Time management seems to be a universal challenge. Most everyone struggles with it to some degree. Even if you consider yourself a pretty structured and organized person, there’s probably some aspect of time management you’d like to improve.
Why is Time Management Important?
How we use our time not only affects our productivity at work, but influences our relationships and overall wellbeing. Time management is the way we manage the direction of our attention. And, as a result, where we put our attention naturally gets the most of our energy.
Why is Time Management Hard?
Effective time management is associated with that other illusive concept called balance. In an ideal world, we’d be able to strike the “perfect balance” between time spent on work, relationships, hobbies, health and personal development, among other things. But our world is more complicated than that and requires us to constantly adjust to change.
Adding to our complicated lives are a number of internal and external stimuli that continually pull our attention away, get us stuck, or seemingly make time disappear without a trace (ahem, social media).
Here are eight steps to help you diagnose and address your time management challenges:
- Clarify the Problem: Although you may acknowledge a time management shortcoming, you probably haven’t pinpointed the issue. Saying or thinking “I need to improve my time management” doesn’t really help you figure out how to fix it. When problems stay in the realm of the general, they don’t get addressed. Try to zero-in on the specific behavior you’re observing.
For example, do you find yourself getting distracted easily? Do you have a problem with not getting started in the first place, i.e. procrastination? How about getting so focused on what’s in front of you that you end up ignoring other things, i.e. laser vision? These three behaviors tend to make up the majority of time management challenges.
- What are the Underlying Blocks? In some cases, there’s something deeper that lies underneath a problem behavior, most likely related to fear, self-doubt, perfectionism, or misalignment. This territory takes more than a blog to uncover, but I would encourage you to be curious about what some of these underlying issues might be, and how they are influencing your use of time. If you are procrastinating, what might you be afraid of? If you tend to get laser focused, where might you be aiming for unrealistic levels of perfection? If you are easily distracted, where might you be burnt-out or unmotivated by what you’re doing?
- Identify the Time Vampires: Distractions are probably the worst enemy to effective time management. The biggest distractions, those that suck the most time up without a trace, are Time Vampires. Getting clear on these external stimuli can help you be more aware of their power. These typically include social media, TV, video games, apps, or even certain social conversations. I’m not suggesting these types of stimuli are all bad all of the time. There are healthy ways to incorporate them for the sake of leisure, recharging or relationship building. But Time Vampires all involve a slippery slope. Before you know it, you’ve used up one or two hours of your time, when all you intended was 15 or 30 minutes.
- Look at What’s Most Important: Now that you’ve isolated the behaviors you’d like to change, it’s a good idea to take a step back and look at what’s most important to you. I contend that you can’t spend time on everything, at least not right now. As life shifts, you may have the opportunity to shift attention to other aspects. But, right now: what are the 3 most important areas of your life on which to focus? You’ll have to consider both the practical and the idealistic. Are they work, family/friends and health? Or maybe family/friends, school and spirituality? Or perhaps career growth, leisure/recreation and significant other.
- Specify Your Time Management Goal: Change can’t happen until you clarify an end goal. It’s not enough to have identified the problem. You need to come up with a specific goal. Examples could include: “Minimize social media distractions during work, enabling me to leave on time and add exercise into my schedule,” or “Lessen procrastination behaviors so that I can finish tasks more efficiently and create time to spend with my significant other,” or “Improve my ability to see the bigger picture and put attention on multiple projects during my limited time, thus enabling me to go to bed earlier.”
- Practice New Awareness: Once you have a clearer understanding of your time management challenges and goals, you can start practicing new awareness. Curbing problem behaviors is a process, one that requires you to make small tweaks over time in order to develop new habits. This will require a new sense of consciousness – a more intentional approach to observing yourself. One way to do this is to start logging (in a journal, or the notes section of your phone or computer) when you get off track on time management. Make note of what happened, as well as the surrounding situation or context. After a week or two of doing this, you’ll be better at observing yourself without having to write anything down.
- Take an Experimental Approach: There’s no single way to fix a time management issue. No magic pill. You’ll need to take an experimental approach to testing out various options, while noticing their relative impact on improving your situation. Because you’ve taken the time to specify your challenges and goals, you should be able to come up with at least two to three things you can do differently in order to shift your behavior in a different direction.
For example, if your challenge has to do with distractions, you could try-out different patterns to approaching your work, such as working for 50 minutes and breaking for 10. Or, if you have an issue with getting laser focused and losing track of time, experiment with planning your time at the beginning of each week or each day, setting aside specific time slots for your top-priority activities. After doing this, you may learn that you have to plan even more time for certain tasks and less time for others.
- Incorporate and Commit: With every new behavior you try, you’ll gain new learning. What worked? What didn’t? Once you start to see what helps you be more effective, you can then work on incorporating that behavior over time. Just like adopting any new habit, this will take commitment. Deep, long-term change can occur when people make a series of small, intentional choices over time. This is not only true for improving your time management, but also for your health and relationships. You’ll need to be persistent and accountable.
Here are a few suggestions for bolstering your accountability:
- Voice your time-management goal to others: Once you’ve shared it, it’ll be more real.
- Recruit an accountability partner: Identify someone who can check-in on you at regular intervals and see how your progress is going. Ideally, they’d have something to work towards as well, so the accountability can go both ways.
- Incorporate visual or audible reminders into your daily life: Display your time management goal on your computer screen, or set your smartphone to remind you of a specific behavior.