Let’s face it, distractions are rampant these days. Time management is more difficult than ever because everyone wants your attention.
If it isn’t your coworkers, significant other, or family members, it’s something digital. From endless entertainment at your fingertips to companies trying to sell you something, it never stops.
For those of us who are easily distracted (like me), time management is even more difficult.
Speaking from personal experience, this is largely because we have access to information instantly. If a question pops into my head, I can get the answer immediately. And consequently get drawn further into the subject and pulled away from what I intended to focus on.
How is person supposed to stay productive these days and actually get anything done?
For starters, self discipline is key. No time management strategy is going to work if you don’t have the self discipline to follow through with it.
There are numerous ways manage your time better, but not all are created equal. Some are trendy and popular, but don’t work for everyone. Others might be antiquated and not very useful for a modern lifestyle.
Then there are some that are timeless. These time management strategies work and stand the test of time. They can also be used by pretty much everyone.
The five strategies I will discuss in this post are:
- To Do Lists
- The Eisenhower Matrix (Important vs Urgent)
- Getting Organized
- Learning How to Schedule Effectively
- Training Your Focus and Concentration
Before we get to those though, I want to talk about some general challenges with time management.
Challenges With Time Management
Don’t be confused. Because I’m presenting you with some time management strategies, doesn’t mean it will be easy.
There are many challenges to effective time management. Understanding these before trying to learn any strategies can help avoid frustration.
You’ll be more likely to keep going and not quit. Realizing that certain challenges will always be there gives you an advantage. It can help you distinguish between what you can change and what just is.
These certainly aren’t all challenges with time management, but these are the heavy hitters. You’ve more than likely faced or will at some point face all four of these.
Time Management Challenge #1 – Lack of Real Priorities
Consider this quote:
“If everything is important, then nothing is.”Patrick Lencioni
In other words, you can’t give everything the same level of significance. If you do, then you’re at the mercy of whatever demands come your way.
You end up being very busy but not productive. All requests and inquiries feel like they need to be responded to immediately.
On the other hand, when you have solid priorities, it’s easier to recognize things of lesser importance. And in doing so, you’re able to put those things off until later. Or better yet, put them off indefinitely since they aren’t important.
Having no priorities makes it seem like you have time management issues. In reality you just haven’t decided what’s important to you. You might have general goals swirling around in your head but you haven’t ranked them.
When you’re not responding to the demands of others, you’re bouncing around from thing to thing.
Before you attempt any time management strategies, make sure your priorities are in order. If you don’t, the strategies will be useless.
Time Management Challenge #2 – Distractions
Distractions are a challenge to effective time management for almost everyone. Some more than others. I fall into the “more than others” category for sure.
Although distractions can’t be eliminated completely, they can be minimized. One of the easiest ways to do this is by making temptations harder to access.
A simple example of this would be leaving your smartphone in your car when studying at the library. I go into this further in my article on self discipline.
The point is to recognize what distracts you and remove those things to the extent that you can.
That, in and of itself, is a good time management strategy.
Time Management Challenge #3 – Interruptions
Think back to a time you set aside a block of time to do something and didn’t complete your task. Chances are you were interrupted by something.
Interruptions and distractions go hand in hand. Distractions cause interruptions and interruptions can be distractions.
The difference is that distractions are usually self inflicted and interruptions are from other people.
You can get rid of all the temptations in the world. However, if other people still have access to you they will undoubtedly interrupt you.
If you’re going to set aside some time to truly focus on something, you have to seclude yourself. This is very difficult for many people.
I’m guilty of this myself. At my current 9 to 5, the building I work in has private “enclaves” that anyone can use. These are small spaces that you can get away to work alone.
The other day I set aside some time to focus on requirements for a project. I went into one of these enclaves. My mistake was remaining available on Skype.
10 or so minutes in someone messaged me.
What they wanted wasn’t urgent at all. But because of my tendency to want to solve a problem, I responded. 40 minutes later I was still wrapped up in that issue. Ten minutes after that I had to get to another meeting.
Point being, if you’re going to make yourself unavailable you have to truly be unavailable. That is difficult to understand and execute in our modern society. It’s also essential for time management and reaching goals that are truly important to you.
Time Management Challenge #4 – Time Itself
Time management is hard because it’s finite. There are only so many hours each day and only so much you can do.
Regardless of what you are doing, you are missing out on the opportunity to do something else.
This is absolutely vital to understand.
Opportunity costs don’t just apply to finances. When you are engaged in an activity, you’re literally missing out on everything else you could be doing.
Knowing this can help you manage time better.
