Time Management Techniques for Insanely Busy People

Dan Silvestre

Time is finite.

We all have the same amount of hours each day. You can’t store time, borrow it, or save for later use. You can only decide how to allocate it, spending it on activities of higher rather than low value. Time management is a game of choices: projects to pursue, tasks to complete, routines to follow.

Adopting good time management techniques in your life isn’t about squeezing as many tasks as you can into your day. It’s about simplifying how you work, getting things done faster, and doing things better. By doing so, you’ll have more times for play, rest, and doing the things you love. Don’t try to work hard, invest in working smarter.

“Time management is not a peripheral activity or skill. It is the core skill upon which everything else in life depends. “ — Brian Tracy

Below, you’ll find a list of my favorite time management techniques. They are a set of principles, rules, and skills that allow you to put your focus on the things that matter, get more done and help you be more productive.

Use them as a rulebook of your work. You will improve your productivity, accomplish more with less effort, improve your decision-making ability, reduce stress, and ultimately become more successful in your career.

But remember: everyone is different. These are the time management techniques that I find useful in my life, but you might not. Adopt the ones that work for you and always seek to refine your own practices by regularly thinking about how to improve your time management skills.

By writing your own time management rulebook, you’ll discover that there are really enough hours in a day for everything you’d like to do. It just takes a bit of rearranging and re-imagining to find them…

#1 Organize Work Around Energy Levels

Productivity is directly related to your energy level.

Find your most productive hours — the time of your peak energy — and schedule Deep Work for those periods. Do low-value and low-energy tasks (also known as shallow work), such as responding to emails or unimportant meetings, in between those hours.

For example:

If you are a morning person, do your most critical work when you get in the office. After lunch, your energy might crash a bit so it’s a great time to clean your desk, clean emails or update spreadsheets.

Plan your work around your energy levels, scheduling critical work for peak productivity times.

You should also know your energy levels by day: Tuesday seems to be the most productive day for most people, but find your own patterns. Here how Jeremiah Dillon, head of product marketing for Google Apps for Work, organizes his week around his energy levels:

Monday: Energy ramps out of the weekend — schedule low-demand tasks like setting goals, organizing, and planning.

Tuesday, Wednesday: Peak of energy — tackle the most difficult problems, write, brainstorm, schedule your Make Time.

Thursday: Energy begins to ebb — schedule meetings, especially when consensus is needed.

Friday: Lowest energy level — do open-ended work, long-term planning, and relationship building.

Map your work and energy levels in a spreadsheet for a couple of weeks until you uncover your productivity patterns.

#2 Plan Your Day the Night Before

time management techniques
time management techniques

Before going bed, spend 5 minutes writing your to-do list for the next day. These tasks should help you move towards your professional and personal goals.

By planning ahead the night before, you’ll be better prepared mentally for the challenges ahead before waking up and there won’t be any room for procrastination in the morning. As a result, you’ll work faster and smoother than ever before.

Spend a few minutes each evening before going to bed to write down everything you need to get done tomorrow.

Make planning a part of your night-time routine and save yourself time and worries in the morning. Once you wake up, you’ll be able to just get to work.

#3 Start the Day with Critical Work

Mark Twain once said: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

This is a golden time management technique: Find your most important task (MIT) for the day and tackle it first. Your MIT should be the one thing that creates the most impact on your work. Getting it done will give you the momentum and sense of accomplishment early in the day. That’s how big life goals are achieved: small continuous efforts, day after day.

Each day, identify the most crucial tasks to complete and tackle it first. Once you’re done, the day has already been a success!

How do you find your MIT? In Elon Musk’s words: “Focus on signal over noise. Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t actually make things better.” Look at your to-do list and decide which tasks help you get close to your goals and make progress in meaningful work.

Put these at the top of your list so you can focus on them first. Resist the temptation of tackling the easiest tasks first.

