The 7 Best Time Management Techniques for Work

The 7 Best Time Management Techniques for Work

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In this article, we cover the best time management techniques for work. Unlike other content you find online, here we focus on actionable advice (things you can do right now) and that are specific for work. True, they can be applied to other context as well, but they are designed to make you more efficient at work. You won’t find generic and dubious advice like “keep track of time” that leaves you to figure out how to actually do that.

What is Time Management for Work?

Of course, time management is about managing time. That’s obvious, but what does it really mean? Everyone may have a slightly different definition of this, but it is important to be on the same page. If you get this definition, you will also be able to create your own time management techniques for work.

Time management is about getting the most out of your time, using as much as you can for things you want to do and wasting as little as possible.

For work specifically, we want to measure things along two dimensions:

  • Output, how much “things” you can get out of each minute, hour, or day you spend working. These are things like “email replies per hour”, “customer calls per day”, “customers visited per week”, “units produced”, and so on. They are proportional to time, but they do not necessarily deliver value.
  • Outcome is what you are really looking for, it is the ultimate business result you are seeking. It may be more revenue, more earnings, entering a new market, even getting a promotion (your outcome as an individual). This is not necessarily proportional to time or output, but it is influenced by how much and how you work.

Time management is mainly about increasing output, and this productivity or efficiency. However, the tips you see here are also useful to optimize for outcome, not just for output. As Peter Drucker quote goes:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

Time Management Techniques for Work

1. Log Time Spent

If you are not measuring how you spend your time, you will not know if you are doing that efficiently. Time is literally like money: you have a certain amount to spend. If you get yourself a new iPhone but you don’t know how much you paid for it, how do you know you got a good deal?

There are many techniques to track time. What I like to do is simply use a stopwatch (in my case, digital on my computer). Most of the productive activities that I do are done at the computer, so I can do this easily. Here, you need to make an effort. Once you start the timer, commit to do only that specific productive activity you are measuring. Don’t insert another productive activity in the middle, let alone something distracting such as scrolling Instagram, or even going to the washroom. Measure only the productive time.

First among our time management techniques we have tracking time, either with a stopwatch or with a timer
Tracking time is the first way to assess if we are productive or not.

Then, log whatever you do in an Excel (easier to get statistics out of it). I suggest to have a table with a row for each entry. Each entry has a date, a duration (number of minutes rather than hours and minutes is better to make calculations later on, so 1h30m will be written as “90” for 90 minutes), the name of the task and, if you want, a description of what you did.

Get in the habit of doing this, it will take time and patience, as you will often forget to start the stopwatch. If this approach troubles you, try it in the opposite way, with a timer.

You can set a timer for a given amount of time (20 min up to 1h in general), and then commit to do only one task until the timer expires. In this way, you know you can log whatever amount of time was written in the timer. Furthermore, having a known end in sight may be easier if you are starting off.

Among the time management techniques for work, this is the most important. However, its power by itself is limited. But you can start to see already some results and realize where your time is really going, and what are the most frequent activities.

2. Forecast how you want to spend your time

Another important part is to have an idea on what you want to spend your time on. If you don’t know how much time you planned to spend to do an activity, how can you know if you did it more or less efficiently?

They way I like to do this personally is to put everything that I need to do in my calendar each Sunday for the upcoming week. Then, I can group activities into different buckets (e.g., meeting customers, replying to emails, learning something new, having meetings and so on) and find out how much time I have allocated to each bucket every week. The buckets are always the same week-to-week, but the time planned for each changes. For example, when getting back from a vacation the time spent addressing emails will increase as I have all the emails that piled up while I was not in the office.

Once you have this and logged it in a friendly format in Excel, you can do a retrospective at the end of the week to see how you are allocating time. What you should look for are:

  1. Have I logged and spent all the time that I planned?
  2. What are the activities consuming most of my effort? Why?
  3. What are the activities that differ more from the original forecast? Why?

A useful ratio that I use is dividing the time spent by the total time forecasted, regardless of the activity. This indicates if I am actually able to deliver on the time I allocate. If there is a discrepancy of more than 15%, it means I am convinced to have more time than I really do.

3. Single-Task

Single-task is the opposite of multitask, and it is another gem in the time management techniques for work. The idea is simple: do one thing at a time. If you committed to something for the next hour, stick to that, and that only.

Single-tasking may mean focusing exclusively on writing a doc for your customer, focus exclusively on replying to email, on reading a new industry report, whatever. But do just that one thing. There is plenty of research showing that context-switching (changing between tasks) consumes energy in your brain for nothing, and makes you less efficient.

Single-tasking is also much easier to track, either with a stopwatch or timer, because you don’t need to have multiple timers going on, stop one and restart the other, and so on.

When I talk about time management techniques for work, single-tasking is where I get the most questions. Everyone agrees this is a good approach, but everyone also feels that – unfortunately – this cannot really apply to their context. People feel in this way because their boss expect immediate reply to email or chats, customers keep calling, and so on. I have a whole section about this, read on.

