Have you noticed that some people seem to be proud of how little free time they have?
Whenever you ask them how they’re doing, they launch into a speech about their to-do list and how little time they have to get everything done.
I’m not sure when the idea of being incredibly busy became trendy, but if you’re like me, the idea of running around stressed about time is less than appealing.
Don’t be fooled by these humble-braggers. You don’t have to give up all your spare time to achieve things in life. You just need to know how to manage your time.
How do I know? I run two of my own businesses, and I still have lots of time for the things I love—spending time with family, practicing my creative writing, and traveling to far-flung destinations.
It took a while to find the best time management strategies that work for me, but now that I have, life is much more fulfilling. My only regret is that I didn’t stumble across these techniques sooner, back when I was a busy college student or navigating the early stages of my career.
The time management strategies you use to create freedom in your calendar (and your life) largely depend on your personality and working habits. In this article, I’ve laid out steps you can take to find the right strategies for you, and I’ve outlined some of the best techniques to help you master your relationship with time.
The first vital step: taking stock of your time
If you are feeling overwhelmed at work and want to improve your time management skills, it’s essential to have a deep understanding of where your time is being spent right now.
This might seem obvious, but this step is about more than just knowing how many hours you work a week. To start organizing your time, take a look at your daily life on a granular level.
Here’s a short exercise to help you with this step. You’ll need a pen and paper, or a fresh document, to write down your answers to these questions:
Question 1. How many “open hours” do you have each month?
There are 24 hours in a day, but not all of those hours are what I call “open hours”—time in the day you can dedicate to work or leisure. So to figure out how much time you have overall, we need to subtract out a rough estimate of your “closed hours.” Tally up how much time you spend:
- Sleeping at night (and daytime naps if that’s your thing)
- Preparing and eating meals
- Running essential errands (like caring for a pet, grocery shopping, paying bills, etc.)
- Other regular obligations (like childcare, showering, getting dressed, etc.)
Subtract this figure from 24, and now you know exactly how many hours you have each day to schedule your time. Write down that figure somewhere prominent—it will be essential as you plan your time going forward.
Question 2: How much free time do you want?
Time management is all about prioritizations, which is why I recommend asking this question before you turn to your work-related time.
Your goal with time management should be to free up time so you can spend more of your life doing what you want. So our next step is to figure just how many hours, in an ideal world, you’d have to do what matters most in life.
Resist the urge to factor in how many hours you need to work at this stage. For now, think about how much time you’d like to spend seeing family, going on adventures, enjoying hobbies, or doing nothing at all every week.
Err on the side of generosity—even if the number of free hours you desire seems unachievable now, this figure will give you a goal to work toward as you develop your time management techniques.
Question 3. Where are your working hours going?
Now it’s time to turn your attention to your working hours—or if you’re still in school, your class and study hours.
Even if you already know the total number of hours you dedicate to work, you’ll need to go a level deeper and see which work-related tasks are taking up the most time.
The easiest way to do this is to use a timer like Toggl, which allows you to set a timer whenever you start a new task. The free tool can give you valuable data about how you spend your time every day, with handy charts like this so you can visualize where your time is going:
If you use this timer for a few weeks, you’ll start to see patterns that illuminate which work-related tasks are using up your time. This info will help you as you begin to organize your time into something manageable.
10 time management strategies to try
Now that you’ve gathered the necessary data about where your time is going (and where you wish your time was going), you’re ready to employ new strategies to get your schedule under control.
Below you’ll find some tried-and-tested time management techniques. It’s unlikely that all of these will match your personality and working style; the key is to experiment with those that interest you and see which make the most improvement.
1. Time management matrix
They say time is money—so if you really want to manage your time, spend it on the things that have the most value and impact.
To achieve this, you need to prioritize your weekly tasks, which can be difficult if you’re already feeling overwhelmed with everything you have to do.
One of the best methods for prioritizing your time comes from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose own time management strategies eventually developed into what’s known as “Eisenhower’s Principle.”