#4 Prioritize Tasks

Knowing how to prioritize your work is an essential time management technique. Projects, however small or large, need clear priorities. When everything is a priority, nothing is.

You want to prioritize your “true tasks” first, the tasks that actually move the needle of your goals. To help you find them, use a productivity hack called the Eisenhower Matrix.

time management techniques
time management techniques

Prioritize “true tasks”: urgent and important to-dos that have a direct impact on your goals.

Here’s the step by step:

  1. Write down all your tasks. Don’t worry about the order (for now), just write everything you need to do
  2. Now identify what’s urgent and what’s important. After each task, mark them with “U” for Urgent and “I” for Important. Tasks can have one, both, or none. If none, you’ll need to purge them
  3. Now we need to assess value: look at your “I” tasks and identify the high-value drivers of your work. You want to find which tasks have priority over others and how many people are impacted by your work
  4. The next step is to estimate the time to complete each task. Order them from most effort to least effort
  5. Finally, insert the tasks into the Eisenhower Matrix. You now have a complete overview of all your work tasks

#5 Delegate or Outsource Tasks

Using the Eisenhower Matrix, you’ll find that some tasks are urgent but not important. When that’s the case, the best you can do is find someone who can complete these tasks for you. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Delegating or outsourcing some tasks can be a great way to multiply your efforts and get more done.

If you work on your own, you can find a VA or hire freelancers. In a team, re-assign specific tasks to colleagues who are better suited to complete specific tasks.

Delegate or outsource urgent but not important tasks to multiply yourself and keep you focused on the most important work.

Here are the top things you need to know to delegate efficiently:

  • Find to the right person: whoever you’re delegating the tasks to should have all the necessary skills and is capable of doing the job
  • Provide clear instructions: write down the tasks in a step-by-step manual be as specific as possible
  • Define success: be specific about what the expected outcome is and the deadline to have the task completed
  • Clarity: have the tasks explained back to you and offer clarification when something is unclear, rewriting the specifications if needed

#6 Automate Repetitive Tasks

Technology has finally reached a point where we can automate a lot of our daily operations. By automating a few of your tasks, you save hours per week. You can then use that time for Deep Work or taking breaks. Putting some of your daily tasks on autopilot is key to working smarter.

Use technology to automate daily repetitive tasks and use the newfound time to perform Deep Work or rest.

Here are a couple of tasks you can automate in under 10 minutes:

  • Create canned responses in Gmail canned for emails you keep writing over and over again
  • Set reminders on Google Calendar so you never forget anything
  • Proofread your writing automatically using Grammarly
  • Use Buffer to schedule and automate your social media posts in advance
  • Automatically fill online forms using LastPass, saving all your passwords in one place
  • Create spreadsheet templates for reports you have to do weekly/monthly

#7 Set Time Constraints

You become more productive when you allocate a specific amount of time to complete a specific task. That’s why we create deadlines.

But Parkinson’s law states: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. So, if you reduce the time you have to complete a task, you force your brain to focus and complete it.

Set deadlines even when you don’t need to. Scheduling less time to complete tasks and force your brain to focus.

Here’s an example:

You have to review and reply to an email, a task that normally takes you around 20 minutes. Reduce the time available to 10 minutes, set a countdown timer and work as hard as you can to beat it.

time management techniques
time management techniques

The timer creates a sense of urgency and pushes you to focus and be more efficient, even if you end up having to go back and add a more time later.

Use deadlines and time limits to your advantage. Even when you don’t have a deadline, set one. Your brain will acknowledge it. Knowing you only have one hour to complete a report will ensure you don’t waste 20 minutes on Facebook.

#8 Eliminate Distractions

Distractions hurt your productivity and focus. A study from the University of California Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after getting distracted.

Best-selling author Gary Keller illustrated in The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Resultswhat happens when you get interrupted:

time management techniques
time management techniques

When you lose your focus, it can take you twice as long to get back into the groove.

