7 Tips on How to be Better at Time Management

Estimated reading time ~ 7 min
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Weekly Planner (CC: @mimivirtualpa)

When you’re a kid, time management is less about managing your own schedule and more about your parents doing all the work. They tell you where you need to be and when, and you show up. When you’re an adult, the whole game changes.

With monthly bills to pay, doctor’s appointments to attend, and classes at different hours of the day or night, mastering time management becomes an indispensable skill to hone. There are very real consequences for failure to do it well. As a student, that might look like bad exam grade or a failed class. In the professional world, that might mean being fired from a job.

Getting your schedule in order can be deceptively challenging, so don’t be embarrassed if you always seem to find yourself at a loss. Ahead, we outline key ways to manage your time at work as you transition out of school.

1. Find Your Primetime

Everyone has an environment in which they get their best work done. Some people get to work hours before everyone else in order to tackle their projects with a clear mind and silent office. Others like to stay late and work after the buzz of the day has died down. Flexible work schedules are a godsend for employees who get their best work done at odd hours, but if your job doesn’t afford you that flexibility, figure out how to replicate those moments in smaller ways.

Observe and take notes on how you work at different times of day. Before you download another productivity app that you’ll never use, think about your process. Do you actually complete that recurring task in 30 minutes, or does it take you closer to an hour? Do you get your most productive work done before noon, or prefer to get all the mindless emails and calls out of the way first thing? Work to understand your needs — and be honest about your habits and shortcomings — then adjust accordingly. You might have the leeway to request that certain tasks be due before midday rather than after your afternoon slump. It doesn’t matter when your optimal work time occurs; what matters is that you devise ways to make the best of that time whenever possible.

2. Share Your Calendar at Work

At school, no one needed to know that you wrote your paper at 3 a.m. or prepared slides weeks in advance on Saturday mornings. Unless you’re self-employed, things are different in the workplace. Your work usually needs to get done within a certain amount of time by designated hours.

Part of your performance evaluation includes whether you are able to complete your work in a reasonable amount of time. Some supervisors will monitor your process and progress, but overall, how you organize your days is up to you. You are the person most accountable for making sure your work gets done. To protect yourself as an employee and just feel good about your productivity, try sharing your calendar with your manager and team. This isn’t always fun for people who don’t like to feel like someone is always looking over their shoulders. However, the best way to have your time respected is to be transparent, within reason, about how you are spending it.

That doesn’t mean you have to provide a minute-by-minute log of every action. It’s more about giving others the ability to see when you have a meeting and will be unreachable, or know that you’re working on a deadline and can’t catch up at the moment. When your colleagues understand your bandwidth, they can better ascertain your workload.

3. Share Your Calendar with Friends

It might seem strange but I also share my calendar with friends outside of work. When friends gave me that window into their schedules, I could see right away when they were too busy with work to hang out, rather than asking them a million times if they were free. In the same vein, we also saw when our free nights lined up and could actually schedule fun time more easily. Time management isn’t just about thriving at work but feeling at ease when you’re off the clock. Getting better in both spheres led to my social life improving and my work life feeling less stressful. I was able to decompress and enjoy my time with friends rather than feeling guilty about how I was spending my time. What’s more, the items on your shared calendar don’t have to all be work-related. You can schedule time for yourself when you prefer to be alone. In my group, blocks that say “DND” (do not disturb), “Rest”, or “Deep Work” are completely respected. In some (very modern or non-traditional) workplaces, doing the same might also be respected for times when you need undisturbed time to focus.

Color Code

When using an online calendar management system (i.e., Outlook, Google Calendar, iCal), I color-code activities and tasks based on importance. I use blue for non-negotiable tasks and priorities (major projects, team meetings, etc.); pink indicates activities that would bring me joy but are not required (optional training, lunch with a favorite colleague, networking happy hours). Although I don’t want to miss these fun events, I know there are minimal consequences for canceling in a crunch. Organizing my calendar by color takes time at the outset but is worth the investment, tenfold, later on. When an emergency comes up or a big work project takes more time than anticipated, it’s easy for me to identify what can be moved or skipped and what is absolutely necessary for me to attend.

4. Know Your Priorities

Working professionals need to understand what is expected of them and when, as well as how, to articulate their priorities to others. If you have regular meetings with a supervisor, don’t just ask them what you need to do; ask for clear timeframes that might include check-ins, progress reports, final deadlines, and an understanding of the most and least important tasks. Some of these can be flexible: If you remind them of all the other things on your plate, those dates may change. You simply want some time framework in which to operate.

As you get better at managing your time, you may find that you need to check in less or have extra time in your schedule. Those are excellent moments to think more deeply about the larger impact you want to have in your organization, whether assisting others, working on stretch assignments, or simply doing things that need to get done but always get put on the back burner. Use that extra time to get closer to those ambitious goals.

5. Get Clear on Fixed vs. Unfixed Commitments

Students tend to have a ton of schedule flexibility — blocks of class time alternating with a range of unscheduled hours. If you miss a class, you can go to office hours or even schedule make-up tests. These safeguards don’t always exist in the workplace, meaning it is essential to understand your fixed commitments versus unfixed ones.

An ideal schedule would be roughly 50/50: Not so fixed with meetings and appointments that you have little room for error and even less in which to complete your work. And not so unfixed that it seems like anything goes...until it doesn’t.

A global team meeting that occurs weekly on Tuesdays at 12 p.m. EST is a fixed commitment. You can’t change this meeting and have to build your work-day around it. Similarly, a one-on-one meeting with the head of your team or multiple departments lacks flexibility as it involves a variety of people. On the other hand, a casual check-in with your coworker offers a bit more flexibility in terms of scheduling, and a meeting with your manager can be moved with advanced notice when one of you is busy.

Every worker’s job is a combination of fixed and unfixed commitments — some of which might be in direct opposition with your needs. There are times when your needs can’t come first, but getting clear on that can help avoid frustration for everyone.

6. Regularly Reassess Your Schedule

How you spend your time can change based on your personal life, the season, even the weather. Organizational changes, year-end holidays, vacation and sick leave, and new company objectives can also have a huge impact on how you manage your time at work. It’s important to understand that many of these changes are hard to predict and impossible to control — but you can control your response to these pressures.

Your time management strategy has to evolve as the workplace does, which is why knowing your priorities and reestablishing them is key. If your personal life is especially hectic in April, that might not be a good time to volunteer for an extra project at work or a new opportunity. Similarly, if you know November is a busy season for your company, share that with friends and family to avoid scheduling lots of extraneous activities since you may have minimal energy left over from work. Whether you choose to focus on your personal or professional life is up to you, but acknowledge that every hour dedicated to one is an hour removed from the other.

7. Follow Through

The most important step in effective time management in the workplace is following through! Project management systems, calendar apps, and scheduling software aren’t replacements for devising a strategy. Outlook, Google Calendar, planners, and notebooks aren’t useful if you don’t actually incorporate those aids into a larger system. Accept that there may be systems you must use to stay in synch with your team, think about the tools you can remove from your load that only gum up the works, and then get going. Many students can get by, more or less, without using a schedule or calendar but the professional world is less forgiving. I’ve had friends with beautiful Bullet Journals and planners (the hallmarks of perfect organization!) who still weren’t able to accomplish their goals and meet the requirements of their jobs and day-to-day lives. When they reflected on what was going wrong, they realized that they blocked out sufficient amounts of time to accomplish their goals but lacked the discipline to follow through when completing those tasks. Effective time management involves both creating a process and then acting on it. Personal accountability to your schedule is the final step.

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