An old Chinese proverb says, “An inch of time is worth an inch of gold; yet you can’t buy an inch of time at an inch of gold.”
The gist? Time is precious, and it's not something we can trade, win, or conjure up. We all have the same 86,400 seconds in a day, but it's a use them or lose them scenario. If we don't harness the time available and use it wisely, it quickly ends up controlling us—resulting in missed opportunities, unmet goals, and general stress.
Frittering away time with no clear roadmap of how to spend your work hours can be a severe career disruptor for many employees and a costly headache for employers. But don’t worry if this all sounds doom and gloom—this guide digs deep into effective time management tips to maximize your day.
What does good time management look like?
Imagine what it's like to log off at the end of your workday, knowing that you've completed everything you set out to do today. Sure, you've still got tasks to accomplish tomorrow, but you've already created a to-do list in priority order, so you know what you'll tackle first thing. You might also:
- Delegate projects to a suitable colleague
- Only schedule meetings that add value to your work
- Reflect on the week behind you to learn lessons for the week ahead
- Block out time in your diary so you don’t overbook yourself.
This isn’t the pot at the end of the rainbow. It’s exactly how effective time managers approach their workdays. They still might hit occasional bumps in the road—life happens to them, too, and we only have limited time available. But they have the skills and confidence to overcome them and be productive.
Why is time management important at work?
Time management techniques are skills we can use in all aspects of life. If you're consistently late meeting friends in your personal life or dread the daily struggle of getting your kids to school before the bell goes, you could use a few pointers. But time management serves a special purpose in the workplace, benefiting the entire company.
1. Hit project deadlines on time
Deadlines are a thorn in our side. And they're especially unpleasant when you feel stressed about looming dates in the diary but manage to miss them anyway. As author Douglas Adams once quipped, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
We also have to battle planning fallacy, a concept coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who believe humans often underestimate the time it takes to complete a project making it more likely we'll miss our deadlines. This is due to optimism bias when we believe that future events will go more smoothly than they have done in the past.
Example: Your project is due a week from now, and you know from experience that similar work has taken 25 hours to complete. But your sense of optimism convinces you to set aside only two working days—an unrealistic time frame that leaves you frazzled. And now, you need to request a project extension.
What could you have done differently? How about using time management skills to budget five hours for each of the five working days available? You'd have hit the deadline and kept your project on track.
2. Achieve higher-quality work in less time
Being efficient means you can blitz through your task list in less time and dedicate yourself to the work that matters. Research reveals that employees spend 91 minutes on daily tasks and meetings that aren't important to their role.
But employees who organize their time better will free up billable hours to invest in other value-adding areas of the business. And better still, they’ll release creative juices to produce high-quality work—the type that wins multiple nods of approval from colleagues and customers.
3. Improve client relations
Have you ever stopped to consider your time management reputation? At its core, effective time management is about respect—for yourself and other parties—so it's better to present yourself as punctual and reliable.
If you've been pegged as "always late," it sends a message that you believe your time is worth more than your colleagues and customers. And your poor time management will eventually have a knock-on effect on morale, sales, and profitability.
On the other hand, if you demonstrate through actions that you respect schedules and deadlines, others will reciprocate. You'll achieve better results in internal meetings and greater customer loyalty when you're not painted with the "unreliable" brush.
4. Avoid financial penalties
Deadlines aren’t just there for the sake of it (even if it feels that way.) Some have considerable financial costs associated with them.
Example: the IRS Failure to File penalty fee is 5% of the unpaid taxes for each month, with a maximum overall fee equal to 25% of your unpaid taxes. The best way to avoid hefty penalties like this is to file and pay your tax by the deadline. Mark similar essential dates in the calendar and give yourself plenty of time to attend to them.
5. Boost team morale
Time management is often considered a solo pursuit, but it can impact your entire team if you’re good or bad at it. Let’s say you’re working on a collaborative software development project and are late completing your stage. This can hold up your teammates’ progress and create friction between everyone involved.
The blame game is terrible for morale, so make sure you understand the implications of any delays and communicate them openly to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable, recommends opening up visibility into employee schedules to ensure each team member stays on track with their most important tasks. The aim is to "sync expectations of how you spend your time with the stakeholders in your life, such as [family members], co-workers, and managers.”
6. Lower stress levels and reduce burnout
Time management relies on having enough time during the working day to complete tasks without overwhelm or anxiety muscling in on the action. When you reduce the burden of too much work, expect team members to feel energized, less stressed and report fewer instances of burnout.