Half an hour completely focused on a task is more productive than 2 hours switching between tasks. Eliminate distractions from your work to avoid task switching costs.

Here are a couple of hacks to eliminate distractions from your life:

  • Turn off all notifications on your phone, computer, and tablet
  • Leave your phone in odd places that prevent you from immediately finding it
  • Work with headphones (I use the Bose QuietComfort 35 and love them) as people are less likely to approach you with a non-urgent question or gossip if you look plugged in and on-task
  • If you find interesting articles, save them to Pocket or Instapaper to read later, such as during the commute
  • The internet is a distracting place. Turn-off your Wi-Fi when your tasks don’t require internet connectivity
  • Don’t browse social media at work at all. If you can’t resist, designate “distraction time” and browse it for a couple of minutes. Take out of social media exactly what you want
  • Use “Do Not Disturb” functions on chat systems, such as Slack, Hangouts, and Messenger
  • Similarly, use Inbox Pause to stop getting flooded with new emails. Change your inbox to a GTD Gmail to become productive on email
  • If you have an office, shut the door

#9 Make Quick Decisions on Things That Don’t Matter

We make hundreds of small, medium, and big decisions every day. 90% of the decisions we make don’t matter. Success comes from identifying and focusing your energy on the 10%.

Small decisions impact you for a day, such as what to wear or where to eat. Medium impact your life for a year, such as deciding to go back to school or rent a different room. In the long term though, very few decisions matter. Those are the big decisions: they are worthy of serious pondering, discussion, investigation, investment, and decision making.

Invest your focus on big decisions and make quick calls on medium and small decisions.

In 10–10–10: A Life-Transforming Idea, Suzy Welch introduces a simple decision-making system. When you have a decision to make, ask yourself the following three questions:

  • How will I feel about this decision 10 minutes from now?
  • How will I feel about it 10 months from now?
  • How will I fell 10 years from now?

Busy people don’t spend a lot of time pondering over small and medium decisions. A great time management technique is to train yourself to be quick when making them as well.

#10 Track Your Time

Do you know how much time you spend on each task? Most of us can guess, but our estimates are normally way off. A time-tracking app can help you take out the guesswork and provide real data on your productivity.

RescueTime is a free app that tracks exactly how you spend time on the computer. It’s as easy as set it and forget it and you get a report at the end of the week breaking down your productivity. Log in to check other metrics, such as time spent on each task.

Track your time to have real data on your work and uncover insights on how you can improve your productivity.

After a couple of weeks, you’ll start noticing patterns and knowing where and how your time is leaking. By being aware of how exactly you are using your time, you can devise a plan to attack your leaks and how to get rid of them.

Time tracking is a powerful time management technique that forces you to take a hard look at how your work and how you can optimize it.

#11 Beat Procrastination with the 2-Minute Rule

This one comes straight from David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivitymethodology. He calls it the “2-Minute Rule” and it’s a great way to beat procrastination and get things done. It works for both your professional and personal life.

There are two parts to the “2-Minute Rule”:

Part 1: If it can be done in two minutes, just do it. Don’t add it to your to-do list, put it aside for later, or delegate to someone else. Just do it.

time management techniques
time management techniques

Here are some examples of tasks you can do in two minutes or less:

  • Answer an email from your boss
  • Send an update to a colleague
  • Make a plan for the day while having your morning coffee
  • Loading the dishwasher right after the meal

There are a ton of tiny, seemingly trivial tasks that take less than two minutes yet you need to do every day.

Part 2: If it takes more than two minutes, start it. Once you start acting on small tasks, you can keep the ball rolling. Simply working on it for two minutes will help you break the first barrier of procrastination.

time management techniques
time management techniques

For example:

  • Write a thousand words every day? Write 50 words in the next two minutes
  • Meditate for 20 minutes a day? Sit down and meditate for two minutes
  • Want to exercise for one hour a day? Do jumping jacks for just two minutes

9 out of 10 times I end up working on the task for far longer than 2 minutes (I then continue working using the Pomodoro productivity hack).

