Time Management Skills
Have you ever wondered how it is that some people seem to have enough time to do everything that they want to, whereas others are always rushing from task to task, and never seem to finish anything?
It cannot just be that some people have less to do. It’s much more likely that they are using their time more effectively: in other words, showing good time management skills.
Time management is the ability to use your time productively and efficiently. You could also think of it as the art of having time to do everything that you need, without feeling stressed about it. It sounds simple, but it is much harder in practice. This page explains some of the principles behind good time management.
The Importance of Time Management
Time management skills are essential because few, if any, of us ever have enough time to do everything that is asked of us, or that we want to do.
Time management is defined as using your time productively and efficiently—but what about when you are working as productively as possible, and you still can’t get everything done? It may be better to think about time management as a combination of working productively and prioritising your time.
In other words, people who are good at time management are good at getting on and doing things. They are also, however, better at prioritising, and working out what really needs doing—and then discarding the other things.
They can do this because they understand the difference between urgent and important.
‘Urgent’ tasks demand your immediate attention, but whether you actually give them that attention may or may not matter.
'Important' tasks matter, and not doing them may have serious consequences for you or others.
Answering the phone is urgent. If you don’t do it, the caller will ring off, and you won’t know why they called—and it might be important. It may also, however, be an automated voice telling you that you may be eligible for compensation for having been mis-sold insurance. That’s not important.
Going to the dentist regularly is important (or so we’re told). If you don’t, you may get gum disease, or other problems. But it’s not urgent. If you leave it too long, however, it may become urgent because you may get toothache.
Picking your children up from school is both urgent and important. If you are not there at the right time, they will be waiting in the playground or the classroom, worrying about where you are. You may also inconvenience others such as teachers who are waiting with your children for you to arrive.
Reading funny emails or checking Facebook is neither urgent nor important. So why is it the first thing that you do each day? See our page minimising distractions to help you recognise and avoid other things that may distract you from getting your urgent and important tasks done.
This distinction between urgent and important is the key to prioritising your time and your workload, whether at work, at home or when studying.
It enables you to work out what to do first, and what can be left either until later, or not done at all. For example, if you leave an urgent but unimportant task, you may find that it becomes unnecessary.
Using a grid like the priority matrix below can help you to organise your tasks into their appropriate categories:
Using the Priority Matrix
To use the priority matrix, it is best to review your tasks on a daily basis. Each day, ask yourself:
Which of my tasks needs doing within the next 48 hours?
Those are the ‘Urgent’ tasks.
Of the urgent tasks, which ones are more important?
It is a good idea to list your tasks in order of importance, rather than giving them an absolute ‘important/not important’ distinction.
Of the non-urgent tasks, which ones are more important?
Again, it is a good idea to list them in order, rather than giving them an absolute distinction.
Now use the answers to these questions to allocate your tasks to the boxes in the priority matrix, following these rules:
Each box should contain no more than about seven or eight tasks.
Start with the ‘Do Now’ box.
Crucially, don’t put off urgent or important things just because they are unpleasant. They won’t get any better for procrastinating.
If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the BIGGEST one first.
Next, look at the less urgent but still important tasks. Decide what you are going to do about them, and then schedule time into your diary to do them, or consider delegating them to someone else.
Delegate the urgent but easier/less important tasks.
Now eliminate the non-urgent and non-important tasks.
Finally, do the work. Start your ‘Do Now’ list. When you finish it, move onto the scheduled work or tasks.
If there are more tasks that you can manage in any quadrant, it is time to a) do some, b) delegate some or c) eliminate some.
Regular pruning of your matrix in this way will ensure that you can focus on what really matters, and keep work flowing.
An individual judgement
The urgency and/or importance of a task is not absolute. Only you can decide what you really think is important or urgent.
Some people, for example, prefer to wait until they are asked a second time for a piece of work before they start to do it. If they are never asked again, they never start the work—they simply decide that it is not important enough to anyone for them to spend the time.
