This article is a guest post by Freya Laskowski, a personal finance expert and founder of CollectingCents.
If you look up “famous procrastinators” on Google, you’ll find that Leonardo da Vinci had an apparent knack for more than art: being easily distracted and leaving projects unfinished.
Just ask the Mona Lisa how long it took him to finish her. (Hint: the answer is 16 years!)
If one of the world’s most highly esteemed individuals was also a master at procrastinating, you’re far from a lost cause.
So whether you’re struggling to get the laundry done or your biggest work project is due in one week, here are eight time-management strategies that are sure to get your wheels turning.
Table of Contents
1. Prioritize time-sensitive and high-value tasks
Sometimes, we trick ourselves into thinking we've been productive because of the number of things we've checked off our to-do lists. But in reality, the quantity of completed tasks means nothing—it's the quality we should focus on.
The quality of your tasks can be determined in two ways: how time-sensitive they are and how high-value they are.
If you want to be productive and learn to manage your time well, always prioritize tasks that need to get done the soonest (time-sensitive) or those that will allow you to make the most progress (high-value).
For example, preparing for a meeting you have the next day should come before checking your email. If you own a small business, focusing on clients you already have should come before lead generation efforts.
Another good example — if you are a consultant, preparing for an upcoming consultation and researching the company you are consulting with is more important than generating visibility for your firm.
Another benefit to knocking out your highest-priority tasks first is that you'll alleviate stress in the process. Think about it: which tasks cause you the most anxiety and are the most difficult to finish? Usually, the answer is one (or more) of these types of projects.
By handling these first, you can go about your day with the peace of mind that comes from knowing you've already gotten the hard stuff done.
But in reality, urgent or impactful tasks don't have to be as challenging as we usually make them out to be. Time management isn't just about prioritizing your to-do list but also figuring out how to make it less daunting.
2. Set mini deadlines
Most (if not all) of your tasks have a deadline. And if it’s not an official deadline, it’s one you’ve set yourself.
For example, you might want to have 100 new leads ready for outreach by Friday, clear your inbox by 4 p.m., and finish five sales calls within the day.
To ensure you complete those tasks by your deadline, you get them done little by little throughout the weeks and months.
In the lead generation example, you could add 20 leads every day for the entire week to reach your target goal by Friday. To clear your inbox by 4 p.m., you might check your email for 10 minutes every 3-4 hours. For the sales calls, you might want to timebox each call into a specific time slot within your calendar. All of these small deadlines will eventually help you reach your goal.
These are examples of mini deadlines that can be set over a long period or even over a few times in a single day.
It saves you time and energy on otherwise draining tasks. And what’s even better: as you make mini deadlines a habit, you’ll also be breaking the habit of procrastinating.
3. Track the time you spend working on tasks
Knowing how much time you spend on tasks is beneficial for many reasons, including:
- Having a better idea of how much work you can do per hour (and how much to charge for your services)
- Finding new ways to reduce distractions and become faster
- Planning your day with a realistic idea of what you can get done
- Knowing how much time you’ll need to spend on specific tasks
We’ve all had days where our to-do list looks realistic and even easily achievable. But halfway through the day, we realize that we severely underestimated the time it would take to complete everything on it.
Luckily, this can be easily avoided—by tracking the time you spend on tasks.
What’s something that you used to think wouldn’t take you very long but turned out quite time-consuming? For me, this was outlining and researching blog posts.
I used to outline and start writing on the same day. But after realizing how long it took me to prepare my posts, I started separating the outline and research task from the actual writing. Separating these tasks helped me shave off about an hour per post on my writing days.
Or, let’s say you find that you spend more time than you like responding to emails. After this discovery, you could invest in a free email autoresponder—something you wouldn’t have done had you not tracked time.
This tip might be the simplest of them all, and it’s easy to start implementing.
There are plenty of free time tracking tools out there—like Toggl and Clockify—that let you create separate “tasks” and log time in them individually. This is ultra-helpful for seeing how you allocate your hours throughout the day.
4. Implement productivity techniques
Thanks to science and an abundance of research, there’s an entire ocean of productivity techniques available to us. And I’m sure you’ve heard of at least some of them.
Here are five that you can start using right now:
Perhaps the most well-known on this list, the Pomodoro Technique involves setting a timer—usually for 25 minutes—and then resetting it for five once it rings.
During the first 25 minutes, you work on a single task, attempting to make as much progress as you can. Then, once the timer rings, you have a five- to ten-minute break before starting the next 25-minute session.
