It takes practice, persistence, and self-awareness to effectively manage your time. Learn how to overcome obstacles to good time management and develop new habits.
As you begin working toward your goals and adjusting your schedule, you’ll encounter obstacles that prevent you from using your time effectively. An important part of developing your time management skills is to recognize these obstacles and to work to overcome them.
Procrastination is the habit of delaying or putting off doing something that should be done right away. Everyone procrastinates sometimes. But when people procrastinate, they run the risk of jeopardizing their projects—and their reputations.
Procrastination also adds stress. Putting off tasks doesn’t mean they disappear—those unfinished jobs often weigh on people’s minds. The last-minute scramble to complete high-priority items creates chaos and increases the likelihood of errors.
Because people procrastinate for different reasons, different strategies are useful for overcoming the problem & Strategy to overcome it:
Unpleasant or uninteresting task
- Delegate the task to someone who doesn’t find it unpleasant.
- Admit you’re procrastinating—and then get the job done.
- Envision how good you’ll feel once you’ve completed the task.
- Schedule the task in a way that makes turning back impossible or costly. For example, commit to paying a contract worker for a job, starting on a specific date.
- Consider the impact of not completing the task on your coworkers or on your other projects.
Fear of failure
- If you lack the training or resources needed to complete an assignment, get the help you need.
- If your fear stems from lack of self-confidence, defuse it by listing all the tasks you have to do to complete the job. You’ll likely find that you know how to do most of them.
- Start with something you know. Any kind of movement on the task can help dispel fear.
Unclear starting point
- Jump in anywhere. You’ll likely find a productive way forward.
- Break a difficult or overwhelming task into smaller, manageable ones.
- At the end of the day, spend a few minutes on a task you want to work on the next morning. For example, you may jot down some notes about a report you need to write. The next day, you’ll probably find it easier to continue working on the project than if you hadn’t already started it.
Many managers take on more commitments and responsibilities than they can handle. They then find themselves working nights and weekends to hit their deadlines. In some cases, people feel that, no matter what they do, they will never catch up.
To avoid schedule overload:
- Know your key responsibilities and goals. Avoid taking on activities that don’t align with these objectives.
- Help others improve their performance. If others aren’t doing their jobs or aren’t performing to your standards, support them in improving their performance rather than taking over their tasks.
- Don’t assume everything has to be done. Concentrate your energy on tasks that truly matter.
- Learn to turn down assignments. Explain your current responsibilities, point out how taking on an unrelated task will jeopardize your shared goals, and offer a reasonable alternative.
Unmanaged email and paperwork
Most managers are bombarded with email. Sorting through and responding to email can eat up a good part of your time.
To avoid losing valuable time to email:
- Check email only at assigned times. Turn off the email alert so you won’t be tempted to look at messages as they come in.
- Ask personal correspondents to use your home email address. It may seem more efficient to use one address for all email, but doing so increases the chances that you will be distracted.
- “Triage” your messages. Move urgent messages to a folder labeled “Urgent.” Deal with these at a specified time. Move other messages to a “Later” folder and respond to them after handling the high-priority tasks on your schedule.
- Ask people to create detailed subject lines for their messages. This will help you decide whether to delete a message, act on it immediately, or deal with it later.
- Let people know the kinds of conversations you want to have—and don’t want to have—by email. If a topic requires more than one or two email exchanges, you’re probably better off handling the issue by phone or in person.
Paperwork can also impede good time management. When people have to sort through piles and folders to find documents they need, they waste valuable time.
To manage paperwork efficiently:
- If a paper communication doesn’t require a response from you, skim it, and then toss or file it.
- If a paper communication does require a response from you, respond immediately, then toss or file it.
- If you’re too busy to respond right away, put the document in a “Later” file. Be sure to rank the items by priority.
Manage your attention *
In today’s business environment, 24/7 connectivity, an endless stream of information, and competing demands make it difficult for managers to focus. You may find yourself in a perpetual state of distraction as you try to juggle multiple tasks at once. But to be productive, you need to be able to focus your attention on just one thing and keep it there for an extended period of time.
