Time management is one of those issues we all face, but (ironically) feel like we don’t have the time to address. But, as Benjamin Franklin once said, time is like money. Without being managed properly, how do you know where it’s going?
On most days, time seems to fly by. One minute you’re settling in to answer a few emails and all of a sudden it’s time to go home. In fact, when we spoke to 500+ professionals, only 10% said they felt in control of their day.
It’s disheartening. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Effective time management gives you back control of your day. It’s the cornerstone skill that will help you with everything from increasing productivity to building good habits, setting proper goals, avoiding burnout, and finding work-life balance.
While we’ve written guides about each of these topics, this post is focused on simply the best time management tips that will help you optimize how you schedule time, prioritize meaningful work, and block out distractions.
A 5-step time management program for more productive days
Due to the sheer number of ways you can increase and optimize your time management, we’ve broken this guide up into a 5-step program. Start from the beginning or feel free to jump to the section where you need the most help.
Step 1: Understand where your time is going
- Do a time audit to set your intentions and see where your time currently goes
- Understand the Planning Fallacy so you can be realistic about what can be done in a day
- Discover the unseen distractions that are eating up your time
- Set up systems to track your daily progress and stay on track
Step 2: Set smart goals and prioritize time for meaningful work
- Set smarter goals
- Prioritize your tasks ruthlessly using one of these practical methods
- Separate the urgent from the important work
- Use the 30X rule to delegate more tasks
- Protect your priorities by learning to say “no” to your boss, clients, and managers
Step 3: Build an efficient daily schedule
- Build a morning routine that gives you momentum
- Use time blocking to create a daily template
- Make time for interruptions and breaks
- ‘Batch’ your communication time
- Give up on multitasking and context switching
- Work with your body’s natural energy cycle
Step 4: Optimize your work environment
- Get rid of the clutter (both physical and digital)
- Reduce noise issues with headphones or (the right) music
- Bring a bit of nature into your workspace
- Set up your tools for focus
- Try the “Workstation Popcorn” method
Step 5: Protect your time (and your focus) from distraction
- Use strategic laziness to work on the right things
- Automate non-negotiable focused time throughout the day
- Use the Ivy Lee Method to end your day properly
- Don’t forget the benefits of free time
- Use the right time management tools
Take back control of your time. RescueTime gives you the tools and data you need to be more productive and efficient each day. Sign up for free today!
Why is Time Management Important?
The average human lifespan consists of around 4,000 weeks. Which sounds like a big number until you consider how many days are spent at school, retired, or sleeping.
As Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote:
“It’s pretty clear that time is the most precious resource we have.”
With only limited time to do our most meaningful work, it’s natural to feel a certain level of anxiety. But time management isn’t about quelling the fear of wasting time. It’s about understanding the far-reaching benefits of using our time wisely.
With proper time management you:
- Feel more in control of your day and less likely to be stressed, overwhelmed, or burn out
- Become more productive at work and able to disconnect at the end of the day and build a better work-life balance
- Are able to stay focused for longer and see compound returns on the time we spend on skills that matter to us.
- Have more of an awareness of the time spent on unproductive activities and can build better habits and routines
- Make more time for meaningful workand connect with a larger purpose
Time keeps moving no matter what. But with this 5-step program, you’ll be able to take control of your day and make the most of your daily 24-hours.
Part 1: Understand where your time is going
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’…
Just as the old song goes, our days often seem to fly by out of our control. We want to get things done. But those minutes keep slipping by. As we said before, just 10% of people feel like they have control over their days!
That’s why the first step in time management is all about intention, control, and understanding where your time currently goes.
Do a time audit to set your intentions and see where your time currently goes
The same way you might get audited for your taxes, a time audit is the IRS for your schedule. By diving into how you spent your last week/month/quarter, you can take the guesswork out of time management and properly set your schedule going forward.We’ve put together a free downloadable Time Audit template if you want to find out exactly where your time is going. Grab the template and fill it out as you go through this exercise.
In its most basic form, a time audit consists of 3 steps:
- Write down your intentions (i.e. How do you want to spend your time?)
