10 Ways to Become Better at Time Management- Part One

Jar of Shells

Classically being better at time management involves being more effective with your time, learning tactics and hacks to be more productive, and having enough time to accomplish your goals.  As leadership responsibilities increase, better time management becomes a skill leaders need to improve. If not it’s easy to be overwhelmed by never-ending task lists, emails to reply too, and meetings to attend. Which doesn’t even take into account the demands of our personal lives.

There is a sense of satisfaction that comes when the day ends the to do’s are done, you are ready for tomorrow and you are actually slipping into bed at a decent hour to get a full night’s rest. At the end of the day what’s most important is how we feel about the day we lived. When you're on your deathbed looking back at your life your regret won’t be that last email you didn’t send. You're going to look back and wish you had done what you loved, spent more time with those close to you and had done things that made you happy.

Let's plan for that today. In Part 1 of the series, we will explore the first 5 of 10 tips to becoming better at managing your time. Each of these tips goes deeper than tactics to challenge how we think of time and create a new perspective on time. Next week in Part 2, we will explore new habits and approaches to time management. Let’s get started!

1. Your purpose and life goals come first.

Not to be morbid but let's go back to your deathbed. As you look back at your life; what relationships, accomplishments, and activities are most important to you? Those are your life goals. When I start working with a new client I ask them to reflect on their lives and assess where they are. I invite you to use this wheel to look at your own life and identify what's important to you.

Got it? Good. Let’s move on. I’d like to tell you a story.

A teacher once stood before her class with a challenge. In front of each set of students was a large mason jar,  rocks of various sizes, pebbles, sand, and water. She challenged the students to get all of the materials into the mason jar. The first team done wins. Frantically the students set about trying to get all the materials into the jar. Some strategized while others jumped in and started putting things in the jar. Finally, one team finished, while all the others looked over in amazement.
Seizing her moment, the teacher explained that the largest rocks need to go in the jar first, followed by the pebbles, the sand, and water. Comparing the challenge to our lives, the largest rocks symbolize what’s most important in life such as spending time with family, maintaining proper health, and life’s major accomplishments. Next, are the pebbles which represent the things in life that matter, but you could live without. Last is the sand and water which represents the filler in our lives. This could be small things such as binge-watching Netflix, hours on Facebook, or running errands. These things don't add value to life and are likely used to cope with things we are ignoring.

Just like this mason jar, our lives are filled with memories. If you start with putting sand into the jar, there isn’t room for rocks or pebbles. The same is true in our lives. If you spend all of your time on the small, urgent and insignificant things, you won’t have time for what’s most important, like the areas you identified earlier.

To do this schedule time for your priorities. Don’t let family vacations, trips with the girls, and date nights fill in the cracks on your calendar. The same goes for your priorities at work. I recommend you go into your calendar now and block time for 3 activities. First, time for reflection each month, quarter or year. This is time to check in on your big rocks. Second, block 90-minute work blocks on your calendar. If not once a day, at least 2 to 3 times a week so you can focus on achieving your goals. Third, block time at the end of each day to complete an end of the day review and plan your next day.

2. Decide who you want to be, how you want to feel and how you want to treat people

After purpose and priorities, what’s most important is who you want to be while living your life. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What adjectives do you want people to use when they describe you? How do you want to feel every day? What are the top feelings that inspire, motivate and make you happy?

Before your day begins or your next task decide how you want to feel. Set the intent to feel that way, see yourself feeling that way and what you would do to make that happen. Maybe you want to have fun, curiosity, or courage. It’s up to you. Before you keep reading this article, how do you want to feel? Close your eyes and feel that feeling. Continue on.

3. Challenge your beliefs about time

The most productive of us have good time management habits; however, those habits aren’t based on discipline they are based on a growth mindset and a creative view of time. What do you believe about time? Do you wake up and think the following: I’m late, I don’t have enough time to get everything done today or do you just give up and roll back into bed stalled by the overwhelm. Do you believe there is a typical week and that everything will be on time?

Our belief about time frames what we believe is possible. Our brains are incredibly complex and have to sift through billions of bits of data every moment. To avoid short-circuiting our brains have to choose which data to pay attention to and organize. The Reticular Activating System (RAS) a bundle of nerves at our brainstem does this for us by filtering out unnecessary information so the important stuff gets through.

