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7 tips to become a time management master

First things first: why does time management matter? While that question breaks my little project manager heart, I understand your skepticism. Why not just do the damn thing? Well, managing your time is deeper than getting sh*t done-it’s about keeping your head screwed on properly (and getting even MORE sh*t done in the process).

We all know how it feels when work is piling up and there seems to be no end in sight. Not only can this cause procrastination, making matters worse, but more importantly it can lead to unneeded stress and anxiety. Time management practices will declutter your mind, making that to-do list a lot less scary.

Doing things at the right time in the right order will increase your productivity. Getting pulled in multiple directions is a thing of the past and more time in your day will start appearing like magic.

With more productivity comes great success at meeting deadlines. The goal is to get more done in less time without compromising quality (or sanity). When you have your tasks organized and prioritized, one of two things will happen to your deadlines:

Now onto the good stuff. Not all of us are Time Wizards at birth (like yours truly), but fear not-time management skills are easy to learn and maintain. To get you started, here are 7 time management tips:

If you’re worried about how productive you’ve been lately, one of the first things you should do is look at where your time has been running off to. If you don’t already, track the length of time it takes you to do things throughout the day. You’ll start to notice patterns and figure out where there’s room for improvement.

Take it one step further: set timers for yourself for a given project or task. Allow yourself X-amount of uninterrupted time to complete Y-thing. This will force you to stay on task, plus you can make it a fun little competition with yourself.

We’ve been there and we get it. Setting time blocks on your calendar (make sure they are public to your team, too!) will help twofold. This communicates to your team that you’re not available for meetings, questions or thoughts on last night’s episode of “The Bachelorette.” Even more importantly, it holds you accountable to focusing in on one thing for an allotted amount of time.

Getting into a working rhythm is also called “reducing context shift.” Context shifting is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when you switch from focusing on one topic to another throughout the day. But here’s the rub: your brain works overtime to shift gears and get back in your flow state.

We all know that things need to be “prioritized,” but what does that actually mean when it comes to your day-to-day? If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your projects and you’re not sure what to do first, consider making an Eisenhower Matrix. Sounds intense right? Don’t worry-it breaks down your to-do list into four, easy-to-follow sections.

Place your tasks in one of the four boxes below based on their urgency and importance. This will then dictate what to do, delegate, decide and do later.

Defining urgent: Time sensitive and needs to be completed in the short term. There might be many tasks in this box, so it’s best to list them in order of due date. Additionally, it’s possible for projects to start as not urgent, but put off long enough, they find their way into this category.

Defining important: Critical tasks needed to move the needle and reach your long term goals. Since there isn’t always instant results for “important” tasks, they are easy to ignore for too long.

Do First: If a task is both important and urgent, it should be at the tippy top of your list. These items need to be completed soon and will generate the most impact. If these are consistently tasks that have been delayed over and over, make sure you’re realistically giving yourself enough time to complete them.

Decide when: These are items that need to get done, but they’re not needed right now. Give yourself a deadline of when these need to get done and tackle these after your “Do First” items.

Delegate: To-do’s that are urgent, yet not quite as important go here. Oftentimes this could mean a small bid from a co-worker or a last minute request that landed on your desk. Ask yourself (and your team, given the rest of your matrix): “is there someone else that could handle this?” Otherwise, these are tasks that can be handled outside your time blocks.

Do Later (or never): The lowest priority items go here. These are neither urgent nor important. Examples could be cleaning out your desk drawer, optional team meetings and other nice-to-have items that you can get to once all other more pressing tasks are completed. Better yet, does this task ever need to be done? The luxuries and quirks of professional life are sometimes lost to the abyss of important, scheduled work-and that’s okay.

Create a daily schedule—and stick with it.

This step is absolutely crucial for learning how to manage time at work. Don’t even attempt starting your day without an organized to-do list. Before you leave work for the day, create a list of the most pressing tasks for the next day. This step allows you to get going as soon as you get to the office.

Putting everything on paper will prevent you from lying awake at night tossing and turning over the tasks running through your brain. Instead, your subconscious goes to work on your plans while you are asleep, which means you can wake up in the morning with new insights for the workday.

If you can’t do it the day before, make sure you write out your list first thing in the morning. You’ll find that the time you spend creating a clear plan is nothing compared to the time you’ll lose jumping between tasks when you lack such a plan.

Prioritize wisely.

As you organize your to-do list, prioritization is key for successful time management at work. Start by eliminating tasks that you shouldn’t be performing in the first place. Then identify the three or four most important tasks and do those first—that way, you make sure you finish the essentials.

Evaluate your to-do list and make sure you organized it based on the importance of a task rather than its urgency. Important responsibilities support the achievement of your goals, whereas urgent responsibilities require immediate attention and are associated with the achievement of someone else’s goals. We tend to let the urgent dominate when we should really focus on activities that support our business goals.

To avoid this pitfall, use one of the time management tips for work found in Stephen Covey’s book First Things First. He offers the following time management matrix, known as the Eisenhower matrix, as an organizational tool for prioritizing tasks based on these ideas of importance and urgency.

  • Important and urgent: These tasks have important deadlines with high urgency—complete them right away.
  • Important but not urgent: These items are important but don’t require immediate action and should involve long-term development strategizing. Strive to spend most of your time in this quadrant.
  • Urgent but not important: These tasks are urgent but not important. Minimize, delegate, or eliminate them because they don’t contribute to your output. They are generally distractions that may result from the poor planning of others.
  • Not urgent and not important: These activities hold little if any value and should be eliminated as much as possible.

Here’s a look at what sorts of activities fall in each quadrant. Try creating your own time management matrix and inserting items from your to-do list and day-to-day activities to evaluate how you are currently spending your time. You can create one in Lucidchart in less than a minute—that’s what we did!

When you can figure out prioritization, your personal time management can reach a whole new level. You will know where to focus your time during those days when there simply aren’t enough hours.