Ask any successful person how they get so much done, and they’ll tell you the key is managing time effectively. The problem for most people (especially entrepreneurs) is that we spread ourselves too thin.
Improvement happens when you focus on fewer, more important tasks.
Do you find that you don’t have enough time to complete all your daily tasks? You’re trying to do too much and failing to manage your time effectively.
Creating a time management plan means you cross more items off your to-do list. It’s a smart way to stress less while you do more.
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4 steps to create an effective time management plan
Time management skills don’t come naturally. Even the most productive people find it difficult to stay on track without a plan.
If you don’t plan tasks ahead of time, you have to decide what to work on in the moment.
This might work well for the first couple of hours of your day. By the afternoon, though, you’re mentally tired. It gets harder to make good decisions.
The other big problem with working by the seat of your pants is the planning fallacy.
Humans are naturally bad at guessing how long it will take to do something. When we estimate how long something’s going to take, we tend to be overly optimistic and assume that we’ll finish much faster than is realistic.
That’s why you start your day thinking that you’re going to finish five important things, but by the end of the day, you barely finish one. Plus, you get stuck working on a bunch of little projects that aren’t even important.
A good time management plan reduces decision fatigue, eliminates planning fallacy, and helps you maximize your time and resources.
Here’s what you need to do to create one:
1. Create a time budget
Remember that planning fallacy we just mentioned? Planning time can be tricky. It’s hard to correctly guess how much time each activity will take.
Time tracking solves that problem.
If you already use a time tracking tool, great! You have data you can use to see exactly how long similar tasks took.
Without automatic time tracking, it’s a little harder to make accurate estimates, but you can still do it. Manually track your time by writing down start and end times for all the tasks you tackle each day.
Here’s a quick tip – Hubstaff is free for a single user, so you can download it now and start tracking your time immediately.
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List all your tasks and goals
To create your time budget, list all your recurring tasks and goals for the following week. Don’t forget to account for administrative tasks, such as invoicing, payroll processing, etc.
Estimate how much time you’ll need
Once you have a list of everything you need to do, try to estimate how much time you need to complete each task.
Until you have accurate data, use your best estimate and add a little extra time to give yourself room for error. Remember — it’s much easier to fill extra time at the end of the week than it is to work around a packed schedule.
Keep it under 40 hours
Ideally, your total time for next week’s tasks adds up to something under 40 hours. If your estimated time comes out higher than that, you probably need to reconsider your priorities or delegate work to other people.
If your estimate is 30 hours or less, you’ve probably forgotten some of the little time-eating tasks that are easy to overlook. Those might include things like:
- Answering emails
- Checking in with employees
- Helping customers
- Creating your plan for the following week
Plan for the unknown
Finally, remember that no matter how good you are at planning your time, you’ll inevitably get into situations where random tasks or obligations pop up that need to be completed as soon as possible.
Make sure to leave some time on your calendar for these unforeseen tasks to make sure you’ll be able to complete everything you need to for any given week.
2. Prioritize tasks
Once you’ve created a time budget and listed everything you need to do for the week, it’s time to prioritize.
Look at your list of tasks and put a star next to everything that’s mission-critical — tasks that are both time-sensitive and important for the success of your business. These items are your top priorities.
Next, put a dot next to everything that’s time-sensitive, but isn’t vital for your business. For example, you might need to submit a catering order for a company event by Thursday afternoon.
Finish up by marking items that aren’t important or time-sensitive. These low priorities items will be the last things you add to your schedule (if they make it to the schedule at all).
Don’t be afraid to delegate
This is a good opportunity to delegate things that don’t need to be on your plate.
Assign those to other people.
These tasks might include:
- Repetitive tasks that fit into your workflow
- Tasks with clearly defined procedures and results
- Admin tasks that require little to no specialized knowledge or expertise
Finally, you can eliminate some tasks completely. If a task isn’t time-sensitive, important to the success of the business, and isn’t worth delegating to someone else, ask yourself if it needs to be on your to-do list at all.
3. Create a schedule
Once you know how long tasks take and your priorities are defined, you can schedule accordingly.
Map out your week in 7-day chunks.
It’s tempting to plan several weeks ahead to get the schedule out of the way.
Don’t do that.
Creating time management plans for a week at a time gives you room to adjust when things don’t go according to schedule. If you try to plan too far ahead, you’ll just get off track and end up back where you started.
Use time blocking
A great way to create your weekly schedule and make sure you’ll be able to stick to it is to use time blocking.
Time blocking involves dedicating blocks of time to each specific task. For example, you might decide to start your workday by replying to emails for 15 minutes, followed by 90 minutes of working on the most important task of the day, etc.
Use time blocks to carve out times of the day when you’ll be focusing on specific tasks.
Apart from enabling you to stay organized, doing this will also help to put you in the right state of mind for performing a particular task because you’ll know exactly when you’ll be doing it.
If you want to stay productive and avoid burnout, you’ll want to schedule some downtime during your workday as well. Here are a couple of suggestions on how you might want to spend your breaks:
Meditation helps to:
- Improve your creative potential and memory.
- Increase the size of the areas in your brain related to focus and attention.
- Lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety.
The simplest way to get started with meditation is to download a meditation app and use it to meditate as soon as you get up in the morning.
