We can all be guilty of saying things like ‘I don’t have the time for that’. And with the world becoming ever-busier and our work and personal lives often blurring into one long to-do list, it’s easy to feel like we’ve lost control of the clock.
Time management is a crucial skill for success in the world of work. It’s a skill that we see in countless job adverts and is often asked about in interviews. It’s also especially important in the age of information overload, fast-paced work and nonstop notifications from emails and social media apps.
But what actually is it, and can you really learn to better manage your time?
Defining time management
To me, time management is the ability to use your time in a way that is efficient and productive for you. That could take all different shapes – whether you have someone to look after, multiple businesses to run across different time zones, or classes and hobbies scheduled in for your weekends. It’s essentially about working smarter rather than harder or for longer and requires you to strategically assess your tasks in order for you to balance and prioritize your commitments. After all, time is a precious – and finite – resource, and we should spend it on what makes us happy.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of this skill is to highlight what happens when you can’t manage your time. Feeling like you’re behind or haven’t got enough time to complete something can make you feel more stressed, miss deadlines, have lower productivity, and potentially impact your professional reputation.
On the flip side, if you can manage your time well, you could experience the opposite effects and have lower stress levels, feel more in control of your workload, and have more time to spend on your passions and with your loved ones. All of these factors can contribute to better overall wellbeing both in the workplace and at home.
Keep your priorities in check
From an organizational perspective, good time management within your team ensures your people are delivering on what needs to be done and achieving their goals. So, what advice can I give you about improving your time management skills?
Mark Twain once said: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Deciding what task is the most important and making it a priority, whether it’s the biggest task on your to-do list or not, ensures that you get it done. List everything out – from phoning a supplier, visiting a customer, or emailing over a report – and work your way through them by order of importance, weighing up what the consequences would be if you didn’t complete that task. Doing so means you can see which ones are critical and must be completed urgently, and which can take a backseat and don’t necessarily have to be completed that day.
Ordering your to-do list by importance also enables you to visually recognize how much you have on your plate. The word ‘no’ often has negative connotations, with many thinking that by saying it you’re actually admitting to not understanding how to get something done. But using this phrase often doesn’t mean you can’t complete something altogether. It’s just not possible right now. Saying ‘no’ helps you to regain control of your time and set boundaries, like with the phrase ‘I can’t do this right now, but I could look at it once I have completed this other task.’ Returning to your prioritized to-do list to see where this new task would fit in the list can also help you make an informed judgment on where best to dedicate your attention.
Master the art of delegation
Sometimes a task is too urgent to decline, and that’s where delegation can help. Good leaders are those who are able to take on and give up responsibility. Knowing what to delegate and when is a key part of good time management and team management. Playing to the strengths of your employees and allocating tasks accordingly offers others the chance to develop their skills and grow professionally. It can also introduce new ways of thinking and completing tasks that might be more efficient or creative than the current methods.
On the surface, multitasking can seem like a great way to tick off multiple tasks at once and free up some capacity for other commitments. But according to the American Psychological Association (APA), multitasking can lower your productivity and see you spend more time completing multiple tasks rather than if you just focused on one. Remember, good time management isn’t about being super-busy, it’s about being smart with your time and attention. That means focusing on completing one task at a time before moving onto the next item. Removing distractions can reduce the desire to multitask so, if it’s appropriate, turn off notifications and put your phone into ‘do not disturb’ mode.
Offer flexibility to your team
We all have the same hours in the day, but it’s important to recognize that productivity can look very different from one person to another. Whilst one employee might be most productive first thing in the morning, another might be more focused late at night. Productive people also take regular breaks and carve out space in their schedules to refresh their brain after focusing for a set period of time. Making allowances for individual preferences where possible and offering the flexibility to work in a way that best suits your team, especially with non-time-sensitive tasks, can empower your employees to be more autonomous and productive.
Small steps for big results
One thing that I find motivational is to focus on how specific tasks or goals will help me fulfill a longer-term vision. Yes, we humans like short-term results and instant gratification, but it also helps to see how tasks feed into the bigger picture. Asking yourself questions like, “How will this help grow the brand?” or “Will this deliver a better customer experience?” can help put into context why you’re spending the time and effort on a certain project. Reframing your mind to think in this way can make it easier to explain to others why they need to prioritize certain tasks and also help you to allocate resources. On the other hand, it can also highlight tasks that are taking longer than expected to complete and enable you to put in place the necessary support.
Good time management is all about finding what works best for you. Mastering this skill will help you find balance in your life and thrive in the workplaces of the future. If you feel like you or those around you are struggling with staying on top of your workload and making the most of your free time, it’s worth exploring some of these suggestions and seeing how you can get the best out of your day.
Bernard Marr is a futurist, strategic advisor to many of the world’s best-known organizations and award-winning author of the new book Future Skills: The 20 Skills and Competencies Everyone Needs to Succeed in a Digital World.