Use the 2-Minute rule to beat procrastination: if a task can be done in two minutes, just do it; if it takes more than two minutes, start it.

#12 Say No More Often Than Yes

Most CEOs will tell you that saying “no” is one of the most important time management techniques. Saying “yes” often can be counterproductive, especially when you agree to do things that don’t contribute to your work and goals. Your time is a limited resource and you can’t let people set your agenda in life.

Focus on doing great quality work rather than rushing through it all. Quality wins over quantity every single day.

Warren Buffet said it best: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

But how do you know which things you should say no to? What if you are passing on a life-changing opportunity? Luckily, Buffet has developed a two-step rule to help you set boundaries and become better at decision making:

  1. Start by writing down your top twenty-five career goals. Once you’re done, circle the five most important to you
  2. The second step is to completely eliminate the other twenty goals. Go ahead and cross them off

Say “no” by default to anything that doesn’t contribute to your top 5 career goals.

Anything other than the five goals you circled in the first step are distractions getting in the way of reaching what you truly value in life. As such, start saying no to anything that doesn’t contribute to your “true goals”.

#13 Take Advantage of Gap Time

We have a lot of downtime throughout our days: commuting, lines, waiting rooms, in-between tasks, small breaks in the schedule, etc.

If we add all this time up, we have around 1–3 hours of “gap time” every day. Be as strategic about your breaks as you are about your day in general. While these short periods might not be enough to do Deep Work, we can still work on little things that contribute to your work, development, and growth.

Here are a couple of things you can do to use “gap time” effectively:

  • Learn a new skill, either for your professional or personal life
  • Read books or articles you saved to Pocket
  • Organize your computer, folders, calendar or work
  • Plan your week, tomorrow, or the rest of your day
  • Listen to a podcast
  • Learn a language
  • Take a walk and think and let your mind wander
  • Take a productive pause to clear your mind.

Use “gap time” effectively to develop new skills, strategic planning, and personal growth.

By taking advantage of your downtime, you end up getting more done and having more free time for fun after work.

#14 80/20 Your Time

The 80 20 rule states that “80% of the output or results will come from 20% of the input or action”. In other words, the little things are the ones that account for the majority of the results.

time management techniques
time management techniques

This is one of the best time management techniques you can use to help you regain focus and work on the things that bring the most impact. Do 20% of your tasks bring 80% of the results? Then prioritize your time to work on them.

Use the 80/20 rule in your life and work to prioritize the input that brings the majority of the output.

Here are other questions to ask yourself using this rule:

  • Is 80% of value achieved with the first 20% of effort?
  • Are 20% of the emails 80% of the important conversations?
  • Do 80% of your distractions come from 20% of sources?
  • Do 20% of your tasks give you 80% of the pleasure in your job?
  • Is 20% of your team completing 80% of the work?
  • Do 80% of problems originate with 20% of projects?
  • Are 80% of customers only using 20% of software features?
  • Do 20% of customers make 80% of the complaints?

#15 Automate Decisions

Force your brain to make a lot of decisions and you end up depleting your willpower and suffering from decision fatigue. This hurts your decision-making ability: as the day wears on, you’ll start making fewer smart decisions. That’s why you are more likely to binge-watch Netflix while eating Doritos in the evening.

To avoid mental exhaustion, automate decisions to free yourself from cognitive burden and not rely solely on your self-discipline. Let decisions happen automatically and smart decisions will happen by themselves.

Here are examples of smart decisions you can automate:

  • Transfer money to your savings account every time you receive a paycheck
  • Choose all your outfits for your week on Sunday and hang them in the closet in order
  • Subscribe to a weekly fresh delivery of organic vegetables and fruits to your home
  • Standardize the typical daily meals you like the most, saving time in cooking and grocery shopping
  • Prepare your sports bag every night and put in your car. If you prefer running the morning, leave your running shoes near the bed
  • Automate all electronic gadgets to go into sleep mode at a certain hour

You can also automate many other tasks using IFTTT or Zapier. These apps connect many other apps and let them “talk” to each other, creating automation. Here are two automated tasks I use for email:

#16 Single Task

Multitasking is a corporate myth that has evolved over time. The brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time. Switching between tasks can have damaging costs to our work and productivity.

