10 ultimate steps to improve time management skills

Aleksandra Dragutinovic

Last updated on: December 31, 2021

Improving the way you organize your day and manage your time is vital for success at work. And, as you’d probably expect, the answer to improving your time management and organizational skills is to — practice the right time management skills.

These right time management skills include:

  • Setting SMART goals, i.e. goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
  • Effective planning, i.e. developing clear objectives, tasks, and resources.
  • Stress management, i.e. trying out various stress-relieving strategies and techniques, to find the one that suits you best.
  • Delegating and outsourcing tasks, i.e. finding the best practices that will help you delegate properly, all while learning when and how to politely say “No” at work.
  • Avoiding all distractions, i.e. identifying the strategies you’ll practice to weed out distractions.
  • Single-tasking, i.e. focusing all your attention on one task at a time.
  • Leveraging the power of time management tools, to develop a routine and stick to it.
  • Working with the 20% effort / 80% results principle in mind, to achieve maximum results with minimum effort.
  • Beating procrastination, i.e. identifying its causes and combining the best strategies meant to overcome it.
  • Identifying your priority tasks, i.e. finding the most important and most urgent tasks in your schedule, and working on them first.

We’ll explain how you can improve these time management skills, so read on.

But, before we dive into details, let’s first understand what time management is and why possessing the right time management skills is so important.

Time management tips - cover

What is time management?

The most common time management definition says that it is the ability to use your time effectively and productively, in relation to the workload you go through, and the time you spend on it.

You parse and organize your activities, select your priorities, and then work on your time allocation — you decide on the time you’ll spend on each activity, note that in your schedule, and stick to that schedule.

Preferably, you’ll aim to allocate the most time to your priority tasks.

But, this time distribution and optimization aren’t only about finding time for work — you’ll also want to strike a balance between work and your private life, and make time for your hobbies, friends, and family.

In addition, you’ll have to find time for regular breaks between work tasks, in order to relax, eat, sleep, stay hydrated, exercise, and, in extension, stay healthy.

Of course, all this is much easier said than done, but it’s important that you streamline your time management in order to lead a more quality life.

It’s all about progress and learning to appreciate taking one step at a time.

What are the 2 main categories of time management skills?

Time management skills are the skills that help you achieve more in less time — and they’re more varied than you’d think.

That being said, each time management skill can fit into one of the following categories, depending on its main goal.

  1. You have the primary time management skills, such as scheduling, planning, organizing, and prioritizing — they directly help you perform your work efficiently.
  2. You also have the secondary time management skills, such as eating healthy, exercising, and sleeping enough — they help keep your mind sharp and energy levels high, to help you perform better with your primary time management skills.

Why are time management skills important?

Time management skills matter because they are a direct reflection of your habits and the type of your personality.

These skills improve the quality of your life in many ways, both in regard to your professional and personal life.

Some of the goals of mastering the right time management skills are:

  • Achieving a perfect work-life balance
  • Reducing your stress levels
  • Improving the state of mental health
  • Accomplishing academic and career-related achievements

Proper organization of your priorities implies an organic development of healthy habits, and further results in you being happier.

It’s mostly because being in charge of your schedule and the order of your activities brings structure to your life — it’s as simple as that.

After all, the goal of learning is later taking action, right?

💡 Want to learn more about the importance of time management? Check out our blog post about it: The importance of time management

How do you get better at time management via the right time management skills?

To get better at time management, you’ll first need to track time you spend on tasks — to get an accurate reading on how you’re spending time now.

Perhaps you’ll find that you’re spending too much time on frivolous activities (such as 2 hours answering unimportant emails), instead of focusing on tasks that are important and urgent.

You’ll also need to learn, acquire, and expand on certain time management skills.

There are several primary and secondary time management skills everyone should possess — and here are the 10 best ones, that will certainly help you manage your time in a better way:

Set clear goals

Setting effective goals may be the most important time management skill — goals are your drive, they push you to tackle work in the first place.

Make sure to always set important goals, ones that are likely to motivate you, either intrinsically or extrinsically.

