We tend to wear “busy” as a badge of honor these days. You run into an old friend and she asks, “How are things going?” and for many people, the default response is “Busy!”
There just never seem to be enough hours in the day for all the things you’d like to accomplish. You’re trying to get ahead but you’re lucky if you can just keep from drowning.
The truth? We all have the same 24 hours each day. You aren’t going to find a magical well of more time. We all know this. So instead of wishing for more hours, let’s start making changes to how we spend the limited hours we do have.
Here are some time management tips.
1. Know your goals and focus areas so you don’t waste time on non-essentials. – Things are going to pop up all day every day. You’ll be cruising right along, getting stuff done when you suddenly think of something you need to research or do. Or you’ll come across an email about an opportunity or idea that looks really interesting. Refuse to give in to every idea and distraction that comes into view. When you know what you’re aiming for and you have a plan to get there you will find it much easier to focus on your plan and let everything else fall away (or at least be pushed aside for the time being).
2. Track and audit your time for a week to detect waste. – When you want to get your finances in order the first thing that any good personal finance expert will tell you to do is to track your spending for a month to give you an idea of where you are starting from and where you have room for improvement. This works the same way with your time. Track each minute of your day for a week and then review. I bet you’ll realize you’re wasting a whole lot more time than you thought, or at the very least you’ll see that you could be spending pockets of time more wisely to align more closely with your goals.
You can use a simple spreadsheet you create or download Laura Vanderkamp’s time tracking guide to get started.
3. Put a time limit on tasks. Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This is why, in college, when you gave yourself two weeks to write a paper it could take the full two weeks, but if you procrastinated and only had a couple of hours, you could still somehow get your paper written. If you limit the amount of time you give yourself to complete a task you will be able to complete a lot more tasks. I can leisurely fold a load of laundry in an hour while I watch a TV show or I can focus and get it done in 5 minutes. If you want to do more, give yourself a time limit and force yourself to stick with it.
4. Know your purpose or desired outcome for each meeting, task, or activity. We’ve all been in meetings that could have just been an email, or worse, the meeting that really just felt like a social hour. There are also likely dozens of times each day that you find your phone in your hand casually scrolling along and you have no idea how you got there or why you picked up your phone in the first place. Let’s practice intentionality and do things on purpose. If you don’t have a good reason for doing something, stop doing it!
5. Create a schedule or plan. People without a schedule or a plan will often find themselves floating about their day going from one task to another but never actually completing anything. You’ll focus on that email that came in, then a notification on your phone grabs your attention, then someone asks you a question that you immediately start researching, then you’ll notice the plants that need to be watered, and on and on your day will go. If you have a schedule for your day you’ll know what needs to be completed and when, so you can focus on the important and schedule the rest for later (see next tip).
6. Keep a “future” list. There will always be things that come up, ideas that jump into your mind, or tasks you remember that need to get done. Instead of letting all these little things derail your productivity and focus always keep a running list near you. I keep mine in my bullet journal. This list includes tasks, ideas, things to research, etc. Later, when you have the time you can work on completing those tasks or scheduling a time to get them done.
7. Do the most important and demanding things first. Energy and willpower are finite resources that gradually diminish throughout your day. And yet, so often we start our day with lots of insignificant tasks. We put out little fires, respond to all the emails, and happily cross things off our to-do list…except, the things that actually matter. We save those for later because they’ll take longer or we tell ourselves getting everything else done first will help us focus or some other lame excuse. The real deal is, it is always best to do your most important and most demanding tasks when your willpower and energy are going the strongest. Just get it done.
8. Get rid of distractions. Don’t try to be a superhero when it comes to focus. If your phone is always dinging at you, it will be impossible to get anything done. When you’re trying to get some work done in the midst of a busy office with people stopping by to chat constantly you’re going to be extremely unproductive. Figure out what distracts you the most and find a way to get rid of it. Put your phone on airplane mode or at least in another room. Find a quieter space to work. And focus on the task at hand.
9. One thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a lie. We used to think that multi-tasking was some great thing. People added it to their resumes and bragged about their skills. But the truth has been revealed. There is no such thing as multi-tasking, instead, you task switch. Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. If your brain is constantly switching from one thing to another all day long it will take you an eternity to get anything done and you’ll be far more exhausted at the end of the day than you need to be. Pick a thing and only do that one thing.
