My Top Ten Time Management Tips
90% of people get goal-setting wrong.
Okay, I just made that statistic up, but it’s more or less true. It’s not that you need to write SMART goals or SMARTER goals, it’s just that most people forget a crucial step…
Hold up though. Let me tell you where I’m going.
Over the past ten years, I have experimented with a huge number of time management techniques. I’ve read so many blog posts, listened to endless podcasts, and watched a ton of YouTube videos with productivity “gurus”.
Most time management advice is about getting more done in an hour. But often, I wanted to get the same amount done, just in less time and with less stress and effort. That means I had to focus on the big picture.
I learned a lot about how to do that and I want to share what I’ve learned with you. So here are ten time management tips that work for me—and that might just work for you.
Tip #1: Define goals and action steps
It’s great to ask what you want to achieve. But how will you achieve it? All too often, we skip this step, and just sort of coast along. But it’s so easy to procrastinate when you stay fuzzy on the “how”.
I like to write up a little note, once a quarter, with my goals and some action steps to reach those goals. You can write this down anywhere, like in your favorite notes app. And you don’t have to spend hours on this. Even 15 minutes can really clarify your intentions, although realistically, an hour is better.
But you can start simple. Just think about what you want to achieve, at work and at home, and then write that down.
Next—and this is key—write down some action steps for reaching your goals. Everything changed for me when I started to do this. Before, I’d say, “I want to start a podcast”, but then I wouldn’t do anything about it. Now, when I have a goal, I ask, “okay, what is required for me to reach this goal?” In the case of starting a podcast, I needed a concept, I needed a microphone, I needed to learn how to record, and I needed to invite some guests to talk. That was my to-do list right there. After that, it was easy.
So don’t stop after you set goals—identify action steps, too.
Tip #2: Use deep work days
Deep work is the most valuable work you do—the work that requires you to focus for longer periods of time.
For me, deep work is planning and recording YouTube videos. For you, it might be designing websites, writing legal briefs, or preparing for sales meetings. Doing more deep work is key to achieving your goals, so set aside time for it.
I created a rough weekly schedule for this:
- Mondays: YouTube only
- Tuesdays: Lift weights, run errands
- Wednesdays: Attend Toastmasters or group meditation (sangha)
- Thursdays: YouTube only
- Fridays: Lift weights
- Saturdays: Write newsletter
- Sundays: Lift weights, do weekly review, watch Formula 1
Of course I do much more than this during a typical week. But at least I have set aside two days entirely for YouTube, with no meetings or other commitments or expectations. And I have loosely scheduled other important things, too.
Designating deep work days is not only for people like me who work independently. You can do this at your job too.
Just two weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who works for an NGO. She proposed to her boss to have one meeting-free day a week. Her boss agreed, as an experiment. Now her Tuesdays are completely meeting-free. My friend said it has made her so much more productive that she’ll be asking her boss for a second meeting-free day each week. And she’s pretty sure, based on the stellar results, that her boss will agree to it.
Tip #3: Use a (good) task manager
Let’s distinguish between time management and task management. They are related, but not the same. Time management is deciding what to do when. Task management is deciding what to do in the first place.
There’s no point trying to improve your time management if you haven’t prioritized your tasks. A good task manager helps you organize all of your tasks and projects and then helps you plan what you’ll work on when.
The task manager I recommend for most people is Things 3, on which I teach a course for organizing your life—although there are some good alternative apps.
Tip #4: Focus more narrowly
This applies on multiple levels.
In the moment, just do one thing. You can’t write a good paper while having a conversation with a friend, not even if you’re just texting back and forth.
But try to also focus on one big thing at a time. Let me give you an example. For the first quarter of this year, I initially planned to work on three things:
- I wanted to use only a paper planner for a month, even though for years now, I’ve been teaching people how to use digital task managers. I thought it would be a nice experiment.
- I also wanted to create an entirely new video course on using your time efficiently.
