The Best Time Management Strategies and Tools for the Age of Distraction
Time. It’s the most important resource we have — and one that can’t be loaned, borrowed, or saved for later. Whether we’re bankrupt or on the Forbes list of billionaires, we all get the exact same amount of it every single day.
Are you managing yours effectively?
Most time management strategies are built on habits and routines. Things get ingrained over the years to the point where they become unconscious. Reexamining these behaviors and tackling the time management challenge proactively will improve nearly every aspect of your life.
We can’t do it all — but with the right attitude we can do a lot more (and better) than we’re doing right now. We can live happier, healthier, more productive lives. And we can free up precious minutes to unwind and spend time with our loved ones.
Sound like a plan?
Let’s talk about how to do it!
1. What is Time Management and Why Does It Matter?
2. Understanding Where Your Time Goes
3. Prioritizing Your Time
4. Time Management Strategies and Techniques
5. Time Management Tools
What Is Time Management and Why Does It Matter?
Most people understand the importance of managing their time, but they’re thinking about it in the wrong way. They mistake efficiency or “busyness” for a sustainable time management strategy.
Getting things done is a crucial piece of time management — but it’s just one of many. In today’s age of infinite choices and distractions, deciding what not to do is just as important. We also have to be mindful that the tasks we focus on are aligned with our biggest goals. What’s the point of learning to sprint faster if you’re racing on the wrong track?
Bottom line: a winning time management strategy is just as much about prioritization as nose to the grindstone hard work. Maybe even more. And that prioritization is an ongoing effort. We have to regularly ask ourselves if what we’re doing is a good use of our precious minutes. As we say on our About page:
A solid time management strategy, then, is all about stacking the deck to make the right choices as often as possible. The first step in developing one is to figure out how you’re spending your time right now. An accurate baseline will give you the clarity you need to improve.
Which brings us to the next point…
Understanding Where Your Times Goes Now
How long did you spend on emails today? How many hours did you spend on Facebook last week?
For most of us, these types of questions are difficult to answer. We get so immersed in whatever we’re doing at the moment that we lose perspective. This leads to an inaccurate impression of our overall productivity.
With only this inaccurate impression to go on, it’s tough to improve our time management strategies. We might try to fix problems that don’t exist. Or ignore actual ones.
There’s no substitute for hard data here. That’s why one of the first (and most important) steps to improving time management is to understand where your time goes now.
There are plenty of easy ways to do this. Instead of trying to keep up with everything on your own, you could use one of the host of time-tracking apps or software available. Plenty of them, like AND CO, offer free versions for basic features.
Once you’ve tracked your time for a few weeks, you’ll be forced to question old assumptions. Prepare to be shocked at how much time you’re spending on seemingly innocuous activities like email or social media. Patterns will emerge. You’ll notice certain activities, times, and environments conducive to peak productivity (and vice versa).
Fair warning: tracking your time might be uncomfortable. If you’re discouraged by all those wasted moments, take heart that they’re all just opportunities to improve. Learning how much time you spend doing things now also helps you become a better estimator when planning your days going forward — an invaluable time-management skill.
Prioritizing Your Time
Not all tasks are created equal. How you value them depends on your ultimate goals. If it’s your mission this year to finish your first marathon, for instance, a long run might be one of the cornerstones of your day. However, someone trying to launch a side business around the demands of a day job might have to settle for a quick yoga workout instead.
Effective time management starts with a clear vision of your core goals and values. Racing through a dozen minor tasks might be less valuable than a single difficult one that’s more aligned with your vision. The question shifts from “How can I get the most done possible?” to “How can I have the most impact on what matters most?”
The distinction between urgent and important tasks can be subtle, but it’s important. It’s so easy to spend an entire day responding to emails, taking meetings, and accommodating others’ agendas that your own goals go by the wayside. Sometimes putting out fires is necessary, but it shouldn’t come at an expense of the truly important stuff.
The easiest way to make smart prioritization choices day after day? Embrace proven time management strategies and techniques.
Time Management Strategies and Techniques
Most of us could stand to manage our time better. But our challenges are unique. Some of us struggle with overwhelm or decision fatigue. Others are in a constant battle with procrastination or poor efficiency. The best time management strategy for you won’t be for everyone; a lot depends on your work style and personality.
