Time management is one of those important work and life skills that seems to find its way into every job interview and performance review. That’s because recruiters and management teams alike know that an employee’s time management skills can make or break just about any project they’re working on. And science has backed this up, with researchers finding a direct link between time management skills and job performance in events management and other industries.
The problem is, while most everyone recognizes the importance of time management, you might not know how to learn or teach those skills. You may even mistakenly believe that you’re either good at time management or you aren’t, with little room for gray in between and no potential for improvement.
We’re here to tell you that conception is wrong: Time management is actually comprised of multiple skills—so you can have aptitude in different areas—and you can absolutely improve them to make yourself more productive, get stronger performance reviews, and find better work-life balance.
Despite it being such a commonly used phrase in the workplace, time management isn’t a concept most people can readily define.
A time management skill is anything that helps you save time and be more efficient, says time management and office organization expert Eileen Roth, author of Organizing for Dummies. “This includes goal setting, planning, prioritizing, efficiently using your calendar, creating routines, decision making, delegating, avoiding time wasters like procrastination and interruptions, [and] handling meetings productively,” Roth says. “Even organizing your workspace is a time management skill.”
Not only do these skills help you to be more efficient in your work, they also improve your ability to meet deadlines and expectations. “Time management skills are about learning how to use your time in a way that supports your goals,” says time management and leadership coach Alexis Haselberger. “It’s about learning to be proactive with your time instead of reactive.” In other words: Strong time management skills allow you to plan ahead and make good use of your time so that you aren’t constantly scrambling to meet deadlines at the final hour.
There are a lot of personal and professional benefits to effective time management. Most commonly, you’ll be able to accomplish more with your time overall. But it’s about more than that, says Haselberger, who has worked with hundreds of professionals in one-on-one time management coaching sessions and over 34,000 students in time management courses.
“When you lack time management skills, you often feel out of control and as if you don’t have agency,” Haselberger says, adding that it’s also common to become overwhelmed by everything on your to-do list. The result? Rushing, falling behind, and ultimately producing late or subpar work products.
A lack of time management skills “causes lots of stress internally, but can also stress relationships because others can’t rely on you,” Haselberger says. “Additionally, people who lack time management skills are at greater risk of burnout due to overwhelm and often lack the work-life boundaries that would support their mental health.”
People who aren’t great at managing their time often find their work cutting into their personal lives, either because they’re constantly staying at work late to play catch-up on tasks they’ve fallen behind on, because they’re always having to bring their work home, or because they’re worrying about work in their off time. The result is a lack of boundaries between work and home and an inability to truly disconnect and decompress from the workday.
On the other hand, strong time management skills allow you to accomplish your goals and meet your deadlines while also freeing you up to leave your to-do list behind when the day is done. Work stays at work and your home life is yours to do with as you please.
There are dozens of time management skills that can help you get the most out of your day. Here are some of the most common ones—plus how to apply them at work.
In the context of time management, goal setting isn’t so much about setting goals for your future, but rather about setting goals for each step of project completion. It might involve breaking the process down into specific goals and setting a timeline for achieving each goal. For instance, a simplified version of that for planning an event might look like:
- Setting a budget: 4/15
- Finding a venue: 4/25
- Finalizing the guest list: 4/28
- Sending out invites: 5/1
- Establishing vendors: 5/15
You’re more likely to achieve goals if you attach rewards to them, Roth says—so maybe you order lunch in, instead of bringing it from home, after finishing what you see as being the most difficult goal for a given project.
“Goals should be a stretch,” Roth says. But that doesn’t mean your goals have to take weeks to achieve. To set reasonable goals, Roth suggests using the SMART system. The SMART goal setting system involves setting goals that are:
- Time bound
If you’re in sales, an example of a SMART goal might be selling two cases of a certain product by the end of the month. The goal is specific (you know exactly what you need to do to succeed here), measurable (you need to sell two cases), achievable (two cases per month is feasible based on past sales trends), relevant (selling two cases this month ladders up to your personal and/or company performance goals), and time bound (the sales need to close by end of the month)
Successful goal setting involves:
- Knowing how to break bigger projects into smaller goals
- Estimating how long each of those goals will take
- Setting goals that are within your reach
Every day, you prioritize which tasks and projects you spend your time on. But it’s not always a conscious decision you’ve made—more often than not, people simply prioritize what is directly in front of them.