- Look at personal data on how you actually spend your time
- Adjust, set new intentions, and track progress
For example, if you want to write a novel (intention) but you’re only working on it for an hour a week (allocation), something’s not right.
The same goes for your work. If your main priority is to develop software (intention), but you spend the majority of your days answering emails or in meetings (allocation), you’re never going to feel like you have enough time.
Start by writing down how you’d like to spend your time each day. For example, I might say:
- Goal 1: Write blog posts (50%)
- Goal 2: Research and education (25%)
- Goal 3: Client and team communication (10%)
(These intentions don’t have to, and shouldn’t, work out to 100% of your time.)
Next, gather as much information as you can about how you actually spend your time. You can use a few different tools and resources for this.
- Your to-do list (app/pen and paper). If you use a to-do list app like Todoist or track your daily tasks on a pad and paper, this is one way to look at how you spent your days.
- Calendar. You might also use your calendar to track tasks. As an added bonus, your calendar contains all of the things that usually take you away from doing meaningful work, like meetings, calls, and appointments.
- RescueTime. For the most honest look at where your time goes, a time tracking app like RescueTime keeps a detailed record of how you spend your time on apps, websites, and specific files.
Going through these three resources should give you an accurate picture of how you spend your time vs. how you want to spend it. Now, it’s time to bring those two together.
Understand the Planning Fallacy so you can be realistic about what can be done in a day
One of the worst time management mistakes we can make is assuming we can do more than we can. Unfortunately, this is just human nature.
While you might be at work for 8+ hours, our research shows that the average knowledge worker—writers, developers, designers, project managers, etc…—is only productive for 12.5 hours a week. Or, roughly 2.5 hours a day.
Psychologists call this the planning fallacy—our bias towards being overly optimistic about how long a task will take. It’s why we think our calendars look like this:
When a more honest one would look like this:
As you start to understand how your time is currently being spent, don’t get caught up thinking you can all of a sudden do 8 hours of productive work in a day. This is only setting yourself up for stress, long hours, and overwhelm.
Instead, one of the easiest ways to get over the planning fallacy is to use what’s called “reference class forecasting.” This is just a fancy word for switching your thought process from “how long has this taken me in the past?” to “how long does this type of project take people like me?”
Discover the unseen distractions that are eating up your time
By this point, you’ve set intentions around how you want to spend your time, gathered some data on how you’re actually spending it, and learned to set realistic expectations on yourself. Next, it’s time to weed out some of the things that are currently getting in the way of your time management.
While you might think the worst workplace time wasters are things like social media or news, it’s most likely something less obvious: collaboration.
Workplace collaboration has exploded over the past decade, with studies saying many workers spend 80% of their day answering emails, in meetings, or on calls. Our own research found that most people check their emails or chat apps every 6 minutes or less.
Understanding and optimizing your time spent on communication is one of the easiest ways to win back time and focus.
Using a tool like RescueTime, you can not only understand how much time you’re spending on communication, but also which tools you’re using, how it impacts your daily productivity, and how your use is trending over time.
However, this doesn’t mean your time isn’t being stolen away by more obvious distractions.
When writer Danielle A. Vincent kept missing draft deadlines on her latest book she decided to start tracking her time in RescueTime. One month later, she discovered that 25% of her total time (over 40 hours a month!) was spent on Facebook alone.
Set up systems to track your daily progress and stay on track
Once you have this big-picture view you can start to make more active changes to how you spend your day. One of the most important things you can do for your time management and motivation is to gain insight into the daily progress on your goals.
When Harvard’s Teresa Amabile looked into the daily habits of hundreds of knowledge workers across industries, she found that out of all the things that can boost our mood and motivation during the workday, “the single most important is making progress on meaningful work.”
There are a few methods you can use to get active feedback on your progress and how you’re spending your time.
- Visualize your daily goals. If your day is scheduled into small tasks (which we’ll cover below), you can use some visual method to track progress along the way. You might try Jocelyn K. Glei’s “Kraft paper method” or James Clear’s “Paper Clip Strategy”.
