What are the best time management techniques?

If you feel like you're always on the run, you may benefit from effective time management.
If you feel like you're always on the run, you may benefit from effective time management.
Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Time. You never seem to have enough of it. You wake up tired and rush through a day of missed deadlines and late appointments. Then you work late because you're trying to play catch-up, all the while missing out on quality time with your family and friends. Once you make it home, you crash into bed, only to repeat the same cycle the next day.

This seems to be the typical pace of life for many working people, but some experts believe that it can't be kept up continually without consequence. Whether it's by way of increased stress and depression or less time spent with loved ones, you may eventually pay a price for trying to fit too much into your schedule. And these issues can lead to further problems. For example, stress can lead to health conditions like high blood pressure, while a poor work-life balance may cause relationship troubles [source: Dittman].

If any of this sounds all too familiar, it may be time to take a break and get a handle on how you spend your time. Really anyone -- even very organized people -- can benefit from proper time management techniques, it's just a matter of learning how to incorporate them into your life.

In this article, you'll find some tips to effectively master the three main components of time management: prioritization, adhering to schedules and avoiding procrastination. Read on to learn about some tried-and-true time management strategies that could help bring balance to your schedule -- and your life.

Time Management and Setting Priorities

Make urgent tasks your tip priorities.
Make urgent tasks your tip priorities.
Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Thinkstock

One of the most difficult parts of managing your time isn't figuring out what to do, it's figuring out what to do first -- and second, and third and fourth. Setting priorities may be easy when you have a light schedule or only one or two tasks of high importance, but when you have many items on your daily agenda or tasks of competing importance, prioritization can become overwhelming. However, learning how to properly prioritize the items on your to-do list can help you tackle your tasks in the most efficient way.

Consider arranging your to-do list into the following categories: top priority, medium priority and low priority. Top priority items can include tasks with impending deadlines (for example, a report due at work or dry-cleaning that you must pick up before a weekend wedding) or activities of significant personal importance (such as attending your child's sporting event or fitting in a workout session with a personal trainer).

Low priority items include anything that can easily be put off for another day, if necessary. These are usually easy to identify. Medium priority items, on the other hand, can be trickier to define sometimes. Generally, medium priority tasks are not urgent, but are still somehow essential to your daily routine. They may also encompass items that are "top-priority-in-waiting" but are a little further out in deadline or importance than the items that actually made your top priority list.

Be sure to spend a couple of minutes each day reevaluating your list -- adding any new items and bumping any unaccomplished tasks up or down in priority. It is also important not to be overly ambitious when making your to-do list. Estimate what is realistic for you to complete in a day. Too many items, particularly too many top-priority items, can overwhelm you.

Now that you know how best to prioritize when creating your schedule, continue reading to learn how to stick to your schedule.

Time Management and Adhering to Schedules

When making your schedule, don't forget to factor in time for little interruptions.
When making your schedule, don't forget to factor in time for little interruptions.
Creatas Images/ Creatas/Thinkstock

Having a well-prioritized to-do list doesn't guarantee that you'll actually accomplish any or all of the items on your list. Think of your day as a road trip and your to-do list as a map. A map will show you how to get to your destination, but it won't factor in unknown hindrances like traffic, roadwork or car trouble. Likewise, a to-do list, as helpful as it is, won't help you through the day if you are unprepared for the unforeseen.

Don't assume that the items on your to-do list are the only things that will come up during the day. You will likely face unexpected requests and tasks. If you don't make time for those little surprises, you probably won't be able to accommodate all of the important things on your list, either. So, when you're writing your daily to-do list, don't forget to factor in these time thieves. Of course, you must leave in enough time to accomplish your top-priority items, but don't over-commit your day. Whether it takes shortening your priority list, or purposely adding in an extra hour for unplanned emergencies or distractions, make sure your schedule has some built-in contingency time.

While you should make time for the unexpected, try not to allow yourself to be distracted by every new e-mail or phone call. To deal with small but immediate time consumers, you should consider taking the following steps when you're able to:

  • Learn to say "no." If you have too much on your plate already, taking on more will only put you further behind.
  • Don't be overly accessible. Make sure your work, personal, family and social time are well-defined, and make others aware of when it is and isn't acceptable to contact you with unrelated requests.
  • Delegate. Often, we can pass on some of our tasks to others, but we don't.
  • Give each task the time it deserves. Multitasking is a desirable trait in today's world, but sometimes not giving something enough attention the first time around means spending more time on it later on.

