by Cody McLain, founder of SupportNinja and author of “From Foster Care to Millionaire: A Young Entrepreneur’s Story of Tragedy and Triumph”
So, you want to improve your time management skills? That’s great! Fortunately for you, it’s not that complicated.
Here are some of the most effective time management tips, tools, and techniques that you can use when faced with many of life’s challenges — big or small.
Audit your own time with apps.
Quit second-guessing your window for availability. When it comes to time management, you first need to discover where your time actually goes. Planning is great, but if you are allotting 30 minutes to catch up on your emails before heading into a meeting, and you end up spending more time than you’ve set aside, you will need to come back to your inbox (where you will likely have even more new emails) to complete your original task. Thirty minutes can turn into two and a half hours very easily. Track your daily activities and reference insightful reports to learn where the bulk of your time is spent — and adjust accordingly.
Some of the best apps for monitoring and managing time include:
RescueTime — a great tool for discovering your perfect idea of work-life balance, RescueTime helps you to better understand all of your daily and weekly habits so that you can pinpoint areas of weakness, thereby strengthening your focus while becoming more productive with each new challenge.
Toggl — one of the best tools for managing personal and peer productivity, Toggl offers a simple time-tracking interface that gives you the power to assign tasks to projects and clients. As an added bonus, you can arrange to receive an optimal reporting invoice at the end of your completed tasks, not to mention the convenience of having Toggl integrate seamlessly with other popular team collaboration tools like Trello and Asana.
Hours — functionality at its finest. With Hours, you can start and stop timers as needed by way of its sleek and user-friendly interface. The helpful “Timeline” feature allows you to monitor and quickly fill in any gaps in your time-tracking in order to fully account for your day.
Keep your mailbox clean.
Take a look at the current state of your inbox. How many emails have been sitting there, unopened, for more than 24 hours? It might be time to take a step back and reevaluate your strategy for managing email, and inevitably, your time. As you go about your day, take stock of every piece of email you receive. Now, in order to attain high-level proficiency in “inbox organization”, consider these three options:
- Messages sent as courtesies, or those which require no action should be archived right away.
- Messages requiring a basic response can be knocked out then and there — and then archived right away.
- Messages requiring a certain level of consideration or thought can be reserved (read, then mark as unread) for later in the day. Or, snooze it to a time and date when you will be able to devote your full attention. This way, the message is out of your line of sight, no longer a daily distraction, but pops up when it is most convenient for you.
Time management tools — at the office.
Productivity at work is one of the keys to success. In order for organizations to thrive—no matter their size—it is important that they have solid, cohesive teams producing quality work. And the best way for keeping teams engaged is by ensuring that they are managing their time. More and more online time management tools are produced each year while existing platforms continually make improvements to their current features.
Some of the more dynamic programs worth checking out for your office include:
Hubstaff — manage the productivity of remote employees by placing time and spending limits on projects, while also scheduling attendance and monitoring general activity. Additionally, Hubstaff’s time-tracking functionality guarantees that payments to clients, freelancers or full-time staff are sent and received on time.
ClickTime — a dynamic and efficient platform for tracking working hours, department budgets, vacations, and project performance, allowing users to plan and record expenses associated with project development to ensure that teams do not overspend. Manage your time AND money effectively.
TimeCamp — never lose sight of how employees spend their days. Monitor ongoing projects, set long and short-term goals, track vacation days and holidays — even allow employees to monitor themselves, managing their own productivity so that work seems less like work.
There is nothing like adhering to a good old fashioned to-do list. And the reason we still adopt this age-old method of time management is that, well, it actually works, provided you do not simply bypass unwanted tasks. In addition to keeping you focused, a to-do list will spur you on and motivate you to want to physically check-off all of the day’s grueling chores, errands or goals.
… and “did” lists.
Once you have completed tasks, give them a special shout-out by writing them out in full underneath your remaining “to-do” items, or carry them over onto tomorrow’s list. This positive reinforcement is helpful to have as a quick reference during those rare moments when you experience feelings of defeat.
Tackle the big jobs first.
Though it might not seem like it at the time, we actually experience our greatest outputs of energy first thing in the morning. If you know that you have got a laundry list of tasks ahead of you that day, always try to tackle the most challenging ones first. By doing so, you will alleviate a significant amount of stress that may otherwise prevent you from completing the smaller items on your schedule.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Yes, this is meant to be a list of tips for helping you manage your time more efficiently, but hey — even superheroes have sidekicks! Delegating projects can be challenging, so if you are on a deadline and can’t afford the time to show somebody else the ropes, you might want to skip this suggestion. If you are able to relinquish control of your own list by outsourcing to another pair of capable hands, you can consider your time saved. Just don’t get too comfortable with this method, as people might misinterpret your motives.