10. Do what you say you will do (to yourself). If I tell my boss I will do something I’m pretty likely to do it. Same goes for my husband and my kids. You know who I’m not good at being honest with? Myself. I have a hunch that this might be true for you too. You’ll tell yourself that you will go to the gym after work tonight but after work you go home and sink into the couch instead, telling yourself you’ll do the gym thing after dinner. Let’s stop lying to ourselves and learn how to take our own selves seriously. Tell the truth and keep your word, especially to yourself. If you say you’ll do it, then do it.
11. Don’t aim for perfection. As incredible and amazing as you are, you will never be perfect. You’ll never do anything perfectly. Let good enough be good enough. Most things can be tweaked and updated in the future. Stop feeling frozen in place by perfection and call it good.
12. Take breaks. You think that powering through your day will help you get more accomplished. But you keep finding yourself easily distracted, lagging in energy, and not able to complete your best work. You need a break. Figure out what works best for you, a 5-minute break after 25 minutes of work, 10 minutes for an hour, or a couple longer breaks more spread out. Everyone is a little different. However, most people need at least some kind of break every 30-90 minutes. Get a drink, stretch your legs, look away from your computer, or even close your eyes and relax.
13. Use fringe hours well. Fringe hours are those tiny pockets of time we all have throughout our day. Typically these are the times we pull out our phones and mindlessly scroll through social media. This could be time spent in waiting rooms or pickup lines, waiting for the microwave to ding or the pot to boil, standing in line at the store, or any other small part of your day that feels insignificant. What if you stopped thinking of this time as insignificant or wasted and learned to use it well? Jessica Turner has an entire book about this so you can learn more. But instead of wasting your fringe hours try to use them wisely. You could read a book, send encouraging cards or texts to friends, fold some laundry, jot down ideas for the challenge you’re facing at work, etc.
14. Schedule time for self-care, rest, relaxation, and play. You matter. The message I repeatedly tell women is that you will never be able to bring the best version of yourself to your life and your relationships if you don’t actually prioritize taking care of you. When you are rested, healthy, not stressed, and rejuvenated by things you enjoy you will be able to accomplish so much more with your time. But you are busy and it’s easy to let these things slide to the bottom of the list. That is why you add them to your schedule far in advance. Know when you will work out and block it off on your calendar. Find a few hours or preferably an entire day for Sabbath to include rest, worship, relaxation, and play, doing things you love with the people you love.
15. Develop good habits and routines. The more habits and routines you have to guide your decisions throughout your day, the better. Create habits and routines that support the life you are trying to create. If you want a stress free morning then you might need to create an evening routine to help set the scene the night before. If you want to work out regularly then you need to find a way to create a habit and a routine that assures you have a chance to exercise each day.
16. Just say no. Part of the reason we are so busy is because we don’t know how to say no to things we shouldn’t be doing in the first place. If it’s not an absolute yes than your answer should be a definite no. This can be really hard and you’ll need to work on your difficult conversation skills, but learning to say no can be one of the best ways to manage your time (and your sanity) better.
17. Delegate. Successful people don’t do it all. That famous woman who looks like she’s got it all together and is perfectly balancing everything is not actually doing everything. She’s figured out how to delegate what she can. Figure out what doesn’t need to be done by you and find someone else to do it. I pay someone to clean my house. I’m training my kids to do the laundry. Our meal plans are created by a service so I don’t have to think about it and my groceries are regularly delivered by Shipt.
18. Organize your life. If you’re trying to manage a life of chaos you will constantly fail. It feels like you don’t have the time to plan and organize things, but I promise, if you organize your life and create plans for yourself you will save so much time and stress. Organize your emails, your digital and physical files, your house, your desk at work, your calendar, and more. Create a plan for your day before you begin so that nothing falls through the cracks and what needs to happen gets done. This not only cuts down on distractions but it also gives you the space and energy to focus and get to work more efficiently.
Today’s Action Step
There are a lot of ideas and suggestions in this post. I’m not recommending that you try to implement all 18 of them this week. We all have different personalities and different ways that we struggle with our time management and focus. Instead of trying to do all of the things, read through this list of ideas to find one thing that speaks most strongly to you. You want something that you know is an area that you can improve but is also something that you know you have the ability and desire to improve on based on your own personality.
Don’t let yourself get stuck in indecision. Pick one thing to focus on and get to work. Action begets motivation. The more you do, the easier it will get and the more improvement you’ll be able to see.
“The real secret to success is just to get to work.”