Develop the habit of single-tasking by forcing your brain to concentrate on one task and one task only. Put your phone away, close all the browser windows and apps that you don’t need. Immerse yourself in this task. Only move to the next one when you’re done.

Force your brain to single task in order to do Deep Work and avoid task switching costs.

A really great productivity hack that forces single-tasking is the Pomodoro Technique. Turn off all the distractions and set a timer for 25 minutes. In that time, you can only work on a single task.

time management techniques
time management techniques

Use an online tool such as Marinara Timer to set your timer automatically or simply use the one from Google.

#17 Break Down Big Tasks

From Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

We all have huge tasks that we get tired just thinking about the amount of work needed to complete them. We procrastinate by doing mindless tasks instead of starting them.

To avoid this, break down your larger goals into small manageable tasks with realistically achievable milestones. This will help you map out all the small activities that need to be done and creating a timeline to do them. As a rule of thumb, each small task should take less than one hour to complete.

Break down big tasks into smaller ones to avoid procrastinating and help you stay on track to achieve your final goal.

Never put a huge project down as just one to-do on your list. Instead, put bit-sized to-dos that you can do one at a time. Take it “bird by bird”.

#18 Work From the Calendar

time management techniques
time management techniques

Another great time management technique of insanely busy people is scheduling their tasks, working from their calendar instead of the to-do list. Using your calendar forces you to rethink your work from tasks to time units. That small change increases the likelihood of getting things done.

To-do lists are where you list and define all your activities. The calendar is where you identify when you’re going to do those things and how much time is needed to complete them.

In the words of Srinivas Rao:“When an event is consistently scheduled on your calendar, it’s much more likely to transform into an unconscious habit.”

Plan and schedule your calendar ahead of time to avoid distractions and be in charge of your time.

The more you plan and schedule your time with purpose, the less time there is for outside forces to take over your schedule. Don’t try to jam-pack your calendar though. Leave enough room for unforeseeable tasks that demand immediate attention. Move things around and reschedule as needed as your week progresses.

Color-code your calendar by different types of activities. For example:

  • Red for all work-related activities
  • Green for meetings and communications
  • Yellow for daily routines
  • Blue for personal time

If you prefer, you can color-code using different organizations: by project, by teams, or type of work.

When it comes to productivity, your calendar is your best friend.

#19 Take Fewer (But Better) Meetings

Meetings are the devil of the corporate. Few people like meetings and most dread them.

Truth is, most things don’t need a meeting. If the purpose of the meeting isn’t either to make a decision or complete an action together, cancel it and communicate over email (e.g. updates on a specific project). As for outside the office meetings, switch to phone calls or video conferences

As for the meeting that you do have to take, make them highly efficient and productive by following these simple rules:

  • Do not schedule more time than needed. Most of the times 20 minutes is the sweet spot
  • Keep the number of participants small.
  • Send everyone an agenda and main points the day before
  • Keep conversation on-track by reminding the participants of the topic: “Let’s schedule another time to discuss that later if it’s helpful since we only have 10 minutes left”
  • Group your meetings back-to-back to have a clear start and end point for each one

Only take meetings that have a clear agenda and a decision needs to be made. To run better meetings, have an end time and keep the number of participants small.

#20 Let Go Off Perfectionism

Perfectionism keeps you from being perfect.

It’s easy to be caught up in an endless cycle of trying to do everything perfectly. But being a perfectionism can delay your work and make you miss important deadlines. The sooner you realize that delivering high-quality work on time is the most important skill, the faster you will advance on your goals and career.

