Effective time management does not come naturally.
For that reason, time management books, techniques, and software are a dime a dozen.
When guiding your busy executive clients or anxiety-driven patients on a path to better time management, you might not just be spoiled for choice, but overwhelmed.
So, rather than jumping into the deep end, start with this post, where we’ll give you a user-friendly overview of time management literature. We’ll discuss seven core components of time management and how to apply these, along with useful tools and recommended readings for your client’s daily life.
Time management is a constellation of behaviors that help us use our time effectively to satisfy the demands of our personal and professional lives. Although the definition of time management varies from one domain to the next, Aeon and Aguinis (2017, p. 311) provide the following clear, person-centered explanation:
“a form of decision-making used by individuals to structure, protect, and adapt their time to changing conditions.”
These three components cannot be reduced to a single panacea, capable of addressing any and all time management issues. Instead, different strategies — like the ones outlined in this post — address various components of time management.
Why is time management important?
Our time and energy are finite. We need to divide them adequately across several responsibilities and use them to look after ourselves, our families and our friends and attend to work-related tasks.
With better-managed time, we can satisfy all our responsibilities, work demands, and goals. Most importantly, we reduce the risk of feeling overwhelmed by stress, feeling like a failure, and other poor psychological wellbeing issues (Aeon & Aguinis, 2017).
A synthesis of the existing literature (Aeon & Aguinis, 2017) found that time management is:
Positively correlated with several measurements of wellbeing (including psychological health, job satisfaction, confidence, self-esteem)
Negatively correlated with stress
Positively correlated with several work and academic performance measures, including academic success and self-reported job performance
If you’re still unconvinced about the importance of better time management, watch Brad Aeon’s TEDx video here.
The philosophy of time management - Brad Aeon
Selecting time management strategies
In the earlier definition of time management, we mentioned three core components: structure, protection, and adaptation.
Structure refers to how our time is perceived, measured, and allocated.
Protection is how we protect our time from being wasted, misdirected, or deviated from our plans.
Adaptation refers to how well we can cope with unexpected tasks or surprises.
In this post, we will discuss seven key time management strategies that can be grouped according to these three components. This taxonomy is helpful when deciding on a strategy. All strategies help protect our time and goals, but some also satisfy the other components.
Strategy 1: Identify and Eliminate Time Wasters
Time-wasting activities deplete time, energy, and effort without contributing to the overall output/end goal (Gordon & Borkan, 2014).
To identify which time wasters the client depends on, use a daily journal, logging their activities and time spent on each (Gordon & Borkan, 2014). Once clients know which time-wasting activities are present, they can tackle them.
Time wasters can take many forms, but various practical solutions exist to counter them (see the table below, adapted from Gordon & Borkan, 2014).
Type of time waster: Distractions or electronic interruptions
Checking the news, emails, social media, and messaging channels
Block out specific time for administrative tasks, including checking emails.
Type of time waster: Disorganized/messy
Using a scattered, disorganized filing system and not planning tasks and time appropriately
Adopt an organized online and offline filing structure.
Spend 30 minutes at the end of the day planning the next day’s tasks.
Type of time waster: Physical interruptions
Colleagues or family members walking in when you are concentrating on a task
Close the door when you’re working and communicate that this time is meant to be uninterrupted.
Schedule focused time.
Type of time waster: Meetings
Unclear/undefined agenda and starting meetings late
All meetings need a clear agenda communicated beforehand.
Start meetings on time.
Make meetings shorter.
Type of time waster: Dead time
Commuting or waiting
Plan smaller, less-intense tasks for dead-time periods
Type of time waster: Repeating the same task
Writing multiple reports with the same structure and budgeting from scratch each month
Where possible, automate. Use templates.
Do not complete the same task more than once.
Type of time waster: Procrastinating
Spending time completing other tasks rather than focusing on the task at hand
Just start working on the task, even if only for five minutes.
Avoid ruminating in anxiety or perfectionism.
Download 3 Free Productivity Exercises (PDF)
These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients with tools to do their deepest, most productive work.
Download 3 Free Productivity Tools Pack (PDF)
By filling out your name and email address below.
