The past two years have shone a harsh light on our attitudes to productivity. In removing commuting, they gave us back a huge chunk of time each week, yet many of us actually used time to work more. While 75% of us found that working from home saved us time, the average workday expanded by half an hour. We witnessed “epidemic proportions” of work burnout, triggering the need for companies to start offering staff burnout breaks.
To many, this screams of colossally poor time management. Yet, considering how the business world treats time, it’s not at all surprising. To establish healthier work practices, we need to rethink what it actually means to use time effectively—moving away using time management to maximize productive output, to instead help us focus our energy in the most intelligent and meaningful way.
If your time management is leaving you exhausted, you’re doing it wrong.
Effective time management sounds positive. Who doesn’t want to use their time more wisely? Yet in a business context, “effective” has come to channel an unhealthy view of productivity. It’s one that focuses on getting the most output from a set unit of time—wringing every second to improve efficiency and cram more into your day.
This approach to effective time management makes us work harder and faster, try productivity apps, and “hack” our biology. It makes us work into the evenings and check our phones as soon as we wake up. We multitask and reply to emails while “fuelling up” at lunch. We obsess over maximizing every minute, try to make time work “harder” for us, and see ourselves as ruthless productivity machines. We treat sleep as a necessary process for enabling tomorrow’s productivity.
Yet this tantalizing ideal productivity always remains just out of reach—causing us to work harder, smarter, faster. Our natural limits aren’t something to be outsmarted or hacked, and approaching time in this way can cause our drive, energy levels, and physical and mental health to stutter and crash.
Effective time management starts with acknowledging that our relationship with time is intensely personal and complex. Managing time effectively isn’t only about getting our job done, it’s about finding time to work on the things that are truly important to us; the things that add joy and meaning to our lives.
There is enormous value in becoming conscious of how we manage our time, and we need to start treating time management as a tool to help us focus on our ambitions and experiences—rather than simply maximize our work output.
Rather than simply writing out a to-do list of all outstanding work tasks and feverishly working through until we cross them all off, we should think instead about what our to-do list should look like—if, indeed, we want to write one at all. How do we want to divide our time between our different priorities? How much time do we want to leave for ourselves? And what do we want to focus that time on?
Ultimately, we need to disentangle the notion of effective time management from the pursuit of flawless efficiency. We need to use it to build intentionality into our week, so we put effort into the right things. We need to use it to manage fluctuating energy levels and motivation, and give ourselves permission to stop—to relax, reflect, and even be bored. We need to use it to invest in our own health, happiness and personal development, which are not by-products of efficiency.
So, what does reframing effective time management actually look like in practice? How can we use it to work not only smarter, but happier and healthier too? Here are six ways we can redraw what effective time management means:
No matter what line of work you’re in, some tasks will always feel unfulfilling – but often they’re necessary evil. To avoid spending too long on unfulfilling tasks, getting bogged down with work or not knowing when it’s OK to stop, try strategies like timeboxing. Giving yourself a limited time to finish a task forces you to work more efficiently, and also means you’re less likely to get distracted.
Then there are those not-so-necessary activities and digital distractions that can leave us feeling exhausted or empty, and cut into the time we have to work on meaningful tasks. If you find yourself checking your phone too much, or being distracted by the internet or email, set yourself time limits for when (and how long) you can use them throughout the day.
Taking breaks and giving yourself space to breathe and relax should also be seen as a key part of effective time management. Our brains need to take breaks to recharge and reboot, and when you’re feeling tired, unmotivated or frustrated, sometimes stepping away from your desk and doing something totally unrelated to work is the best thing.
Try to ensure you make small personal investments throughout the day when you feel bored or exhausted at work. Rather than getting annoyed with yourself for not being able to “power through”, give yourself permission to carve out 30 minutes to read a book, go for a walk, or call a friend and have a chat during the work day.
Take some time to think about the things you do in both your personal and professional life that have a negative impact. You can enlist the help of an automatic activity tracker to do this for you. Then, do what you can to address these issues. If you find a certain task draining, or find yourself dreading a particular weekly meeting, speak to your manager about ways you can find a solution. If you have a habit of allowing tasks to drag on, try out different strategies to be stricter with your time.
Setting boundaries is one of the most crucial ingredients of effective time management. Not only is it important for productivity, but it’s also vital for mental wellbeing. Think about creating habits and routines that act as a separation between work and downtime, like a mock commute, so you’re better able to wind down after work and transition back into personal mode.
Be mindful of how long you’re working, too, and if you’re doing overtime, make sure you track it. It’s easy for those extra 30 minutes or hours to start piling up, which can be destructive. Being aware of exactly how much overtime you’re doing allows you to balance it out over the rest of the week.
Rather than keeping to-do lists or protecting space for deep work just so you can get important work done, use them to invest in yourself too. The time we want to spend developing ourselves, whether it’s to learn a new skill, practice yoga or write a book, is of real significance and can play a major role in how happy and motivated we feel both in and out of work.
So, keep the time you want to spend on that as accountable as the time you spend at work – or, at the very least, reframe that time as just as important. Downtime doesn’t exist just to prepare you for another working day. Personal investment and development are something to be celebrated and championed.
Boredom is a state most of us try to avoid – and when we feel bored, many of us have a tendency to feel like it’s a bad thing – that it’s proof we should be using our time in a more productive manner. But boredom actually has proven benefits – from boosting creativity to driving productivity – and can play a part in effective time management.
So, next time you feel bored, try to resist reaching for your phone, or making yourself do something you deem productive. Learn not to fear or feel guilty about unstructured, formless time in the week – and try to enjoy time that is free from expectations of investing in a hobby or personal betterment.