When it comes to time management, prioritization requires you to be a little more strategic in those decisions. “There are a number of factors that go into prioritization, primarily: importance and impact, urgency, difficulty and complexity, and deadlines,” Haselberger says. A big piece of prioritization is knowing what to say no to, because ultimately we can’t do it all, she says.
“Then you need to decide when and in what order you’ll do everything you choose to do, so that you are able to meet the relative deadlines,” Haselberger says. So let’s say you have three big projects on your plate, plus all your daily tasks. Prioritization would mean breaking each of those larger projects down into separate steps, and then deciding every day which tasks you should complete in order to remain on track for each project, taking into account importance and urgency, while also staying on top of recurring tasks like emails and client calls.
The exact number of tasks you’re able to prioritize each day will depend on how time-consuming those tasks are. Haselberger says that she teaches her clients to practice task realism, which is the act of being realistic about how much time you have in your day, how much time your individual tasks will take, and how many tasks you can therefore realistically prioritize before the day is done.
Successful prioritization involves:
- Managing expectations
- Breaking larger projects down into smaller tasks
- Analyzing the importance and urgency of individual tasks
- Understanding the impact and difficulty of individual tasks
- Accurately predicting the time it takes to complete individual tasks
You might think that just because you use a daily planner or your phone’s calendar, you understand scheduling. But there are actual schedule methods that go beyond tracking your daily appointments.
According to Haselberger, most scheduling comes down to meetings and time blocks. “When scheduling meetings, we have to take into consideration the schedules of those we want to meet with,” she says. But for effective time management, “it’s good to have some general guidelines for our own schedule[s] about when and why we meet with others.”
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when scheduling meetings that will help you to avoid unneeded meetings and make the needed ones only as long as they have to be:
- What do I want to accomplish during this meeting?
- Could that be accomplished in an email or over the phone?
- If not, how can I help this meeting run as efficiently as possible?
The basic goal of time blocking is to map out your day as realistically as possible even outside of meetings. “Assign blocks on your calendar to correspond to specific projects, tasks, or activities,” Haselberger says. For instance, you might set aside the first half hour of your morning for reading and responding to emails. Then the next hour could be dedicated to completing the tasks necessary to move forward a big project you’ve been working on. The next half hour may be a meeting you have with a client. And so on and so forth, even blocking out time for breaks and lunch. Then, stick to your schedule, keeping an eye on the clock or setting alarms to aid you.
“Time blocking can be an effective strategy for improving time estimation, being realistic with your time (and what you can fit into it), and serves as a gentle reminder to return focus to what we’ve planned to do, should we find ourselves off course,” Haselberger says.
Successful scheduling involves:
- Understanding how long individual tasks may take
- Being intentional with your time
- Redirecting your attention to scheduled tasks when focus is lost
“Delegating is giving someone else a project or a part of a project instead of you working on it,” Roth says. “It frees you up to work on higher-level projects, and it speeds up the delegated project because more than one person is working on it at the same time.”
Delegation works best with less urgent or impactful tasks and helps clear the way for you to focus on the tasks only you have the skills to do, Haselberger says. “If done well, we delegate projects to those [who] have the skills, aptitude, and interest in them; we give very clear expectations and deadlines; and we ask instead of demand.”
Most people think you have to be in upper management to be able to delegate, but that isn’t always the case. Any time you work as part of a team, you may have the ability to delegate to other members of it. In practice, this might mean going to a member of your team who has a good working relationship with your client and asking them to take over a meeting that is scheduled to update the client on current progress. Or perhaps it means handing over the final edit of a project proposal to a team member who has shown an affinity for spotting errors in the past.
