How to make managing time easy
Last updated on: December 21, 2021
The more time management tips there are, the more we will think that’s all there is to it – quick, easy, actionable tips. All it takes is reading some guides, self-help books and blogs until we find a few that resonate with us, and we’re set! Unfortunately, the reality is less attractive. Time management takes dedication, effort, consistency and sacrifices. It’s tough work, uprooting bad habits. But to cultivate good skills, you’ll need to dig deep into methods beyond learning how to make to-dos and perfect schedules.
Today, we’re taking a look into how time management is more about the way you think and feel about time, and how to use those ideas for specific steps towards improvement.
The uncomfortable truth about time management
You can never really manage your time. We can’t make more time, save it, or steal it from other aspects of our lives. It’s not a tool, nor a resource that can be wrangled into obedience like a wild horse. Instead, we switch our priorities and schedules, and make tough decisions.
The only thing you can really do is change how you perceive it, and learn how to manage yourself and your energy and let time be just that. Time management should be more like learning how to handle a river by getting to know your boat, the right rowing techniques, how to properly balance yourself and mentally prepare for the occasional rapids ahead; rather than thinking how you can slow down the river or alter its course.
With what limited time we all have, it’s important to learn how to focus on tasks that matter in the long term (in career and life), and how to invest your energy wisely.
Why time management may be difficult for you
Having trouble sticking to your to-do list? Do you reach the end of the day, and feel like you just could’ve done more? Have you tried every single app under the sun, and none of them last longer than a week on your phone before you give up?
The good news is – there’s nothing wrong with you. The bad news is – it’ll be a while until you get better at this. And I’m about to tell you why.
How good are you at cooking?
I’ve often wondered why my partner was too intimidated to cook by the cookbook. All he has to do is follow the recipe: he has the measures written out, the tools, the ingredients… there’s nothing to it. But one time, as he was preparing a meal, he asked me how the meat was supposed to look when it was “just right”, so he could chuck in the rest of the ingredients.
And then it hit me.
No amount of details in the recipe or specific tools can give him the confidence, when it comes with the base skills and knowledge. To me, after years of experience, cooking comes easily: I know which tools I need without a second thought, I can eyeball the cooking time, and measurements based on a hunch. To cook a successful meal, you need to know how the dish is supposed to look during the process, how it should smell, how long each ingredient needs to cook and when to be put in.
Without these skills and prior experience, my partner was stranded. Despite having the cookbook and the tools (in our case, all those productivity articles and videos).
The same idea can be applied to anything: painting, woodworking, programming, video editing, you name it. Each of these activities requires some underlying skill sets. Without them, no amount of fancy tools or methods can help you improve.
Maybe that is why every app store Pomodoro timer, browser-based to-do list, or bullet journal fail to help you keep track of your time, and stay productive.
Let’s take a look at what skills you need to develop first, before you look for tools and time management guides to help you with the specifics.
Time management needs three key qualities to work
Mastering your management skills requires a shift in understanding time. To achieve this, Erich C. Dierdorff advises working on three things:
- Awareness of time – realizing it is limited, keeping a realistic outlook on time;
- Arrangement – handling your schedule, planning, and prioritizing to make the best use of time;
- Adaptation – observing and analyzing your use of time for further improvement, and learning how to adjust to the changes in your schedule.
In one research, Dierdorff observed 1200 participants, and how they managed these three skills in a 30-minute test. He noticed that arranging came much easier to them than awareness and adaptation – meaning, people scored better at organizing their schedules, but managing shifts, cancellations, overextensions and any deadline disruption was handled worse.
From this, Dierdorff concluded that awareness and adaptation are much more difficult to master. It could explain why we always struggle with procrastination and maintaining healthy habits, even when our plans seem foolproof.
Just like his participants, you too might be better in only one or two thirds of those skills. Let’s see how each of them can be practiced until you reach a healthy balance between the three.
How to improve awareness of time
Your overall attitude towards time needs to change, because even with the best organization you can feel stressed over wanting to be more productive, or fearing you will slip up.
Practice awareness by playing
Dierdorff’s research had the participants perform in a microsimulation that lasted half an hour. In much the same way, you can test your time management, organization, and prioritization without any fancy tools, at home.
There are plenty of video games that rely on time and resource management, with as much or as little story and frills as you want. These games provide microsimulations of their own, where you need to juggle resources, time, tasks, employees, and random events that pop up. The goals are usually to either earn enough money to keep your shop/restaurant/business afloat, or to get the best possible results for each day and grow successful.