Note: You may also hear this referred to as a prioritization matrix.
The principle involves prioritizing your tasks in a matrix, so you can visualize what is urgent and important and what can be delayed.
We’ve made a simple downloadable version of this prioritization matrix, so you can start filling it out yourself. Here’s how to do it, using the lists of tasks you created in the first part of this article.
Important and urgent
Fill out the box labeled “Important and Urgent” first—in here, you’ll list any task that is both important to your growth and goals and urgent in some way (it needs to be done soon).
For example, you might list any essential work projects here or things like applying for jobs, preparing for travel, paying bills, or buying a birthday gift for your bestie.
Any task that fits in this box should immediately climb to the top of your priority list—they will be your focus as you plan your time.
Important and not urgent
In this box, list any task that is very important to your life goals but doesn’t have a pressing or set deadline.
Tasks here might include going to the gym, engaging in your hobbies, taking a course, or spending time with loved ones.
While these tasks may not have the same sense of urgency as those in the first box, they’re still important and deserve a place of prominence on your priority list.
Things in this box often get put on the back burner when we’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Having them listed here will help you carve time in your schedule for them.
Not important and urgent
Be wary of items in this segment—tasks that are both pressing but unimportant can cause anxiety and waste time.
When reviewing the tasks in this box, ask yourself: “If this isn’t important to me, why is it urgent?”
There can be several different answers, but if you’re like me, many of these tasks will be related to the requirements and expectations of others.
Perhaps your boss demands you turn in a weekly report, even though they’ve admitted they don’t read it.
Maybe you agreed to go to every single one of your friend’s DJ sets, even though they happen three times a week and last four hours.
If you find yourself with a lot of time-eaters in this segment, then pay close attention to time management strategy number 7 below.
Not important and not urgent
In this segment, we find our low-hanging fruit. Tasks that are both unimportant and non-urgent can probably be eliminated, or at least cut back so they aren’t taking up so much time.
Sometimes the tasks here are things we do mindlessly. For example, do you spend an hour scrolling through your phone in the morning, when you could be getting more sleep, making a nice breakfast, getting some fresh air… you get the idea.
When you break down your to-do list into a matrix like this, it becomes much simpler to visualize what is and isn’t important and where you can start eliminating tasks to save time.
2. Identify, track, and reduce distractions
I think of distractions as “time vampires”—the actions, behaviors, and obligations that quietly suck up the hours in a day until it feels like we don’t have time to get anything done.
Not all distractions are bad—in fact, allowing healthy distractions can help you from feeling overwhelmed at work. For example, having a good chat with your work friend after a stressful presentation is a distraction that can help you both relax, and when you’re ready, return to work feeling clear-minded and prepared.
But some distractions really are just pointless. Of course, these include unproductive work meetings and calls, but sometimes, the biggest distractions come from ourselves.
If our focus is constantly tugged by other distractions, we’re losing time little by little as we reorient ourselves to the task at hand.
So how do we eliminate these pointless distractions? Well, you can’t—distractions from other people, from technology, and from events are inevitable.
But you can start looking for patterns and ways to cut back on distractions. The key is to be mindful of your distractions. When you realize your focus has been pulled away, reflect on what happened, why, and the result.
For example, I’ve noticed that every time I finish a section of this article, I pick up my phone and get sucked into a vortex of TikTok and text messages.
If I pause to reflect on this habit, I have thoughts like this:
- My brain needs a break every time I finish a section or two of this article.
- My phone is the easiest distraction to reach for.
- Would it be better if I stood up and stretched for 5 minutes at the end of each section?
- Should I keep my phone in a drawer or out of sight when I want to focus?
If you take time to reflect every once in a while, you’ll begin to see ways you can cut back on those distractions and add some more free time back into your day.
3. Discover your most productive times of day
No particular time of day is universally more productive than the other. But on an individual level, we can maximize our time by aligning our to-do list with how we feel throughout each day.