- And I wanted to devote much more of my attention to YouTube, to create videos I would be proud of, rather than half-assed videos.
But when I tried to divide my time between all three of those goals, none of them panned out. Not using a digital task manager stressed me out way too much within days. I created a detailed outline and a sales page for the new course, but then didn’t find enough focus move beyond that. And while I had lots of ideas for my YouTube channel, I was only sporadically working on videos.
Then I told myself: enough. Ditch the paper planner experiment. Postpone the course. Just focus on YouTube for now. And that worked! My channel has roughly doubled its subscribers so far in 2022. One video that I put a particularly large amount of effort into now has over 400,000 views. Focusing only on YouTube, and dropping other projects, paid off.
Tip #5: Be difficult to reach
My productivity skyrocketed once I started to make myself difficult to reach. When you don’t reply to people (as) quickly, they soon learn to not bother you (as) much. Here’s how you might do this:
- Close Slack when you’re working. Slack is not work. Slack is talking about work. Or about random stuff.
- Eliminate most meetings. Particularly recurring ones, like daily check-ins. Write a short daily update instead. Save everyone some time. Don’t reflexively accept meeting invitations. And use a scheduling service—I like SavvyCal—to have meetings when it’s convenient for you and for the person you’re meeting with.
- Don’t check your email every 15 minutes. Or at least, don’t answeremails that often. Start by processing your email once a day or once every other day. Then drop the frequency even more, if you can. Condition people that you’re not watching your inbox the whole day. See how much better it feels—and how much time and focus you’ll get back.
- Turn on do not disturb while you’re working. Nothing pulls you out of the zone as much as an ill-timed notification. But make exceptions for the right people. Maybe allow your partner, or a very close friend, or your parents, to call you anytime. Just be deliberate about who can reach you when—and don’t feel guilty about not being available for your boss 24/7—until maybe 20 years ago, nobody was.
Tip #6: Avoid fake deadlines (but respect real ones)
Learning to distinguish between real and fake deadlines is underrated.
Real deadlines have consequences. Didn’t file your tax return on time? Get a big fine. Forgot to call your client who said she’d go to a competitor next week if you didn’t address something this week? The client is gone. These are the kinds of deadlines you need to respect.
But many of us create fake deadlines. “Okay, no more slacking—I’ll finish writing up this brief by Friday.” Is there a reason it must be done by Friday? Or is this just your way to try to avoid procrastination? This is not a deadline; this is an intention.
Don’t treat intentions as deadlines. If you say, “I’ll work on these eight tasks today” and treat that as eight deadlines, what happens if you “only” complete six? You’ll feel terrible about yourself, because you “missed” two “deadlines”. You also teach yourself that missing deadlines is okay. It’s not—not when it comes to real deadlines.
Respect real deadlines. Don’t create fake ones. And use a good task manager, like Things 3, that can distinguish between the two. My Things 3 course will teach you how.
Tip #7: Ask questions up front
Sometimes you’re in a meeting that lasts hours. At the end, you ask questions, and you realize that if you had asked them right away, the meeting would have lasted ten minutes.
Asking questions up front helps you get to the problem now. Don’t just launch into a conversation, or worse, a monologue, and see where it goes.
Let’s say James is not performing well at work. You spend an hour talking about whether he likes his work or whether you need to transfer him to a different department. But you’re not getting anywhere.
After an hour, you ask, “What’s really the problem?” He says, “well, it’s something personal”. See now that’s what you should have been talking about this whole hour!
Ask questions up front.
Tip #8: “Fuck yes” or “no”
I love using the test of “fuck yes or no”.
I’m sorry for being this blunt, but you’re going to die someday. And you don’t know when. You have a limited amount of time on this Earth to enjoy yourself.
So when someone invites you to do something, if you’re not excited about it, don’t do it! If you have the option, to decline, of course. You won’t always. But often, you do!