Time management games are the simplest, yet the most fun way to get a glimpse of how you manage time, and what aspects of work you prioritize. Just make sure to actually pay attention to your play style, otherwise you’ll just be playing video games, instead of treating it as a learning opportunity.
Change your attitude towards time with a mantra
In looking for successful entrepreneurs’ perceptions of time in my research, I ran into one by Rosie Guagliardo, of Inner Brilliance Coaching. She said that:
“Knowing your priorities and aligning activities with them is important, but you can still feel stressed. Since you can’t change the time you have, change how you feel about it. If you’re thinking you don’t have enough time, it’ll feel stressful. Tell yourself “I have all the time in the world.” You’ll feel calmer, more present and open to new and different solutions, allowing you to get more done.”
It goes right to the core of changing your awareness of what time is, and how you should feel about it. There are thousands of sayings about time, and one of them is surely to resonate with you. It’s such a small action, but a significant one – your choice of quote will say a lot about your biggest insecurities, concerns, or hopes about time.
Keeping it in mind or repeating it every day is bound to burn the mantra into your consciousness.
Get external feedback
It goes without saying that we tend to be too subjective about our own work. Our self-assessment will always be flawed in some way, whether we judge ourselves too harshly or too softly.
Depending on your employment, if you’re a student, a freelancer, or a manager, your sources of feedback will differ. Usually they’re:
- Coworkers (peers whose opinion you value);
- Managers or team leads;
- Friends and family;
You need to share your ideas and goals with the person giving the feedback, and let them know what kind of comments you need. There’s also the option of creating a template of sorts that you can give them. The more information you share, the easier it will be for the person to give accurate, actionable observations.
Spend some time introspecting
One thing that I did and find personally the most beneficial was to create a visual representation of my time awareness. That way, I was able to identify what was wrong with my perceptions, and what blocked me from becoming more productive. Here’s how I did it:
- I identified the biggest problem first
The eyesore was my procrastination – I wanted to get the work done, but couldn’t physically bring myself to it.
- I wrote down the behavior patterns
Usually, it was looking for the appropriate music to focus to (and then getting distracted), remembering I needed to call a friend for something important, a specific chore, etc.
- I noted the feelings that came with the behavior
As with all procrastination, the feeling was usually of guilt, fear of delay, and sense of incompetence. Even though I was aware of them, I still jotted them down next to each behavior. That way I saw what caused me most distress, and would be able to think of a possible solution.
- I kept asking “why”
Along with the feelings, I also tried to answer the question “why”. Why did I choose to waste time picking out music? Why did I feel the need to call that friend now? Why couldn’t I do the chore in half an hour, after I’m done with the task?
- I analyzed the grid
This activity works similar to journaling – you put the struggles onto paper and explore them in excruciating detail, because the visualization gives you a different perspective of the issue. Ultimately, I realized that all my distractions were avoidance of writing a subpar article, and fear of not living up to expectations. Because, if I don’t start writing an article, it can’t be bad, right?
It was something I thought was the root cause, but was never sure of it. Getting this kind of closure turned out to be really good for my mental health as well. The activity forced me to examine everything I did or feel, and in a way, I acted as my own productivity coach.
How to improve arrangement
Improving arrangement means learning how to plan and prioritize better, so that the foundations your time management is on stay solid and unwavering. After all, this is the most concrete way you can take back control of your time.
Try reinventing the to-do list
Peter Bregman of Bregman Partners said how:
“For many of us, our to-do list has become more of a guilt list: an inventory of everything we want to do, plan to do, really should do, but never get to. It’s more like an I’m-never-going-to-get-to-it list.”
And he makes a very good point. A lot of the time, we write a list of tasks that need to be done, without taking into account how much time or energy they will take. And by workday’s end, we’re stuck regretting not having done everything we put on our platter.
In the same article for Harvard Business Review, Bregman proposes that instead of a vague to-do list, we adopt fewer bulleted points, but with stricter work times. This is best achieved by using timeboxes, where you determine a fixed amount of time for each task, with one caveat: you begin and end the task at the exact minute you set.
An example of timeboxing in Clockify
When your work times are flexible, you risk slipping into a 12-hour workday. Having a strict framework will help with accomplishing more throughout the day, and finishing in time.
How to improve adaptation
As mentioned before, adaptation is the subtle art of being flexible enough to salvage your schedule from anything life may throw at it. Emergencies, unexpected meetings, forgotten appointments, breached deadlines… you name it.
However, instead of learning how to manage stress or learn to plan better (which we did), how about we show what improving adaptability really means?