Scratch that. Deeply UNDERSTANDING this WILL help you manage time better.
It will help because you’ll realize how precious time is. The irrelevance and non-importance of certain activities will be illuminated.
That being said, even with the junk activities removed there will still likely be a lot that you want to get done.
The five strategies I’m about to get into will make you much better at recognizing your priorities and building them into your schedule.
That is the essence of managing your time well.
This is, of course, assuming you already know what you want to do.
If you don’t, check out my free personal mission and vision builder first. No sense trying to manage your time when you don’t even know where you’re going. You’ll just get nowhere efficiently.
Only one man’s opinion of course.
Anyway, since you’ve been patient enough to get this far I’ll go ahead and drop the strategies on you now.
Timeless Time Management Strategy #1 – To Do Lists
Super basic, but necessary. If you’re struggling with managing your time, chances are you either:
- Aren’t creating to do lists, Or
- Are creating to do lists, but they aren’t effective.
If you aren’t creating to do lists at all, you’re ignoring the first baby step to good time management. If this is you, I invite you to stop reading right now and do a brain dump.
Write down everything that needs done. Whether it’s incredibly important or the most trivial, write it down.
There, you’ve made your first to do list. It’s really nothing more than getting things out of your head and on paper (or digital device)
You’re likely doing this already in some fashion. Even jotting things down on sticky notes is one form of a to do list.
The problem is that it’s scattered. My first rule of creating an effective to do list is to make sure it is one place. It isn’t very helpful if you have information on sticky notes, napkins, a phone app, and your notebook.
Decide on one place for your to do list and stick to it.
Now that your tasks are written down and in once place, it’s time to prioritize them. A good way to do this is to identify each as important or urgent.
Put two columns next to your list. One will be important, the other will be urgent. It could look something like this:
Now all of your tasks are written down and you know whether they’re important and/or urgent.
Fantastic. What the hell do you do with this list now? The next section will provide some clarity.
Timeless Time Management Strategy #2 – Urgent vs. Important Matrix
I first came across this method in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people.
I even refer to it as Stephen Covey’s time management matrix. Apparently, the principle behind it was actually developed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Here’s what it looks like:
Time Management Matrix
Using the list you created in the last section, you can easily place items into one of the quadrants.
Good time management is achieved when you spend the bulk of your time in the green quadrant. These are the items that aren’t urgent but are important.
They are also the items easiest to neglect. Exercising and eating healthy are easy to understand examples.
It’s never “urgent” to go and exercise or eat a healthy meal. However, never exercising or consistently eating unhealthy over a period of time has negative consequences.
We tend to ignore these important but not urgent things because they aren’t pressing on us. Often though, they are the things that will improve our lives the most.
The pink quadrant is where the urgent and important tasks go. These can’t be ignored. These are the unavoidable crises’ that must be responded to quickly.
The yellow quadrant is for those tasks that are urgent but not important. The tasks here can feel urgent, but are usually important to other people and not you. Some phone calls and emails fall into this category.
Finally, the blue quadrant is for those activities that are neither important or urgent. Most leisure activities fall here. Watching television, social media surfing, etc.
How to use this matrix
It’s fairly simple. If you have identified whether an activity is important or urgent then you know where to place it. The matrix takes the guess work out of it.
Once you’ve done this, Take a look at those items that are in the first quadrant. Those items are important AND urgent. You clearly need to take care of these first.
Now you have resolved things that are both important and urgent. It is time to focus your energies on those things that are in the second quadrant. The things that are important but not urgent.
These are the things that give the best long term returns. You have to intentionally schedule time to do these things or they won’t get done.
In fact, this is what will typically happen:
- You’ll burn up a lot of energy in quadrant 1 because those things can’t be ignored.
- You’ll spend lots of time in quadrant 3 reacting to demands from other people. This burns up the rest of your time and energy.
- Feeling worn out, you’ll use whatever remaining time to retreat to leisure activities in quadrant 4.
So it’s crucial to identify those quadrant 2 (important but not urgent) activities and schedule them. We’ll discuss scheduling later.
Why this matrix works
You might be thinking to yourself that this sounds arduous. Initially it seems as though this is all work and no play.
It might be like that at first. Especially if you are starting out with really poor time management.
When starting out, there will probably seem like a lot of quadrant 1 things that must be done. In addition, you won’t be able to easily separate those from quadrant 3. In other words, you know it’s urgent but is it really important?
So a lot of your time will probably be spent in these two quadrants. The only option is to limit those leisure activities (quadrant 4) to ensure there’s time for the important but not urgent items.