- Track meaningful progress on your calendar. Streaks are also a powerful motivating strategy. Track a few key metrics on your calendar and see how many days you can hit in a row.
- Use RescueTime Goals and Alerts to give you automatic and real-time feedback. You can set Goals in RescueTime and get active feedback about your progress towards it in your main dashboard (or on your phone!) throughout the day.
You can also set up custom RescueTime Alerts to show you when you’ve hit your goals for the day. For example, here’s one of my alerts when I’ve spent 3 hours or more on writing in a day:
While RescueTime isn’t the only way to track your progress, the fact that it works automatically in the background makes it a powerful way to get an accurate pulse of how your day is going.
Step 2: Set smart goals and prioritize time for meaningful work
How many times have you gotten to the end of the day and said: “What the heck did I even do today?”
The ultimate goal of time management is to spend more time on the things that matter. Whether that’s an important project at work, a paper for school, or even time with your friends and family.
Now that we have an understanding of our baseline for where our time is going and how we’d ideally like to spend it, let’s start looking at ways to actually do that. In the most basic sense, what we’re talking about is making time for your “core work.” Here’s what we mean by that:
- Core work is what you were hired to do. Whether that’s writing, coding, designing, managing projects, customer support, or anything else. In an ideal world, this is how you’d spend most of your time.
- The rest is what supports that role and your organization. But that you don’t necessarily schedule into your day. Emailing, attending meetings, phone calls, even multitasking.
Our goal in this section is to optimize time for core work and minimize the rest so you feel accomplished each day.
Set smarter goals (and then break them down)
Let’s start with a high-level look at what you want to do with your time each day.
During your time audit, you defined an ideal picture of how your time would be allotted. Now, it’s time to do the same for the specific tasks and goals you want to hit.
This starts with effective goal-setting.
Goal-setting is one of the cornerstones of proper time management. Unfortunately, most of us make a crucial mistake during this phase: We set unrealistic goals.
Big, audacious goals can be great for setting your intention, but they’re terrible for your daily time management. Instead, the goals you set each day should focus on two things.
First, break large goals down into actionable tasks. Not only are daily goals easier to manage, but they give you concrete next steps rather than feeling overwhelmed by some large, audacious goal you’re trying to hit. For example, instead of “Write blog post” set a daily goal of “Finish blog post outline”.
Next, make an action plan for how you’re going to work towards those goals. Here are a few suggestions:
- Use the SMART system: SMART stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Think about each factor and write down how it connects to your goal: What’s your timeframe for reaching it? How will you measure your progress? Is it the right time for you to be doing this? Is it realistic? How specific can you get with what you need to hit your goal?
- Picture yourself 6+ months from now: Working backward is a great way to define all the steps we need to get to hit our goals. Picture yourself 6 months from now. How are you spending your days? What do you wish you’d been working on for the past 6 months? Picture your perfect day and how it gets you closer to your goals.
Whichever path you choose, the purpose is to create a clear, actionable plan of what you need to do every day to hit your goals.
Research has shown you’re two to three times more likely to stick with your goals if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you’ll work on them.
Prioritize your tasks ruthlessly using one of these practical methods
It’s inevitable that you’ll have more goals than you have time to work towards, which means you need to prioritize. As far as time management tips go, prioritization is at the top. When you prioritize, you know you’re spending your time properly.
But while the elements of prioritization are simple (i.e. know what tasks need to be done and rank them). It’s far from a simple exercise. There are many different ways to prioritize your tasks, but let’s start with a simple strategy that helps you prioritize everything.
Prioritization happens on different levels. You have the tasks that need to be done today. The goals you have for this week. And the accomplishments that would make you feel like the past month has been a success.
Start by making a master list of every current and future task, project, or idea will live. You can use whatever tool you want for this: a document, app, or piece of paper. One great way to do this is David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology—a 5-step process we wrote an in-depth guide to here.
Now, take your master list and break it down into monthly, weekly, and daily goals. Your goals should cascade down from high-level, long-term goals (master list or monthly) to the actionable tasks you can do now to work towards them (weekly and daily).
This way, you know your daily priorities are aligned with your bigger goals.
