A well-designed schedule and detailed to-do list can make the difference in how you manage your time. Learn how to schedule your time in ways that work for you.
Develop your schedule
Now that you know how you spend your time and have identified possible areas of improvement, you’re ready to begin scheduling your time more effectively.
A detailed schedule enables you to:
- Commit to accomplishing certain tasks within a specific time frame.
- Visualize your available time and your plan for allocating it.
- Easily see uncommitted blocks of time.
- Ensure that your A- and B-priority tasks are occupying most of your time.
- Minimize stress by avoiding committing to too many tasks at the same time.
There are many different types of scheduling tools, including:
- Phone-based calendar apps
- Paper-based planners
- Integrated calendar and task management software
- Networked scheduling programs
- Wall or desk calendars
Your organization may provide these tools. If you aren’t comfortable with the tool provided, find one that fits your personal style. You’ll be more likely to use a system that meets your needs.
Start with your priorities
When building your schedule, always begin with your A-priority tasks. Insert them into appropriate time slots over the coming days, weeks, or months. By scheduling these first, you are sure to have time to deal with your most important responsibilities. Then assign your B-priority tasks to specific time slots.
Keep in mind that you have periods of high and low energy each day. For example, right after lunch is a time of low energy for many people. Schedule activities that require concentration and creativity during your peak energy periods. Schedule routine tasks, such as handling email or reviewing reports, during low-energy periods.
Recognize Your Energy-Level Patterns
Build in flexibility
An effective schedule gives you the ability to respond to the unexpected without undermining your priorities or creating stress. As a manager, you’ll likely find that your days are unpredictable. Crises develop, you are pulled into meetings, and unexpected opportunities arise that require attention. To accommodate these situations, build flexibility into your schedule:
- Don’t book every minute. Leave time to deal with crises and unexpected demands.
- Avoid back-to-back meetings. You need time after each meeting to process the information and execute action items.
- Include breaks. By incorporating moments to rest and reflect, you’ll improve your focus.
- Look ahead. Plan to complete activities ahead of deadlines to give yourself leeway in case something unexpected comes up.
Greater flexibility won’t make your day any less full, but it will ensure that you have time to handle the things that matter most.
Make time for re-planning *
No schedule is perfect. Often, you’ll realize that you aren’t going to accomplish what you planned to do; for example, phone calls and emergencies invaded your time, and the day is slipping away.
When this happens, embrace change as part of your time management process. Course corrections are often necessary. Learn to evaluate your success by how you invested your time based on the circumstances that arose that day, not by whether or not you did everything as originally scheduled.
When unexpected demands crop up, take a few minutes to reassess your goals and plans for the day. Begin by identifying times to work on uncompleted priority tasks, bumping lower-priority tasks if necessary. Then look at the amount of time you have left and determine what else you can accomplish.
As you think about how to reallocate your time, consider:
- What is most important now?
- Can you make any trade-offs? For example, if you attended a daily project meeting yesterday, can you skip it today to take care of something more pressing?
- What can you delegate?
- What can you say “no” to?
- What deadlines and timelines can you change?
- What can you do less of—and less perfectly—yet still add value?
Spontaneity plays an important part in implementing your plans. You may feel you can’t take the time to re-plan your day—after all, you’re already behind schedule. But by doing so, you’ll find you make better use of the remaining time you do have while reducing your stress.
Create effective to-do lists
A to-do list is one of the simplest and most commonly used scheduling tools. It captures all the tasks you need to complete in a certain time frame. Many people use a to-do list in combination with a weekly or monthly schedule, and most day planners and computer- and phone-based calendars have built-in to-do lists.
An effective to-do list includes:
- Meetings you are scheduled to attend
- Decisions you must make
- Calls you must make or be prepared to receive
- Reports, emails, and other items you must write
- Unfinished A- and B-priority tasks from the previous day
- Miscellaneous tasks, as you have time for them
Some people jot down their to-do items or spontaneous ideas on scraps of paper. The problem with this method is that it’s easy to misplace these notes and overlook a priority task.
Instead, create a master to-do list by noting all of your reminders, tasks, and key information in one place. You can do this in a day planner, on your cell phone, or in a small notebook—whatever method is easiest for you. What’s critical is that you capture all of your random thoughts and new action items. Check this master list when you create your schedule and daily to-do list.
Make a daily to-do list
Create your daily to-do list either at the end of the previous day or first thing in the morning. Doing so will ensure that you’ll be able to jump right into your projects, instead of wasting time figuring out what you need to do.
When you are creating your to-do list, break your tasks into specific activities. For example, while your schedule might direct you to return phone calls on Tuesday between 3 and 4 p.m., your daily to-do list would identify each person you need to call. Include phone numbers or other details you need to complete the task, so you don’t need to spend time looking for them.
As you compile your list, be realistic about how many things you can accomplish. If you are new at creating daily to-do lists, include only half the number of items you think you can complete. Also, be diligent about keeping low-priority activities and urgent but unimportant tasks off the list. Otherwise, you may be tempted to take care of these items first and then have no time left for important work.
Use your to-do list
First thing in the morning, use your daily to-do list to identify your key priorities. Ask yourself:
- What three actions are my top priorities today?
- What must I accomplish by the end of the day to reach my goals?
When demands start piling up and you feel overwhelmed, tired, or unfocused, refer to your to-do list—especially these priority items.
If you are not prepared to undertake a task at its scheduled time, focus on the next priority. Complete it, then return to the original task. Don’t delay that primary task more than once.
Cross each task off your list as you complete it. You’ll feel a sense of satisfaction. You will also clearly see what tasks you have not yet finished. At the end of the day, transfer any remaining high-priority tasks to your to-do list for the next day, and schedule a time to complete them.
Check your progress
At least once a week, take stock of how you’re doing relative to your overall schedule. That way, you can identify problems and find ways to constantly improve how you manage your time. As you review your progress, ask yourself:
- “Am I completing the tasks I set for this week?” If not, what’s preventing you from doing so? For example, are you underestimating the amount of time needed to complete certain tasks?
- “Am I making progress toward achieving my goals?” If not, you may be including too many C-priority tasks in your schedule.
- “Do I feel more focused?” If not, you may be failing to cluster similar tasks together or to take occasional breaks.
- “Can I sustain this schedule?” If not, restructure your schedule to match your energy level or reassess your priorities.
Use your answers to determine whether you need to make major or minor changes to your time management system.
If you are comfortable doing so, ask your supervisor, peers, and direct reports for observations on how effectively you use your time. Find out what they do to continually improve the way they manage their time.