No matter how good you think you are at managing time, chances are you can still be better. Some of us feel satisfied after working for six hours straight… but that doesn't mean we were actually productive. Good time management isn’t about working for hours without breaks or multitasking; it’s about using time effectively. By working smarter (not harder) and complimenting your natural focus, you can achieve much more – completing work to a higher standard while freeing up extra leisure time too. Here are three of the best time management techniques to focus your day.
1. The 90-minute approach
We’re big fans of deep work at Timely. While it sounds mysterious, it’s actually pretty simple: deep work means working in a state of intense concentration for extended periods of time. How long is up to the individual, and many of us fluctuate when it comes to how long we can maintain such concerted focus – but around 90 minutes at a time is accepted as the peak extent of deep work.
Research has shown that our brain works at optimal performance for about 90 minutes before dropping off – and that a 20-minute break can restore our focus. It’s known as the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle – a physicological arousal system first proposed by Nathaniel Kleitman back in the 1960s. The idea is to tap into this natural frequency at work to try and maximize our cognitive performance.
If you’re used to blasting straight through a task until it’s done, 90 minutes may seem an insufficient amount of time... but when you’re managing your day this way, you’ll soon see otherwise. Deep work is all about getting in the zone, concentrating and being present in the task at hand – and most importantly, doing so without interruption! Aside from completing tasks at a much quicker rate (usually at a higher standard, too), the huge sense of achievement you get after a successful period of deep work is unrivaled.
If a task usually takes you four hours, there’s no reason it can’t take two when you’re doing deep work. Think about how often you typically get distracted – whether by phone calls or emails, Slack notifications, colleague requests or general multitasking. When you consider the fact that each time you lose concentration it takes 23 minutes to refocus, you’ll quickly grasp just what a powerful mode of time management this is.
Deep work can take a while to master, so play around and see what works for you; actually seeing what you do with your time and how you get distracted is a brilliant place to start.
2. Time blocking
Like the 90-minute method, time blocking is a time management technique that uses finite periods of time to schedule work. However, the two are not mutually exclusive, and you can easily utilize deep work while still focusing and planning your day with time blocking.
With time blocking, you schedule your day by setting aside individual units per task: e.g. you may set aside 30 minutes in the morning to reply to emails, then plan for 90 minutes of focused, creative work. There are two types of time blocking: proactive and reactive. Proactive blocking is for complex, meaningful tasks – usually the type of tasks that suit deep work. Reactive blocking is more mundane: admin, emails, phone calls, updates, etc.
Aside from giving a clear outline of your day, one big benefit of time blocking is that it makes us work more efficiently. This is because it utilizes the idea of Parkinson’s Law – the notion that if we have five hours to complete a task, say, we inflate how long it takes to fill that period. With time blocking, because we have a specific time frame, we’re forced to apply focus, work in a way that’s results-driven, and avoid those distractions that have a habit of sneaking in.
It’s pretty easy to get started with time blocking – you just need to prioritize the tasks you want to complete each day and decide how long you want to spend on them. Then get a scheduling app to help you put the whole thing together. Choosing an automatic time tracker has the added benefit of showing how your day actually pans out. It’s particularly useful if you’re wondering how much time to allocate to a particular task; just consult your automatic work memory to see how long you spent on similar ones in the past.
3. Frontload important tasks
When you’ve got a to-do list as long as your arm, it’s tempting to get the urgent-but-trivial tasks out the way first, just so you can begin checking things off. But in terms of effective time management, you do so at your peril! One of the best ways to manage time is to figure out what’s actually important, and there are several time management techniques that use this approach.
The first is the ‘Most Important Method’. Rather than writing out every single outstanding task you have and getting overwhelmed, this method advises selecting 1-3 of the most vital tasks and working on them – and only them – until your working day is done. Once again, like time blocking and deep work, the focus is on not getting distracted; once we remove those pesky disruptions that break our focus, we’re much more productive.
The other time management technique that follows this formula is the "Eisenhower Principle", named after the US President who used the method to organize his day. The Eisenhower Principle maintains you should always highlight what’s important over what’s urgent. Many of us are guilty of prioritzing tasks with looming deadlines, even when the outcome isn’t really that important. By isolating the tasks that are truly meaningful to us, we can focus on completing them instead.
Neither the “most important method” nor the Eisenhower Principle are saying you can’t complete those trivial-but-urgent tasks; they just encourage you to learn to priortize and get the truly important jobs done first. Then you’re free to reply to emails and return messages until your heart’s content... Alternatively, just outsource these pointless tasks so you have more time for quality work in the first place!