Remember, too, that you and your health are important. Just because you have lots to do doesn’t mean that doing some exercise, going for a 10-minute walk or making time to eat properly is not important. You should not ignore your physical or mental health in favour of more 'urgent' activities.
Urgency and/or importance is not a fixed status. You should review your task list regularly to make sure that nothing should be moved up because it has become more urgent and/or important.
What can you do if an important task continually gets bumped down the list by more urgent, but still important tasks?
First, consider whether it is genuinely important. Does it actually need doing at all, or have you just been telling yourself that you ought to do it?
If it really is important, then consider delegating it. See our page on Delegating Skills for more.
A Win-Win Situation from Delegating
Jenny was the leader of a busy, highly reactive team, with constant and urgent demands on her time. She knew that she needed to think about the longer-term strategy for her team , but it was very hard to set aside the time.
In a development discussion, Sara, one of her team, expressed her desire to do some more strategic work to build up her skills. Jenny saw an opportunity for both of them, and offered Sara the opportunity to map out the strategy for the team.
Sara jumped at the chance and produced a carefully-considered plan which was a great foundation for further work.
Personal vs. Professional
What about the balance between personal and professional priorities? There are two ways to manage this:
Include both in the same matrix
Advantages: your personal items do not get lost.
Disadvantages: you will need to find a balance between work and personal items.
Use two separate matrices, and allocate separate time slots for dealing with each
Advantages: means that you can deal with both, with a realistic view about urgency.
Disadvantages: can get quite complicated.
It is really up to you which you choose—the key is to make it work for you.
Further Principles of Good Time Management
The priority matrix is therefore key to prioritising your workload. However, time management is more than just prioritisation: it is also about being able to work more productively. There are a number of other ways in which you can improve your efficiency and productivity.
For some of us, clutter can be both a real distraction and genuinely depressing.
Tidying up can improve both self-esteem and motivation. You will also find it easier to stay on top of things if your workspace is tidy, and you keep your systems up to date.
Top Tip for Tidying:
Create three piles of your stuff: Keep, Give Away, and Throw Away.
- Keep, if you need to keep it for your records, or do something with it. If it needs action, add it to your task list.
- Give away, if you don’t want it, but someone else might be able to use it, and/or it is work that can and should be delegated.
- Throw away (or recycle) for things that have no value to you or anyone else.
Use A ‘To Do’ List
Whether electronic or paper, lists are a good way to remember what you’ve got to do, and to see at a glance what you’ve forgotten.
Consider highlighting the most important items in some way, and remember to take things off your list when they are complete and/or no longer need doing.
Pick Your Moment
All of us have times of day that we work better. It’s best to schedule the difficult tasks for those times.
However, you also need to schedule in things that need doing at particular times, like meetings, or a trip to the post office.
Another useful option is to have a list of important but non-urgent small tasks that can be done in that odd ten minutes between meetings: might it be the ideal time to send that email confirming your holiday dates?
Don’t Procrastinate, but Do Ask Why You’re Tempted
If a task is genuinely urgent and important, get on with it.
If, however, you find yourself making excuses about not doing something, ask yourself why.
You may be doubtful about whether you should be doing the task at all. Perhaps you’re concerned about the ethics, or you don’t think it’s the best option. If so, you may find that others agree. Talk it over with colleagues or your manager, if at work, and family or friends at home, and see if there is an alternative that might be better.
Don’t Try to Multi-task
Generally, people aren’t very good at multi-tasking, because it takes our brains time to refocus.
It’s much better to finish off one job before moving onto another. If you do have to do lots of different tasks, try to group them together, and do similar tasks consecutively.
Stay Calm and Keep Things in Perspective
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. Feeling overwhelmed by too many tasks can be very stressful. Remember that the world will probably not end if you fail to achieve your last task of the day, or leave it until tomorrow, especially if you have prioritised sensibly.
Going home or getting an early night, so that you are fit for tomorrow, may be a much better option than meeting a self-imposed or external deadline that may not even matter that much.
Take a moment to pause and get your life and priorities into perspective, and you may find that the view changes quite substantially!