When I was a lieutenant in the US Air Force I walked into a job where I oversaw a department with 30 people working under me in 4 different sections. As if managing a large department wasn’t enough, I was chosen to head up the annual Combined Federal Campaign charity drive for the entire base of 3700 people. I was working 6 days a week to keep up. Saturday was beautiful because few others were in the office and I had no other demands on my time so I could focus better.
I had never done anything like that in my life. I sought council like crazy from more experienced managers to find out how to handle all of the demands on my time. I read everything about managing my time that I had any precious time to read.
Eventually, I figured out how to keep my head above water and stay on top of all of the demands.
In this article, I will lay out the best time management practices and resources available now and give you action steps to implement them. I chose these practices based on solid research findings and from 30 years of personal experience.
How do you manage your time wisely?
- You choose important and meaningful goals and spend 80% of your productive time focused on important tasks that lead to accomplishing those goals.
- First, decide what your goals are. They must be specific and measurable.
- Then, break down your goals into smaller steps.
- After that, prioritize the most important tasks to do every day to reach your goals.
- Finally, get going! Plan your day and focus on your most important tasks. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked.
There is evidence from research that certain actions to manage your time improve your productivity. For example, research has clearly demonstrated that college students who indicated yes to the items below, performed better in college than those who did not:
- Make a list of the things you have to do each day?
- Plan your day before you start it?
- Make a schedule of the activities you have to do on work days?
- Write a set of goals for yourself for each day?
- Spend time each day planning?
- Have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish during the next week?
- Set and honor priorities?
So it definitely pays to follow what I am about to teach you.
STEP 1: Make a list of your goals.
“Realize what you really want. It stops you from chasing butterflies and puts you to work digging gold.”WILLIAM MOULTON MARSDEN
Before you can manage your time wisely, you have to know what to do and you have to do important things first.
So you will make a list of important goals or objectives.
- If you’re working on a project at your business, or your boss gives you work to do, then you know what you have to do. You only need to decide the order in which to do things.
- If you have personal goals, then you need to make sure they are specific, you can measure them, and you have a deadline for completing them.
STEP 2: Break your goals down into a series of action steps and list them in priority order.
Look at your goals. For each goal, list as many things as you can think of that you need to do to get it done. Don’t worry. You can always add more steps later that come up while you are working.
Think small and break the actions into small steps. Break down your goal into action steps that you can schedule and complete step-by-step.
Start with the final completion date and work backwards to set a timeline to finish each step.
- If a step looks hard, break it down into smaller pieces. The smaller the better.
- Make a priority list of actions from most important to least and always start with the highest priority steps each day.
Now you should have:
- Selected goals that are important.
- Made your goals specific and measurable.
- Broken your goals into smaller steps and listed them in priority sequence.
Now it’s time to work out your daily routine of working on your goals and managing your time wisely.
STEP 3: Plan and manage your time and track your progress.
First, let’s go over what you need to do every day to manage your time and be super productive.
Plan your day.
You can plan your day first thing in the morning or as the last thing you do at the end of work or even later, before going to sleep.
First, choose only 3 top priority things you need to do for the day and plan to spend 80% of your time working on them.
If you finish all of them, CELEBRATE! Or you can look at your main task list and pick another task to work on.
After you choose the 3 tasks, list them in order of importance. Estimate how long each task will take and note the time beside the task.
If a task will take more than a few hours, break it down into smaller steps or decide you will work on it in more than one separate session.
- Choose to work on shorter tasks until they’re complete. I define shorter as a task that will take no more than a few hours to finish.
- Work on longer tasks for specific periods of time. Then you will schedule time to pick up the unfinished portion of the task later.
Plan dedicated time periods to work on these priorities and also schedule time for other things in your day. You should spend about 80% of your productive time on your priority tasks.
Also, it’s best to schedule the most important tasks to do at the beginning of your day or at your most productive time of day.
Remember, shorter tasks are psychologically easier to do because you know you will finish soon. Chop them up, take little breaks and give yourself rewards as you complete tasks.
Stay on Track.
Once you begin a task or time period, don’t get sidetracked. You can set short breaks every half hour or hour when you can distract yourself, mess around, or take care of less important things for a few minutes only. Otherwise, stay on the task.
- TIP: Use a Timer: Stay focused until the time is up. Twenty-five minute chunks are generally suggested with 5-minute breaks in between. After you complete 3 or 4 chunks, reward yourself with a 20 or 30 minute break.
Upon finishing a task or planned time period, reward yourself with checking emails, visiting facebook, checking news headlines or whatever you might usually do as distraction.
If you are working seated at a desk, you should get up and move around when you take a break.
Organize your work environment to eliminate distractions.
You shouldn’t have things in your environment that aren’t part of the task at hand.
- Clear off your desk.
- Turn off your smartphone.
- Disable notifications.
- Reduce noise distractions with noise canceling headphones or a white noise device.
As a young lieutenant in the Air Force I was inundated with responsibilities in a high stress job. I learned to completely clear my desk at the end of each day, jot down the top priorities for the next day and leave only that priority list on my desk.
The wonderful thing about that habit was that it gave me a sense of completion and a sense of being prepared in advance to start fresh the next morning. I could go home without taking work with me.
Time Management Tools
There are so many tools available to list and manage tasks and time schedules. Choose tools that help you organize and manage your tasks and manage your time schedule.