However, when setting your priorities, try not to get too task-oriented. Sure, checking items off a list feels good. But you want to make sure you’re prioritizing the more effective work.
Separate the urgent from the important work
Time management is all about getting the best return on your time each day. As you fill out your daily, weekly, or even monthly to-do list, remember the Pareto Principle—or, the 80/20 rule. This simply states that 20% of your efforts tend to produce 80% of your results.
The best use of your time is on tasks that give you the best return. But despite your best efforts, you’re bound to end up swamped with “urgent” tasks—calls, meetings, emails, etc… And while some of these are necessary, a lot of them are just distractions.
Instead, you need to separate the “Urgent” from the “Important”.
One solution comes from former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who proposed a simple matrix for categorizing your tasks:
The Eisenhower Matrix forces you to place your tasks into one of four quadrants:
- Important and urgent: These tasks need your immediate attention. Do them now.
- Important and nonurgent: These tasks help you reach your personal or professional goals, yet aren’t timely. Schedule set time for them.
- Not important but urgent: These are distractions that hold you back. Delegate or reschedule them.
- Not important and nonurgent: These tasks shouldn’t be on your list. Delete them.
By classifying your work in this way, you can start to prioritize your time and map out a schedule that allows you to do more of the important work and less of the not important.
Use the 30X rule to start delegating more tasks
Prioritization and delegation are key to making sure you’re getting the most out of your time. Unfortunately, studies show that most knowledge workers spend 41% of their time on tasks they could easily pass off to others.
The issue is that while we’re aware we could hand off work, the thought of training someone to do it is daunting. However, as author John C. Maxwell says:
“If something can be done 80% as well by someone else, delegate!”
In his book Procrastinate on Purpose, author Rory Vaden proposes we allocate 30x the time it takes us to complete a task to train someone else to do it.
Here’s how he came to that number: If you have a task that takes 5 minutes a day to do, budget 30x that time (so, 150 minutes) to train someone else to do it. That might seem like a huge waste of time right away, but multiply that 5 minutes a day across the 250 annual working days and you would personally be spending a staggering 1250 minutes on that task.
Taking the time to delegate and train someone else gives you a net gain of 1100 minutes a year. Or, as Vaden puts it in his book, a 733% increase in ROTI (return on time invested).
Managing your time isn’t just about today, it’s about setting up systems and processes that will bring you more time in the future.
Bring “no” back into your vocabulary
Lastly, it doesn’t matter how much you prioritize or delegate if you keep adding more and more to your task list. Every time you say “yes” to some urgent yet not important task, you’re saying “no” to time spent on meaningful work.
Learning how to say no is one of the most important time management skills you can develop. Yet it’s not easy when the person asking you to do something is a boss, client, or coworker. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=jorymackay&dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=956172562756722690&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fblog.rescuetime.com%2Ftime-management%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px
Here are a few ways you can get over that fear and take back control of your task list:
- Saying no to your boss: Politely explain your priorities and the consequences of taking on additional work. For example, “Ok. If this is the priority I can start working on it right away. However, that means we won’t get X done for 3 weeks.”
- Saying no to a coworker: Be transparent with your workload by sharing calendars or task lists and take time to rehearse your response before responding to a request.
- Saying no to a customer: Reframe your answer as a referral to a colleague or partner. Explain why you can’t take them on and then suggest a different option for them.
Step 3: Build an efficient daily schedule
Now that your goals and tasks are prioritized, it’s time to start building an effective schedule. Unfortunately, when it comes time to schedule our day, most people fall into one of two camps:
- The Overscheduler: Their calendars look like a kindergartener’s finger painting. Meetings overlap meetings while reminders for events, breaks, tasks, and more meetings are going off like it’s New Year’s Eve. Their days are determined from the moment they wake up to their evening routine.
- The Minimalist: Also known as “The Dreamer.” They’ve got one or two recurring events, but a whole lot of white space so they’re “free” (at least on paper) for long stretches of work.
Being overscheduled leaves us no time for ourselves. The more “in control” we are of our calendar, the less control we feel like we have over our lives.
