14 time management strategies from highly productive people

IMG_0137I 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.

In other news: Carrie Willard had a nice post about what she learned from keeping a time log.

21 thoughts on “14 time management strategies from highly productive people

  1. So much love for #9. I never thought I could be a “morning person” until I tried it. And it made me realize that long before I’m tired at night, I hit a “useless” point, where I’m just puttering, exactly as you say. If I can recognize that and go to bed SUPER early, I am rewarded with so much extra useful time in the morning. Granted it’s at 5am, but it’s pretty awesome once I’m out of bed.

    1. I agree! And as Laura’s previous post (and the snarky tweet) pointed out – you can’t do everything so working out how to use those productive mornings is key. I used to be a morning exerciser – it meant I would always get my workout in – and without having to worry about when I ate, or when to shower. But there’s some career goals I really want to hit and was never making time for. So now I’m up early and go straight to my home office for two hours study/writing before breakfast. I’m still settling into the new routine but so far so good – I’m motivated by a phrase from 168 hours (?) – during the day I have a job but in the mornings I have a career. I now exercise straight after work to get rid of the stress of the day, or do a more relaxing swim or yoga class in the evening. I won’t be hitting any running PRs this season but it’s not my priority – just keeping up a reasonable level of fitness.

    1. @Carrie – I like the second post too! I agree – one of the upsides of tracking is the nudge to do one thing for the block of time you’re recording. It feels much more like progress.

  2. Hello,

    I’m more than happy to announce that this article is on TimeCamp’s 10 Most Inspiring Productivity Articles of Last Week List!
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    Thank you for your job, we’re inspired!

    Ola Rybacka,
    Social Media Manager in TimeCamp

  3. I need to work on using fragments of time productively – a bonus time list is a good way to go. I think a ‘bonus time email list’ might be better, allowing me to keep in touch with people.

    1. @CB – I don’t particularly have a bonus list either. I tend to like certainty. But sometimes, like if I have a shortened work day, then I organize into must-do and nice-to-do lists.

  4. The key for is finding what works for you as an individual at your particular stage in life. Working to the point of diminishing returns (#3), no tv (#8), use mornings (#9), and thinking 168 (#14) are what work for me now that I am 46 with a 12 year old at home and coming into the peak of my career. I tried split shift (repeatedly) until I realized it doesn’t suit me. I’m trying very specific quarterly goals this year — elements of 1, 4, 5, and 6 — and it is working really well. Q1 goals are to complete C25K (coming back from an injury), sign up for a race for Q2 (done), food tracking (so far so good), find a strength and flexibility trainer (check), language app (Duolingo) 5x week (pretty good so far, takes very little time and surprisingly effective), see Pollack exhibit at MOMA (scheduled for this afternoon), read Mrs. Dalloway (done), read Don Quixote (in [slow] progress). I have set reading, exercise and fun (see Hamilton, go on yoga retreat, etc.) goals for the remaining quarters. I spent quite a while coming up with goals and comparing it to the calendar to see what was achievable. I’ve been surprised so far at how much I have been able to do with what looked like an already full calendar. Thanks for the idea!

    1. @KP – I definitely get mixed reactions to the split shift. It suits some and doesn’t suit others. I think that depends on the kind of work, and how interrupted or limited the work day winds up being due to family or other things.

      Nice work on the quarterly goal list – very motivational to see progress!

      1. My work is probably well suited to the split shift strategy but my internal clock isn’t! I don’t think I do my best work when I’m trying to do it at 9pm (like Lily above, I will wake up super early to work if I need to—I like to alternate exercise & work in the morning hours)

      2. And also kids’ bedtimes.

        As a single parent I regularly did a split shift when I had one child who went to bed early (7:00ish). Now I have two who need attention until about 9:00 pm, which isn’t a good time for me to start working on anything.

        I start my own work about 30 minutes earlier in the morning now, though, that we’ve entered middle school era of 8:05 start time.

  5. Thank you Laura. You always have the most-practical time management advice. You give tips that can easily be implemented to increase productivity, and provide the right amount of perspective concerning “the big picture.” This is an awesome list.

  6. I totally agree with “use the morning” and “limit the TV”. Especially the TV is the worst timewaster.
    Regarding the priority list: Priority lists tend to grow longer and longer but not all points can be done. So I think it is also essential to ignore some requests and to realize which tasks are under the degree of real urgency.

  7. Great tips! The split shift works so well for me. I find that I work best on harder projects at night, so I use the daytime for smaller projects, conference calls, and answering emails. My daughter is in daycare, so I also try to squeeze in short errands and cleaning during the day. That way, when I pick her up from daycare, I can focus on spending quality time with her until she goes to bed.

  8. I love #9 too!
    I don’t consider myself as a highly productive person, but one more tip from me: use a time tracker. I have to use Tmetric to log my work hours, and at first I didn’t like. But now I’ve realized how helpful the tool is to record work hours, to analyze it for better productivity and workflow, for smooth payroll. The automates many processes and makes me more efficient this way.

  9. What if days were 26 hrs. What could we do with 2 extra hours. If we switched to 55 minute hours.Surely we most of us can do in 55 minutes that we spent 60 minutes on. I think 2 extra 55 min hours would be wonderful for most of us.

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