In a home office: Notebooks and post-it notes work great at a home office as well, but you can enhance your note-taking efforts even further – considering that you’re the only one physically present at your office, you can freely use a white board to capture all your ideas, and in as much detail as you want.
Time management guide
You probably stumbled upon this ultimate time management guide because you were frustrated with the piles of work you have. Perhaps you are wondering how to organize it in a way that won’t leave you completely drained and even with some free time in the end.
There is a chance you’ve heard about the “eat the frog” technique where you start your day with a difficult task so that all the subsequent ones will seem easier. Techniques such as this are extremely useful, but we must confront the ugly truth right from the start – time management is hard. There is no fast and easy technique that will solve your problems in a flash, no magic wand to wave that will make you more productive and create more free time.
But since when were the truly beneficial things in your life easy? Think about running. At the start it’s a painful and miserable experience, but it gets better with time, and you are better off in the end. Of course it’s easier to just slack around and eat junk food, but we all know that that path doesn’t lead anywhere.
The same is with time management. It’s a pain, but at the end of the day when you master time management, you will see the positive effects, like stress reduction, more organized workflow, less pressure, traceable results, and much more. That’s why we’ve prepared this ultimate time management guide to help you become better at time management step by step and flourish in your personal and professional life.
Balance your (time) budget
In personal finance, balancing your budget begins with knowing where you spend your money. A financial expert might tell you to start by digging into your debit and credit card transactions, outstanding balances, and recurring payments, and any other relevant money details. They’ll probably ask you to record everything you purchase for a week or month, diligently monitoring your spend.
This kind of financial self-audit helps cultivate more awareness around where your money goes. You might be surprised to find that a whopping 20% of your income is spent on meal delivery services and restaurant takeout or that you’re spending hundreds of dollars a month on subscriptions you don’t use. From a place of greater knowledge, you can start to build a plan — a budget — to put money towards a home down payment or dig your way out of credit card debt.
A lot of us feel like we’re running a time deficit, unable to find the hours to exercise, work on our side projects, or simply slow down. We need to investigate where our time goes to solve our time management problems, finding wasted hours and funneling them into worthwhile endeavors — be it socializing or sleeping.
Complete a time audit
- Select 1-3 days to perform your time audit.
- Print off the time tracking sheet below, one for each day.
- Set an hourly timer during your waking hours (e.g. 1PM, 2PM, 3PM).
- When the timer goes off at the hour, jot down what you did in the previous hour. Be honest — this time audit is for you, not your boss. If you were on Twitter while you were supposed to be working, write that down.
- At the end of your time audit period, review your time tracking sheet(s), searching for trends and then grouping your hours into specific categories (e.g. sleep, social media, work, cooking, exercise, entertainment, childcare, etc). Use the following questions to guide your review:
- What is my biggest time category? How much of my work hours are spent on focused work? Communication? Distractions?
- What do I spend most of my post-work hours doing?
- How much time do I spend on distracting activities overall?
- Am I spending an adequate time on goal-driven activities?
- How many of my hours are devoted to health and/or self care activities?
Determine your priorities
If you want to know your priorities, look at where you spend your time. Maybe you thought you were prioritizing learning, but your time audit revealed that days went by when you didn’t click into your online course or dive into your nightstand book stack. Time management is about making your stated priorities line up with your actual priorities.
You likely have a long list of things you want to accomplish in life. But when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Instead we’re overwhelmed with options, feel a lack of focus, and inevitably experience analysis paralysis. The solution is to move away from the jumble of I-should-dos to and towards a narrow list of priorities.
Limit yourself to a maximum of five priorities at any given time. Pay attention to whether those priorities fall into the “work” or “life” buckets, and ensure you always have at least two in the latter — having only work priorities is a blueprint for burnout.
Prioritizing some things means de-prioritizing others. Go back to your time audit and look for activities that don’t line up with your new list. This will mean making some tough decisions, like scaling back your volunteering commitments to spend more quality time with your partner or dropping out of your friends’ fantasy football league to get your business off the ground.
Create your time budget
A money budget has spending allowances; a time budget has hourly allowances. After narrowing down your priorities, assign specific amounts of time to each one. Consider hourly allowances on a daily and/or weekly basis. Similar to how you would assign “$150 a month for dining out” or “$50 a month for media subscriptions”, allocate “5 hours a week for exercise”or “1.5 hours a weekday for cooking”.
If you’re unsure of the time allowance you should allocate to each of your priorities, simply choose an amount of time that you think you can realistically maintain. Parkinson’s Law states that the amount of work expands to fit the amount of time you give it. By applying time constraints and sticking to them, we might not accomplish everything we intended, but we can trade perfection for speed and complete more than we originally imagined.
Create more time in your day
Effectively using the hours you have is only one side of the time management equation. On the other side of this math problem? Strategies to create more hours in your day. While you can’t add a 25th hour to the day, there are ways to make 24 hours feel like a whole lot more.
Distractions and interruptions — both external and self-inflicted — whittle down our actual work time to 7, 6, 5, 4, or even 3 hours, but our workloads persist just the same. Instead of fighting distractions at the source, we extend our workdays to accommodate.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist known for recognizing and naming the concept of “flow”, writes about the value of focused and directed attention in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
“The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”
- Create your ideal work environment: It’s hard to work in a noisy and distraction-prone environment. Whether it’s overflowing piles of paper in your workspace or your colleagues shouting your name across your open-floor plan office, it’s challenging to find flow and stay there. Create a workspace that’s conducive to focus: ensure your desk is clutter-free and put on headphones to signal that you’re in concentration mode. If possible, ask to work from home and optimize your own home office.