To figure out your most productive time of day, imagine you have a totally free day coming up tomorrow. What time would you go to bed, and what time would you wake up in the morning?
This will give you a good idea of the general range of your ideal waking hours. If you said you would prefer to go to bed at 1:30 a.m. and wake up around 10 a.m., odds are your most productive hours of the day will be later than someone who naturally wakes up around 7 a.m. on their days off.
It’s not just about when you wake up, but also when you have the most energy. Once again, using a timer to track your productivity for a few weeks will give you some good insights. You may find that (like me), your productivity takes a nosedive after you’ve eaten or that you get a spike of energy around 8 p.m. every day. You can also use a journal to quickly jot down how you’re feeling in terms of energy and emotion throughout each day.
When you recognize these patterns, you can plan your work-time and off-time accordingly. For example, if you’re someone who feels energetic and creative in the morning, try waking up early to practice some of your art. If you have more energy in the late afternoon, you can take it easier in the morning and schedule your big work tasks for later in the day.
4. Try time blocking to help prioritize your work
People have been using calendars and personal planners as time management tools for eons. Using a calendar to save time is easier than ever, thanks to the myriad of apps and programs available online.
Personally, I’m a fan of Google’s calendar app because it allows you to schedule reminders and out-of-office periods right in your calendar. But no matter what program you use, you can start using what’s known as “time blocking” or “calendar blocking” to get on top of your to-do list.
This time management strategy requires taking a look at your prioritized to-do list and blocking out time in your calendar to dedicate to your most important tasks. Here’s an example:
It’s easy for our time to get slowly eaten up by surprising meetings, unexpected events, and requests or demands from others. When you practice time blocking, you are putting up walls against these time-eaters so that you can guarantee you’ll have the space in your calendar to get things done.
This strategy can also help with focus. When you know that you’re supposed to dedicate just one hour to finish up that big presentation, it’s a lot easier to put your phone on silent, put on some good tunes, and get to work.
5. Use the Pomodoro time management technique
The Pomodoro technique reduces distractions and increases productivity by using a timer to break up your day into 25-minute segments. That’s the average amount of time people can be productive without stopping for a rest, according to this theory.
If it sounds simple, that’s because it is—so simple, in fact, that you can easily use this handy Pomodoro timer to get started. Here’s how it works:
1. The Pomodoro timer runs for 25 minutes, during which you should be completely focused on the task at hand. Each of these blocks is called a “Pomodoro.”
2. In between each Pomodoro, you take a short break of five minutes.
3. After four Pomodoros (or when you feel like you need it), take a longer break of 15-25 minutes.
Proponents of the Pomodoro technique say that the timer makes it easier to focus because you know you have a limited amount of time to work on something. The regular breaks also help you reset and rest so that you don’t burn out.
6. Try the “chunking” or “batching” time management strategy
When you go to the grocery store, it makes sense to grab all the items in one section at a time. You go for all the fruits and veggies while you’re in the produce area and pick up your yogurt, milk, and eggs while in dairy.
The “chunking” or “batching” time management technique treats your daily tasks like shopping for groceries. Group your tasks together in logical ways that make them easier to knock out. This helps you avoid having to drag your attention from the task at hand all the way to aisle 7 just to take care of one thing.
To get started with this strategy, look at your to-do list and group tasks that can be done in the same physical space. For example, you might put a little star next to all the work that has to be done at your desk and underline tasks that need to be done outside your house.
Batch those tasks together, and then go a step deeper. With the tasks that you need to do at your desk, how many of them require the same apps and tools? Can you make that trip to the bank after you drop your dog at the groomers?
Think also about the energy required for each task. Are there a bunch of little things you can do all at once, so you can focus on a bigger task later? Can you tackle all of your errands at once so you don’t have to waste time driving around?
Any time you can bundle tasks together for efficiency’s sake, you’ll be shaving off time from your must-do list that you can transfer to your want-to-do list.
