I have spent the past several years studying how people spend their time. I love to look at time logs, hour by hour. In these records, I see how the decisions people make with their minutes shape the course of their lives. We all have the same amount of time. But some people do a lot more with it than others. Here are 14 of my favorite time management strategies from people who really get the good stuff done.
1. Mind your hours.
Try tracking your time for a few days, or ideally a week. The point is not to figure out how much time you waste. We all waste time. The point is to make sure you are not telling yourself false stories (“I work full-time so I have no time to exercise” — that sort of thing).
2. Do work you like.
Time management is also energy management. When work is a source of energy in your life, rather than something you find draining, you will not only achieve more at work, you will be able to do more with your time outside of work too.
3. Work to the point of diminishing returns.
If you work one hour a week, you will not get much done. If you work 80 hours a week, you will get stuff done, but potentially ruin your good work from the first 40-50 hours by making mistakes. Figure out where the sweet spot is for you, and then aim to work to there.
4. Work smart.
Sometimes life pushes us into hunker down mode, but business is never just business. The soft side of work matters too. Do not get so busy with cranking on the work right in front of you that you neglect to plan, build relationships, raise your profile, and learn new skills.
5. Look forward.
Plan your weeks before you are in them. Friday afternoons are a great time for this. Make a 3-category priority list: career, relationships, self. Making a 3-category list reminds you that there should be something in all 3 categories! It can be short, 2-3 things in each, but listing these priorities, and plotting them in to the next 168 hours, greatly increases the chances they get done.
6. Put first things first.
This is a nod to the late Stephen Covey. One woman who kept a time log for I Know How She Does It suffered a water heater explosion during the course of her diary week. Dealing with that problem took 7 hours. That is an extra hour a day! I am sure if you had asked her at the start of the week, “could you find 7 hours to train for a triathlon? Could you find 7 hours to mentor 7 worthy people?” she would have said what most of us would have said: no. But when she had to find 7 hours, she did. Time is elastic. It will stretch to accommodate what you choose to put in it. So treat your priorities like that exploding water heater. First things first.
7. Split shifts.
If you need or want to work long hours, but you want a life, try leaving work at a reasonable hour, spending the evening with family or on personal pursuits, and then do more work late at night. About half the women in I Know How She Does It did this. You trade work time for TV time rather than work time for more valuable activities.
8. Limit the TV.
The highly successful women I studied in I Know How She Does It did watch TV — about 4.5 hours weekly. That is not nothing, but it is no where near the 20-30 hours the average American watches. That frees up time to build a big career, raise a family, exercise, read, and sleep right there.
9. Use your mornings.
Mornings are a great time to get things done. This is time you can have to yourself before other people invade. If there is something you truly want to do with your life, and you can not find space elsewhere, try going to bed a little earlier and waking up a little earlier. You turn unproductive evening puttering time into productive morning time. A little bit daily leads to great things. To paraphrase the saying: Water hollows the stone not by force but by persistence.
10. Think through family time.
You do not have to plan every minute of the early mornings, evenings, and weekends, but when you have kids, it is impossible to do “Nothing.” You will do something, but it might not be something you would do if you put more thought into it. Adventures make memories — and when it comes down to it, memories are all we really have of the long days and short years.
11. Get help.
Whether it is with your house and kids, or with building your business, there is no glory in doing everything yourself. The CEO of General Motors does not feel like a failure because she is not running the entire corporation single-handedly. Success is about leverage. You can do more with your hours when other people are pointed toward the same goal.
12. Use bits of time.
Small moments have great power. Most of us use 3-minute blocks to check email, but you could also read a poem, look at a beautiful work of art online, stretch, text a friend, add to your List of 100 Dreams, etc.
13. Use unexpected time.
Anyone can use time they know they will have. The true masters know what they will do with found time. Try creating a bonus time list — things you will do when time opens up. You may not know when this will happen, but any given week will likely feature a few hours.
14. Think 168 hours, not 24.
People say “there are not enough hours in the day!” and it is true. Fortunately, we do not live our lives in days. A week is the cycle of life as we live it. Most of the hard choices people see with combining work and family come from viewing life too narrowly. Do I stay late with the team or go home? In a week you can do both.
A version of this post appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website where she writes about strategically managing time between her work and family.