That’s why we’ve broken down the most common time management issues into four categories and recommended different strategies for each. Here’s a quick overview.
|Don’t Break the Chain||Build new habits with daily consistency|
|Not-To-Do Lists||Identify and avoid productivity pitfalls|
|Setting Deadlines||Force yourself to make decisions|
|Time-Blocking||Schedule certain activities for certain times|
|7 Minute Life||Spend 1% of your day planning the rest|
|Eisenhower Matrix||Filter tasks based on importance and urgency|
|Most Important Tasks (MITs)||Identify and accomplish your MITS first|
|Pareto Principle||Focus on tasks that produce the most results|
|Autofocus||Work on tasks based on your motivation|
|Chunking||Break down big projects into smaller pieces|
|Getting Things Done (GTD) System||How much can you do in two minutes?|
|To-Do Lists||A classic way to get thoughts on the page|
|Automate Recurring Tasks||Use technology to handle the boring stuff|
|Batching||Group related tasks and do them together|
|Pomodoro Technique||Work in regular time chunks and breaks|
|Schedule Breaks||Relax to maintain focus and efficiency|
Now let’s dive into each time management technique.
Each day requires us to make thousands of decisions. Some are small, like what to wear to work or eat for lunch. Others are larger, like whether to confront a coworker or ask your boss for a raise. All of them have a draining effect on our limited willpower.
The result? Decision fatigue. It gets harder and harder to make good decisions as the day goes on. In the time management context, this manifests in an inability to decide what to do right now (or what to do next).
Here are a few tips that can help.
Don’t Break the Chain
It takes willpower to make decisions… but only if those decisions are conscious. The more smart choices you can ingrain as habits, the easier it is to repeat them while avoiding decision fatigue. You don’t have to think about them. Things happen automatically.
This time management tip comes from Jerry Seinfeld. When asked by an aspiring comedian for advice, Seinfeld recommended hanging a calendar on the wall and marking each day that he wrote a new joke with a red X. The idea was to see how many days you could keep it up without skipping a day.
If you’re trying to build one new habit at a time, this method is simple and effective. Seeing all the red marks on your calendar is motivating. Once the new behavior becomes habit, you can move on to build another one with plenty of willpower to spare.
You’ve probably used to-do lists in the past. But what if you flipped the process on its head and made a different list of behaviors to avoid?
That’s the general idea behind not-to-do lists. First, identify your biggest productivity pitfalls. These will typically be things like social media, checking emails, and unnecessary meetings. Now it becomes your mission to avoid anything on this list as much as possible. Or delegating or outsourcing those responsibilities.
This time management technique is great because it removes the stress of perfection. Instead of trying to do a whole bunch of new things, you’re simply doing less to plug those productivity leaks.
Most of us hate deadlines because we associate them with stress and feelings of powerlessness. We’re forced to fit our work into our bosses’ or clients’ schedules instead of our own.
So it makes sense why we’d avoid introducing even more deadlines into our lives. But things are different when the deadlines are self-imposed. Instead of a source of stress, setting our own deadlines for decisions can bring with them a tremendous sense of relief. We don’t have to think about that thing anymore. We act, and then we can move on.
Setting deadlines — and sticking with them — also helps us practice making decisions quickly. We get better at it and gain confidence over time. These are priceless skills for managing the unpredictability of the day to day.
If you know what you need to do but have a hard time figuring out when to do it, time-blocking can help. The idea is simple: divide your days up into chunks and allocate certain tasks to each.
You can use a calendar app or create your own time blocks by hand by dividing up pieces of lined notebook paper. If you go through your day and something unexpected comes up, you can always revise the remaining time blocks and keep moving.
Time-blocking is great because it forces you to estimate how long each task will take. You’ll get better at it over time, and it becomes easier to plan for the future. You can stop asking yourself what to do right now or what’s next because the decision has already been made; all you have to do is follow your assigned blocks.
A state of overwhelm is status quo in today’s society. There’s so much to do — and not enough time to get through it. Not to mention the challenge of figuring out how to prioritize your limited time and energy in the face of countless distractions, interruptions, and other demands.
If you’re struggling with a packed schedule or just can’t figure out what to do next, give these time management strategies a try.
7 Minute Life
7 Minute Life is about as simple as it gets. All it takes is 7 minutes each morning and 7 minutes in the evening, a total of one percent of your time. You’ll use your morning sessions to plan the day ahead. In the evenings, you’ll review how you did and plan for the next day.
Created by financial advisor Allyson Lewis, this system is great for people who don’t typically plan their time or who are still trying to figure out their goals. It’s short and sweet, so there’s no reason to be intimidated.
How you use these minutes to plan is up to you. Lewis offers a 7 Minute Life Daily Planner, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t come up with your own techniques or apply some of the others in this post.