One of the simplest ways to use your time better is to be more excited about what you’re doing. Here are some phrases you can use to decline:
- “I don’t think so, but if that changes I’ll let you know”
- “Hey, thanks for the invitation, but I’m focused on other things right now”
- “You know, I’m generally not super into that, so I’ll pass, but thanks for asking”
Tip #9: If it’s not working, stop!
Once I internalized this lesson, I felt so much less guilty.
If the time management technique you’re using is not working for you, stop using it!
Look, you want to give things a proper go. But if you’ve tried something for a few weeks (or maybe for much longer) and it still doesn’t work, let it go. Try something else! You’re not lazy. You don’t lack discipline. You just haven’t figured out a way to make things work. Yet.
Just because a certain technique works for your favorite productivity guru, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
One of my favorite things things to do is to make fun of people who join the so-called “5 a.m. club” and then brag about that. Supposedly, if you wake up at 5 a.m. every day, you can “own your morning”, “elevate your life”, and “bulletproof your serenity”.
I don’t know about you, but I just get cranky when I wake up at 5 a.m. It does not work for me. Most days I wake up between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. I go to bed between midnight and 1 a.m. and fall asleep between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m.
This works great for me. I can be quite productive in the afternoons and in the evenings. Sometimes, late at night, I work well because I’m a bit tired. This works particularly well for creative work. It’s like my brain doesn’t have the energy to say, “this is terrible”, so I just go ahead and do it anyway.
In fact, I am writing this between 11 p.m. and midnight!
This isn’t to say that you should get up at 10 a.m. like me. It’s to say that you need to do what works for you. Try doing different tasks at different times of day. Notice when it’s easy. Notice when it’s hard. Then do them when it’s easy!
If people push back on your preferred schedule, say, your boss questions it, then ask, “Do you want me to get stuff done when I’m most productive or do you want me to be less productive just so I can work at arbitrary times?”
Experiment with a bunch of other things too. Try…
- Changing up for how long at a time you work
- Working alone or working around people
- Working in a bright, sunny location or in a cozy, darker location
- Playing different types of music, or no music, while you work
- Rewarding yourself with something fun for completing milestones
- Giving each day of the week a theme—or not using a schedule at all
Sometimes, I’ll work on something for an hour or two, and then I notice myself getting tired or, worse, a bit stressed. I used to try to push through that. I’d guilt myself out, saying that truly productive people just do it anyway. These days, I do the opposite: rather than pushing myself, I give myself a break.
I play a game, go for a walk, or talk with a friend. Then, when I come back, I feel refreshed and I’m more productive and the quality of my work is higher. I learned that pushing through resistance just doesn’t work for me. But maybe it does for you.
And that’s the point! There is no universal “best” way to manage your time. One thing is for sure though: you won’t make any progress if you keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work.
Tip #10: Decide what is enough
If you don’t know what you want, no time management technique or app will solve that problem. In fact, if you don’t know what you want, job #1 is to figure that out.
But once you’ve settled on what you want, you need to do one more thing: *decide how much is “enough”.* What is enough work for today? What makes for a productive week? What would you really like to achieve in the next three months?
If you don’t decide what is enough, you’ll always feel like you should have or could have done more. Define how much is “enough”—and try doing so in terms of your effort, not in terms of outcomes. For example, I might shoot for spending a certain amount of time each week working on my YouTube channel, without getting too attached to reaching a specific number of subscribers.
The secret to feeling like you got your work done on time is to not only get clear on what you want, but to also decide how much work is enough.
If these tips resonated with you, check out my course Big-Picture Productivity. It’s full of actionable exercises to help you figure out exactly what you want and how to get there.
Big-Picture Productivity allows you to know that you are making progress toward a goal, rather than grinding through another quarter and being able to say ‘I made it’ but without having navigated meaningfully in any particular direction, or being able to tick a proper, well-defined goal off of the list.
— J.P. Martin