Fortunately, you can develop and strengthen your ability to control your attention. Begin by simply being aware of the four stages of distraction you go through every time you try to focus:
- You choose something to focus on, such as an action item on your to-do list.
- Eventually, your mind wanders. This is something that inevitably happens, no matter how important a task is or how involved you are.
- You realize that you have become distracted.
- At that point, you either choose to return to your original focus or decide to do something else.
Repeat the process for the same and different areas of focus. At first, you will likely only notice how your thoughts pass through these four stages. Eventually, you will find that the pattern starts to change, and you tend to stay with the original focus (step 1) longer. You will soon realize that it takes diligence, not innate capabilities, to strengthen your ability to focus your attention.
People often boast about how good they are at multitasking. They think they are getting more done by juggling multiple tasks at once, but studies show that they really aren’t. When people multitask, their productivity actually decreases by as much as 40%. * This is because instead of working on two or more things simultaneously, they are actually shifting rapidly from one task to another. The shift interrupts their concentration and ultimately results in lost time.
To resist the temptation to multitask:
- Bring your full attention to each task. Concentrate on a single task until it is finished. Then consciously shift to the next item on your list.
- Work sequentially. If you are facing two important tasks, decide which one requires your focus first. Once you finish it, you can turn to the second one.
- Keep your desk clear. Remove items related to tasks you aren’t working on at the moment. This will help you stay focused on the job at hand, rather than allowing your mind to drift to another task. For example, put a new client’s folder into a drawer until you can devote your full attention to it.
Many companies have a culture built on open communication and teamwork. In this type of workplace, managers are often expected to be available to their employees and coworkers at all times. These environments can be exciting, but they can also be prone to constant interruptions.
To avoid being pulled off task by interruptions:
- Evaluate the situation. Determine if an unexpected visitor has an issue that has to be dealt with immediately or if it can wait.
- Schedule the conversation. If possible, schedule another time to meet with the person. For example, say, “I think I can help you, but right now I’m in the middle of something. Can we meet about this after lunch?”
- Refer the visitor to another appropriate person. You might say, “I can’t pull away right now, but check with Carlos and see if he can help. Let me know what the two of you work out.”
- Use reminders. Before you break away from your work, make a note of where you are so you can return to that task after the interruption.
- Establish regular “office hours.” If people frequently need your input, set up times when you’re available to answer questions or help solve problems; for example, every afternoon from 3 to 4 p.m.
Manage your energy
As a manager, your work is likely demanding. Time is a limited resource, but fortunately your personal energy is renewable. Create simple rituals to help you strengthen and replenish your resilience in four areas: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
To replenish your energy in each of these areas:
Physical energy (Take care of your physical self.)
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Exercise several times a week.
- Eat nutritious food and drink lots of water.
Emotional energy (Cultivate positive emotions.)
- Use deep breathing to defuse negative emotions—irritability, impatience, anxiety, and insecurity.
- Fuel positive emotions in yourself and others by regularly expressing appreciation to people.
- Look at upsetting situationsthrough new lenses:
- Use a reverse lens to ask, “What would the other people in this conflict say, and how might they be right?”
- Use a long lens to ask, “How will I likely view this situation in six months?”
- Use a wide lens to ask, “How can I grow and learn from this situation?”
Mental energy (Gain control of your attention so you can focus.)
- Take short breaks throughout the day. Breaks allow your mind to rejuvenate so you can continue to concentrate.
- Set aside time for thinking, planning, and worrying.
- Switch between high- and low-attention tasks. For example, if you spent hours on a detailed budget, make your next task something that requires less concentration.
Spiritual energy (Define purpose in what you do.)
- Do more of the activities that fulfill you. If you enjoy writing but dislike creating budgets, partner with someone who has the opposite preference.
- Allocate time and energy to what you consider most important. For example, spend the last 20 minutes of your evening commute relaxing, so you can connect with your family once you’re home.
- Live your core values. For instance, if being considerate is important to you but you’re usually late for meetings, practice showing up five minutes early.