Otherwise, you’ll lose your drive, and likely give up as soon as you hit a bump on the road. You probably won’t finish your work, and you’ll also waste valuable time that you’ve spent on pursuing the said goal.

How to set goals

To set effective goals, you’ll first need to make sure they’re SMART goals – ones that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

  • Specific goals are clear and precisely defined, so you know what you need to do to reach them.
  • Measurable goals let you measure your success and decide whether you’ve reached it.
  • Attainable goals are possible to reach, so they motivate you to push forward, but they’re also at least a little challenging, to motivate you to do your best.
  • Relevant goals have an impact on your life and career, so they actually make a difference when you achieve them.
  • Time-bound goals have a deadline that tells you how to organize your work, and they give you a sense of urgency that helps you focus on your work.

In addition to setting SMART goals you can also make a goal setting worksheet, to always have your goals in mind:

  • Write down what you want to achieve — phrase it with “I will achieve this”, and not “I would like to achieve this”, as such phrasing will give you a sense of urgency and certainty that you’ll be successful.
  • Plan the actions that will lead you to goals — compile a weekly to-do list, define your priority tasks, and write down your objectives.
  • Identify why you want to achieve certain goals, and how — write down your goals, your plan for that goal, and why you are pursuing them in the first place.

💡 Interested in goal setting for students? Check out our all-inclusive article on student productivity: Student guide to productivity

Plan ahead

Once you’ve set your goals, the next time management skill you’ll need to work on is effective planning — you’ll need to learn how to make an action plan that leads you directly to your goals, and helps you avoid stress and wasted time.

Planning ahead will help you establish a routine and get things done.

How to plan ahead

When planning, it’s easy to get sidetracked — there are several Barriers of Effective Planning you need to overcome:

  • You don’t know what you want — when you don’t know your destination, there’s no possible way you’ll know how to get there. Work on defining your goals first and the steps you need to add to your plan will become clearer.
  • You haven’t analyzed the situation properly — if you don’t know where you stand at the moment in relation to your goal, you’ll hardly know what you need to do to proceed. Analyze your situation first, and then decide what steps will lead you to your goals, and need to be included in your plan.
  • Too many distractions — you try to do too many things at once, and you perform subpar on most of them. Give yourself space to focus on your priorities, and discard anything that isn’t important or urgent.
  • Lack of creative thinking — each problem has a solution, and each impossible schedule has a creative interpretation. Think about the best and fastest ways to reach your goals, and write them down as your priorities.

Apart from the listed barriers you need to overcome, there are several guidelines for effective decision making, as well as 5 steps in the planning process you can follow:

  • Develop objectives — these are your ultimate goals
  • Define the tasks that will help you meet those objectives — these are the steps you need to include in your plan to reach said goal
  • Determine the resources you need in order to reach your objectives — these are the skills, knowledge, and expertise you need to successfully handle these steps
  • Create a timeline — this is your way of deciding when you’ll tackle certain steps in your plan
  • Determine a tracking method — this is what determines whether you’ve reached your goal

Learn to manage your stress

About 77% of people in the US experience physical symptoms caused by stress, and about 73% experience psychological symptoms.

It’s just that, when you’re physically and psychologically unwell, you’re probably lucky if you manage to keep up, let alone do more in less time.

So, stress management in the workplace is one of those secondary time management skills that help you perform better at your primary time management skills, and, in extension, at work.

Benefits of stress management include the reduction of many risks, such as the chance of:

  • sleep problems
  • physical problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and stomach problems
  • frequent migraines and headaches
  • mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression

Once you decrease the chance of these problems through stress management, you’ll clear the path to better productivity and time management.

How to manage stress

To learn how to manage stress at work, you’ll need to learn how to deal with and relieve stress and anxiety as a whole.

Luckily, there are plenty of fun stress-relieving activities you can try from time to time:

  • Laughing, even if it’s a forced laugh. Studies show that laughter reduces the levels of stress hormones in your body, such as epinephrine and cortisol.
  • Meditating, for at least 10 minutes. Back in 1968, one Harvard study showed that meditation helps you relax and decrease stress.
  • Eating some dark chocolate. This healthy sweet is a superfood that reduces the level of glucocorticoid, a stress-related hormone in your body.
  • Listening to music. Your favorite music can help you feel less stressed, but also help you increase productivity. Moreover, the latest productivity statistics show that 71% of people feel more productive when they listen to music while working.
  • Dancing to music. Studies show that dancing reduces anxiety even more than classic exercise and that it also increases endorphins — brain chemicals that increase your pain tolerance, satisfaction, and euphoria.