Stress and Burnout Specialist Katie Maycock explains how employers can play their part in preventing work overload: “Understand what your team is spending their time on that could be swamping them and see what support you can offer. If someone is consistently having to work overtime, understand why and what support they need to ensure they can stick to their contracted hours."
How can you organize your time better?
We can break time management down into a series of core steps: planning, prioritizing, eliminating, focusing, and automating. Think of each as an essential cog in the wheel, working in harmony to move you in the right direction toward a more productive workday.
Planning is the foundation of any time management strategy. Research shows that having a plan satisfies the various cognitive processes that help us pursue our professional or personal goals. Or as author Annie Dillard puts it, “A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”
Your plan should include:
- Knowing when you’ll work (based on company requirements and your most productive hours)
- Deciding on your breaks (when you’ll rest and how long for)
- Choosing what you’ll accomplish in your work time (do you plan to complete an entire project or work on a series of micro-goals?)
- Selecting a time management strategy (such as working in Pomodoros, time blocking, or task batching.)
Prioritizing your tasks
The average knowledge worker spends 60% of their time on busywork or work about work. From meeting scheduling and post-meeting follow-ups to proofreading a presentation that someone else has already approved, it's easy to waste time on tasks that don't move the needle.
That's why prioritizing your work and tackling the most pressing tasks first will set you up for success. You can prioritize tasks based on urgency (e.g., must-dos that are due today) and importance (which tasks contribute the most to your team's success?)—use the Eisenhower Matrix to understand how to divide your important and urgent tasks accordingly.
Another option is to use the Ivy Lee method to pick six tasks to complete the following day and list them in priority order. You'll only begin the second task after finishing the first, and so on.
Eliminating pesky distractions
Distractions at work total around 60 hours each month for an individual employee. Multiply that number across your entire workforce, and it's a tremendous waste of time and money. Some culprits? Research shows that the most common distractions in the workplace are:
- Chatty co-workers: up to 80% of workers are distracted by their colleagues either in-person or over messaging technology.
- Unnecessary meetings: companies spend up to 31 hours each month locked in discussions with no tangible value.
- Hunger: there’s no quieting the body’s call for sustenance.
- Multitasking: the human brain prefers to focus on one task at a time.
- Stress and anxiety: some 83% of US workers experience work-related stress.
- Desk clutter: those loose paperclips or dirty coffee mug can drain your focus.
- Tech distractions: your smartphone, your inbox, your Slack notifications, open browser windows, anything that beeps or flashes at you as you’re trying to work.
- The lure of social media: it’s so tempting to become lost in your feed, but unless you’re making connections or searching for quotes, social media rarely adds to your work in the moment.
Reducing distractions requires discipline, but it's worth it to increase your output in half the time. Be bold and turn your notifications off, include meeting-free days in your calendar, learn to say "no" to your colleagues, and do whatever it takes to stay focused during a deep work sprint.
Focusing on one thing at a time
We eliminate distractions to improve our concentration, but it isn’t always external factors that interrupt our focus. Trying to smash through too many tasks at once can also be a total time waster, fragmenting your focus and leading to stressful, inefficient work.
Multitasking worsens your working memory so try to commit to a single task at a time. Invest your full attention in that one task until it's complete, and you have the motivation to dedicate fully to the next one.
Automating repetitive work
If you notice you’re performing the same tasks day in day out, filling out the same dusty spreadsheets or copy/pasting the same email content into a Notion database, you can automate many of these sequences to win back valuable hours.
With clever app integrations, your tools can talk to each other in the background, conducting essential tasks behind the scenes as you concentrate on the work that deserves your attention. Ditch your manual processes to build workflows like:
- Sending out a templatized email message to every newsletter signup
- Storing customer details in a database after they complete a survey
- Updating employee records with every timesheet received
- Generating invoices based on hours worked.
Timely tip: Timely directly connects with almost 100 different apps in your tech stack, or you can build a workflow using Zapier or Make to power your automation.
Manage your time better with automatic time tracking
Even manual time tracking can erode your productivity, which is why we're proud that Timely’s automated approach reduces tracking admin by 75%.
So, now you've grasped the fundamentals of time management, it's a great time to conduct a time audit using Timely's automatic time tracking software. You'll learn exactly how you've been spending your time and start using your hours more carefully.
Beware: the black-and-white data can be both empowering and eye-opening!
An effective time management strategy is all about creating systems and processes to maximize your productivity. Add in the right time management tools, and it'll feel like you've been given the gift of time.