Time management isn’t about cramming more tasks into your day. It isn’t about reaching Inbox Zero. It isn’t about saving several minutes by pre-sorting the laundry (or not) or minimizing trips to the trash can (yes, that’s really a tip from a magazine article). It’s not about making lunch the night before or even multitasking (or single-tasking).
Time management is about “choosing well,” said Leslie Garcia, LCSW, a psychotherapist and founder of Counseling Space in New York City.
Jones Loflin, who helps individuals and organizations that struggle with too much to do, agreed. “It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of ‘checking boxes’ instead of asking yourself if you are checking the right ones.”
When we choose well, Garcia said, “we naturally detoxify our mental, emotional and physical environments, and bring a completely different energy to our to-do lists and perception of time itself.”
“Time management is about using time as a tool to achieve the life you want,” said Laura Vanderkam, author of several time management and productivity books, including her latest title Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.
Below you’ll find the best tips to try.
Track your time. This helps you to “see where the time really goes, and when you have good data, you can make smart decisions,” said Vanderkam, who’s been tracking her time for three and a half years. But even tracking your time for a week can be invaluable and informative. You can download a simple tracking template at Vanderkam’s site.
Check in with yourself nightly. This is an alternative to time tracking, which is just as helpful. Vanderkam suggested reflecting on these questions every evening: What did I like about how I spent my time? What didn’t I like? What could I do to spend more time on the important/meaningful/enjoyable stuff? What could I do to spend less time on the bad stuff?
Focus on your core values. Many time management articles gloss over or don’t even mention the importance of identifying our core values and priorities, said Kimberly Grocher, LCSW, a social worker at New York-Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Medicine.
“Values refer to the qualities, attributes, or principles that are worthy or of extreme importance to a person, such as creativity, authenticity, leisure and connection.” Other examples include: family, health and financial security, Garcia said.
Typically, our values are reflected in our priorities, Grocher said. “For example, a person who values connection may prioritize maintaining their relationships and/or looking for opportunities to build new ones.”
Grocher helps her clients jot down their values and priorities on a white board or poster board, which is a powerful visual. Once they’ve clarified both, they “look at how these are or aren’t reflected in their daily life.”
Garcia has her clients pick their top ten core values (which are truly theirs and not based on someone else’s expectations). They also review the list over multiple sessions and explore the changes they need to make in order to align their lives with these values.
Use a timer. “Most of us are horrible at estimating how long something will take to complete,” said Loflin, author of several books, including Always Growing: How To Be A Strong(er) Leader In Any Season. This is why he uses a timer, and is a firm believer in the maxim: “What gets measured gets managed.” Once he knows how long a task takes, he also asks himself: “How could I shorten the time in the future?”
Benjamin Spall, co-founder of the website My Morning Routine, also is a big fan of timers. “I use a timer for almost everything I do. The alarm is excruciatingly annoying (it has a silent setting for when I’m in a public place), but what it’s great at is visually showing time slipping away.” (He uses the Time Timer.)
Reflect on the week ahead. Vanderkam regularly recommends people “think through your weeks before you’re in them.” This is her strategy: Carve out some time on Friday afternoons to intentionally plan out the following week. Identify two or three activities that are important to you in each of these categories: your career, relationships, and self. “Where can these go in your schedule? How will you hold yourself accountable for doing these things?”
Hire your “weakness.” “It’s OK to not know—or want to do—everything and delegate to someone whose skills enhance yours,” Garcia said. She shared these examples: If you can’t keep track of your business’s transactions, hire a bookkeeper. If you need extra help with administrative responsibilities, hire an assistant.
Reframe your no’s. Saying no can be really hard for people, and can feel like it goes against their cultural or spiritual beliefs, Grocher said. Which is why she recommended this reframe: “What do I want to be able to say YES to more often?” or “What do I want to spend more time doing daily, weekly, or monthly?” and then considering: “What do I need to do/adjust/let go of to make that happen?”
Find a system that works for you. Finding a planner that works for you is vital because as Grocher said, “it has to be something [you] want to open, want to write in, and makes sense for [your] life.”
Many people prefer paper planners, which actually provide a unique benefit. According to Grocher, “Having a physical planner also gives the feeling that you can touch, hold, and thus control your time, which is crucial because people tend to seek help with time management when they are feeling out of control.” Plus, you can get as creative as you’d like.
If her clients prefer digital planners, Grocher has them set up a Google calendar (or something similar), where they color-code their commitments, such as: green for healthcare; yellow for academic/school; purple for caregiving responsibilities; blue for recreation/hobbies/fun; and red for work.
Color-coding is a quick, effective way to “see what areas are taking up the most time, where [there are] open time slots, and what areas are almost non-existent or need more of a presence.”
Get enough sleep. Managing our time is significantly easier when we’ve had a good night’s rest, said Spall, co-author of the book My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired. People regularly ask him how they can improve their morning routines. The first question he asks them is how many hours of sleep they get each night. “Because if you’re not getting between 7-9 hours of sleep a night consistently, you will struggle in all and everything you do.”
Vanderkam believes that true time masters use the 168 hours everyone has in a week as an artist uses their materials: “There’s a lot of skill and creativity involved, but with practice it’s possible to create something of great beauty.”
And with intention and practice, you can too.