Once you’ve lowered your stress levels, you’ll be more likely to carry out your work faster, and in a quality way.

Delegate and outsource tasks

As the business magnate Andrew Carnegie once said, “The secret to success lies not in doing your own work, but in recognizing the right person to do it.”

Several reasons show the advantages of delegation and outsourcing, in relation to your time management efforts:

  • You cannot accomplish everything on your own
  • Perhaps someone knows a better way to solve a problem you’ve been struggling with
  • Sharing responsibilities increases trust among colleagues
  • Delegation and outsourcing will help you grow as a leader and assertive professional

So, the importance of delegation in management is simple — once you share the load and delegate less important and urgent tasks to other people, you’ll have more time to focus on tasks that are really urgent and important for your goals.

For this reason, to avoid feeling bad or guilty about delegating tasks, you ought to practice saying “No”, politely yet effectively.

How to delegate and outsource tasks

To achieve effective delegation and learn how to delegate work to employees, colleagues, or even friends and family, you’ll need to follow certain principles of delegation.

In gist, the time management technique that focuses on delegating tasks in this manner is called ”Who’s got the monkey”, and follows these short rules, where “monkeys” represent delegated tasks.

So, you’ll need to do the following steps.

Step #1: Decide what you’re delegating

First, write down your tasks on a to-do list.

You’ll probably notice that some of the tasks you’ve listed are urgent, but not all that important in relation to your goals.

These are the tasks that need to be tackled as soon as possible, but seeing as they’re not of crucial importance, you don’t need to be the one to do them — so, delegate them.

Step #2: Choose the right person to delegate the task to

Decide what skills are needed to finish the task in the best possible way, and delegate the task to the person who possesses the strongest such skills.

If possible, always delegate front-end development to front-end developers, user interface design to UI designers, etc.

This doesn’t just apply to hard skills — if you need someone to deliver a company presentation at an industry event (but don’t have an official spokesperson), pick someone communicative, creative, and resourceful.

When you pick the right person to handle a task, you can count on optimal results.

Step #3: Make sure the delegatee knows the expected results

If you want to achieve the best possible results with a delegated task, you’ll need to explain to the delegate exactly what you want to achieve.

Provide clear instructions, recommend the best way the task should be handled, or provide advice on the matter.

Unless you do, you may not be completely satisfied with the result.

Step #4: Regularly check on task progress

The question of how to monitor delegated tasks is the last you need to answer. The best practice is to provide occasional follow-up on the task, to make sure everything is going as planned.

But, make sure you don’t succumb to micromanagement — after all, you’ve delegated the task, and you should let the delegatee be accountable and in charge of task execution.

💡 Since we’ve started this segment with a quote, here’s another blog post dedicated to both relevant and interesting time management quotes: Best quotes about time.

Focus by limiting your distractions

Avoiding distractions and focusing are often defined as two separate time management skills — but, if you avoid distractions, this automatically means you’re focusing on a task at hand.

In a traditional working environment, distractions are many — the most common one being chatty colleagues in your office. Even your mobile phone can be a distraction, sitting on your work desk, tantalizing you to go through your Instagram feed every 2 minutes.

On top of that, things have been changing at a fast pace lately. So, in more recent news, the coronavirus outbreak has significantly impacted regular conditions and the working environment.

As the adoption rates of remote work have been skyrocketing, many people struggled to focus while working from home.

That brought a whole new set of challenges and expanded the list of distractions. From your household members, various chores, loud music coming from the apartment next to yours, to the sound of your neighbor mowing the lawn. We get it, the change was abrupt and it’s all making it more difficult to focus. This goes especially for freelancers, given the fact that they are not supervised in a conventional manner. Moreover, for the vast majority of them, their home is their permanent working environment.