This has to be one of the most common missteps out there. In this day and age of constant movement, technology, and responsibilities, it is so easy to fall victim to one of countless distractions. If you are trying to balance your checkbook and, for no reason at all, feel the need to stop and pick up your cellphone for a quick browse through your newsfeed — don’t!
Stay engaged with the task at hand and place distractions — objects, items, even people — out of sight until the work is done.
Do not double book.
We have all been there. It’s a busy day at the office and you are jumping from one meeting to the next, hoping to flag down important colleagues or grab lunch during the tiny window of free time in between. This is not a good look! Before you hop onto a new task, however insignificant it may seem, always remember to leave yourself some time to regroup, reassess and, above all, recapture all of your recently expelled energy. And it’s not only useful at work—this can be helpful when doing something as simple as reading a new book. Before you start, consider digesting. It is no use tackling a new project if you are still mentally clinging to the previous one.
Clear your mind, and often.
No matter how efficient your time management skills may be, you cannot do it all without occasionally freeing up some headspace. There is a reason why so many of the world’s most successful leaders practice meditation — because it works. Despite the research supporting its positive claims of mental acuity and revitalization, meditating physically allows you to pull yourself into the present.
For just a few minutes a day, you can exclude yourself from the chaos, close your door and just breathe. You don’t even have to close your eyes or sit, cross-legged, on the floor. The goal of meditation is to re-center yourself so that you can perform to the best of your ability — even if performing that day includes sitting down to put together a puzzle. Instead of completing your tasks only half engaged, meditating will drastically improve your work quality and time management.
Learn to say “no”, and often.
Declining a night out with your old college roommate, or missing the birthday of a friend of a friend of a friend when you genuinely have too much on your plate does not make you a bad person. It makes you an efficient person who knows their own limits. Learning to say “no” is best applied when you cannot further break down your time without the risk of one task suffering. Own it. And don’t be ashamed to use it.
Stay productive — even in your downtime.
Chances are if you are reading this article, you don’t like wasting time (or, you are good at wasting time and want to do something about it — either way, you’ll enjoy this tip). If so, consider all of the times you have found yourself thinking, “I’ve completed my checklist for the day. What am I going to do with all of this free time?” While a period of lying about in front of the television may certainly be appropriate, you shouldn’t feel that this is the only way to unwind. If you happen to find yourself in between periods of activity — waiting for an important email to come through, or your kids to arrive home from school — try to fill it with an activity that helps, not hinders, your productivity. Get a jump on next week’s tasks, get around to fixing that leaky faucet, or listen to a podcast. Allowing your brain to rot during downtime sets a dangerous precedence. So keep it active.
If you are managing your schedules with apps, you should already be able to assess how you are spending (and/or wasting) time. Those opting for a more human approach would be well advised to try exercising some restraint. By putting a cap on the amount of time you spend on any given task, you better prepare yourself for similar tasks in the future. Training yourself to recognize when you are overdoing it is not only a valuable time management strategy, but it can also have more far-reaching effects you may not even notice.
Create a weekly plan.
Everybody hates Mondays. It is almost always a challenge having to readjust to a five-day workweek schedule having just spent the past two days thinking and doing everything but work. But you can stay ahead of Monday-brain by putting together a timetable beforehand that will help you focus on your workplace priorities. Spend a few minutes on Sundays to build a strategic plan that covers projects and tasks — big and small — for your entire week. Break down weekly goals into compartmental daily tasks; arrange to tackle the not-so-important items during periods of low-energy and downtime. And while we all love Fridays, these should be days spent planning and networking. Don’t check out! Instead, check-up—follow through with emails and phone calls, and reach out to co-workers or management to ensure that nothing is outstanding before the office empties for the weekend.
Quit striving for perfection…
It’s overrated! Perfectionists are often hindered by feelings of self-doubt or unreasonably high standards, so they often miss deadlines. All tasks are not created equal, however, despite what you might think, or what you have been taught, oftentimes if you give your best to a task, your best is good enough. Freeing yourself from such a toxic and unhelpful mindset is one of the best methods of self-realization and productivity — so go ahead and give in!
There you have it! Now that you know some of some the most effective time management techniques, choose one to work on. Once you’ve mastered one, move on to the next one — and don’t forget to check it off your list.
Serial entrepreneur Cody McLain started his first business, a web hosting company, during high school. Today he runs SupportNinja, which currently services many high-profile clients globally. Cody employs a global staff of over 500 employees; the company earns over $4 million in annual revenue and continues to grow each year. He has written a book, “From Foster Care to Millionaire: A Young Entrepreneur’s Story of Tragedy and Triumph” which he hopes will inspire others who were dealt a tough hand.