No need for perfection here. Simply having a plan makes a huge difference. You’ll go from waking up without a clue to understanding exactly what needs to get done.
The Eisenhower Matrix, popularized by the famous World War II general and U.S. president, is an elegant tool to prioritize your activities.
Simply list all the tasks you’d like to get done. Note which ones are urgent, important, urgent and important, or none of the above. Then, group your tasks into four categories:
- Urgent and important tasks — do these tasks immediately
- Important, but not urgent — schedule these tasks for a later date
- Urgent, but not important — these tasks need to get done, but not necessarily by you. See if you can automate, delegate, or outsource them so you can focus on what’s important.
- Not urgent and unimportant — ignore or avoid these tasks
The goal is to spend more time in the first two categories and less time in the second two categories. When you’re faced with a long list of tasks, the Eisenhower Matrix is a great way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Most Important Tasks (MITs)
Most of us are freshest when we start our days. Our willpower is at its peak, and all the day’s interruptions and curveballs haven’t had a chance to strike.
You can use these opportunities to identify and complete your most important tasks (MITs) for the day. Use the evenings to list your top three to five MITs for the next day. Then start the next morning with your highest-priority task. You can always push back MITs you didn’t get a chance to finish to the next day.
The Pareto Principle, named after the Italian economist who discovered it, says that 20 percent of our actions are responsible for 80 percent of our results. If we can identify those activities in our own lives, it becomes a lot easier to prioritize.
These 20 percent activities are probably the deep, meaningful work we’re tempted to procrastinate on. It’s the important stuff that requires you to set aside chunks of time and demands your full concentration.
Pay attention these next few weeks. Which activities in your own life (personal and professional) seem to drive disproportionate results? Those are the ones to focus on!
Sometimes knowing what we need to do isn’t enough. If we can’t get over that resistance against starting a task, we’ll never finish it. Good news: you don’t need to get lost in another two-hour browsing session on Facebook. Give these tips a try to overcome procrastination.
Autofocus is a great time management strategy if you’re struggling with low motivation. Instead of forcing yourself to do something you dread, simply make a list of things to do and start with whatever you’re most interested in.
The idea here is to just get started — anywhere. You’ll pick up momentum as you go. When you finish your current task or find yourself getting bored, switch over to another item on the list that has you intrigued. You can always come back to it later on.
One caveat: don’t keep switching and adding tasks indefinitely. Make sure you finish whatever you start on your initial list before you add more.
No one wants to look at his or her to-do list and see “write 50 page client report.” That sounds too overwhelming to start. So you find yourself procrastinating and stressing out.
This is where chunking comes in. It’s a simple strategy to break up complex projects into manageable pieces. First, list out all the action steps that will result in the finished product. You’ll probably start to feel better already. Next, pick the first few steps and focus on getting them done right away. You might still have a lot of work to do, but at least you’ve created a roadmap for yourself now. At least you’ve gotten started!
Getting Things Done (GTD) System
GTD is a comprehensive time management system developed by author David Allen. You can read more about the details here or in Allen’s book, but the gist is to get everything you need to do down on paper instead of in your head. This eases the pressure to remember and allows you to decide which tasks require immediate attention. Other tasks can be archived, delegated, or deleted. Going through your list each week helps you reassess and make updates as needed.
A key component of GTD is the 2-minute rule. Allen recommends that whenever you encounter a task that you could finish in under 2 minutes, like loading the dishwasher or responding to your boss’s email, you do it right away. For all other tasks, commit to working on them for at least 2 minutes. You’ll often find yourself continuing to work once you overcome the hurdle of getting started.
To-do lists are classic time management techniques. Some people love them, others hate them. They might be all you need to be more productive.
The biggest benefit of to-do lists is transferring all those chaotic thoughts in your head into something orderly on the page. You’ll still have to prioritize what to do when, but simply knowing what you have in front of you is a major improvement.
You can use old-fashioned pen and paper or go digital. Plenty of tools and apps are available online. You can also consider using a modified to-do list like Jake Knapp’s “Burner List,” which has some built-in prioritization to help you focus on important tasks. Check out our interview with Jake and John Zeratsky here.
Knowing what to do and when to do it is great. But ultimately it isn’t worth much without the ability to execute — to follow through and get things done.
Give these tips a try if you’re struggling to be efficient.
Automate Recurring Tasks
It’s hard enough to get through our tasks each day without nagging reminders to pay rent or send an invoice. Thankfully, you don’t have to do that anymore. You can use technology to handle these recurring tasks, freeing up precious energy to focus on whatever needs undivided attention.