Strategy 2: Steer Away From Perfectionism
Being overly concerned with a perfect product/outcome can quickly derail the best-laid plans. Perfectionism is a maladaptive behavior characterized by extreme self-criticism, fear of making mistakes, self-doubt, and impossible standards (Rice et al., 2012).
Perfectionists experience little pleasure in their professional and personal lives because they are overly concerned with their performance and are at higher risk of procrastination, psychological distress, and several psychological syndromes (Rice et al., 2012; Shafran et al., 2016).
They often repeat actions, circumnavigating around an unattainable goal, ultimately wasting time that could have been redirected toward other tasks (Shafran et al., 2016).
Perfectionists rely on binary thinking models (right–wrong) and have a low tolerance for mistakes (Shafran et al., 2016). Help your client recognize that a project will never be perfect, adopt a kinder inner voice, and schedule time for feedback.
Break tasks into smaller, attainable goals with clear expectations when setting goals. For example, the first goal is to produce a draft version containing mistakes but with the correct structure. For the second goal, the client can focus on refining the piece and attending to typos.
“Perfect” work is unattainable, and “perfect” is typically poorly defined. Instead, identify the core aspects of the project that will have the most impact and achieve the same outcome as a perfect one. Focus on these aspects rather than the less important ones.
Strategy 3: Eliminate Procrastination
Procrastination is an avoidance behavior that forms part of a negative cycle where the individual knows the outcome of the task is essential.
Still, the task’s action has a negative experience (van Eerde, 2003).
Procrastination has many forms and is accompanied by negative feelings such as guilt and a fear of failing. The entire experience is stressful, which clients want to avoid or change (van Eerde & Klingsieck, 2018).
Eliminating procrastination starts with awareness and then an intervention (van Eerde, 2003).
According to a meta-analysis of four different interventions, the most effective intervention against procrastination was Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, regardless of whether time management strategies, such as breaking down a task into smaller chunks, prioritizing tasks, goal setting, or managing time effectively, were included (van Eerde & Klingsieck, 2018).
Another effective strategy is strength and assertiveness training (van Eerde & Klingsieck, 2018; Visser, et al., 2017). In this training, learners were taught how to identify and apply their strengths to situations where they would procrastinate. These were very effective when used within a cognitive-behavioral framework.
Strategy 4: Say No to Extra Work
Being presented with extra work while trying to satisfy an existing work demand is not unusual. The implication of taking on extra work, however, is that:
We have less time to meet our existing workload, increasing the risk of failure.
The likelihood of feeling stressed and anxious about meeting our goals increases.
Doing such extra work is often not in an individual’s best interest. Practice declining the opportunity in a neutral way where the implications of the extra work on available time are made explicit (Beagrie & McGee, 2007). Here are some examples of how to do that:
Demonstrate how a new, unrelated task impacts the deadline.
Please can you do this task too?
If I do this work, then I won’t have time to complete X in time.
Demonstrate how adding new, unexpected changes impacts deadlines.
Please can you also add these features to the existing project?
If we add these features to the project, then we won’t have enough time to finish the original design by the deadline. Which is more important: the new features or the original design?
Prevent requests from bypassing the manager.
Colleague bypasses the manager to assign/request new work.
I am committed to a deadline for X. Does my manager know about this extra work and how it will impact that deadline?
The impossible remains impossible.
Work requests are framed as an emergency with urgent, unrealistic deadlines (e.g., immediately, yesterday, end of business).
To complete this task, I need to perform X, and this will take approximately Y hours/days/weeks. There is not enough time to do this by the deadline. Considering the workload and complexity, a more reasonable date is Z.
Knowing which tasks are the most important and giving these higher priority and more focus is vital. An example of poor prioritization is when a project due in one week is overlooked for a project due in three.
One helpful way to determine priority is to use the Eisenhower Matrix (Covey, 1991). Tasks are split across two dimensions: importance and urgency.
To classify tasks, start with the due date and work backward from high urgency to low urgency. Urgency refers to the immediacy of the task deadline. Under a heading of urgency, tasks that are due soon are urgent, and tasks with later deadlines are not urgent.
Then, add an additional classification to each task: importance. Evaluate the importance of each task by looking at its impact and contribution to long-term goals. Tasks that contribute to essential goals have high importance, whereas those that don’t contribute are not important.
Consequently, all tasks will be allocated as urgent or not and also classified as either important or not important.