And the minimalist? Well, they’re just living in la-la land, aren’t they? They’ve offloaded their schedule to some other format—most likely a to-do list, scheduling app, or series of angry emails asking “Where is this?”
Instead, an efficient daily schedule is a blueprint for a successful life. Knowing what we’re doing and when empowers us with a sense of purpose, meaning, and focus. Here are some of the best time management tips for taking control of your schedule.
Build a morning routine that gives you momentum
Time management starts from the moment you wake up. And with the right morning routine, you can set yourself up for a day of productive, meaningful work.
While each routine should be individually tailored, there are a few key qualities you should aim to hit:
- Don’t hit snooze. Overcome sleep inertia by skipping the snooze button and start your morning with activity and excitement.
- Journal, meditate or do something similar. Clear your mind by journaling or writing your daily to-do list.
- Start on a positive note. Set the tone with something positive like phoning a friend, checking your Instagram feed (if that makes you feel good) or reading something you enjoy.
- Make time for meaningful work. Take action towards a meaningful goal like working on a personal project.
- Try to get a bit of exercise if you can. Even a short walk outside before work can do wonders to wake you up and set you up for a positive day.
This might sound like a lot to pack into your AM, but doing the legwork early on will help keep you focused throughout the day. You can even add your morning routine into your schedule as designer Dan Mall does:
Use time blocking to create a template for your day
Once you get to work, you have two choices. Either control how you spend your day or let other people control it for you.
The second option is how most of us work. We leave wide-open stretches of our day unscheduled and ready to be filled by meetings, emails, calls, etc… However, a better approach is to use what’s called time blocking.
Time blocking is the practice of planning out every moment of your day in advance and dedicating specific time “blocks” for certain tasks and responsibilities.
According to Peter Bregman, author of Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Replace Counter-Productive Habits with Ones that Really Work, this works because time commitments are more concrete:
“A calendar is finite; there are only a certain number of hours in a day. That fact becomes clear the instant we try to cram an unrealistic number of things into a finite space.”
Here’s an example from designer Jessica Hische:
In order to start time blocking, you need to follow a few steps:
- Start with high-level priorities. Look through your prioritized list of goals and decide what deserves a block and what doesn’t.
- Create “bookend templates”. This means your morning routine (see above) as well as how you’ll disconnect from work at the end of the day.
- Set aside time for meaningful work and more “shallow” tasks. Keep your schedule realistic. Add in time slots for basic tasks like checking email and chat as well as meaningful work.
- Add blocks for reactive tasks. Set a dedicated time for responding to messages, calling people back, or setting quick meetings. Knowing you have dedicated time for these tasks each day helps reduce the FOMO many of us get when we don’t check our inboxes every 6 minutes.
- Place buffers in between tasks and schedule breaks. A time-blocked schedule needs time in between tasks (to decompress) as well as the proper time for breaks. A good rule of thumb is to take a 10-minute break every 50 minutes of focused work.
Need help staying focused during your sessions of meaningful work? The new RescueTime for Google Calendar integration can now automatically trigger FocusTime sessions and block distracting sites during scheduled times.
Simply type #focustime in the title or description of your calendar event and RescueTime will automatically turn on FocusTime for the duration of the event.
Separate “Maker” from “Manager” time
Digging in further to your daily schedule, one of the best things you can do for your time management is to separate your “Maker” and “Manager” time.
As Y Combinator founder Paul Graham writes:
“The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals… When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.”
“But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”
Many of us straddle the line between these two camps. And therefore, we need to find ways to work both into our weekly schedule. One option is to split your week up by focus.
Here’s an example from Buffer’s Harrison Harnisch:
As Harrison explains, this makes it ultra-clear to both him and his team where his attention is. Additionally, setting aside specific days for specific tasks helps reduce context switching and multitasking so you’ll actually get more done.
‘Batch’ your communication time during the day
One of the hardest things about a time-blocked schedule is changing your habit of checking communication tools. Most people keep their inboxes and chat apps open all day and check in on them every 6 minutes.
