How to Improve Your Time Management Skills
“Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” –Augusta F. Kantra
I find that most time management strategies don’t work for me because they are designed around time rather than the way the brain actually works.
For example, it doesn’t help me to break my day into a series of blocks devoted to different tasks; I won’t stick to the plan because I’ll inevitably end up needing extra time or become mentally exhausted having to switch between projects so often. My brain wants the freedom to focus for long, open-ended periods of time. Time management apps like Taskr or Egg Timer are pretty useless to me.
Regularity makes more sense for some goals than others. For instance, if you’re training for a marathon, you’ll need to stick to a very consistent schedule week to week to stay in shape. But for other tasks you think you need to practice regularly, like language learning, the best approach might not be regularity. Instead, it might work better to choose one week out of a month where you are going to focus on the task intensively. Although this might sound counterintuitive, the fact is that it takes a lot of brain power to switch tasks all the time, so it’s easier to get mentally exhausted and lose focus if you’re trying to devote blocks of time throughout each day to different tasks.
There are different ways to organize your days, weeks, and months—the same strategies don’t work for us all. For some of us, it does work to break each day up into blocks devoted to different tasks; for others we’d rather spend a whole day on one task and the next day on another task; for others still it might work better to devote entire weeks or months to different tasks. The important thing is to realize there’s no “right” way of managing your time, but there are some things to be cognizant of which might make it easier for most of us to be more productive.
1. Know what you want most.
I tend to lose focus when I’m not confident that I’m using my time wisely or efficiently. If, in the back of my head, I’m thinking that I might be prioritizing one task when I should really be prioritizing another, then I’m more likely to be distracted. That’s why it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. You don’t have to have your whole life planned out, but as long as you know “what you want most” and align your priorities with that, then you can at least rest assured you are spending your time well.
2. Let yourself indulge.
Maybe one reason why we love to binge-watch TV shows is because we derive a guilty pleasure out of spending an indulgent amount of time doing one thing. When society tells us we need to structure our day a certain way and stick to a certain schedule, we tend to react by wanting to “do a lot of nothing” on the weekends. But many of us feel unproductive when we spread ourselves too thin—maybe we should allow ourselves to indulge in one task more often. It’s not a sin to spend a whole evening practicing Spanish if we are more likely to progress given the time and freedom to get “in the zone.”
3. Cultivate curiosity.
The latest research on motivation tells us that curiosity is key. If you have a desired outcome in mind related to the task at hand, and you are actively curious about the potential rewards it will bring you, then you’re more likely to stay focused and get things done. Feeling productive is a reward in and of itself, so you might try cultivating curiosity about time management itself: how much more can you get accomplished if you change your environment, routine, attitude? Treat it as one big experiment.
4. Experiment with spaced vs. massed approaches.
There’s a solid body of research supporting distributed, or spaced, practice over practicing in a couple of big sessions. Certainly, in the context of studying for exams, this holds true: You’re more likely to recall material and retain it for longer if you study at regular intervals over time rather than cramming for the test at the last minute. But not all tasks are created equal. If you are trying to get a new project off the ground running, your powers of energy might better be served if you choose one week to focus on it intensely. After all, creating momentum is the hardest part for a lot of us; if we allow ourselves to dive into one task for a while and ignore the others, we will be able to resume a more regular schedule once we’ve got that first big push in the right direction.
5. Create momentum when you need it.
Personally, if I find that I am not being productive, I have trouble turning it around and making better use of my time within the same day. But if I am already being productive, it’s much easier to continue getting things done. Productivity breeds further productivity. So beginning the day on the right foot makes a huge difference. One way of doing that is to make sure you start ticking things off your list early in the day—they can be small things, just so long as you can draw from that sense of accomplishment and keep pursuing it throughout the day.
What time management strategies work for you? Please share in the comments.