with something positive like phoning a friend, checking your Instagram feed (if that makes you feel good) or reading something you enjoy
- Take action towards a meaningful goal like working on a personal project
This might sound like a lot to pack into your AM, but doing the legwork early on will help keep you focused throughout the day. You can even add your morning routine into your schedule like designer Dan Mall does:
Give up on multitasking
When you’ve got a million tasks on your to-do list and limited time to get to all of them, it’s easy to think you can get done more by multitasking.
However, studies have shown it’s actually impossible for humans to focus on more than one task at a time. Instead, what we think of as multitasking is really just your brain quickly switching back-and-forth.
So what’s the problem? Well, according to research each one of these switches can set us back up to 25 minutes of productive time just to regain focus.
Instead, a much more powerful time management strategy is to commit to single-tasking. Doing one thing at a time has been shown to rebuild our focus, strengthen our attention span, and even help us get more done.
When you catch yourself losing focus, stop and write down what you’re thinking before returning to the task at hand. Sometimes simply acknowledging the distraction is enough to loosen its grip on you.
Part 2: How to prioritize meaningful work (and delegate the rest)
Now that we know where our time is going, it’s time to decide what we should (and shouldn’t) spend our time on.
Separate the urgent from the important work
Despite your best efforts to plan out your day, tasks will always get thrown at you last minute. While it’s tempting to just add these to your to-do list, that can cause your day to get out of hand quickly. Instead, we need to be able to recognize and separate the “urgent” tasks from the “important” ones.
One solution comes from former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who proposed a simple matrix for categorizing your tasks.
Here’s a very basic model of what that might look like:
On the Eisenhower Matrix, each task falls into a different segment:
Important and urgent: These tasks are either expected or unexpected. If you’re expecting an important and urgent task, you should plan ahead to avoid the stress and potential burnout syndrome that can come from dealing with too many of these.
Important and non urgent: These are tasks that help you reach your personal or professional goals, yet aren’t timely. It’s easy to not set aside time for these, even though they’re the most important when it comes to finding a meaningful career.
Not important but urgent: These are the distractions that hold you back from doing good work. Try to delegate or reschedule as many of them as possible.
Not important and not urgent: Simply put, if your schedule is full of not important and non-urgent tasks, you’re doing something wrong. Drop these as much as possible.
By classifying your work in this way, you can start to prioritize your time and map out a schedule that allows you to do more of the important work and less of the not important.
Prioritize ruthlessly with an “avoid-at-all costs” list
For many of us, it’s easier to pile on more work than it is to give tasks away. But to properly manage your time, you need to know what to spend time on as well as what not to.
While there are many ways to prioritize your workload, one especially effective way comes from billionaire investor Warren Buffett. According to a story from Buffett’s personal pilot, the billionaire uses a simple 3-step process for prioritizing work:
- Step 1: Write down your top 25 goals on a single piece of paper.
- Step 2: Circle only your top five options.
- Step 3: Put the top five on one list and the remaining 20 on a second list.
Seems simple. But here’s where the strategy becomes interesting.
After the pilot was done writing out his goals, he agreed to focus on the top five he’d circled and said he would work on the remaining 20 when he had time. To which Buffett responded:
“No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
Despite these being “good” options to pursue, Buffett recognized that anything on our second list is nothing but a distraction.
Every behavior and choice we make has a cost. Constantly deciding to work on your first list versus your second takes away time that could be spent in a more meaningful way.
When you look at your daily or weekly list of tasks, ask what are in your top five and what should be avoided at all costs?Once you know that, then it’s time to delegate the rest.
Use the 30X rule to start delegating more tasks
Prioritization and delegation are key to making sure you’re doing meaningful work, not just spinning your wheels. As author John C. Maxwell says,
“If something can be done 80% as well by someone else, delegate!”
A recent study by Julian Birkinshaw of the London School of Business found that most knowledge workers spend on average 41% of our time on jobs we could easily pass off to others.