However, studies have shown that we’re more productive, creative, and happier when we communicate less. More specifically, we tend to waste less time and be more productive when we communicate in “bursts”—rapid periods of scheduled collaboration followed by long periods of silence.
As the authors of one study wrote:
“During a rapid-fire burst of communication, team members can get input necessary for their work and develop ideas. Conversely, during longer periods of silence, everyone is presumably hard at work acting upon the ideas that were exchanged in the communication burst.”
However, communicating in bursts requires your entire team to be on board. This means scheduling a specific time for collaboration and not getting sucked into the need to be always-on.
Give up on multitasking
The ultimate goal of an effective daily schedule is to protect your focus. Focused work hours are up to 500% more productive than non-focused ones.
On the other hand, when we multitask or context switch, we lose 20-80% of our productive time.
A much more powerful time management strategy is to commit to single-tasking. Doing one thing at a time has been shown to rebuild our focus, strengthen our attention span, and even help us get more done.
While we’ll cover some of the ways to reduce workplace distractions in the next section, one simple way to reduce multitasking is to simply be more aware when it happens.
When you catch yourself losing focus, stop and write down what you’re thinking before returning to the task at hand. Sometimes simply acknowledging the distraction is enough to loosen its grip on you.
Work with your body’s natural energy cycle
The best time management tip anyone can give you is to do what works best for you.
Work better in the morning? Schedule your most intensive work then. Like doing admin in the day and creative work at night? Then that’s how you should manage your day.
What this all comes down to, however, is managing not just your time, but your energy.
A growing body of research has demonstrated that our energy levels have a natural ebb and flow throughout the day. We like to call these “personal productivity curves”. Each person is slightly different, but the majority of us follow a similar pattern:
Once the workday has begun it takes a few hours to get into peak work mode (around 11am-1pm). After this, energy sharply declines around 3 pm before returning around 6 pm.
However, if you want to go even further, you can use RescueTime to understand your personal energy levels throughout the day.
Start by looking at your Daily Productivity By Month report. This shows what times of day you’re most likely to do productive work.
This shows a clearer picture of your personal flow. Productivity is highest in the morning and then tapers off before lunch. A second burst of energy comes later in the afternoon and then sharply declines at the end of the day again.
Take some time to understand what your own rhythm is like and manage your time accordingly. Schedule your most important work during your peak hours. The rest can be slotted into low-energy periods.
Part 4: Optimize your work environment for focus
While most time management tips are concerned with how we work, we often overlook where we’re working. However, our work environment is the “invisible hand” that dictates how much we can get done in a day.
Whether you’re working at home, in an office, or out of a busy coffee shop, your direct surroundings can have a huge impact on your productivity and ability to hit your goals. The more distractions around you, the less return you’ll get on your time.
Luckily, there has been much research into finding the optimal work environment. Let’s look into some and help optimize our work environment.
Get rid of the clutter (both physical and digital)
What you surround yourself with can have a huge impact on your time management. A messy desktop—both physical and digital—pulls at your attention and causes all sorts of other issues.
According to neuroscientists at Princeton, physical clutter in your work environment competes for your attention and results in decreased performance and increased stress.
Even the basics—phone, to-do list, notes, books—can become massive distractions. (In fact, one study found that the mere presence of your phone can significantly reduce your cognitive capacity.)
Instead, follow a few simple practices to make your workspace work for you:
- Apply constraints to what you accumulate: Parkinson’s Law says we fill the time we have available to us. Whether Twitter followers, open tabs, or notebooks, setting hard limitations is the best way to stop accumulating more.
- Become a Digital Minimalist: Deep Work author Cal Newport suggests clearing out any digital tool that doesn’t bring you high value. You can either do this by subtracting (deleting one tool at a time) or adding (deleting everything and only adding back valuable ones).
- Conduct a monthly review of your space: Set time aside to clean, sort, and discard your physical and digital clutter. You can even do this daily, cleaning up your desktop each evening so you get a fresh start tomorrow.
Reduce noise issues with headphones or (the right) music
According to recent studies, unwanted noise and a lack of sound privacy—a lack of control over what you hear and who hears you—are the two biggest issues people have with their work environment.