Perfectionism is actually fear disguised in sheep’s clothing, which shows itself as procrastination. Learn to accept that small details don’t matter, ship faster, and fix things afterward if needed.

Aiming for perfection is a surefire way to delay or never complete a project. Choose to chase “good enough” instead.

In the words of Mark Twain: “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”

#21 Have a To-Don’t List

In Mathematics, there is a problem-solving technique called inversion. You start with results and work backward to calculate the causes. Inversion is a powerful tool because it forces you to uncover hidden beliefs about the problem you are trying to solve. You need to think about how to minimize the negatives instead of maximizing the positives.

Let’s say you want to improve productivity. Thinking forward, you would list all the things you could do to be more productive. But if you look at the problem by inversion, you’d think about all the things you could do that would diminish productivity.

Enter the To-Don’t List.

Create your own by writing down all the habits you want to quit and activities you wish to eliminate from your life. Think about your possible workday — long meetings with people you don’t like and boring repetitive tasks — and work from there.

Create a To-Don’t list with all the habits you want to remove from your life. Use it as a guideline of what you don’t allow in your life.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Do not email first thing in the morning or last thing at night
  • No morning meetings
  • Don’t say yes unless you’re 100% certain you can deliver
  • Don’t drink coffee in the afternoon
  • Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time

The reason why inversion works is simple: what you don’t do determines what you can do.

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” — Steve Jobs

#22 Batch Similar Tasks

What does processing all your emails in one sitting and cooking for an entire week on Sunday have in common? They use a productivity hack known as batching.

The main idea behind this time management technique is to collect up a group of similar activities and do them all in one swoop. You can work efficiently on multiple tasks without losing your flow if the activities require similar mindsets. Batching forces your brain to be focused on one type of task at a time.

Batch similar tasks and complete them at one time.Batching reduces the start-up and slow-down time, daily clutter, and improves focus.

To discover which tasks you should stack, start by writing all your activities for the day and week. Now identify the ones that call for similar mindsets and batch them together. Try the batch and rearrange tasks if necessary.

Here are a couple tasks you should batch together:

  • Outlining all your blog posts for the upcoming week in one sitting
  • Processing all communications: emails, Slack, and phone calls
  • Updating several related worksheets at the same time
  • Completing all your errands — grocery shopping, dry cleaning, post office — at one time

To process batches faster, work on similar tasks for a set period of time using the Pomodoro Technique.

#23 Take Time Off to Recharge

time management techniques
time management techniques

In today’s hyper-connected world, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being connected 24/7. We feel guilty during the weekend about not working ahead or completing an extra project. All the time

Our body and mind need rest to function properly. Taking time to recharge is crucial to sustaining motivation, passion, and productivity. Quick breaks during a stressful deadline can help you maintain focus, renew creativity, and make you feel more refreshed when you return to your task.

For longer periods of recharging, take regular work vacations of at least a week off throughout the year. Bill Gates, for example, went into seclusion for one week twice a year to focus and plan. Many of Microsoft’s innovation ideas came from those “Think Weeks”.

Schedule breaks throughout your day to help you recharge and take regular vacations throughout the year. Rest is the best medicine for sustainable long-term productivity.

One Last Time Management Technique

It’s so easy to get caught up in our busyness that we forget to enjoy what we’re doing. The ultimate goal of work is enjoyment. You want to spend more time doing things that you enjoy.

Work can and should be fun. It’s fun that drives motivation, passion, creativity, and productivity. Dread your job and no time management technique in the world can help you.

Apply these 23 time management techniques as a way to maximize your happiness while at work, not the amount of time you spend working. Use the newfound time in activities you value, such as spending time with your family, working on side-projects, practicing a hobby or developing your skills.

The enjoyment you get from these other activities will in turn fuel your work productivity.


Dan Silvestre

Written by

I write about productivity and personal growth. Join my popular productivity hacking community: http://oneproductivity.com

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