We’ve all been there. It’s 11:30. Coming up on lunchtime. There in front of us is an empty spreadsheet or a blank document—stark reminders that the morning did not go the way we had hoped. We start to panic, start to get down on ourselves. It’s all going pear-shaped. How has the time passed?
It’s not a new occurrence. It happens to the best of us. But that doesn’t make it any less horrible to endure. So how can we beat it?
Simply willing ourselves to be more productive or efficient won’t work. The brain is a funny old thing and, more often than not, it just won’t answer to reason.
Therefore, the best thing to do if you want to manage your time better is to change your behaviour. Here are ten time management tips to help you!
Manging the time that you work really starts with managing the time that you sleep. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, having a regular sleep schedule is essential for keeping the rest of the day’s schedule in place. If your wakeup time is being altered here and there, it makes it very difficult to maintain a rhythm of productivity.
Secondly, you need to be getting enough good quality sleep so that you are focused and energised enough to actually make the most of your work hours.
The first step in time management for our workday is to set a regular bedtime alarm as well as a regular wake-up time alarm.
A lot of jobs come with a designated start time but, depending on the business, this time is often not hard and fast. While having that flexibility can be useful to allow people to do activities like dropping the kids off at school or going to the gym on certain days, it can also be harmful to productivity (if abused).
Having a hard and fast start time mentally primes us to hit the ground running, giving us no room for excuses to dawdle or procrastinate. This is all the more important when working from home because it can be very easy to just stay on the couch for five more minutes—what’s the rush?
Not a good idea. Give yourself a fixed start time and keep to it!
Of course, in order to hit the ground running, we need to have a task that we can knock over right away. The easiest way to build momentum at the start of your workday is to get through your inbox.
Most people do not enjoy responding to emails. Studies show that, for the majority, the task raises blood pressure and cortisol levels (it makes us feel anxious). But having it hanging over our heads throughout the day can be even worse.
Purging your inbox from the get-go can not only get the productivity ball rolling early but also make you feel more relaxed for the rest of the day.
Once you get through your emails, a long day stretches out before you. This can be a nice feeling. We think, ‘Great, I’ve got the whole day to kick goals’.
But too much time can often be a curse. We lose a sense of urgency and the day just slips on by. For this reason, we want to be segmenting the workday into time blocks to create little milestones we can work towards.
Another reason this is a good idea is that the brain can only concentrate at a peak level for a short amount of time—chaining ourselves to our desks for hours on end is usually counterproductive.
Some research has suggested that the optimal working block is 52 minutes. Call it an hour. Work towards that goal six or seven times a day and you’ll have got through a mountain of work!
Remember: at the end of each time block, you need to take a break (more on this below).
Time blocks can seem a little abstract. To make them seem more real, you can set up a countdown timer on your phone or computer to help you visualise your movement towards your goal.
When we start off on a time block, we can often become distracted midway through. Often, we then move the goalposts a little and just set the finish time back by five or ten minutes.
Whether you’ve had a productive working block or not, you need to stop working when you say you’re going to stop working. Having a countdown timer open can make that a lot easier.
Hand-in-hand with setting up time blocks for our day is prioritising the tasks that need to be completed within them. There are a few things to consider here.
Off the top, you obviously need to get through the most important or urgent tasks. Don’t get carried away doing the fun tasks like colour-coding your diary for the month. Be hard on yourself and get through the difficult work ASAP.
But we can often get to feeling burned out if we try too hard to get through all our most difficult work at once.
It’s a good idea to intersperse our major tasks with minor tasks. We’ve already seen the example of getting emails out of the way as a means of building momentum. Well, you want to keep the momentum running throughout the whole day.
For example, it might be a good idea to build in ten- or twenty-minute blocks of time for reading a non-urgent document throughout the day. Breaking up a writing task with a more passive reading task can give your brain a bit of a break to recharge, but you’ll still be keeping momentum.
We’ve mentioned that 52 minutes might be the golden zone for concentration and productivity. After that period, cognitive performance drops off dramatically and we need to take a break to recharge and regain focus.
But how long for?
Scientists seem to agree that the critical work-to-break ratio is around 1 hour to 15 minutes. That means that, roughly, for every hour you work, your brain needs to get 15 minutes off.
If you want to manage your workday well, you need to be making the most of your break time as well as your work time. It’s not good enough to switch tabs and look at Facebook for fifteen minutes.
When you take a break, it’s essential that you are getting your brain away from the work that it has been doing. Otherwise, it can’t relax. You need to physically move away from your work environment and, preferably, get away from screens.
Go for a walk, pat your dog, engage in some water cooler chat, but make sure you get up out of that chair!
It might seem a bit odd to suggest that a good way to work better is to stop working. But that little paradox is critical for making the most of your days.
By giving yourself a hard knock-off time, you are telling your brain it doesn’t have time to waste up until that point. But you are also giving yourself something to work towards.
Scientists have shown that setting an end-time for work (just like setting all sorts of other types of goals) makes us far more productive. Your clocking-off time should really just be the final goal of a whole day full of other, smaller goals.
But just as with the other temporal boundaries you set up in your workday (particularly your start-time, your working blocks, and your break times), it’s critical that you set it in stone.
If it comes around to knock-off time and you tell yourself you just need a little bit longer, that ‘little bit longer’ can magically turn into one or two hours. If you didn’t achieve everything you wanted to achieve in a day, you should still turn your computer off and just use that as motivation for getting stuck in harder tomorrow.
We’ve talked a lot in this article about the concrete steps you need to take to directly manage your time. But there’s one very big thing you need to do to manage your time that is indirect.
You need—absolutely need—to be managing your anxiety. When you feel anxious, your time management suffers. This is because your head starts to fill up with negative thoughts and you lose concentration.
This is a bit of a chicken-egg scenario because, often, poor time management is what causes anxiety in the first place. To use another hackneyed metaphor, it’s a vicious cycle.
But the good thing about the vicious chicken-egg scenario is that fixing one thing will also fix the other.
In terms of anxiety, then, you want to be directly treating and counteracting its symptoms. That means factoring into your workday all of those classic remedies like exercise, socialisation, mindfulness, and break-taking.
So, we’ve got a whole lot of ideas about to make sure we are managing our time better at work. But having the ideas in place and acting on them are two different things.
This is where a coworking space can really help out.
A coworking space benefits our time management practices because we have people around us who can help us stick to our plans and structures. For example, working in a shared office, it’s easy to set up a 52-minute working block with a coworker and then go and socialise for 15 minutes at the end of it.
On our own, it’s easy to fall off the wagon. But with someone there to help us stay the course, we can work harder and rest better!