However, there are some steps you can take to deal with such distractions.

We’ll provide several examples below, to help you brainstorm and get your creative juices flowing.

  • Set clear boundaries with the household members and neighbors — ask them for cooperation
  • Cultivate a productive workspace and build your own home office (preferably behind a closed door)
  • Avoid working in your bedroom or a common space

In gist, distractions may be various, but they all have one thing in common — they hinder your work performance and slow you down on tasks.

How to focus by limiting your distractions

If you’re wondering how to improve work performance, the answer is — aim to focus better.

If you’re wondering how to focus your mind and how to stay focused at work, the answer is — avoid distractions.

Considering that “avoiding distractions” seems to be the key, you should focus on it — so, it may be best if you make a sheet for avoiding distraction:

  • Write down your distractions
  • Next to each distraction, write down a sure proof way that will help you conquer said distraction
  • Write down a “To Don’t” list — these are actions you’re considering to undertake, but shouldn’t, because they currently serve as distractions that’ll take you away from your priorities

You can add more distractions, solutions, and items to your sheet for avoiding distraction as you see fit — it’s only important that you follow through with it.

Once you’ve eliminated distractions, it will be much easier for you to focus — if you’re looking to perfect your focus, you can also try a stay-focused app.

💡 Want to improve your focus and avoid distraction when you’re a Mac user? Here’s a list of some great Mac productivity apps worth checking out: Top 20 best productivity apps for Mac

Avoid multitasking at all costs

Although the multitasking myth is prevalent and suggests an attractive prospect — that you can perform more tasks in the time it’d usually take you to perform one task — science makes its case clear on multitasking — simply don’t do it.

According to multitasking research, there are plenty of negative effects of multitasking that show this practice doesn’t work the way you’d expect:

  • It lowers your IQ — a study at the University of London claims that multitasking may make your IQ drop by 15 points, reducing you to the cognitive capacities of an 8-year-old child.
  • It lowers your EQ — multitasking reportedly damages a key EQ brain region, lowering your Social Awareness and Self-Awareness in the process.
  • It damages your brain — a study at the University of Sussex shows that multitasking may diminish your brain density and may damage your brain.
  • It makes you lose time — with single-tasking, you gain momentum as time goes on, and immerse yourself in the task, ultimately reaching a state of deep work.

With multitasking, you’re losing time when shifting your focus to one task at another — a study at the University of California shows that this “task switching cost” time may build up to 25 minutes.

In the end, it’d take you more time to finish 3 tasks “at the same time”, than it’d take you to finish 3 tasks you’re working on in consecutive order.

It makes you less productive overall — a study at Stanford University shows that you are simply less productive when multitasking than when working on one task at a time.

Ultimately, multitasking statistics show that only 2% of people are capable of successful multitasking.

Considering that the answer to the question “Can your brain multitask?” is a firm “No”, your only option is to practice effective single-tasking.

How to avoid multitasking

Since single-tasking is the new multitasking, here’s how you can best achieve it:

  • Get rid of distractions — put your headphones on, to block outside noise and chatty colleagues. Set your phone to silent, or simply leave it in another room where you won’t be able to reach it every 5 minutes. Set your devices to the “Do Not Disturb” mode (there’s Focus Assist for Windows, a Do Not Disturb toggle switch on Apple devices, etc.)
  • Designate distraction-free focus time, and stick to it — it’s much easier to stay focused on one task, when you know how long you have to remain focused, so time block your schedule. Science shows you should block 90 minutes for a task in one sitting at the most, but one popular time management technique proposes you work in 25-minute cycles you’ll parse with 5-minute breaks.
  • Take regular breaks and parse your task into meaningful wholes — single-tasking doesn’t have to be a boring and monotonous race to finish one giant task in one sitting, no matter how long it takes. You can parse your task into smaller sub-tasks, and you should always leave time in your schedule for breaks. As long as you work on one sub-task until you’re finished with it you’ll still be single-tasking, and breaks will help you recharge.

Use time management tools to establish routines

To work smarter, not harder in the Information age means to leverage the power of the available time management tools.

The way we allocate our time creates certain habits. A collection of an abundance of habits evolves into a routine over time.

