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What is time management, and why is it important?

By: Leanne Armstrong

Do the words “time management” make you uncomfortable? If so, you’re not alone.

Time management is a necessary part of most jobs, but a lack of effective skills in this area can limit your ability to accomplish key tasks needed to succeed in your current role and advance your career.

According to research from global organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry, most professionals spend less than 70% of their day accomplishing productive work tasks.

Not only do one-third of those professionals waste two to five hours a week on calls or meetings that aren’t productive, but more than two-thirds say spending too much time on such activities distracts them from making an impact at work.

Even if you think you’ve got the whole time-scheduling thing figured out, there’s a good chance you could benefit from a more thorough understanding of what time management is, and why it’s so important.

This is because people are often poor judges of their own abilities. According to recent research, when asked to self-evaluate their time management proficiency, less than 1% of participants gave ratings that aligned with their objectively measured time management skills.

Let’s take a closer look at what time management is, why it’s important, and what tips you can use to hone your time management skills.

What is time management?

Time management is the process of:

  • Planning the division of time between distinct activities.
  • Organizing those activities within a specific timeframe.
  • Regulating the breakdown of tasks and objectives associated with each activity.

Whether you consider it an art, a science, or a bit of both, time management is largely about balance and control.

By learning to balance the time you devote to different tasks, for example, you can better control your schedule, which can help you accomplish tasks with less effort and frustration. And that can prove especially valuable when the project you’re planning or participating in bumps up against other priorities.

Why is time management important?

Simply put, effective time management is essential for success. Many employees find their days cluttered with meetings and administrative tasks that can make it difficult to find time to complete individual work.

By helping you allot a specific amount of time to certain tasks, good time- management helps ensure the optimal use of your time and resources so you can get more done in less time.

Better time management skills can help you:

  • Maximize your time. Between-meeting breaks, for example, can be a great time to knock out smaller, less brain-intensive tasks that can be accomplished quickly.
  • Minimize your stress. Blocking off your calendar during times when no meetings are scheduled can help you focus on more complex activities.
  • Stay on top of your workload. Setting aside dedicated times each day to check and respond to emails, for example, can mitigate time-draining distractions.

While many people put off learning to manage their time better (usually because they think it will be a tedious, time-consuming process that won’t really help them in the end), you might be surprised to learn that mastering time management ultimately saves more time than it takes.

For one thing, allocating dedicated time to different activities—by blocking similar tasks together, so you’re not constantly switching back and forth—can help you avoid multitasking.

Long-established research shows that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can consume as much as 40% of your productive time.

What are the top benefits of time management?

When you know how to manage your time properly, you can gain better control over daily work outcomes and improve your overall effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity.

Here are a few questions from a quick self-test to help determine if you need help with your time management skills:

  • Do you sometimes (or often) stress over work obligations or deadlines?
  • Do you ever have to ask for extensions on assignments?
  • Do you sometimes (or often) finish up tasks or projects in a rush—just before the deadline?
  • Do you ever find yourself working during personal time just to stay on top of your commitments?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you could likely benefit from implementing helpful time management strategies.

For example, starting your workday with an organized to-do list enables you to be more proactive—and less reactive—to the day’s events. This enables you to accomplish more of the most important tasks on your list.

Another upside of developing strong time management skills is that the quality of your work is likely to increase when you’re no longer rushing to complete time-sensitive tasks you’ve let slip.

Improving your time management can also help you learn to:

  • Prioritize incoming jobs or assignments by breaking them down into specific types of tasks and scheduling them accordingly.
  • Focus on the most strategically important tasks first by identifying, for example, which ones are necessary for other team members to complete their work.
  • Take advantage of time-saving strategies and tools to ramp up project planning initiatives. This includes items such as using timeline tools and setting up inbox rules to route certain incoming emails to dedicated to-do folders.

The better you get at allocating your time, the more likely you are to reduce stress, accomplish more during the time you have, and improve your work-life balance.

How can scheduling help build time management skills?

There are several strategies you can use to optimize your time and manage tasks more effectively (we’ll delve more into these in a future article). But one of the biggest keys to building effective time management skills is making scheduling a habit.

By providing a visible framework for completing necessary activities, scheduling helps you clarify what tasks need to get done and when the best time is to complete them.

Whether you prefer to use an online calendar like Google or a paper agenda, here are a few scheduling best practices to get you started.

  • Schedule regularly. The quickest, easiest way to start managing your time more efficiently is by creating a daily work schedule. Start by breaking down projects and workflows into tasks that can be categorized as either: short-term or long-term, urgent or important, and easy or difficult.
  • Schedule the most pressing commitments first. Always make the most urgent, important tasks the first items you add to your schedule. These might include mandatory meetings, or daily or time-sensitive tasks.
  • Schedule less time-dependent tasks second. Next, schedule those items that are easy to knock off your list (e.g., returning calls or updating spreadsheets) so you can free up time to work on longer-term or more difficult tasks.
  • Schedule contingency time. Rather than scheduling every minute of every day, try to leave pockets of unscheduled time for the interruptions and unplanned events (e.g., technical glitches, impromptu meetings, updated deadlines) that are bound to occur now and then.
  • Schedule with productivity and completion in mind. Try to set a daily schedule that’s reasonable for you based on when you’re most productive (e.g., mornings, afternoons, right before lunch). Following your personal work patterns will make it easier to adopt effective time management habits.

For best results, you should practice making educated guesses around how long it will take you to complete certain jobs, and then compare your estimates to the actual amount of time it takes.

Not only will this help you create more realistic schedules, but it can also show you where you may be struggling to stay focused at work so you can take a different time management approach.

5 tips for more effective time management

To help you identify which time management best practices you can implement right away, here are five top tips for making better use of your workday.

Tip 1: Know the key skills you need to manage your time effectively: awareness, arrangement, and adaptation.

  • Awareness means recognizing that both efficiency (doing things quickly) and effectiveness (doing things well) are essential.
  • Arrangement is your ability to design and organize goals and plans to fit into the time available (e.g., building in the time it may take to learn a new task in addition to completing the task itself).
  • Adaptation includes monitoring the time spent on scheduled activities so you can get better at adjusting for distractions, interruptions, and shifting priorities.

Tip 2: Break down work activities and projects into specific tasks that you can include in your daily schedule. If you’ll be working on something that requires using a new tool or skill, be sure to add extra time to account for that learning curve.

Tip 3: Understand how long it really takes to get something done—but overestimate the time you’ll need whenever possible. This will prevent you from cutting it close in terms of meeting deadlines and staying on top of scheduled tasks.

Tip 4: Understand when you’re most productive and dedicate that time to your most challenging and important tasks. Leave smaller, more routine tasks for when you normally have less energy, or for when you have only a short break and thus won’t have time to fully switch gears fully to focus on something bigger.

Tip 5: Take advantage of proven time tracking and management tools (e.g., MindManager or the Pomodoro Technique) to help create and keep your schedule on track. We’ll discuss tools like these in more detail in a future article.

In the meantime, remember that time management is a skill, just like any other, which means it requires dedicated time and practice to get right.

Using the advice and tips above, you can start to improve your time management abilities so you can improve your work performance and take on new projects and responsibilities that can propel your career.

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