The issue is that while we’re aware we could hand off work, the thought of training someone to do it is daunting.
In his book Procrastinate on Purpose, author Rory Vaden explains how this is a false argument. Instead, he proposes we should give ourselves 30x the time it takes us to complete a task to train someone else to do it.
Here’s an example: If you have a task that takes 5 minutes a day to do, budget 30x that time (so, 150 minutes) to train someone else to do it. That might seem like a huge waste of time right away, but multiply that 5 minutes a day across the 250 annual working days and you would personally be spending a staggering 1250 minutes on that task.
Taking the time to delegate and train someone else gives you a net gain of 1100 minutes a year. Or, as Vaden puts it in his book, a 733% increase in ROTI (return on time invested).
Managing your time isn’t just about today, it’s about setting up systems and processes that will bring you more time in the future.
Bring “no” back into your vocabulary
There’s a famous saying about how every time you say no, you’re really saying yes to something else. This is especially true when it comes to time management.
Instead of saying “yes” to that meeting, project, new task, or even night out, we need to be ok with saying “no”. But this isn’t easy. We’re social creatures. We crave acceptance and gratitude, and saying yes is one of the easiest ways to get this.
One way to get over your fear of saying “no” is to use “the refusal technique.”
In a recent article from the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers Professor Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt found that saying “I don’t” do something, as opposed to “I can’t” allowed participants to extract themselves from unwanted commitments much more easily.
While “I can’t” sounds like a matter that’s up for debate, “I don’t” signifies you have hard rules set.
Part 3: Set up an efficient daily schedule
Now it’s time to start plugging this work into a schedule. But how should you best set that up? Here are some helpful tips on how to use your schedule to manage time effectively.
Set schedules, not deadlines
Despite the word “time” being right in “time management” it’s easy to ignore the temporal aspect of scheduling. What I mean is that we focus on our to-do list and deadlines, rather than creating a repeatable schedule we can work to.
As writer James Clear explains it:
“Instead of giving yourself a deadline to accomplish a particular goal by (and then feeling like a failure if you don’t achieve it), you should choose a goal that is important to you and then set a schedule to work towards it consistently.”
This all comes back to the idea of being realistic about what you can do in a day.
Time management means doing the most with the time we have. Working to a schedule rather than to a deadline ensures we get a little bit closer to our goal every single day.
Schedule around time, not tasks
If your days are spent with massive or open-ended to-do list items, you more than likely spend too long on a single task.
As a writer, I can put something as simple as “finish first draft of X post” on my to-do list and have my day booked solid. But does that mean I only put down one item? Of course not. Instead, I have multiple items on a list that all could take an entire day to do.
Clearly this is a problem. Even if you spend a very productive day working on one task, if you’ve said you’ll complete five similar tasks
Luckily there are two easy solutions for the time management mistake.
First, take large tasks and break them up into timed sessions. For example, rather than put “finish a first draft” on your schedule, you would commit to two 50-minute blocks of work.
According to Peter Bregman, author of Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Replace Counter-Productive Habits with Ones that Really Work, this works because time commitments are more concrete:
“A calendar is finite; there are only a certain number of hours in a day. That fact becomes clear the instant we try to cram an unrealistic number of things into a finite space.”
One person who schedules his day in this way is Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
Despite working 80+ hour weeks, Musk famously breaks each day up into 5-minute chunks. Every task he has is then designated as many slots as is needed. Being this tightly scheduled is what allows him to run multiple companies and still spend 80% of his time on engineering and design.
If this sounds too restrictive, a second solution is to reduce the scope of your tasks.
In our blog post-writing example, this could mean committing to finishing the outline or writing just the body copy and leaving the introduction, conclusion, and editing for another day.
By working our day around time rather than tasks, we go from driving our schedule around an unknown (task) to a known (time).
Schedule time for interruptions and breaks
When we fill out our daily schedules, how often do we put in blocks of time for breaks or interruptions? Other than lunch and maybe a snack or two, it’s usually just wall-to-wall jobs.