Balance work and personal time
If your work life infringes on your personal life, you’re not alone. Demanding and engaging jobs consume time and energy. Mobile communication devices make it easy to return work-related messages during off hours. Many managers feel they have little time to get together with friends and family, fulfill community commitments, and explore personal interests.
To keep your work and personal goals in balance, follow a process similar to the one you use to manage your time at work:
- Clarify your personal goals. Do you want to learn to play the violin? Or master Italian cooking? Identify the goals that would be most fulfilling for you and then make them a priority.
- Identify the tasks you must complete. If your goal is to master Italian cooking, research and sign up for a class. Or if your goal is to get to three of your child’s soccer games, figure out what you need to do to leave the office early on those days.
- Schedule your tasks and goals. Add the Italian cooking class to your schedule so nothing else can get booked in that slot. If you don’t have enough open space on your calendar, create an activity log for your personal time. Analyze your log to see if you’re wasting time on activities that don’t support your highest personal goals.
Develop new habits
Simply recognizing that you struggle with time management isn’t a solution. To correct the problem, you’ll need to develop new habits. You form these by repeatedly practicing a new, more effective behavior.
Start by changing one thing. For example, at the end of the workday, you might make a point of spending 15 minutes organizing your desk. Or at the end of the week, you might regularly schedule two hours to take care of tasks you didn’t get to during the week. By committing to these kinds of actions, you begin to develop new routines and habits.
If the change doesn’t seem to be working, keep trying new things until you find something that does. When you do succeed in making a change, acknowledge your success—and then work on changing something else. It’s a slow—but ultimately rewarding—process that requires persistence and patience.
To improve her time management, Sabrina decided to respond to emails right after lunch each day. But she was never sure how much time she would need, because the volume of email varied. Sabrina eventually decided that she would schedule 15 minutes for answering email midmorning and 15 minutes in the late afternoon. She would respond to the most important emails first and, if necessary, address less important ones at another time.
The key to making lasting change is to make your new habit a ritual—something you automatically do at a specific time. Eventually, these behaviors will require less energy and thought than they previously did. An example of a ritual is brushing your teeth before going to bed. You probably don’t even think about it—you just do it.Examples of good time management rituals include:
- Accomplishing one key task first thing in the morning
- Turning off your cell phone before you go into a meeting
- Choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator
Decide what behavior you want to change, design a ritual that will support the new behavior, and then discipline yourself to do it. Eventually, the behavior will become automatic.
Use “if-then” planning
Sometimes you may have difficulty changing your behavior. One way to make your actions more predictable is through “if-then” planning.
In “if-then” planning, you decide in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal. You plan that, if a certain trigger happens, then you will take a predetermined action. For example, “If it is 4 p.m., then I will return phone calls.”
By triggering a new behavior in this way, you can increase your chances of success by roughly 300%.Because you’ve already decided exactly what you need to do in this situation, you can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it.
Some examples of “if-then” planning include:
- If I run into colleagues at the coffee machine, then I will chat with them for five minutes and head back to work.
- If it is Friday, then I will finish my expense report before the end of the day.
- If I haven’t returned important calls before my morning meeting, then I will make it my top priority when I return.
Build in rewards
Sometimes you may need extra motivation to complete items on your to-do list. This is especially true for work that’s tedious—like recording billable hours—or emotionally or mentally taxing—like dealing with angry clients or writing complex reports. In these cases, you may want to create additional incentives to address your to-dos.
To set up a reward system:
- For complex projects, build in rewards for when you reach certain milestones. For example, if you are working on a long report or calculating a budget for a large project, allow yourself to grab a cup of coffee after you complete the first three sections.
- For small tasks, build in rewards for finishing several of them. For example, for every six emails you return, reward yourself with a short break.
Because everyone is different, make a list of incentives that you find motivating. You may find enjoyment in reading the latest trade magazine, whereas someone else may be motivated by the promise of a 10-minute walk. You’ll know your reward system is working when your to-do list no longer includes tasks you’ve been avoiding for weeks.