Work Smarter, Not Harder – Time Management Tips That Work

We all lead busy lives, full of at-home chores and tasks that add to our at-work or at-school responsibilities and constantly serve to remind us that there are only so many hours in the day in which to get things done.

While we can't really squeeze more time into each day, we can learn to manage the time that is available to us more productively. This can make it feel as if we've managed to sneak a couple of extra hours into the day.

Why is effective time management so important for success?

The most successful people aren't necessarily smarter than you are. They also don't achieve success because of luck. They are just more productive because they've found ways to be more focused.

That focus – and some judicious planning – enables them to schedule their time in ways that enhance productivity rather than restrict it. Successful people manage their time, rather than allowing it to "manage them." Studies have shown that people who put thought into scheduling their day's activities rather than just allowing them to happen to them are far more productive and more successful than those who don't.

In this article, we'll offer some tips that can help you to learn and benefit from successful people's time management strategies.

How to manage your time more productively– important concepts

When you research time management, one of the first things you find is that most successful people agree on a set of general principles or concepts. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Parkinson's law is a slightly tongue-in-cheek but true adage that says that "Work expands to fill the time you've allotted for it." For example, if you schedule six hours to complete a task, chances are it will end up taking you a full six hours to complete it, even if it could have been completed much faster. Time management experts thus advise learning to make accurate predictions when scheduling your To Do List. If you allocate too much time for tasks, you can easily become tempted to slack off and not focus on them until they become urgent, and then you rush to finish them. This is not only non-productive, it also tends to create stress.
  • The Pareto Principle – also known as the 80/20 Rule – says that if you have set aside 100 minutes to work on a certain task, in most cases you'll have finished most of it within the first 20 minutes. This principle also suggests that 80% of our most productive work is accomplished in 20% of the time we spend working. So this becomes an invaluable concept to bear in mind when prioritising which tasks are most important to be worked on now and which can be deferred or delegated.
  • Successful people emphasise the importance of learning how to say "No". Not every task that comes our way is going to use our talents in a way that allows us to meet our real goals. Therefore, it's not only OK to drop or postpone activities that aren't directly productive towards accomplishing your larger goals, it's essential for good time management.
  • And finally, one of the most important principles of effective time management is to know your goals. The difference between extremely successful people and less successful people is that the latter often don't even know their goals, because they've never sat down to figure out what their goals – both professional and personal – really are. As a result, they can’t prioritise properly to find the most productive and effective route to achieving them.

In the following sections, we'll present a few more tips on how to use your time more effectively, and keep your concentration and focus sharp so that you can become more productive.

First, find out where your time goes

Many time management specialists suggest that a good first step is to find out how you really spend your time. One way to do this is by diligently keeping a Time Diary for a week.

Whether you're looking for ways to become more productive at work or you're looking for time management tips for students, a good way to start is by setting aside an entire week in which you keep a detailed diary of everything you do.

Include everything. Time spent at work or school, driving or commuting there, going to the gym, eating, time spent in meetings, everything. Write down what you really do, and be honest about it – if you watched 25 hours of TV, write that down.

It may be a little upsetting to find out how much time you spend in unproductive activities. But all of this data will come in handy later, when you prioritise which of these regular activities are productive and useful for achieving your goals and which are not.

Now apply what you've learned from your Time Diary to your To Do List

We've all got To Do Lists. And sadly, many of these lists are more daunting than helpful because we only see a long list of tasks, not the time it will take to complete them.

So time management specialists recommend that you create a time-based To Do List. When you add how much time each of the tasks should take – based on the data from your Time Diary – it helps you to prioritise how you're going to go about completing them. The time information allows you to focus on tasks you can accomplish immediately.

Next, use this information to manage your time more effectively

The information in the lists you just created can help you learn to prioritise. Some experts recommend that you assign the items on your To Do List to four different categories:

  • Urgent and important
  • Urgent but not important
  • Not urgent but important
  • Neither urgent nor important

The goal in this system of time management is to have as few To Do List items as possible in the urgent and important category, because they cause stress, and thus impair your focus and ability to complete them.

Once you learn more about prioritising, you'll probably find that you spend most of your time focused on the not urgent but important tasks. And that's a good thing because it allows you to work on them without the stress-inducing sense of urgency.

More tips that can help you prioritise your To Do List

  • Do the hard stuff first. One of the best – and funniest – pieces of time-management advice we've ever heard comes from Mark Twain: "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first."
  • Practice sane multitasking. No, we're not talking about unproductive or even dangerous multitasking like using your smart phone while driving. But listening to books on tape might be a productive way of multitasking. Or paying your bills while watching TV in the background – believe me, with some TV shows it could help.
  • Outsourcing. No, it's probably not reasonable to hire someone in China to do your work for you, but you can hire a housecleaner, and thus spend the hours it normally would take you to do your housework focusing on tasks that are more productive.
  • Ask yourself, "Is this task worth my time?" Remember your goals, both short-term and long-term, and prioritise accordingly.

Let your computer help you

Technology helped to create this situation of "not having enough time in the day to do everything," so why not use it to free up more time? There are inexpensive and even free software programs for your computer (or apps for your smart phone) that can help you create a personal calendar, compile and track your To Do List, handle contacts and phone numbers, etc.

Practice effective time management based on your body's natural cycles

One time management tip that's dear to our hearts at The Restored is to time your activities to take advantage of the natural highs and lows that your brain and body experience at different times of day. For example:

  • Schedule your hardest work for the mornings when your mind is sharpest, not during the 2-3 PM slump when you're lower in both physical and mental energy.
  • Many people find that taking an exercise break at lunchtime makes their afternoons more productive. Exercise has been proven to increase concentration and focus.
  • Remember the importance of getting enough sleep. If you feel tempted to work late on a computer or smart phone with a bright screen, you're interfering with your body's ability to produce melatonin. Don't do it because it'll mess up your sleep.
  • Finally, be sure to take time to smell the roses. If you want to be productive, schedule in sufficient "down time" in which to allow your body and mind to recover.