The solution for most of us is to throw on headphones and drown out the sounds with music. However, music can be just as distracting depending on the task we’re doing.
So, what’s the best aural option for your ideal work environment?
First, let’s talk about volume. Silence has been shown to be the best option for working through hard problems. However, if there’s no way to block out what’s around you, the next best option is to find the right level of background noise.
When researchers tested our ability to work at different levels of background noise—50, 70, and 85-decibels they discovered that the 70-decibel group was the clear winners. 70-decibels is about the volume of a not-too-busy coffee shop.
If you’d rather block out distracting sounds with music, you also need to be careful about what you listen to. Here are some suggestions from Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and author of This Is Your Brain on Music:
- Avoid engaging music when you need to concentrate. The more engaging the music, the worse it is for concentration. Skip the Top 40 or your favorite artists and opt for Classical or “Chill” soundtracks. Or try out a service like focus@will that provides playlists optimized for work.
- Opt for lyric-free tracks. “Most people can’t pay attention to very much at once,” says Levitin. And trying to listen to lyrics while doing work is the aural version of multitasking.
- Pick your favorite songs for repetitive work. If you’re doing repeatable tasks, listen to your favorite tunes. Assembly line workers were actually more productive when listening to upbeat music.
Bring a bit of nature into your workspace
No one wants to work in a windowless cubicle (and not just because of how depressing it is!)
The truth is, the human body craves natural light and fresh air, and adding more to your work environment will help you get more done, feel better, and stay energized throughout the workday.
Studies show that schools with more natural light produce children who score better on tests. While researchers recently discovered that workers with exposure to natural light sleep 46 minutes more per night.
Along with light, fresh air can also have a direct impact. When US researchers studied the connection between fresh air and productivity at a major Chinese online travel agency, they found exposure to poor levels of air quality, workers’ productivity levels dropped by as much as 5–6%.
The final natural element you’ll want to be sure to include is nature itself. Surrounding yourself with plants (or even pictures of plants) has been shown to help alleviate mental fatigue.
To make the most of these time management tips, try to bring all three into your work environment: Light, fresh air, and nature. This could be as simple as making sure you’re close to a window or have access to a garden or yard to take a quick break in throughout the day.
Set up your tools for focus
While your physical work environment has a huge impact on your time management, so does your digital one. The tools you use every day to do your core work—like email, chat, shared docs, and other collaborative ones—can either help or hurt your ability to spend time effectively.
The goal here is to ensure they aren’t getting in the way of meaningful work. This could be as simple as doing a notification audit to make sure you can block out distractions when needed.
What you do will depend on the tools you use. However, we’ve put together a few in-depth guides on how to set up popular workplace tools for focus:
Try the ‘Workstation Popcorn’ method to block your time
We don’t all have the luxury of customizing our workspace. So, if you’re feeling especially stuck it might be time to move somewhere else for a bit.
Psychologist David Neal describes how when we work in the same place for too long we “outsource our control” to the location:
“People, when they perform a behavior a lot—especially in the same environment, the same sort of physical setting—outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.”
This means that to break bad habits or get out of a rut, we need to take back control.
Changing location throughout the day can be a great way to keep our motivation and productivity up. It’s also a good method for managing your time, as you know certain tasks will happen in certain places.
- Write out all the tasks you need to do today
- Break that list up into 3 equal sections (or batch work together as we discussed before)
- Choose 3 different locations for each batch of work
Runyon calls this “sort of a macro-level version of the Pomodoro technique, except that, instead of working in 25-minute segments, you’re planning out your entire day.”
Additionally, each location change imposes a short break, a bit of exercise, while also splitting up your workday into manageable chunks.
Part 5: Protect your time (and focus) from distraction
Buzz. Beep. Ping. Ring Ring…
Distraction is the soundtrack to our workdays. And nothing screws up your carefully planned schedule like an unexpected interruption. The modern workplace is a minefield of interruptions, yet to spend the time we need on our core work, we have to be able to block (or at least hold off) distractions.
