Updated: May 28, 2020
Author: Michael Scaletti
Time management is important. There’s no way around that. Getting bogged down in project creep, a growing to-do list, and creeping deadlines can quickly overwhelm you if you’re not careful. According to LinkedIn, time management ranked as one of the 5 most desired skills in 2019. It’s not like you can simply decide to be better at it though. Just like any other skill, it takes practice, learned behaviors, and dedication to actually improve.
There is a practically infinite amount of advice out there for how to become a better time manager. All kinds of life-hacks, advice books, lifestyle blogs and more. And many of these are great, without a doubt. But the truth is, they’re tools. And in order to make the best use of any tool, you need to have a fundamental skill set. Without having the underlying skills that comprise time management, you won’t be able to use any of them effectively.
Luckily, the research has been done, and we know what those underlying skills are. If time management is defined as a “decision-making process that structures, protects, and adjusts a person’s time to changing environmental conditions”, then three specific skills separate your ability to succeed from a likelihood of failure.
Realistically examining how much time you have available to you, and recognizing that it is a finite resource, is extremely important to being able to manage it successfully. This also means being aware of the ways in which you are spending your time unproductively.
One of the really effective ways in which you can cultivate time management awareness is by performing a “time audit”. In it’s most basic form, a time audit consists of three steps. One, document your intentions. Write down how you want to spend your time. Two, Record and examine how you ACTUALLY spend your time and compare that to your intentions. And three, adjust and restate your intentions, while tracking progress.
The second key skill to learn is arranging your goals, duties, plans, and tasks in such a way that they make good use of the time you have available to you. This is probably the skill that you are most familiar with, and is what most of those previously mentioned tools will help with. This includes scheduling and planning, while also being able to use the awareness you are cultivating to recognize what times you are most productive at certain tasks and arranging your schedule around that.
Everyone has at least some level of comfort with arranging their day, but some ways of doing so are more effective than others. In addition to utilizing tools like calendars and scheduling apps, one way to make sure that your arrangement works well for you is to make sure that you have “protected time” set aside every day. This is calendar time that you have set aside to be uninterrupted, so that you can apply your full focus on your most important tasks.
This skill is all about adjusting to unforeseen circumstances and unexpected factors. This includes adjusting to unexpected distractions, shifting priorities, and last minute projects that get added to your agenda. The challenge here is dealing with those situations without getting upset, anxious, or distracted.
One of the best ways to do that is to develop contingency plans. Give thought to your best and worst case scenarios for each task, and recognize how each of those situations will affect your overall time management plan. This means that when the worst happens, and the amount of time you have available for any given task is reduced, you are prepared and know how to deal with it calmly and effectively.