After all, a routine is what defines each person, per their personality type. It’s only natural that different types operate in a distinct manner, meaning that we ought to embrace what we are currently, in order to improve.

So, how can various time management apps and other tools help you in developing time management skills?

The answer is — by pointing out the time management techniques that will work for you.

First of all, tools such as time tracking software and time management calculators serve one general purpose — they help you understand your current distribution of time, in relation to your activities.

Improvement and progress can start only after you get that insight.

Now, you may be wondering why that would be true. If that’s the case, we figure you’ve never tried using time management tools. At least not regularly, or long enough to develop a habit.

So, how can one use these tools, which categories exist, and why are they beneficial?

How to use time management tools to establish routines

For starters, time management tools boost your performance simply by raising awareness of how you allocate the very limited resource of time. Consequently, you will be able to pinpoint the time wasters. Perhaps you will find room for improvement in terms of a better sequence of tasks — by batching similar tasks together to save time, for example.

Once you have a deep understanding of that, tools will become beneficial in a more advanced way.

So, the next level is when you start using the tools to plan more efficiently and create a schedule. When you are able to plan ahead, with a little help from tools, time management will become easy.

There are several types of time management tools, depending on the time management skill in focus.

Said focus is usually on one of the four categories, as listed below:

  • Time tracking
  • Productivity boosters
  • Project and task management (in relation to time)
  • Tracking of habits

Here’s an actual example of usage — time management calculators, which would fit into the last category we’ve listed. They are a great solution to help you create time frames for your regular activities.

The usage of time management calculators can be proactive and retroactive.

The latter requires that you make a time entry of each individual activity, in order to be able to make time estimates in the future.

After a couple of weeks of using them, you can practice scheduling your activities and tasks in advance.

Let’s take a look at an example of weekly activities that are scheduled ahead.

weekly schedule

As you can see, the total of your time spent on an activity is conveniently translated to a percentage, to help you see the big picture. You can enter all the necessary activities (such as work, sleeping, chores, socialization, etc.) and see how much time you have left for each day.

Follow the Pareto principle

According to Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto and his Pareto principle, 80% of all problems result from 20% of all the causes.

More precisely, the Pareto definition states that investing 20% of your efforts in the right place will help you achieve as much as 80% of your desired results.

Here are some Pareto Principle examples, to help illustrate how it all works:

  • 80% of problems in your program come from 20% of all the currently reported bugs
  • 80% of all your sales come from 20% of your products
  • 80% of all your customers only use 20% of your app’s features

In essence, you do less, but achieve more, which saves you time.

Moreover, it brings a boost to your confidence — you’re not trying too hard, but you’re still successful.

How to follow the Pareto principle

The use of the Pareto principle in time management is simple — you can work on select tasks first to do less but achieve a greater, more noticeable effect.

If we take the above-mentioned examples into account and make them more concrete, here’s how the Pareto principle works:

  • 80% of problems in your program come from 20% of all the currently reported bugs. If you have 10 bugs and solve the right 2, you’ll up your program’s performance by 80%.
  • 80% of all your sales come from 20% of your products. It’s best that you don’t expand your manufacture to 20 different products, but instead focus on perfecting the 4 that sell the best.
  • 80% of all your customers only use 20% of your app’s features. Similar to the example above, you should focus first on streamlining your most popular features, and then consider expanding your functionalities.

💡 Interested to learn some less common time management tips such as this one? Check out our extensive list of various actionable time management tips: 58 time management tips

Prioritize wisely

When you have several tasks to do, but don’t know where to start, there’s only one thing you can do to make your time pay off the most — single out your priorities and make plans.

Planning and prioritizing involve deciding whether a task is important or not, and urgent or not. Naturally, you’ll work on important and urgent tasks first, and work your way down from there.

How to prioritize wisely

There are 2 main ways for you can handle your prioritization — The Eisenhower Matrix and the “Eat that Frog” time management technique:

Prioritize via the Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is a prioritization technique that works on the following principle.