Now that we have a good idea of what work is most important to us and a schedule of when we should do it, let’s look at ways to protect that time from everything else that wants your attention.
Use strategic laziness to work on the right things
Time management might be about productivity, but laziness can be your secret weapon.
The concept of “Strategic laziness” doesn’t have anything to do with loafing around, however. Instead, it’s about prioritizing the work and tasks that are important and allowing yourself to be lazy or “not good” at those that don’t matter.
How does this look in practice? In one story, Basecamp founder David Heinemeier Hansson talks about how he’s proud of some of the poor grades he got in school:
“I’ve received plenty of Bs and even Cs for classes that I was incredibly proud of because they came from hardly any time spent at all. Time that I could then spend on reading my own curriculum, starting my own projects, and running my own businesses.
“And I did. During my undergrad, I created Instiki, Rails, Basecamp, and got on the path to being a partner at 37signals. Do you think I could fit all that and still get straight As?”
The idea is to let go of your need to be perfect and focus on the work that matters. Prioritize what’s important and allow yourself to do poorly on the rest.
As management consultant Peter Drucker so aptly put it:
“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.”
Automate non-negotiable focused time throughout the day
It’s all well and good to say you should be setting aside time for your most important work, but when it comes time to actually do that work, how do you avoid interrupting colleagues or busywork vying for your attention?
One way to make sure your focused work sessions run smoothly is to automate all the hassle around getting started.
With RescueTime’s FocusTime feature there’s a number of ways you can automatically block out distractions for a set period of time, such as:
- Automatically start a RescueTime FocusTime session based on the time you’ve blocked off on your calendar or as soon as you arrive at the office
- Trigger your Slack status to be set“away” during a Focustime session
- Automatically post a message to Slack at the start of your FocusTime session, letting your colleagues know you’re unavailable
By getting rid of the friction of starting your focused setting, you’re protecting your most valuable time from distraction.
Use the Ivy Lee Method to end your day properly
One of the greatest productivity and time management tips out there is to simply know what to work on. That’s where the Ivy Lee Method comes in:
- At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. No more. No less.
- Take a few minutes to prioritize those six items in order of their importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving to the next one.
- Work through the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, any unfinished items move to a new list of six for the following day.
There’s a number of reasons why this technique is so effective. For one, it is super simple and forces you to single task. Second, with only six daily slots, it makes you become deliberate in planning each day. And lastly, with your tasks laid out before you get to work, there’s less barrier or friction to getting started.
Don’t forget the benefits of free time
At this point, we need to acknowledge that time management isn’t just about work. To find a work-life balance that keeps us healthy and happy, we need to make sure we’re leaving time for rest, relaxation, and socializing.
As journalist Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian:
“One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time ‘productively’, too. An attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough.”
In the effort to manage your time better, remember that not everything can or should be managed.
We need time disconnected from our work to properly recharge and recover to make sure when we are working, we’re making the most of our time.
So, when you are off the clock, try making your home environment less tech-centric, or set aside time to work on a hobby or simply to be alone with your thoughts. While not directly tied to time management, these simple practices can help keep us focused throughout the week.
Use the right time management tools to supercharge these tips
Finally, you don’t have to go it alone when it comes to time management.
There are tons of productivity apps out there designed to help you make the most of your time each day. And for the most part, they’re free (or close to it). Here’s just a few:
A CALENDAR APP FOR ORGANIZING BLOCKS
Any calendar app will do (bonus points if you can share with teammates). However, if you want to use Google Calendar, we’ve put together this list of power features and best practices to make the most of it.
A DAYTIMER FOR STAYING ON TASK
Time management is all about focus. To stay focused, use a simple Pomodoro timer (such as Be Focused). Having your remaining time visible can be a huge motivator and also help you estimate how long future tasks will take you.
A TIME-TRACKING TOOL FOR IDENTIFYING DISTRACTIONS AND PERFECTING YOUR SCHEDULE
There are too many distractions just waiting to ruin your perfectly planned day. By using a tool like RescueTime, you can quickly see where you’re most distracted, what time of day you’re most productive, and even set goals around time spent on email, social media, or entertainment during the workday.