Your matrix should look like the image, and the tasks should be prioritized from left to right, starting with the top row.
Do – Priority 1
In the top-left quadrant are tasks high on both dimensions. These are the most pressing tasks that require your immediate attention. They should be completed first.
Schedule – Priority 2
Tasks that are important but not urgent (top-right quadrant) do not have concrete deadlines yet. These tasks should be broken down into smaller tasks or scheduled for later.
Delegate – Priority 3
Tasks that are urgent but not important (bottom-left quadrant) do not require your personal attention. Instead, these tasks can be delegated to someone else.
Delete – Priority 4
Tasks in the opposite bottom-right quadrant are the least important and not urgent. They can be discarded or kept for when there is a lull in workload.
However, all tasks cannot be both high importance and high urgency. If they are, prioritization needs to be deployed, or the person will become overwhelmed and over-committed.
Strategy 6: Focus on Deep Work
Deep work refers to the ability to work in a quiet, distraction-free environment with intense focus and concentration (Bhargava, 2016; Newport, 2016).
Our cognitive abilities are exercised like a muscle in this environment. Our abilities to concentrate and produce are stretched to capacity and improve over time. The mental experience is similar to a flow state, characterized by intense concentration and focus where the perception of time disappears (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
Deep work is best for challenging work that requires absolute focus, but it is difficult to achieve because of distractions in our daily lives. Therefore, deep work should be considered a skill that can be honed and improved through regular practice, similar to any other skill.
Start with the following when trying to improve deep work skills (Bhargava, 2016; Newport, 2016):
Allocate a significant portion of time to uninterrupted focus (i.e., no time wasters and no interruptions).
Allocate this time for the morning when you’re feeling refreshed and motivated. Do not check emails or other communications beforehand to avoid being distracted.
Like exercise, plan for sufficient rest and sleep. It is only possible to work constantly at the same pace with rest. So assign the more manageable, less cognitively demanding tasks to other work periods and take time to recover.
Strategy 7: Follow the 80/20 Way
The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, is about imbalance. Energy spent on a task does not equal the observed output (Vaccaro, 2000; Koch, 2011).
To illustrate further:
20% of the time will yield 80% of the work. Imagine your client has a presentation due. Putting together a rough but comprehensive draft (80%) will take little time (20%).
However, the remaining 20% of the work will take approximately 80% of the time. Even though the bulk of the work is done, the remaining work needed to refine the presentation (20%) takes considerable time (80%). If your client had planned their project so that they only had 20% of the time left for this work, they would not meet their deadline.
20% of the work is essential, whereas 80% is not. Knowing how to prioritize the critical 20% over the less consequential 80% is vital to managing our time and workload.
With this in mind, when planning a schedule, do the following (Vaccaro, 2000):
Split the available time unequally to account for the 80/20 split. Leave ample time for refinement, corrections, and feedback.
Go through tasks and classify them as belonging to the 20% or 80% category. The 20% tasks are essential, yield significant results, and directly impact other goals. The 80% tasks are urgent but optional, take longer than expected, and are draining.
Classify subtasks as 20% or 80% when working on a bigger project. Always prioritize the essential tasks (20%) over the nonessential tasks (80%).
Recommended Time Management Books
Readers are spoiled for choice when looking for books about time management. Here we list four books that are directly related to some strategies in this post. Let us know in the comments if you have any other recommendations.
1. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport
This book tackles the topic of deep work: what it is, how to achieve it, and why it is crucial.
The author, Cal Newport, is a professor of computer science and understands the importance of dedicated, focused time in achieving goals.
Unlike many other self-help books, the advice in this book is accessible, practical, and reads as though the author has tried and tested it.
If you liked this book, then we also recommend Tiny Habits by B. J. Fogg. It is similar to Atomic Habits but slightly more practical.
3. The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More With Less – Richard Koch
There is a reason this book is so highly regarded. Koch explores the history of the 80/20 principle and provides numerous historical examples of this principle.
The precise numerical ratio is not essential, but the concept of the imbalance between input and output is vital. To help readers understand how to implement this principle in their daily lives, Koch outlines several key steps to identify the 80/20 split and prioritize the most critical tasks that yield the most important outcomes.