This covers how to deal with unexpected time wasters, but what about those you dive into willingly? If you're prone to procrastination and trivial distractions, the first two steps of time management -- prioritization and schedule adherence -- aren't going to do you much good. Keep reading to find out how to conquer one of the biggest obstacles to time management: procrastination.

Time Management and Avoiding Procrastination

If you were a computer, someone could just program you with tasks, and you'd perform them one by one until they were all completed. As a human, however, you may drift off course -- sometimes a lot. And while most people have procrastinated at one time or another -- and likely will do so again -- keeping it from becoming a chronic problem can help greatly in time management and accomplishing the goal of having a more productive and relaxed life.

Procrastination is a common phenomenon, but not necessarily well understood. Although it's often chalked up to laziness, there are actually a number of motivations behind procrastination. Understanding what causes you to put off tasks may help you regain control over your time. Here are some possibilities:

  • Perfectionism and fear of failure: If you're a perfectionist, your fear of doing a bad job or not living up to your expectations can cause you to avoid beginning a project in the first place [source: WebMD]. It may help to realize that a project not completed is more of a failure than one completed imperfectly.
  • Depression: If you are experiencing depression, you may find your daily tasks insignificant or unimportant [source: Psychology Today]. This can cause you to ignore or not care about what is at hand. If you are simply having a trying day, take a little time out of your schedule to deal with what's bothering you, and then get back to work. However, if you're experiencing constant depression, you may have a problem that goes beyond time management. In that case, see a medical professional for help.
  • Feeling Overwhelmed: If you feel you have too much on your plate, you may be unable to focus on any one task and end up completing none of them. While perfectionism and depression are psychological obstacles, feeling overwhelmed is often caused by poor time management and may be corrected by properly prioritizing your schedule and learning how to deal with distractions.

Other ways to help overcome procrastination include tackling larger tasks by breaking them up into smaller chunks and working on them for short periods at a time. Rewarding yourself somehow once a project is completed can also provide some motivation. Additionally, you could ask someone else to check up on you and make sure you're focusing on the task at hand. Honestly identifying the consequences of not completing the task may help to motivate you as well.

To learn more about effective time management, see the next page for lots more information.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Curtis, Jeannette. "Stress Management: Managing Your Time." WebMD April 22, 2009. (February 11, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management-managing-your-time
  • Dittmann, M. "Experts Testify on the Importance of Stress Management in Fighting Heart Disease." Monitor on Psychology. July 2002. (February 11, 2009)http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug02/experts.aspx
  • George Washington University. "Identify Obstacles to Time Management." (February 11, 2009)http://gwired.gwu.edu/counsel/asc/Youvedecidedtoimproveyourstudyhabits/Organizeyourtimeandyourlife/Identifyobstaclestotimemanagement/
  • Marano, Hara Estroff. "Procrastination: Ten Things To Know." Psychology Today. August 23, 2003. (February 11, 2009)http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200308/procrastination-ten-things-know
  • Mayo Clinic. "Time Management: Steps to Reduce Stress and Improve Productivity." September 4, 2008. (February 11, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/time-management/WL00048
  • Mayo Clinic. "Work-Life Balance: Ways to Restore Harmony and Reduce Stress." (February 11, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/work-life-balance/WL00056
  • Messina, James J. "Time Management." LiveStrong. November 18, 2009. (February 11, 2009)http://www.livestrong.com/article/14697-time-management/
  • Mind Tools. "Beating Procrastination." (February 11, 2009) http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_96.htm
  • Mind Tools. "Effective Scheduling." (February 11, 2009)http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_07.htm
  • Mind Tools. "Prioritization." (February 11, 2009)http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_92.htm
  • Mind Tools. "Time Management - Start Here." (February 11, 2009)http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_00.htm
  • Mind Tools. "To-Do Lists." (February 11, 2009)http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_05.htm
  • Pychyl, Timothy A. "Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals." Psychology Today. May 25, 2008. (February 11, 2009)http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/200805/how-are-you-managing-your-time
  • Rauh, Sherry. "5 Tips for Better Work-Life Balance." WebMD. (February 11, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/5-strategies-for-life-balance
  • Ricci, Monica. "How Taking Time off Can Make You More Effective." GoMom Inc. (February 11, 2009) http://www.gomominc.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=157:how-taking-time-off-can-make-you-more-effective&catid=36:grow&Itemid=99
  • Sydney Morning Herald. "Slow Down to Cure Depression." June 12, 2009. (February 11, 2009)http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/wellbeing/slow-down-to-cure-depression-20090612-c5mb.html
  • Szalavitz, Maria. "Stand and Deliver." Psychology Today. August 1, 2003. (February 11, 2009)http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200308/stand-and-deliver