Do this every day to build the habit of meditating and see if it has a positive effect on your ability to manage your time effectively.
Studies have also shown that gratitude reduces negative feelings and helps you achieve goals and make insightful decisions.
So, how can you incorporate gratitude into your day? The easiest way is to keep a list of things you are grateful for and appreciate. You can also show gratitude to those around you via thank you notes, emails, or written messages.
Both of these are great ways to spend a short break from work and get yourself recharged for tackling the remaining tasks on your to-do list.
4. Invest in time management software
While you can certainly use a simple to-do list to manage your tasks and time, a time management software solution can provide you with a lot more features, such as time tracking, organizing tasks by project or client, etc.
Solutions such as Hubstaff allow you to track time spent on projects and tasks, generate accurate timesheets and reports, and even monitor your own productivity levels.
You can take advantage of Hubstaff to learn how much time it takes you to complete a particular task or project, track all the time you spend working on projects, as well as improve your productivity.
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Time management pitfalls to avoid
Building your plan isn’t as simple as writing down your tasks, then doing them. There’s a little more to it.
If you already struggle with time management, you’re probably going to do it wrong on your first few attempts. That’s okay. This is a learning process.
Want to get results faster? Watch out for these common mistakes.
Problem 1: No prioritization
You have more work than you have time to finish it. That means some things simply won’t get done.
The first step is accepting that you can only do a limited amount of work. The second step is setting your priorities so that the right things get done.
People naturally gravitate toward working on the tasks they like doing first and leave the other ones for later.
This happens all the time to people who don’t know how to prioritize tasks. As a result, they don’t complete all their tasks, miss deadlines, and cause projects to go over budget.
How to fix it:
If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Make sure that you only label tasks as a top priority if they really are.
Determine task priorities while you’re looking at the list of everything that needs to be done, and then work in order of highest to lowest. It takes discipline to stick to that order when your team keeps asking you to do other things, but be firm and clear.
Problem 2: Skipping breaks
Breaks help you stay focused and get more work done.
Some people skip breaks when they have a lot of things to do. It seems like a good idea, but it actually does the opposite of what you think.
When you skip breaks, you get mentally tired. Work gets harder, and by the end of the day, you’ve gotten less done.
Taking regular breaks is one of the best things you can do to improve your productivity and ensure that you’ll be able to complete all your tasks.
How to fix it:
The easiest way to train yourself to take breaks is to schedule them.
Decide what time you want to take a break and set a reminder on your computer or smartphone. When the reminder pops up, STOP WORKING. Walk away from your desk, leave your phone behind, and go do something else for at least 10 minutes.
It’s hard to stop right in the middle of a task, especially when you’re starting to find your flow state.
However, if you tend to skip breaks, it’s better to stop mid-task until you learn to give yourself some mental rest. Once you build a habit of making regular breaks, you can adjust and take breaks at logical stopping points between tasks.
You might have to set boundaries for your team, too. They shouldn’t use your breaks to ask you about work while you’re away from your desk. Respect their breaks and ask them to respect yours as well.
Problem 3: Trying to be perfect
Be honest: have you ever had a week go exactly as you planned it?
There’s no such thing as perfect. When you’re striving to be excellent, be careful that you don’t spend too much time reaching for an impossible standard.
Perfectionism is a dangerous habit because you feel like you’re going to perform better. However, it can actually hurt your performance. You’ll spend so much time trying to do one thing perfectly that’ll you have to rush everything else.
At best, you’ll produce inconsistent results. At worst, you’ll never finish anything.
Perfectionists are more likely to experience burnout, anxiety, and lower job satisfaction. It’s not a good way to work, and it’s not effective when creating your time management plan.
How to fix it:
If you’re a perfectionist, there are two problems to fix.
First, there’s the behavior. You spend too long on every project, and you nitpick details to try to make everything better.
This is a result of the second problem: your emotional need for perfection.
Fixing your emotional triggers is a long process, so start by addressing your bad habits first. Improving the way you work may even help you overcome the underlying anxiety and stress.
Set time limits for tasks and stick to them. Using a work timer or setting up alerts can help you stay on track.
To make sure you complete your work within that time limit, use a checklist to specify what you need to do to consider a task done.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you need to proofread a blog post, and you know that you tend to spend way too long making nitpicky changes. You decide to set a 2-hour limit and focus on these checklist items:
- Check spelling and grammar with a tool like Grammarly
- Review the post structure to make sure it’s logical
- Make sure you use SEO keywords correctly
- Rewrite any sentences that don’t flow naturally
Once you’ve checked those things off the list, that’s it. It’s time to move on to the next task, even if the blog post isn’t as “perfect” as it could be.
It’s time to draw up your own time management plan
We’ve shown you the strategies and tools you can use to manage your time effectively. All you need to do now is take advantage of these to improve the way you manage your time and boost your productivity.
Start planning out your ideal workweek by writing down all the tasks you need to complete and the time you estimate it’s going to take you to complete them.
Track the time you spend working on tasks to learn their realistic time requirements, and then adjust your weekly plan accordingly.
Remember to take advantage of time management software and always plan for the unknown.
This post was originally published in March 2019. It was updated by the Hubstaff team in October 2020.