The RAS is the reason you think of buying a new car and then start seeing that same car everywhere. It’s the reason someone tells you not to think about elephants and you start thinking about elephants. The RAS takes your beliefs about time and will either find all the time in the world or all the reasons you don’t have time. Why not put your RAS to work for you?

Besides our personal beliefs about time, we are strongly influenced by cultural beliefs. Here are some common examples: Work is from 9am to 5pm Monday through Friday. Family time happens at the dining room table. A good mom attends every recital, soccer practice and school event. Date night with my partner is on Friday or Saturday night. Do any of these sound familiar? What would you add to the list? These can be helpful beliefs; however, they can limit how we think we can use our time.

For example, let's look at the belief, "I should be home in time to put my kids to bed at night.” I think it’s a loving sentiment to be at home to put your kids to bed every night, but what if this goal is adding stress to your life. With any belief, I’d test to see if it’s true. In the case of being at home every night, be curious if that’s the time your kids enjoy spending with you. What if having quality time at breakfast each morning was more important to your kids? What if you changed your work schedule and worked late 2 to 3 nights a week and then had more time for your kid's events the other nights of the week? By having a growth mindset and a creative view of time you may come up with unique solutions that work better for your family and you. Perhaps set a date with your family and explore everyone’s beliefs about time. Together you may come up with different possibilities and ways to spend your time together.

4. Manage the task

Most weeks, besides when the time changes, there are 168 hours a week. We know how much time we have. Our problem isn’t managing time, it’s clearly defining our tasks and understanding how much work is really needed.  Here are some suggestions to get clear on the work ahead of you.
  • Define each task with a clear bite-sized action step. i.e. Instead of "Start the project”, the task becomes “For 10 minutes brainstorm the initial milestones for the project"
  • Provide as much context as you can. ie. Instead of “Schedule the Doctor’s appointment”, the task becomes “Call 415-678-9678 to schedule a Doctor’s appointment.” The goal is to eliminate searching for information and make it easy to start a task. Often it can take time to gather the information you need to start a task. Find ways in your task definition and systems to keep that information together to make it lessen the startup time of actually getting your work done.
  • Define done. It’s best when it’s clear what done is for a task. For every task be specific about what qualifies it as being done. For our example start the project, there is no clarity of what done and good enough is. In your eagerness to start the project you could start working on a project plan, create a project charter, create the project team, schedule the kickoff meeting and oh schedule the caterer for the meeting, and ask your executive assistants help with the meeting, and what was I supposed to be doing? You get the point. Remove the guilt of never getting enough done, by knowing what’s enough.
  • Be realistic about how much time it will take to complete a task. We tend to think something will take less time than it does. For routine tasks try tracking time to know how much time something really takes.

5. Manage your energy

The task and time are only 2 dimensions of getting the right work done at the right time. The third is the type of task and the energy it will take. Each of us has our natural strengths and activities that come with ease, while other tasks may be more challenging and require more time and emotional energy. When planning our time, it helps to understand when we have the most energy during the day for different types of tasks.

For the majority of us, our energy is at its peak in the morning and we will want to focus on big decisions and strategic thinking. When the afternoon comes and our energy fades it’s easier to do things that require less focus like checking email, running errands, and other routine tasks. This can also be a great time for a creative process like writing, brainstorming and drawing. If you want to learn more about timing I recommend the book the Power of When by Michael Breus.

For women, another way we can take advantage of our energy is to map our menstrual cycle. With the change in hormones we experience each day, we have different strengths and weaknesses from week to week. Knowing these changes allows us to schedule our tasks based on the energy we have.  If you want to learn more about how our cycle impacts our energy and creative superpowers each week I recommend the book 4 Seasons in 4 Weeks by Suzanne Mathis McQueen.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share my favorite habits and tactics to manage your time to get the right things done at the right time, like learning how to say no to others and yes to yourself.


    About the Author

    Kim-Elisha Proctor is an Executive Coach, teacher, and writer. For over 15 years, she has worked with companies at all stages of growth and understands the complexity of organizations and leadership that is needed for success. Whether one-on-one coaching, with groups or delivering leadership development programs, her passion is the same: to support leaders to enhance their performance, impact, purpose & well-being to create communities they long to belong to.

    Kim-ElishaAgency, Lead Smarter