The good thing is, as you practice more a couple of things will happen:
- Spending time in quadrant 2 will reduce the amount of quadrant 1 items. Ex: exercising and eating healthy reduces the chances of a major health crises later. Ex: Budgeting reduces the chances of a financial crises later.
- You will gain clarity about items that are urgent, but not really important. You will learn to say no or delegate some of these things.
As you shrink the amount of items in quadrants 1 and 3, there’s more time to spend in quadrant 2. Plenty of time. So much that you don’t have to miss out on your quadrant 4 leisure activities.
In a nutshell, managing time this way helps to clarify what’s important. Once clarified, it’s up to you to make sure you’re spending time there.
Timeless Time Management Strategy #3 – Get Organized
How much time do you spend looking for things?
An email? A file? Some sticky note that has important information on it? It could be anything that you need to move forward.
Just like you need your keys to get in your vehicle and go, you need certain things to get certain things done. Not my most articulate sentence but whatever. You get it.
It’s frustrating as hell to not be able to find things. Especially when you’re on the spot.
But even when you’re not on the spot, a lot of time can be wasted looking for things. Naturally, getting organized can save a lot of precious time.
One thing you should start doing if you want to be organized is write everything down. That’s not to say you shouldn’t practice keeping your memory sharp. You should. However, you should also realize your limitations.
Trying to remember everything is a frustrating and fruitless effort.
Keep it all in one place, whether it’s a notepad or a digital device. Some people call this a “Parking Lot”. It’s just a place for storing everything that comes to mind so you can get back to it later.
As far as organizing physical things and digital things, create a system and stick to it. Yes, this requires some planning. Chances are, if you aren’t organized you don’t particularly like planning.
Too bad. The time has come and you’ve gotta do it.
Organizing Physical Items
First, do a purge of things you simply don’t need. If you haven’t worn an article of clothing in a year, get rid of it. If you haven’t used a device in that long, get rid of it.
Have a garage sale, sell it on ebay, give it to charity, or trash it. Whatever you do, don’t let your weird emotional attachment force you to hang on to useless things.
Next, decide to have dedicated areas for things. For example, you should have a single place for all of your mail. There is no reason to have mail scattered all over the kitchen, living room, and bedroom.
This is true for other things as well. If items are the same or in a similar category you should have a dedicated space for them.
You will have to take some time to categorize things. You will also have to invest in some tools and storage. This is where the thought “I don’t have time for this” might pop into your head.
Remember that this is one of those “quadrant 2” activities. It isn’t urgent, but it is important. I can’t say enough that making time to do these things is critical.
When you can:
- Get rid of the unnecessary,
- Categorize items, and
- Keep items in their proper places
You have taken a huge leap in organizing the physical things in your life.
Organizing Non-Physical Things
Nowadays, organizing your digital life is just as important (if not more important) than organizing physical things. Especially when it comes to time management.
There are so many emails, documents, and other things to manage, it can become overwhelming.
My first piece of advice is to do a purge of useless email subscriptions. In other words, unsubscribe from anything that you never read or open.
If for no other reason than to eliminate the time you use up just deleting emails. There are some of you who don’t even open or delete emails. This is another problem entirely. I don’t know how you folks even know when you have anything important.
Back to the point though. If you are on an email list where the content provides you no value, unsubscribe from it. It is a time waster in one form or another.
Create folders for different senders or types of emails. Personally, I use the sender because it’s easier for me than categories. For instance, someone might have an email folder simply called “bills”. Not me, I have specific folders for my electric bill, internet bill, etc. This way, I rarely have to look for anything.
You can even have emails from specific senders automatically go to the specific folder. I like everything in my inbox first but if it’s your cup of tea, go for it. Go for whatever works for you.
Clean up your computer files and documents as well. Trash what’s clearly unnecessary and create desktop folders for certain projects or categories.
Some of you digital hoarders might be afraid you’ll want or need things down the road. They may even be hard to categorize. That’s okay, just create a folder called “Archive” and put them there.
If your “parking lot” or main to-do list is digital, you should definitely use something that is cloud based. In other words, whenever you make an update on your phone, that update also shows up on any other device you use.
Personally, I’ve used Evernote, Todo Cloud, and Google Tasks. They’re all cloud based and are easy to use. Currently, I have a hybrid method of to do planning that combines Google Tasks (digital) and the Self Journal (physical).
I’ll do a post about that method at some point, just not today. I’ve only been doing it for a few weeks. I was purely Todo Cloud for a long time, switched to purely Self Journal, and just started the hybrid method.
