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At its heart, time management isn’t really about managing time at all – it’s about managing yourself. We all have the same 24 hours each day, but how well we use them is completely down to us. The best time management techniques improve the ways you work, protect you against distraction and lock your concentration. There are lots of them floating about on the internet, so we've boiled down the five time management techniques – and their associated tools – that we've found make the biggest difference.
1. Be intentional: Keep a to-do list
Drawing up a to-do list might not seem like a groundbreaking technique, but it’s one of the most powerful ways to become more productive. The best to-do lists include a variety of tasks: quick and urgent jobs that might be completed in 10 minutes and bigger, operational tasks that are a work in progress. Having a set list of tasks helps keep you intentional about what you work on. This can apply to all kinds of work industries from SEO agencies with freelancers to software companies with developers.
It effectively lays out what you must complete – all tasks that pop up outside of it are secondary – and if your mind does wander, a quick glance at your list reminds you of what you should be doing. Keeping a to-do list also allows you to enjoy one of life’s unique pleasures: visualizing what you want to achieve, and then striking your way through it.
There are a ton of to-do list apps out there: Todoist is one of the most popular due to its flexibility and simplicity. Apple users might also want to check out Things, a complex yet minimalist app—easy to organize but with no shortage of features.
2. Be prioritized: Rank your tasks
If writing a to-do list is the first step towards better time management, prioritizing your tasks is the next. It guides you through the day’s activities in order of importance, ensuring that the tasks that matter most are dealt with first. When ranking your tasks, you should always prioritize what’s most important to you. Figure out which tasks and activities are high-value, which will have the most positive effect on you, your work, and your team. Using the time management matrix is a super useful way of doing this! The usefulness of prioritization can’t be overstated – without it, we often end up focusing on work that’s pressing but not actually that important, simply because a deadline is looming. Prioritization is your most effective defence against the lure of urgent-yet-inconsequential tasks.
Apps like MyLifeOrganized are to-do lists that factor in things like deadlines and your own prioritizations to help you calculate what should be top of your list. nTask is another helpful app that allows you to organize, prioritize and monitor tasks as you go along.
3. Be focused: manage distractions
Despite our best intentions, we all get distracted. From social notifications to talkative colleagues – and the very human problem of procrastination – actually sitting down and getting things done is almost always harder than it should be. Given that it takes about 23 minutes to refocus after an interruption, the productive cost of our daily distractions quickly adds up. So you need to effectively manage your distractions in order to protect your flow states and focus. Psst: This article is part of our series on popular time management methods. Check out some of our other guides on the blog when you're done reading.
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80 20 rule
Eat The Frog
While some distractions easy to identify, many people aren’t aware of numerous pressures that fracture their days. One you have identified the source, you can set controls in place so you decide when to let notifications in. Common culprits like email, meetings and Slack can be effectively managed with the help of a clear communication framework.
For identifying and quantifying distractions, an app like Dewo is your best bet—surfaces the time you spend on different activities and even quantifies how often you switch context in a day. If you just need more discipline when your concentration is waning, apps like StayFocusd and Mindful Browsing can put access restrictions on time-wasting websites.
4. Be structured: Time block your work
A structured schedule is crucial for actually delivering what you set yourself. It helps you protect space for your work and sets a healthy pressure to actually complete it. Time blocking is one of the most productive ways of doing this, as it prevents one task from overtaking your entire day and stops you from multi-tasking. Many of us juggle multiple jobs at the same time, believing we’ll get more done, but in fact the opposite is true; we are most productive when we focus on one thing at a time. Time blocking is essentially a thoughtful approach to budgeting the set amount of hours you have each day between all the things you need to do. Set aside small periods of time for admin-style tasks like email, scheduling and returning calls, and larger periods for more detailed, in-depth or analytical work.
An intelligent calendar is your best friend here—we've put a whole list together of some of the best. Consider using one that also tracks the time you actually end up spending on different tasks, so you can optimize time blocking for future schedules.
5. Be self-aware: Track your time
Ultimately, you can’t improve how you use your time, without understanding how you actually use it in the first place. Tracking your time is elementary here—it provides the insight and self-awareness to make effective changes, surfacing hidden time drains, highlighting inefficient processes and laying out your productive patterns. You can also use it to ensure you stick to see how you perform against your time-blocked schedule.
Luckily, you no longer have to expend time in order to understand time. Automatic tracking apps can now do the heavy lifting for you, recording every detail of how you spend your day in the background for you. There are no start/stop timers to think about, and you don’t have to write anything down—just get on with your day and dive into the detail when you're ready.