But real life is chaotic. Interruptions come or our bodies tell us we need to take a break and all of a sudden our perfectly formulated schedule gets thrown out the window.
Not only is this demoralizing, but according to researchers, it’s also worse than if we had simply scheduled those breaks in the first place.
A study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found breaks are more refreshing—and more effective at helping people be more creative and effective—when planned in advance. As the researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review:
“Set [breaks] at regular intervals—use a timer if you have to. When it goes off, switch tasks: Organize your reimbursement receipts, check your email, or clean your desk, and then return to the original task.
“If you’re hesitant to break away because you feel that you’re on a roll, be mindful that it might be a false impression.”
If you don’t think you can schedule these breaks into your day, you can use a technique like the Pomodoro timer or set RescueTime alerts for when you’ve worked a certain amount to remind you to step away.
Separate “Maker” from “Manager” time
Your calendar is your greatest tool when it comes to time management. However, it’s all too easy to fill it up with admin tasks and not leave enough time for meaningful work.
Years ago, essayist, programmer, and venture capitalist Paul Graham looked at this exact issue and proposed two very different ways of scheduling your work day: The Maker’s schedule and the Manager’s schedule.
“The manager’s schedule is for bosses,” he explained. “It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals… When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.”
“But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”
Unfortunately, most of us sit somewhere in the middle. We need to carve time into our day to both manage and make. One way to manage your time for both Maker and Manager tasks is to use an underlying “system” on your calendar.
Here’s how Mattermark CEO Danielle Morrill sets hers up:
Each day has a template that involves time for admin, paperwork, and external meetings (Manager time) as well as large chunks dedicated solely to internal meetings and daily work (Maker time).
“Batch” activities throughout the week
Whether writing, designing, or planning, there’s a certain momentum we get when working on tasks for an extended period of time. Think of it like a productivity take on Newton’s First Law of Motion: “An object in motion, stays in motion.”
Whenever we switch tasks, there’s a cognitive load. So instead, we should use time management to batch similar activities and take advantage of the momentum we get.
A great example of this is best-selling author Paul Jarvis who, despite writing books, hosting multiple podcasts, and teaching courses, has sent his weekly “Sunday Dispatch” email for years without fail.
According to Jarvis, the key is in batching his writing:
“I’ll take one day a month and write four or five articles or take one day a month and record four or five podcast episodes. What I find works with that is two things:
“One is I feel like when I batch similar work together it gets done faster. So, I’ll sit there for an hour, try to write an article and it will suck in the beginning. And then I’ll start getting into the rhythm. And the next article will take 30 minutes. Then the next two will take 15 minutes each. And so on.
“The second part, is that I know I’m going to be more consistent with my work.”
When we get into the flow of a certain kind of project, it’s easier to keep going. We also build our self-efficacy, which is basically our belief in our own abilities. This helps us be more confident in our work, get more done in less time, and be more consistent with our output.
Part 4: Optimize your work environment
Your calendar and schedule isn’t the only tool in your time management toolbox. Here are a few ways you can use where you work to help influence how you work.
Try the ‘Workstation Popcorn’ method to block your time
Changing location throughout the day can be a great way to keep our motivation and productivity up. It’s also a good method for managing your time, as you know certain tasks will happen in certain places.
- Step 1: Write out all your tasks you need to do today
- Step 2: Break that list up into 3 equal sections (or batch work together as we discussed before)
- Step 3: Choose 3 different locations for each batch of work
Runyon calls this “sort of a macro-level version of the Pomodoro technique, except that, instead of working in 25 minute segments, you’re planning out your entire day.”
Additionally, each location change imposes a short break, a bit of exercise, while also splitting up your workday into manageable chunks.
Work with your body’s natural energy cycle
The best time management tip anyone can give you is to do what works best for you.
Work better in the morning? Schedule your most intensive work then. Like doing admin in the day and creative work at night? Then that’s how you should manage your day.
What this all comes down to, however, is managing not just your time, but your energy.