4. Manage your Interruptions

You can’t manage time if you are not prepared to manage your interruptions. You are not living in retreat at the top of the Himalayan mountains, which means people will look for you and try to distract you. Here I am focusing on work-originated distractions: Instagram is not really in discussion here, I don’t think you need a section to explain “If you scroll Instagram while working you will not be so productive”.

The first way to manage interruptions is to set expectations. Most people act out of a sense of urgency, but if they stop for a second to think if whatever they need is really so urgent, it is probably not. Your boss can most likely wait two hours for you to reply to the email about the report going out tomorrow. My suggestion here is to speak with boss, manager, coworkers, reports, and state clearly “sometimes I focus on doing X, you will see me busy in the chat app. I will reply once I finish, if it is really urgent please call me on the phone.”

To better manage your time, you should be able to manage interruptions like phone calls
Time management for work is about managing interruptions like phone calls, chat, emails.

Here you set two clear expectations. First, you state that chat (and email for the matter) are not real time and an immediate response is not expected. Second, you give an option for immediate contact if needed. This is crucial, because make your audience feel in control, that they can reach out to you if things go south. I would advise then to do not treat chat, email, and even app-based calls as urgent, but only phone calls. People will feel some friction to take out the phone and call you, so if they do it is probably really urgent.

However, you need to deliver. If you say you will answer on the phone, then you need to answer. If you are busy in another call, you need to call back as soon as you hang up. But make a reputation for yourself, it will be much easier to defend if you delay answering chat messages.

Sometimes engagements call directly from customers and setting a delayed communication expectation may not be always possible or desired. Instead, here you can explore the concept of office hours: you define some hours (from a few a weeks to a few a day) when you are available for customer contact, and you let customers book time with you in those slots. In this way, you know how to expect and you can mange your time accordingly.

5. Plan Output in Advance

Forecasting how you spend your time is not enough, although it is a start. Saying you want to allocate 4 hours to reply to emails this week is not a good measure. You could indeed spend the full four hours and reply just to a single email. So, once you make your time forecast, start to think “What output can I achieve considering this time allocation?” Or, even better, think about your ultimate business outcome (the promotion), what is the output that will support it (reply to all customers email within 24 hours, so reply to 20 mails per day), and then what is the time allocation that will make it possible (2 hours per day).

Time Management Techniques for Work are about prioritizing tasks and putting them in a calendar
Define a list of priorities, put tasks in your calendar for specific days.

The crucial point here is to have a key metric that is proportional to time and that you can benchmark: emails replied. So, commit to an output of X mails replied per week and see if you actually deliver that with the time indicated. As time goes, you will be able to see if you can increase your output for a given time unit (e.g., reply to more emails per hours).

Not everything can have a metric. Most of the things you do will be like “complete this report”, “do this analysis”, “find this financial information”, something that is either done or not. Most importantly, they will be one-off activities that you do not repeat often. But it is a good idea to track them and commit to what you will do through the week. This will allow you to reflect on what you could not accomplish when you do the retrospective.

6. Ruthlessly Prioritize

Your time is limited, and if you have a list of tasks you will need to cut a line at some point: whatever falls below the line will not be done, simply because you don’t have time. So, you want to order the tasks in order of priority. Note that I say priority: not urgency, not importance, but priority. Priority is something you define according to your own rule based on a mix of urgency and importance. What this mix is, it will be up to you.

To prioritize the tasks, you want to ensure no two tasks have the same exact priority. Try to define some criteria for your prioritization that will always be the same, week over week. However, be flexible to change them if circumstances change. The rules that I use:

  1. (Urgency) If I delay this task to this week, will I be in trouble? If not, delay it unless it matches rule #2.
  2. (Importance) Is this goal moving me closer to my objectives? How do I know? If so, do it.

This prioritization approach has an important implication on your time management techniques for work: you need to know your objectives, and you need to understand how each tasks is moving closer to them (or not). This is not easy, and takes time, but if you get into the habit of listing 2-3 long-term objectives and linking tasks to each, it will be much easier to do.

7. Write a Narrative

This is a bonus, I have not seen this in any of the time management techniques for work listed in any other website. Most advice focuses on checklist, time tracking, pomodoro technique (timer), no multitasking, and so on.

Here, instead, we have something different: write a story. Yes, write a small paragraph that defines what you want to accomplish for next week. Revise it a couple of times until it looks perfect. Then, extract a list of tasks out of it and prioritize them, then assign them to the various days of the week.

You should also do the same for your retrospective. When you plan for the upcoming week, in fact, take some time to reflect on how did you do on your previous week. Were you able to spend all the time you allocated? Did you spend more time than expected on something? Most importantly, did you accomplish everything that you planned for? Write down a short paragraph to reflect on this as well.

Time Management Techniques for Work in Summary

In this article we saw 7 great time management techniques for work that you can implement right now. Practice them, and you will be able to manage yourself effectively. And, when you feel it is time to do more, learn how to be a good manager and manage others.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

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