First, you divide your tasks into 4 quadrants

  • The 1st quadrant (important and urgent tasks) — these tasks are your top priority and should be handled immediately.
  • The 2nd quadrant ( important, but not urgent tasks) — these tasks are important enough to be tackled next, but not urgent enough so that you make them your top priority.
  • The 3rd quadrant ( urgent, but not important tasks)—they should be handled immediately, but as they’re not important, you should delegate them to colleagues.
  • The 4th quadrant (neither important nor urgent tasks) — you should eliminate them from your to-do list.
Eisenhower Matrix

Prioritize by “Eating that frog”

Eat that frog is a prioritization technique that works on the following principle.

You mark your tasks with letters of the alphabet that indicate their importance and urgency:

  • “A” — your “frog”, or your most important task, the one you should tackle first
  • “B” — second most important task, less important than “A”, but still vital
  • “C” — a task you can do, but it’s not crucial if you don’t have the time
  • “D” — urgent, but less important tasks, ones you should delegate
  • “E” — tasks you can eliminate, as they’re neither important nor urgent

As you can see, both listed prioritization techniques follow the same principle — you prioritize based on the level of urgency and importance, and single out your priorities.

Stop procrastinating

According to the procrastination definition, procrastination is delaying or postponing something — this can be anything from postponing work on your new project or postponing a visit to your grandmother.

By postponing something, you’re essentially losing time through this delay, so it’s important to deal with procrastination — unless you do, you may even suffer chronic procrastination.

There are several answers to the question of why do we procrastinate:

  • thinking you have enough time — your deadline is 2 long months away, so you binge-watch Netflix shows or go out every night until you realize that time really does fly, and you now have 1 week to write, proofread, and edit a 20,000-word essay.
  • avoiding unpleasant tasks — you don’t want to think about difficult tasks or challenging problems, let alone try to tackle them. So you rearrange your desktop files and folders by color and alphabetical order instead.
  • feeling overwhelmed with work — you have so much to do in so little time that you feel unable to start in the first place. So, you procrastinate.
  • fear of failing — if you don’t do something, you can’t fail at it.
  • fear of the unknown — if you don’t venture into the unknown, you’ll never be unpleasantly surprised.

How to avoid procrastination

Overcoming procrastination seems daunting, but there are several tactics you can try to help you focus and stick to your work:

  • To avoid thinking you have enough time, make your distant deadline seem more immediate — parse the said task to smaller sub-tasks with closer deadlines, and work accordingly.
  • To encourage yourself to tackle unpleasant tasks, set a short time period during which you’ll focus on these tasks, and simply power through.
  • To ease the feeling of overwhelmedness, parse your workload to more days — working fewer hours during more days will make you feel like you have less to do. So, aim to work at least 2-4 hours on weekends as well.
  • To beat the fear of failing, you should redefine your goals, and lower your expectations – instead of setting “succeed at any cost” as your goal, set “learn something new” as your new goal.
  • To ease the fear of the unknown, you can visualize your obstacles, and make a list of possible problems you may encounter — this way, you’ll make your work process less unknown, and thus less daunting.

💡 Want to learn more about procrastination, including more reasons why we procrastinate, and how to fix it?

Check out our all-inclusive post on the subject, complete with a list of famous procrastinators and how they deal with procrastination (George RR Martin and his Winds of Winter conundrum included: Procrastination: why we love it and how to fix it

Let’s wrap it up

In the end, once you learn how to cultivate and improve these time management skills, you’ll also learn how to truly accomplish more of your most important, most fruitful tasks, in less time and with more focus.

Bear in mind that self-discipline basically functions as a muscle — the more you exercise, the stronger it will get. As we’ve explained above, tracking your time is the first step of this journey.

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✉️ And what’s your take on improving time management skills? Do you agree it’s all about the “practice ‘till perfection” attitude? Feel free to give us your two cents on the topic — share a piece of advice or a strategy we didn’t include that you found helpful. Just write to us at blogfeedback@clockify.me and you may end up featured in one of our future articles.

Aleksandra Dragutinovic is a time management and productivity writer who has appreciated and used tools to improve her productivity since she was a child. She couldn't imagine her life without a planner (or several) and is always on the lookout for the latest time management and productivity techniques and strategies to test (and write about).


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