A growing body of research has demonstrated that our energy levels have a natural ebb and flow throughout the day. These are called Circadian rhythms. And try as you might, fighting against them is about as productive as watching cat videos.
There are variances for every person, but a standard Circadian rhythm looks something like this:
Once the workday has begun it takes a few hours to get into peak work mode (around 11am-1pm). After this, energy sharply declines around 3pm before returning around 6pm.
Take some time to understand what your own rhythm is like and manage your time accordingly. Schedule your most important work during your peak hours. The rest can be slotted into low-energy periods.
Part 5: Protect your time (and focus) from distraction
There will always be a million other things that pop up and try to take your time. And none of these time management tips mean a thing if you don’t put them into practice. Here are a few ways to help protect your time and spend it on the right work.
Use strategic laziness to work on the right things
Time management might be about productivity, but laziness can be your secret weapon.
The concept of “Strategic laziness” doesn’t have anything to do with loafing around, however. Instead, it’s about prioritizing the work and tasks that are important and allowing yourself to be lazy or “not good” at those that don’t matter.
How does this look in practice? In one story, Basecamp founder David Heinemeier Hansson talks about how he’s proud of some of the poor grades he got in school:
“I’ve received plenty of Bs and even Cs for classes that I was incredibly proud of because they came from hardly no time spent at all. Time that I could then spend on reading my own curriculum, starting my own projects, and running my own businesses.
“And I did. During my undergrad, I created Instiki, Rails, Basecamp, and got on the path to being a partner at 37signals. Do you think I could fit all that and still get straight As?”
The idea is to let go of your need to be perfect and focus on the work that matters. Prioritize what’s important and allow yourself to do poorly on the rest.
As management consultant Peter Drucker so aptly put it:
“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.”
Automate non-negotiable focused time throughout the day
It’s all well and good to say you should be setting aside time for your most important work, but when it comes time to actually do that work, how do you avoid interrupting colleagues or busywork vying for your attention?
One way to make sure your focused work sessions run smoothly is to automate all the hassle around getting started.
With RescueTime’s FocusTime feature there’s a number of ways you can automatically block out distractions for a set period of time, such as:
- Automatically start a RescueTime FocusTime session based on time you’ve blocked off on your calendar or as soon as you arrive at the office
- Automatically set your Slack status to “away” during a Focustime session
- Automatically post a message to Slack at the start of your FocusTime session, letting your colleagues know you’re unavailable
By getting rid of the friction of starting your focused setting, you’re protecting your most valuable time from distraction.
Use the Ivy Lee Method to end your day properly
One of the greatest productivity and time management tips out there is to simply know what to work on. That’s where the Ivy Lee Method comes in:
- At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. No more. No less.
- Take a few minutes to prioritize those six items in order of their importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving to the next one.
- Work through the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, any unfinished items move to a new list of six for the following day.
There’s a number of reasons why this technique is so effective. For one, it is super simple and forces you to single task. Second, with only six daily slots, it makes you become deliberate in planning each day. And lastly, with your tasks laid out before you get to work, there’s less barrier or friction to getting started.
Don’t forget the benefits of free time
At this point, we need to acknowledge that time management isn’t just about work. To find a work life balance that keeps us healthy and happy, we need to make sure we’re leaving time for rest, relaxation, and socializing.
As journalist Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian:
“One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time ‘productively’, too. An attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough.”
In the effort to manage your time better, remember that not everything can or should be managed.
We need time disconnected from our work to properly recharge and recover to make sure when we are working, we’re making the most of our time.
So, when you are off the clock, try making your home environment less tech-centric, or set aside time to work on a hobby or simply to be alone with your thoughts. While not directly tied to time management, these simple practices can help keep us focused throughout the week.
We can’t control time moving forward, but we can try and find ways to control how we spend our time. With these time management tips and strategies you should be ready to delegate, prioritize, and schedule your time properly.
What works for you? Let us know your own time management tips in the comments and we’ll add them to the list.