Microsoft To Do for organizing and managing tasks:
I use the Microsoft To Do software to manage my tasks. It’s free and it has amazing flexibility and features to manage work. It also synchronizes across my PC, Laptop, and Smartphone. It works on Apple devices too.
- Set due dates and reminders.
- Create daily, weekly, monthly and yearly automatic recurring task reminders.
- Synchronize across all of your devices.
- Share lists with others.
Here is a short 5-minute tutorial video for To Do from the Microsoft Community.
You can download To Do here: Main Download Page.
TODOIST for organizing and managing tasks:
The free option is simple, but has enough features to:
- set reminders,
- organize in projects,
- synchronize across devices
- and it works on android, Windows, and ios devices.
Todoist has more team collaboration features than Microsoft To Do and if you need even more options, the paid versions are only $3 per month for standard and $5 per month for business.
You can login and set up a free account with your Google, Facebook or Apple account directly or set it up with email and a password.
Here are download links to all of the apps for Todoist.
Pomodoro task focus method:
Pomodoro is the name of a focus method where you work intensely for 25 minutes on a task and then take a 5 minute break. Then you go again and after 3 or 4 periods you take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.
It’s called Pomodoro because the founder used a Tomato shaped timer and pomodoro means tomato in Italian language.
This article about focusing on goals explains Pomodoro in more detail and gives you great advice on how to really stay focused.
Autofocus method by Mark Forster:
This is a different kind of method that ensures you get things done on your list. But, instead of basing decisions on priority, you decide based on what task you want to do more than another task.
Forster uses low tech paper and pen for the system and it takes a bit of study to learn his systems.
The philosophy behind this is that you can procrastinate by putting off the other items and still be very productive. If it fits your style then go for it.
I’m not going to explain the complete system here. Find out more at this link to the full instructions for Final Version Perfected Autofocus System.
There is also a Superfocus Method by Forster explained here.
The Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule for prioritizing tasks:
The 80-20 rule for time management asserts that 80% of your results come from 20% of your activities. So, you manage your time most wisely by doing the 20% of activities that will produce the best results.
When planning your tasks, look for the 20% of tasks that are super-important and bring 80% of the results. It will help you prioritize tasks better.
Another way to look at it is that you should not waste your time on $5 per hour work or on work you aren’t good at.
Applying this rule, you would outsource or delegate these time wasters because you will spend 80% of your time on these and get 20% results.
You should focus most of your time (80%) on the $50 per hour work and work you are skilled at doing.
Time Management Blocking:
This is a method of dividing your day into blocks of time. Each block is devoted to doing a specific task, or group of tasks, and only those tasks.
Using this method works well if you like structure and you are mostly free to schedule your day the way you want.
Here is a great explanation of Time Management Blocking.
Eisenhower Box: This is a decision making tool that’s a good way to visualize your work and eliminate time wasters.
You organize your tasks into 4 categories:
- Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
- Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
- Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
- Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).
I really like this method of evaluating my tasks because my decision making is quicker and easier.
Now, what do you do when things don’t go as planned?
STEP 4: Plan for obstacles and failures.
Look at each of your major goals and think about things that may stand in your way. Then go through a problem solving process to list how you will act if the hurdle appears.
For example, in my quest to lose weight,
- I prepared for an obstacle that I don’t feel like exercising.
- So, I planned to allow myself a special treat if I exercise when I don’t feel like it (chocolate protein shake, small ice cream cone @ 250 calories). After a while the exercising became a compulsion that I rarely felt like skipping.
- I also planned how I would deal with times when there will be a problem of underestimating calories when eating out.
- I dealt with the calorie estimation problem by limiting eating out and then choosing restaurants that publish nutrition info when I do eat out.
Here are some generic challenges that crop up for everyone trying to manage time better.
- Negative thinking. This is a tough one because negative thinning can be a deep seeded habit. Here’s an article with an excellent program to stop negative thinking.
- Shiny object syndrome: Getting distracted from your priorities by something new.
- Procrastination. Everyone deals with this one.
- Trouble getting started. (Item number 6 in this article includes some good tips for motivating yourself to get started).
- Wasting time on unimportant tasks.
Here is an article that helps with solutions to many of these obstacles.
Dealing with failure.
Failure is inevitable. No one gets it right every time and everyone experiences failure.
The simple answer to this issue is that you have to look at failure in a positive way. And, you have to focus on using failure as a guidepost that shows you what doesn’t work.
That is what all successful people do.
When asked how he handled failing so many times to make a working light bulb, Edison is claimed to have said “I didn’t fail, I discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb.”
My personal philosophy is that the only way to ACTUALLY FAIL is to quit.
What people refer to as failure I call learning experiences. So you have to toughen up, reframe failures as learning experiences and have a “Never Quit” Mentality.
Conclusion to How to Manage Your Time Wisely
The bottom line to managing time wisely is spending most of your time doing your most important things. You do it by
- Knowing what is important.
- Breaking tasks down to easy steps and prioritizing the important things.
- Working on the most important things and delegating or outsourcing less important jobs.
If you use some of the great tools available and follow these three simple rules, you will manage your time much more wisely.
Best wishes in your efforts to manage your time wisely!
Duehring GL. Effective management starts with self management. Radiol Manage. 2002;24(4):37-41.
Duehring GL. Delegation: developing the habit. Radiol Manage. 2001;23(4):16-24.
APA PsycNet. (2020). Retrieved 5 July 2020, from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1992-10822-001