People are often reluctant to delegate for two reasons, Haselberger says:
- They think they can do it better and faster themselves
- They don’t want to overburden others
“While number one may be true in the short term, we will save a ton of time in the long term by delegating repeatable processes that we can then take off our plate,” Haselberger says. “Also, delegation is often a gift as it provides opportunity for those who work for us”—or with us.
That said, you should never delegate as a last resort (in cases where your own time wasn’t planned well), because that does put strain on others, Haselberger says. Instead, by preemptively “asking, ‘When would be a reasonable time for you to do X?’ we are allowing for a conversation instead of an undue burden.”
Successful delegation requires:
- The ability to assess what tasks only you can do and what tasks others can take on
- The willingness to let go
- A team you can trust and work well with
- Leadership skills
- A collaboration mindset
On any given day, we might have 20+ tasks we need to complete. Some of those tasks may be small (making a quick phone call to a colleague, for instance), while others may be more time-consuming (like research for a longer-term project).
The trick is being able to first identify which tasks need to be completed and then work your way through them without getting overwhelmed or thrown off track by new or unexpected tasks that land on your desk.
Haselberger’s method for task management involves creating a single system she funnels all her tasks through. Those tasks might originate from any number of locations: email, Slack, meetings, conversations, your brain, etc. And that single system can be just about anything that helps you keep track of the tasks you have to complete on any given day. For example, an organized to-do list in a spreadsheet can be your trusted system. Or it could be a task management app like ClickUp, which allows you to include other people in your system as well. Just be sure you use a template that always reminds you of the tasks you have to do every day or week (like checking emails, updating your budget, and returning client calls). In this way, you won’t have to waste brain power remembering (or forgetting) those recurring tasks, and you can add in new, unique, or unexpected tasks as needed.
Successful task management requires:
- Organizing goals into necessary tasks
- Building your own trusted system
- Recognizing the tasks you do on a regular basis
- Making room for new, project-specific or unexpected tasks that must be done
If you’re committed to improving your time management skills, the first step is awareness, Haselberger says. “Actively track what’s going on, so that you can decide where you focus” your efforts.
In practice, this requires you to first monitor how your own time is spent for a week, Haselberger says. Write down everything: When you go to lunch. How long you spend on a personal call. How much of your day is spent fully focused on a task. How often you get caught up in unrelated conversations with coworkers. How much time you spend daydreaming. If you don’t want to manually record your every movement, a time tracker site or app like toggl or Clockify could also do the trick.
With that information, you can determine all sorts of things, Haselberger says. Ask yourself:
- Are you spending your time on the right tasks?
- How long are individual tasks taking you?
- How long do you think those tasks should ideally take you?
- How much time are you spending in meetings?
- How important would you say those meetings are you to your overall job performance?
- What are you doing that could be delegated?
- How often do you get distracted?
- How much of your time is being spent usefully?
“I also suggest taking a look at the calendar,” Haselberger says. If you find your calendar is chock full of meetings, she says, you may want to spend some time auditing the importance of those meetings—and which ones you could potentially get out of—so that you can buy yourself more time to get work done.
From there, you can determine what time management skills you may need to improve on, whether it be scheduling, delegation, or even distraction management. “You can take a class, do an online course, hire a coach, or even ask your coworker or friend who always seems to be on time and prepared for everything how they do it,” Haselberger says.
There truly is no limit to the number of available tools that can assist with time management. The key here is identifying which ones might actually be best for you and then committing to implementing those tools into your life and workday.
“Finally, you’ll need to practice,” Haselberger says. Start by selecting a single time management strategy—whichever one seems easiest. For you, that might be creating a daily to-do list, or it could be breaking your big goals down into SMART goals. Whatever you decide, commit to practicing the execution of that task daily for a month—long enough to make it a habit. And then consider what other tools you might benefit from adding to your own time management toolbox.
It might not come naturally at first, but with dedication and practice, anyone can improve upon their time management skills. “Any time we are learning new skills and trying to put them into practice, it’s going to be hard,” Haselberger says. “Habit change is hard. Behavior change is hard. Practice, practice, practice is the path forward.”