If you’re falling behind on deadlines, or feel like your to-do list never gets shorter…you’re not alone. In the age of distraction, good time management seems necessary, but also elusive—a daily goal that’s always just slightly out of reach.
As it turns out, daily productivity is both a science and an art. To make the most of your time, you need to find a system that works for you, tools to back up your systems, and, more often than not, a mindset shift: away from distracted thinking and disorganization, and towards clarity and purposeful action.
Why is time management important?
Before we dig into the how, get yourself extra motivated by focusing on the why. What are the reasons you want to get better at time management? What will these skills help you get done?
For one, managing time effectively has a big impact on your happiness. More efficient work leads to less stress and faster output. Tick off your daily to-do list, and you’ll soon be checking off larger life goals, contributing to an overall feeling of less stress and more confidence.
Unfortunately, if time management doesn’t come naturally to you, you need a system. And most working adults don’t have one, so implementing one requires a conscious effort and change in habits.
Below, we’ll offer nine tips in three core time management areas—planning effectively, working efficiently, and staying consistent.
Use these to build sustainable time management habits that will boost your productivity and help you stay on track.
1. Set reasonable goals
It might seem counterintuitive to start with the big picture–but stay with us. Long before you start any work on any project, clear your head and make a list of big-picture goals. Setting goals, especially SMART goals, can help you track progress, avoid procrastination, and increase opportunities.
Most importantly, having clear goals will help you prioritize your projects and tasks—your time is limited, and you need a simple way to sort the mission-critical from the “meh.”
Need help creating your goals? Here’s a quick refresher on the SMART framework, which is extremely flexible and applies to almost any type of goal. To use this framework, you’ll want to answer the following questions:
- Specific: Have you described all the details in a goal that you want to achieve?
- Measurable: How will you know you’ve achieved that goal, and how will you track it?
- Attainable: Is your goal attainable? Do you have the time, resources and skills to get there?
- Relevant: Is your goal in line with your overall work and life priorities?
- Time-based: What is the deadline to achieve this goal?
2. Prioritize tasks
Now that you've nailed down your goals, let’s use them to prioritize. Prioritizing tasks is one of the most important things you can do to improve your time management skills. If you’re in the habit of consistently prioritizing—whether that means once a quarter or once a day—you’ll find yourself spending more time on the things that matter, and waste less time on the things that don’t.
Looking for reliable ways to gauge urgency? Check out one that’s been in use since the 1950s. The Eisenhower time matrix was a favorite of the 34th president of the United States, who used it to decide which tasks were high-priority. Our Airtable Eisenhower template helps you sort tasks into these rough categories: “important” vs “not important,” and “urgent” vs. “not urgent.”
Once you’ve made that initial cut, further refine their level of urgency by giving each task an urgency score. Hot tip: This is an excellent exercise to do with your entire team.
3. Set time boundaries
With your tasks prioritized, it’s time to build guardrails around them. Setting time boundaries means carving out time exclusively for certain activities.
As neuropsychologist Dr. David Nowell writes, boundary-setting is integral to time management. It may sound obvious, but it’s worth reminding yourself: saying yes to any one activity means saying no to another.
Which goals take priority for the day or week? In your calendar, block out appropriate hours for working on them. Sticking to time boundaries means your brain is less likely to drift towards impulsive decisions. If you practice saying no to unimportant tasks and diversions, you’re more likely to knock out your goals at the end of the allotted time.
Find that you’re consistently underestimating (or overestimating) how long certain tasks take? Use Airtable’s time tracker so you’ll have a better gauge when you plan your day.
4. Get yourself organized
Keeping physical and digital workspaces organized is always a productivity enhancer. Instead of spending precious minutes looking for documents, you’ll have everything in place to get started working right away.
Clean your desk area at the end of each day; it’ll be great for mental clarity if the first thing you see in the morning is an uncluttered workspace.
Deep clean and re-organize once a month, a cadence that forces you to take stock of old files, papers, or anything else that’s sitting around.
You should also tidy up your digital life each day. Maybe your system is a series of simple desktop folders, one per project. At day’s end, clear the desktop of trash, old documents, or images, and put working files in their logical folders.
Find yourself swimming in one type of file? It might be time to create a DAM—a digital asset management system that lets you locate assets immediately, so you’ll never waste time scouring your website or old emails to find them.
5. Do one thing at a time
Humans aren’t great at multitasking. More than a decade ago, researchers found that multitasking could reduce your productivity by 40%; the latest studies show multitasking not only hurts productivity but may also lower your IQ.
Focus on a single task, do it to the best of your ability, and then mark it complete before moving on to the next.
If you set time boundaries, as suggested in step 3, you’ll find it easier to focus on one thing. If you know that each task has its own allocated time, you’re less likely to be pulled in multiple directions.
6. Avoid distractions
A report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that even the briefest distractions decrease productivity. Once distracted, you need up to 20 minutes to focus again.
Battling distractions starts with recognizing and eliminating them.
A few tips for winning the distraction game:
- Stop notifications on your devices. Yes, you could simply mute your phone or put it in a separate space from your desk. If that works for you, no problem. But it’s a better idea to delete distracting mobile and iPad apps, or at least turn off their notifications, which are so tempting that they’re likely to interfere with your work. On a laptop or desktop, use a pop-up blocker app to stop notifications that might grab your attention while working.
- Set firm boundaries. If you’re working from home, there’s a fine line between your professional and personal life—sometimes you aren’t even separated by a door. If you work in an office, you might have an open floorplan that practically begs your coworkers to drop by. And either way, interruptions are always just a Slack message away. Agree on a signal that you’re in “focus time”—noise-canceling headphones, an “away” message on your calendar—and stick with it.
- Shorten your deadlines. The more time you give yourself for a particular task, the more likely you are to procrastinate. If you feel you’ve given yourself more time than necessary to work on a task, shorten it the next time.
7. Delegate tasks—or better yet, automate them
Knowledge workers waste a shocking 552 hours a year on repetitive and administrative tasks. That’s equivalent to 69 work days, or roughly one-third of the working year.
To free up time, take a close look at your workload. Delegate tasks that play to your teammates’ or employees’ strengths, and then figure out which tasks might be automated.
If your information is stored in an Airtable base, you can build an automation that sends out notifications and updates via Slack, anytime a record changes. Or, if your team uses Salesforce, Airtable has an easy integration with Salesforce that can, for example, automatically inform your team when a customer’s status changes. Want to generate invoices with the click of a button? Move inventory or customer lead lists?
Airtable users have figured out hundreds of ways to automate and streamline their daily workflows. Here are 10 to get you started.
8. Cut down on stress
How many hours of the week do you spend worrying? Harvard Business Review found that some 61% of American professionals are currently teetering on the edge of burnout.
While some of life’s stressors can’t be avoided, managing work-related stress can boost your productivity in the end.
Simple habits like building short breaks into your work day, or breaking down difficult tasks into manageable ones, can help alleviate stress and calm your mind.
9. Reinforce good habits
Sticking with new habits can be daunting.
Try giving yourself a small reward each time you steer in the right direction, even if it’s a tiny snack or a movie after work. Keep a goal scorecard and make a note of each day’s accomplishments.
Finding an accountability partner or joining a group with similar goals can also help you stay on track.
Once you’ve managed to tune up your time management skills—eliminating diversions, avoiding distractions, and changing your habits, forge ahead. You’ve done the hard work, now it’s time to keep your focus and thrive.