- Use site blockers: Cut yourself off the steady drip of social media, incoming news, and online window shopping. Use site blockers like Self Control (macOS) and Freedom (Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android) to restrict access to distracting websites during your working hours.
- Avoid context switching: Between clicking through multiple tabs and attempting to work-and-Slack at the same time, context switching is a tax on your time and attention. Avoid paying this fee with science-backed strategies from our article, How Context Switching Sabotages Your Productivity.
Not to be confused with multi-tasking, task bundling creates more time in your day by combining complementary tasks. While watching television as you work is probably counterproductive, running errands while spending time with your kids helps you prioritize more than one thing at time.
Similarly, walking to stay healthy and unwind can be done as you listen to podcasts, exploring your intellectual curiosities or laughing along with your favorite comedians. Think about the tasks you can combine to check off two tasks at once.
“An individual’s core competencies are best thought of as abilities that can be leveraged across multiple spheres. They should be important and meaningful. And they should be the things we do best and that others cannot do nearly as well.”
Rather than squandering your time on the tasks you’re mediocre at or that could be completed by someone else, zero in on what you’re excellent at. Outside of those tasks, try to delegate as much as possible:
- Non-core competency work: Delegate work that falls outside of your core competencies to your direct reports or other willing members of your organization. If you’re an individual contributor with limited delegation ability, make the case to your manager that the company would be better served if you focused more of your time on your core competencies.
- Administrative tasks: If you’re in a position to hire a personal or virtual assistant, consider handing off tasks like travel booking, bill payments, expense reports, and other time consuming to-dos.
- Household chores: If you’re struggling to keep on top of cleanings and organizing tasks at home and have the income to spare, hire a cleaner to come into your house 1 to 2 times per month. If that’s not the case, have a conversation with your roommates, partner, and/or kids about everyone doing their fair share of household chores. Create a cleaning schedule and put it in a central location for visibility and accountability.
While letting go of tasks is one strategy, perhaps the better strategy is never taking on a task in the first place. It’s tough to complete the monthly finance report when you’re getting pulled into brainstorming sessions or being sent ad-hoc work requests, but saying “no” goes against all of our social human impulses.
How to create an effective time management environment
Effective time management isn’t just about the time management skills you possess and the time management tips and strategies you follow – it’s also about the environment you work in. Here’s how to make your office into a productivity paradise, no matter whether you work from home or at the company office:
Choose the right colors
In a company office: You can’t decide on the color of the walls in your company’s office, but you can introduce the right colors on a smaller scale – bring moderate art for your desk that’s in the right color, or bring a desk picture with the right color predominant.
In a home office: You have the freedom to decide the color of your walls, and make decisions about the overall color scheme – make the color of your interior design reflect the state of mind you want to pursue in work.
Make sure there’s plenty of light
In a company office: Opening the windows at work usually isn’t an option, and opening the shutters may bother some of your colleagues. So, if your office isn’t light enough by proxy, bring in your own lighting. LED lights have an effect closest to natural lighting, so they’re your best choice for a small, but effective lamp.
In a home office: Once again, you have more options to tweak your environment if you work from home – so, use as many lamps as you want, open as many windows as you need, and open as many shutters as you can.
Make the most of your chair, desk, and computer
In a company office: Most companies nowadays offer adjustable chairs to their employees – you can also bring in some pillows, or anything else meant to help you feel more comfortable. Most companies offer risers meant to help keep your computer screen at an optimal eye-level, but you can also bring your own.
In a home office: Invest in an adjustable chair, and sturdy desk – standing desks are often recommended, but a study shows that there are detrimental cognitive effects of standing while doing computer work. So, you better work while sitting down, and choose a suitable desk for it.
Maintain optimal room temperature
You can’t work properly if it’s too cold, or too hot – although, one study shows that at least women are more productive in warmer offices. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) recommends a workplace temperature of 68 – 76 degrees Fahrenheit (20 – 24.5 degrees Celsius), so try to keep it that way:
In a company office: If your office doesn’t have an air conditioner everyone is free to regulate, you’ll need to bring your own fan or space heater. If your colleagues like it colder than you do, you can bring a jacket or sweater to work, to wear when you need to.
Scent the office
In a company office: Bringing in a scented candle to work likely won’t be met with approval from your colleagues – so, it’s best that you bring a small scented bag or a bottle of essential oils you can take a whiff of from time to time.
In a home office: You’ll have the freedom to light as many scented candles as you want – another efficient solution is to simmer aromatic herbs in your kitchen, and let the pleasant scent slowly spread throughout your home.
In a company office: Some company office settings aren’t suitable for a plethora of plants, so you may need to be creative – bring a small plant to your desk (such as a succulent), go to the nearby park during breaks, and put a lush forest as your desktop wallpaper.
In a home office: You’ll likely be able to introduce more plant life while at home – you can even create a green corner with several fragrant herbs, and introduce natural pleasant scents, all while staying green at the same time.
In a company office: If outside noise is the problem, try headphones – you can then listen to productivity-enhancing music. Alternatively, your team can introduce a silent hour each day, when no one is allowed to talk, schedule meetings, or interrupt colleagues – this practice can facilitate focus and concentration, and help you be up to 23% more productive.
In a home office: Sometimes, complete silence you typically find at a home office can be just as distracting as chatty colleagues – to manage the noise of your own thoughts, you can try a noise generator such as Noisli or MyNoise and bring your mind into a focused state by listening to the sounds of nature, purring cats, or a moving train.
Personalize your work area
In a company office: By proxy, offices are the more impersonal working environment than home offices – but, you can personalize them with desk pictures, small plants, personal gadgets, a screensaver showing your family or friends, or the mug your friends picked out for your birthday.