7. Practice how to say no and set boundaries
Now for what I consider the hardest time management strategy on this list—learning how to say no when people try to gobble up your time.
For those of us who are people-pleasers and perfectionists, saying no can feel like you are letting others down or falling short of your potential. But in reality, every time you fail to say no to someone else’s request, you’re shortchanging your own time and making proper time management impossible.
If this issue sounds familiar, the best thing you can do is buy yourself some time to think before you agree to do something. Try practicing phrases like this:
- “Can I get back to you on that? I need to check my schedule.”
- “I have some things on my calendar that are pressing right now. I’ll let you know when I have some time for that.”
- “I’m not sure I have the capacity for that right now. If something changes, I’ll let you know.”
It may feel awkward using these kinds of phrases at first, especially if you’re used to saying “yes” to anything and everything.
Remember, saying no more frequently doesn’t mean you will be leaving your loved ones in a lurch when they need help. You can still spend some of your time helping people you love.
The idea is to become good at saying no when you can so that you have plenty of time to say yes when it really matters.
8. Explore automation for your everyday life
It’s 2022—if you don’t have robots and algorithms helping you save time, then you’re living in the past!
In all seriousness, there are so many apps and websites around today that can speed up your productivity. In fact, we’ll have an entire article coming up on the different programs you can use to save yourself time.
Take a look at your list of tasks and consider whether you can simplify them or take them off your list entirely by using automation tools or templates.
For example, instead of logging into three different websites to pay your bills every month, spend an hour or so getting them all set up to auto deduct from your account. Even if this only saves you 30 minutes each month, it will net you six hours of free time for the year.
You may also be able to automate some of your work-related tasks as well. Personally, I use Gmail’s handy customizable email templates to save time.
These automation tasks require an upfront time investment—you have to set up autopay, or write out the email templates, for example. But taking a little extra time up front will save you precious time in the long run.
9. Find ways to make your deadlines flexible
Sometimes it feels like all of our time is controlled by deadlines. When your deadlines are mandated by someone else and super strict, it’s easy to put your own needs and wants aside to make sure you get everything done on time.
If this sounds familiar to you, there are some clever ways to make your deadlines more flexible that will allow you to prioritize your time more effectively.
First, consider who is currently setting your deadlines. If it’s your boss or manager, the next step may simply be a conversation where you address the issue and see if there’s any way to change or move the deadlines.
If you’re setting your own deadlines, you may need to change your mindset. Perhaps you’re underestimating how much time you need to take care of certain tasks. Once again, using a timer to get a feel for how long things take is a good start to getting this under control.
Here’s another time management hack I like—when telling others when you’ll finish work, build in some flexibility with the language you use.
For example, instead of telling someone, “I’ll have this ready for you first thing Monday morning!” Try something like, “I’ll have this ready for you early next week.” This subtle change in language will give you an extra day or two to get something done while still indicating when you will deliver the work.
10. Be patient, kind, and forgiving when things go awry
This last time management strategy is more of a general tip for whenever you’re trying something new.
The only way you’ll succeed at implementing these time-management techniques is if you are gentle with yourself when things don’t work out. And trust me—not every time management strategy will work out how you’d like.
There will be days when your distractions eat up all your time. There will be moments when you fail to say no to a frivolous request or completely screw up your organized and prioritized calendar.
These setbacks can be disappointing, but beating yourself up about them will only make things worse. If you allow your frustration to boil over too often, you’ll end up giving up on your time management strategies altogether.
Instead, when one of your strategies falls through, take a deep breath and a step back. You may even want to try out a mantra that you can say to yourself in such situations, like “It didn’t work out this time, but that’s ok. I’m trying my best and will get it eventually.”
It may feel strange to think or say these things to yourself at first, but trust me—if you can forgive yourself, you’ll be able to move forward much faster and try a different strategy soon.
Time management is about making more space in your life to do the things you love and achieve your goals. By putting strategies into place today, you’re investing in your own future and setting yourself up for a life that’s low on stress and high on fulfillment.