Recognize you’ll have bad days, but don’t overindulge in them
Quite often, I’ve run into various YouTube videos and articles writing about allowing yourself to experience bad days, when time management simply isn’t going your way. And while that is true, I’ve often felt guilty if two or three such days line up. What’s more, these resources seem a little scripted, in a way, and I can’t really relate to the author.
That was, until I ran into a video by Matt D’Avella, whose productivity YouTube channel counts millions of viewers. His videos focus on productivity, self-improvement, and avoiding burnout/hustle culture. For a video titled How I stay productive all day, surprisingly, he didn’t. Seeing the montage of him going through the day struggling with some tasks, failing in some places and succeeding in others, to ultimately end it putting off some bigger ones was – refreshing.
Seeing D’Avella face the unpleasantness of not finishing some important tasks, only to make peace with it, shrug it off, and hit the gym at the end of the day, made it oddly comforting. It showed me that we need an equal amount of understanding, letting go, and the trust that we can finish those tasks next time, to actually be adaptable.
Because the more you fret over your schedule, the time you wasted, or what didn’t work, the more rigid you become.
Don’t plan each day in detail
Forbes had an article on time management myths not too long ago, and one interviewee’s piece of advice stuck with me:
“”Plan your day” used to be the mantra of time management. However, if all you do is plan your day, long-term goals never get any closer. You finish the day with extra to-dos that get added to tomorrow’s list until you eventually give up on them. They can be unimportant tasks, but more often they are tasks with a longer time horizon. Include time in your week for longer-term strategic goals.”Jim Vaselopulos, Rafti Advisors, Inc.
If you focus too much on each day, you run the risk of becoming short-sighted. Whatever long term goals you had, all fall by the wayside. This opens a whole new issue of doing daily tasks without any other reason than to “make the deadline”.
Set aside one day a week where you will revise long term goals, and change or adapt your daily schedule depending on how those tasks align with them. You’ll find it’s easier to adapt to unexpected shifts. Knowing what your long term goals are will help you make more informed choices on how to adapt.
A good support system goes a long way
One of the reasons why your time management suffers is the lack of support. Some people like to have people around them working towards the same goal. Kind of like taking a language course and seeing the same people twice a week in the classroom, putting in the effort to reach the same language level.
But how does it work when it comes to time management?
We’ll take a look at some things you can do to make your surroundings more “learner-friendly”, as you try to cultivate a healthier mindset and relationship with time.
Support among your family and friends
Downloading a daily time management app, for example. There are a few to choose from in the app stores, and they consolidate every family member’s schedule with the bigger activities and obligations you have together.
Additionally, for those who have children, there are apps and exercises for teaching kids time management. It gives a unique opportunity to go back to basics yourself, and reevaluate what you know.
Support among your coworkers
If you are a part of a team, or a department, and your relationship with the coworkers/teammates is generally good, you can always turn to them for support. Simply sharing your challenges, asking for tips, or double-checking a method you want to implement will already go a long way.
To take it one step further, you can organize a small group with a common goal. Support among those who know the company and the work as well as you do is great for validation and understanding.
The habit forming and tracking app Habiticacan be used as one example where the online community serves as a great support system. The app itself has a robust forum inside it, where users can gather around shared goals and experiences and look for comments, opinions, and advice.
Similarly, forum-based websites, and discussion boards like Reddit, for example, provide numerous threads and topics for free discussion. This type of support can also be the best kind, seeing how you have a knowledge pool of hundreds – if not thousands – of people around the world. You are bound to run into some new techniques, methods, and food for thought.
r/productivity message board on reddit.com
Rely on persistence, not motivation
Last, but not least, one of the best and most commonly overlooked pieces of advice is to not rely on motivation to work, but on pure persistence.
It’s not surprising why we often push away the notion of “stubbornly starting a task even if we don’t feel like it”. It’s unpleasant, we would rather do anything else, and we have no clue if the output is going to be worth the effort. As a bonus, we’ll feel awful the whole time, right?
Well, as awkward as it can be, sometimes we need to parent ourselves, and enforce discipline. On one hand, it can become a stable drive after some time.
On the other hand, as artist and productivity coach Katy Arrington shared with us, sometimes we just need the right goal to manage our procrastination. Not to beat ourselves up over lack of discipline, but to find real, tangible goals that will pull us out of the rut when we most need it.
Getting the hang of time management is tough, grueling work. But it can be made easier if you put yourself in the right mindset, and start looking at time differently. It is a constant, not a resource you need to learn to utilize. Learning how to develop a healthy attitude towards schedules, time spent, time wasted, and what is important to you in life greatly increases your odds of sticking to good time management habits.
How do you manage your time? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.