Here are just a few ideas for tasks you could automate:
- Backing up your data
- Depositing a portion of your paycheck into a savings account
- Filling out online forms
- Paying bills
- Posting to social media
- Responding to emails with canned response/templates
- Schedule appointments
- Sending invoices
- Sorting emails
Batching is the process of grouping related tasks and knocking them out all at once. Instead of cooking every night, for instance, you could do some bulk meal prep on Sunday evening and not worry about it the rest of the week. You could dedicate certain time slots to clearing your email inbox instead of going back and forth all day.
Batching makes you more efficient because you minimize the cognitive costs of switching back and forth between tasks. It’s easier for your brain to get through related tasks in a flow state.
The Pomodoro Technique, named after the tomato-shaped timer (“pomodoro” is tomato in Italian) its creator used when developing it, breaks up your work into dedicated chunks and breaks. This helps you stay on track without getting burned out.
The standard Pomodoro work block is 25 minutes of uninterrupted work, followed by a 5-minute break. Once you’ve repeated three or four of these blocks, you can take a longer break (10 to 30 minutes) before doing any more work.
You can tweak the ratios of work to break time as well. Longer work periods (like 50 minutes on to 10 minutes off) will give you more time to immerse yourself in complicated tasks. Feel free to experiment and find out what works best for you.
This sounds counterintuitive. Why would you want to schedule non-work time if you’re trying to be more productive?
Scheduling breaks between challenging actually helps maintain concentration and efficiency. Even the most disciplined people can’t stay focused for an entire workday. Without regularly scheduled breaks, you run the risk of staying immersed in something until you become distracted and inefficient. Breaks give you something to look forward to — and a chance to recharge.
How long and how often to take breaks is up to you. The trick is to figure out how much concentrated work you can handle before it’s time for a rest. That takes some experimenting.
Time Management Tools
Hopefully our list of strategies and techniques have given you some ideas about how to better manage your time. Once you’ve settled on one or a few to try, these time management tools can help you put those plans into action.
Freedom empowers you to avoid distractions and make the most of every minute at work. Block pesky websites, social media apps, or even the entire internet across all devices. You can set up recurring schedules to block those productivity-killers during designated periods. Or use locked mode whenever you need to knock out a task right now that demands your undivided attention.
Freedom pairs nicely with time-blocking, the Pomodoro Technique, or just getting started on a tough project without the procrastination.
Timers are the epitome of simplicity, but they can revolutionize the way you manage your time. Set it and forget it whether you’re trying Pomodoro, the GTD 2-minute rule, batching, working towards a scheduled break, or finishing up a dedicated time block. The possibilities are endless.
You probably have plenty of timers already available. Your smartphone, wristwatch, or even your kitchen timer could work in a pinch. Invest in a special tomato (pomodoro) timer or try the online option. Tons of free timers are only a quick Google search away.
Time Management Charts
Time management charts are perfect for time-blocking newbies. If you don’t have much experience planning your days or allocating tasks, it’s much easier to work from proven templates instead of starting from scratch.
There’s a host of charts to choose from, many of which are free to download, fill out electronically, or even print out and take with you. Give these a look:
Using Trello or a Kanban Board is a great way for creative, visually-oriented people to manage their time. These tools help you see your tasks in a different way. Instead of being overwhelmed by a lengthy to-do list, you can group different tasks by project and stages of completion. This can help a lot if you’re struggling with prioritization or overwhelm.
Want to be more efficient with your time? Track it! There’s no need to do this all the time. But it can be a great wake-up call if you’re worried about poor efficiency or just want to see how your time management has improved.
Plenty of time-tracking tools are available online. Some are paid, others have free options. Check out AND CO if you’re interested in combining time tracking capabilities with other features like proposals and contracts, invoicing and payments, and expense tracking.
To-Do List Apps
For some people, a handwritten to-do list is more than enough. But if you’re curious about the possibilities of a digital solution, consider downloading a to-do list app. Todoist or Wunderlist are great options to explore, and there are loads of other options (some paid, others free) available.
One of the biggest draws of to-do list apps is their flexibility. They can get as simple or complex as you’d like them to. And the ability to set reminders and sync and access lists on the go is a huge plus.
Over to You
Time is your most precious commodity. You deserve to get the most from it. The idea isn’t to just get as much stuff done as possible; it’s to accomplish what’s truly important, the things that will make your dreams a reality.
What have been the most effective time management strategies in your own life? How have they helped you once you started using them? Leave a comment below and share your experience!