Repeat the process until the task is complete. However, if your assignment requires several Pomodoro sessions, it’s advised that you start taking 15-20 minute breaks after the fourth.
“Deep work” is more of a mental state than a productivity hack. When you’re in a deep work state, you focus 100% of your energy on a single task for an extended period (say, one to three hours) while eliminating all distractions.
Personally, deep work is my favorite hack because it allows me to make a significant amount of progress in what feels like just an hour (but is two or three times as long).
A Georgetown University computer science professor named Cal Newport first coined the term. He even wrote an entire book about it.
To make the most out of your deep work sessions, here are a few things you can do:
- Clear your environment of any clutter
- Choose your task before setting the timer
- Eliminate all possible distractions (like your mobile phone)
Finally, to get into a deep work state—which is also called a “flow state”—consider doing the following:
- Drink a cup of coffee (or caffeine)
- Watch something motivating or inspiring
- Listen to music that pumps you up
- Take a cold shower
Created by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle is the concept that 20% of actions are responsible for 80% of the outcome. This idea has been applied to a variety of fields, from sales to language learning.
But when it comes to productivity and time management, the Pareto Principle provides a framework for identifying the tasks most worthy of your immediate attention.
There are six main steps to using this idea for time management:
- List the problems you’re facing or tasks you need to get done
- Find out the cause of the problem (why does it take you so long to complete? Why do you need to get it done?)
- Give each problem a score from 1-10 (10 being important, 1 being least important)
- Put tasks/problems with the same causes in groups
- Add up each group’s score
- Start working on the group with the highest score
While this isn’t necessarily a technique, countless high-quality productivity apps utilize the above (and other science-based) methods.
If you’re a fan of the Pomodoro Technique, you can use Pomo Done. It even connects to other project management tools like Trello, Wunderlist, Todoist, Asana, Slack, and many more.
Or, if you’re looking for a digital to-do list, Smart Tasks has a smooth, visually appealing interface that allows you to create, color code, and complete tasks.
5. Work at your most productive times
If you already know which times of the day you’re most productive, it would make sense to get your most demanding tasks done then.
But what if you don’t know those times yet?
Well, if you’re tracking time, as we talked about in tip #3, this shouldn’t be a problem for long.
Take note of when you’ve felt like time was flying by — this helps you discover your most productive periods and the perfect opportunities for deep work sessions.
Something else you can do is compare how quickly you get the same task done at different times of the day. For example, if you typically work on SEO tasks in the afternoons, try doing so in the mornings for the next few days. Is there a difference?
6. Limit distractions
Distractions are likely the biggest hindrances to productivity. Odds are, you’re reaching for your phone, changing tabs, checking your email, and looking at your watch more times than you realize.
In reality, distractions are inevitable and are always around us. And it takes time to break the habit of giving into them. However, if you’ve set yourself up for success, eliminating them for only your time-sensitive and high-value tasks is doable.
Here are a few tips for creating an ideal, distraction-free work environment:
- Put your phone on Do Not Disturb and somewhere out of reach
- Turn or take off your watch
- Set up pop-up blockers or helpful chrome extensions on your laptop
- Tell others in your home or who might try to contact you that you’ll be unavailable for a set amount of time
7. Delegate and outsource as much as possible
Whether you work remotely or have a nine-to-five office job, you likely have an unattractive amount of admin tasks—like checking emails, scheduling meetings, and answering phone calls.
These tasks take up more time than we realize, and trust me when I say that you’ll thank yourself for delegating or outsourcing the ones you can.
Outsourced tasks don’t have to be for admin purposes only — they can be anything unrelated to your main position.
By investing in Grammarly, for example, you can spend less time proofreading and editing while also sounding more professional when communicating online.
You could schedule meetings well in advance by using software like CalendarHero. CalendarHero enables employees to automate scheduling, block time in their calendar, set reminders for meetings, and reduce back-and-forth email coordination. It saves you time by helping you make time for what matters.
The options are limitless, and you can find them for free or with a lofty price tag. But whatever the investment, it’s bound to be worth it.
8. Block out time for different types of work
Last but not least, consider dedicating certain days or times for specific types of work. This is also known as “task batching.”
For example, on Tuesdays, only focus on recording new podcast episodes. On Wednesdays, write blog posts. On Thursdays, focus on critical business start-up tasks (like getting general liability insurance or budgeting). On Fridays, devote your attention to lead generation.
You’ll come to see that working in batches promotes productivity and simplifies your life.
Consistently maintaining productivity is something we all struggle with. Like motivation, it often comes in waves.
But with these eight time management strategies, you can make productivity more than just a feeling. It’ll become a habit.