This is a practical book, and once the principle is understood, readers can easily skip to the most critical chapters. It is an excellent book for people who are pressed for time and just need a quick reminder of the principle.
PositivePsychology.com has an extensive collection of worksheets and tools for our readers that can help with time management or help eliminate time wasters.
Goal setting activities
Productivity and goal setting are popular topics on our blog. If you do not know where to start, we recommend this post: Goal Setting Activities, Exercises & Games. It references various tools that help clients identify and set their goals, including apps, worksheets, and one-on-one and group exercises, just to name a few.
The exercises cover all seven strategies discussed in this post and much more. The kit includes a short introduction booklet about productivity, supported by 17 exercises, each relying on science-proven strategy.
One exercise focuses on developing deep work, and another uses the 80/20 principle. All of this is available as an all-in-one kit perfect for practitioners who want to expand their toolkit for dealing with clients’ work-related concerns, time management problems, or productivity.
The finite nature of time and its effective management have been recognized for several decades, dating back to the 1950s (Claessens et al., 2007). We understand that effective time management is essential for successful goal setting, meeting deadlines, and managing stress.
“But how?” you asked, and we listened.
In this post, we explored seven different strategies, each focusing on at least one component of time management discussing how to structure tasks better, prioritize deadlines, protect time and concentration from distractions, and work smarter not harder.
Remember that some strategies might not work for your client, and they might need to try a few to find the one that fits. But most crucial is recognizing that time management is a skill. We can learn how to do it, and all of us can improve it.
The list of strategies and books presented in this post is incomplete; many other strategies exist. If you have used a particular technique successfully or have a novel approach you have developed, share it with us in the comments. Book recommendations are also welcome!
How does procrastination affect your time management?
Procrastination reduces our ability to manage time effectively and complete tasks on time because we take a long time to start doing the actual work. When we do finally begin, there is less time left to complete the job, increasing the likelihood of feeling stressed out, anxious, and failing.
Is time management a skill or quality?
Time management is a skill. It is a collection of behaviors that can be learned and improved.
What is the definition of time management?
Time management is “a form of decision-making used by individuals to structure, protect, and adapt their time to changing conditions” (Aeon & Aguinis, 2017, p. 311).
Aeon, B., & Aguinis, H. (2017). It’s about time: New perspectives and insights on time management. Academy of Management Perspectives, 31(4), 309–330.
Beagrie, S., & McGee, L. (2007). How to… say no. Occupational Health & Wellbeing, 59(8), 24.
Bhargava, P. (2016). Deep work: A productivity superpower. Current Problems in Diagnostic Radiology, 46(1), 1–2.
Claessens, B. J., Van Eerde, W., Rutte, C. G., & Roe, R. A. (2007). A review of the time management literature. Personnel Review, 36(2), 255–276.
Covey, S. R. (1991). The seven habits of highly effective people. Covey Leadership Center.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row.
Gordon, C. E., & Borkan, S. C. (2014). Recapturing time: A practical approach to time management for physicians. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 90(1063), 267–272.
Koch, R. (2011). The 80/20 principle: The secret of achieving more with less (updated 20th anniversary ed.). Hachette.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette.
Rice, K. G., Richardson, C. M., & Clark, D. (2012). Perfectionism, procrastination, and psychological distress. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59(2), 288.
Shafran, R., Coughtrey, A., & Kothari, R. (2016). New frontiers in the treatment of perfectionism. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 9(2), 156–170.
Vaccaro, P. J. (2000). The 80/20 rule of time management. Family PracticeManagement, 7(8), 76.
Van Eerde, W. (2003). Procrastination at work and time management training. The Journal of Psychology, 137(5), 421–434.
Van Eerde, W., & Klingsieck, K. B. (2018). Overcoming procrastination? A meta-analysis of intervention studies. Educational Research Review, 25, 73–85.
Visser, L., Schoonenboom, J., & Korthagen, F. A. (2017). A field experimental design of a strengths-based training to overcome academic procrastination: Short-and long-term effect. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.
About the author
Alicia Nortje, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the University of Cape Town, where she is involved in multiple projects investigating eyewitness memory and face recognition. She’s highly skilled in research design, data analysis, and critical thinking. When she’s not working, she indulges in running on the road or the trails, and enjoys cooking.