But enough about me.
As you can see, organizing your digital items is similar to organizing your physical ones. The idea is still to:
- Get rid of the unnecessary (unsubscribe from email lists, delete files and documents from your computer, etc)
- Categorize items (specific email folders, specific folders on your computer desktop, etc)
- Keep items in their proper places (move emails from inbox to their proper folder, save documents to the right folder, etc)
Timeless Time Management Strategy #4 – Learn How to Schedule Effectively
This section assumes you are making to do lists and know what is important and urgent. If not, you need to read and start executing on everything above first.
What is the greatest benefit to scheduling effectively? You’ll finally start to make some real progress on those items that are important but not urgent.
Start by setting aside some time on a Sunday to look at your week ahead. You should have a calendar view of your week when you do this.
Fill in everything that can’t be avoided and is already scheduled. Just doing this will usually show that a lot of time still remains.
It will also clarify exactly when that free time is.
This is where you want to fill in those important but not urgent activities. These should be a priority and you have to schedule your priorities. If you don’t, other things will eat up that time 100% of the time.
After that, it all comes down to your ability to stay true to your intentions. When the time comes will you actually buckle down and do what you planned?
You have to follow through.
Following through isn’t easy for everyone but you have to commit. Scheduling specific time will reveal your true commitment to what you say is important.
Don’t get tripped up by not properly planning. This could include notifying others and/or making sure your environment will be conducive to productivity.
For example, something on my list might be to discuss finances with my wife. I clearly need to make sure she’s available during that time as well.
On the other hand I might just need to tackle some financial stuff on my own. This can still be an issue if I haven’t planned ahead.
Personally, I would need to:
- Advise my family that I will be working somewhere else at a certain time, OR
- Advise my family that I am working at home during that time and cannot be interrupted.
I honestly can’t schedule anything Mon-Fri evening if I don’t do one of the above things.
It just doesn’t work. They expect me to be available unless I give advance notice that I will be unavailable.
Set yourself up for success. Schedule your priorities and make sure anyone else who needs to know, knows.
Timeless Time Management Strategy #5 – Train Your Focus and Concentration
Honestly, I’ve set aside an hour to work on something and spent less than 10 minutes on it. I think I’m more distracted than the most but we’ve all experienced something similar.
This can happen even when you think you’ve set yourself up for success.
For example, you’ve secluded yourself and dedicated an hour to work on something. Right before you begin you get an email about an interesting problem.
You dive into that interesting problem for the rest of the hour. You feel good that you’ve helped out but didn’t accomplish what YOU intended.
Does this sound familiar? If not, it’s probably happened to you but you just weren’t paying attention.
Training your focus and concentration is partly about truly committing from point A to point B. In other words, “I’m going to work on X from 5:00pm to 6:00pm, period.”
What I find helpful is timers. Setting a timer provides a very clear start and finish without having to think about it. Set it and forget it.
If you’ve never tried the pomodoro technique you should give it a go. At a very basic level, you set a timer for 25 minutes and work straight through.
Once the 25 minutes is up, you take a five minute break. Then you do another 25 minutes and so on.
The amount of time can be modified based on personal preference. I’m an advocate for this method because it has worked really well for me.
I think it’s the specific amount of work followed by built in break times. All you have to do is commit and force yourself to stick to it.
If you struggle with focus and concentration, the pomodoro technique is a simple tool. One that you can implement immediately.
At the end of the day, time management is all about self management. If you don’t have any self discipline, you won’t be able to manage your time well.
Why is that?
Well it takes discipline to build self awareness and discover your particular challenges to time management.
Lack of real priorities, distractions, interruptions, and not recognizing opportunity costs are all real challenges. What are YOUR particular challenges though?
You might struggle with one much more than the others. Or you might struggle with two and neither of the others. Your greatest struggle might not even be in this post.
You still have to find out what it is and be conscious of it. That’s the only way to stop operating on auto pilot and get some control over it.
The time management strategies I have mentioned will work for anyone. I truly believe that. And they’re timeless because they’ll work now or 70 years from now.
The hard part is actually trying them. Then sticking with them for long enough to have an impact. Again, self management or self discipline is key. Doing these things is much harder than thinking about doing them.
Start small if you need to. Commit to making a simple to do list every day for a week. The next week, do the same thing but commit to identifying every item as urgent or important.
Then try implementing the urgent vs important matrix and so on.
Maybe this post has helped you come up with another idea? The point is to try something and really give it a shot.
If you’ve read all the way down here, you obviously care enough about it. Now take the next step and actually do something.