Time management is not a new challenge. First-century Roman philosopher Seneca mused about the ways humans waste time. Even Benjamin Franklin struggled to complete his to-do list.
What's new is the emphasis on personal productivity (often at any cost) and the many distractions now present. It gets even more complex when you are leading a team or managing a business, as you need to help your team manage their time. The allure of quick time-saving hacks abound, but the cost is often too steep (less sleep 😴), or the systems are unsustainable (cram more work in 24 hours).
The truth is that there's no one-size-fits-all solution.
Instead, you need a flexible system tailored to your unique circumstances and abilities. Such a system takes time to build and may incorporate multiple strategies. In this guide, the team at Float shares some of their tried-and-tested time management techniques and a fresh perspective on approaching your workday.
Seven time management strategies and techniques
Most time management advice sounds the same. Prioritize more. Cut out distractions. Don't multitask.
Many strategies are variations of what time management researcher Brad Aeon calls the four core dimensions of time management:
- Structuring time: Schedules and to-do lists
- Protecting time: Setting boundaries and saying no
- Streamlining time: Prioritizing tasks
- Making sense of time: Interstitial journaling and goal setting
When you think of time management strategies this way, choosing the one you or your team needs is easier. If you struggle to protect your time, your go-to method might be time-blocking. If you struggle to understand how you spend your time, consider the Pomodoro Technique and interstitial journaling.
1. Getting Things Done
Best for people who are overwhelmed by tasks and consistently struggle to complete their to-do lists
The Getting Things Done (GTD) method is a time management and productivity approach created by David Allen that helps clear your mind of all the things you need to do so you reduce cognitive load and achieve greater focus.
GTD is effective because our unconscious minds keep reminding our conscious minds to complete tasks. Once we create a plan to complete them, we can focus because we know exactly what to do.
Here are the five steps in the GTD method:
- Capture: Write down all the tasks you need to do in a trusted system, like a notepad or to-do list app.
- Clarify: Determine whether a task is actionable or not. If it is, do it immediately if it takes less than two minutes. If it requires more than one action, turn it into a project. If you can't work on it right away, put it in a tickler file or a someday/maybe list. If it's not actionable, delete, defer, or delegate it.
- Organize: Sort through your tasks and put them in the appropriate places. Your deleted tasks go into the bin, the following actions go on your calendar, and someday/maybe tasks go into a tickler file.
- Reflect: Review your list daily and weekly to keep it organized. Cut out tasks you can't do, move tasks you didn't do, and add tasks from your someday/maybe list.
- Engage: Do the next action listed for each task.
The GTD method can work for you if you keep it simple and aren't afraid to tweak it to suit your needs. Remember that GTD is not rigid, and everyone has different needs and work styles. Additionally, consider combining GTD with a supporting time management system like time blocking if you struggle with constant distractions or procrastination.
2. Eisenhower Matrix
Best for people who spend time on low-impact tasks at the expense of important work
A survey of 220 PMs found that a majority of project managers run several projects at the same time. Working on different projects at once means you have competing requests for your attention, making it easy to fall into the mere urgency effect—prioritizing what's urgent over what's essential.
Use the Eisenhower Matrix to avoid spending too much time on low-impact projects.
It helps you prioritize suitable projects by segmenting tasks into four quadrants:
- Urgent & important. These are tasks with a significant impact that need your attention now, e.g., a vendor cancels on shipping concrete a day before your building project starts.
- Important & not urgent. These tasks have a long-term effect but don't need to be taken care of immediately. They usually have no/distant deadlines.
- Urgent & unimportant. These tasks need immediate attention, e.g., an impromptu meeting with a client.
- Not urgent & unimportant. These are tasks that you can do without and don't directly contribute to your progress, e.g., clearing emails as they come in.
While implementing this strategy, be wary of how you equate importance to tasks. Researchers Daniel R. Kennedy and Andrea L. Porter recommend that administrators pay attention to how their decisions affect others while dealing with the illusion of urgency. While it might not be urgent and essential to answer an email requesting permission to take action, delaying your reply might cause a team member to stop what they're doing, potentially holding up the project.
Before delegating a task to any quadrant, ask how impactful it is in the long term. Another thing to consider is building longer-term solutions to common distractions instead of constantly ignoring them or setting them aside for later. This could be documenting knowledge and processes in an internal wiki for quick reference instead of fencing off questions all day.
To use the Eisenhower Matrix for time management, follow these steps:
- Make a list of all your tasks.
- Sort the tasks into one of the four quadrants (urgent and important, urgent but not important, not urgent but important, not urgent and not important).
- Address the tasks in each quadrant as follows:
- Do any task in the urgent and important quadrant.
- Set aside any task in the urgent but not important quadrant and schedule a time to tackle it later.
- Delegate tasks in the not urgent but important quadrant if possible. Consider whether you can delegate, say no, or find a temporary solution.
- Postpone or eliminate any task in the not urgent and not important quadrant.
Director of Customer Success
"As we've been hiring, training, and onboarding, we've recognized the need to document our knowledge of day-to-day tasks and processes. Whenever there's a question on how things work, a team member should be able to reference our internal manual rather than relying on someone else to share their knowledge. As our team matures and our processes are defined, we expect to spend less time building out these manuals and internal documentation and move to update and refine them as necessary."
3. Time blocking
Best for people who need to make time for periods of intense study, thinking, or deep work
When multiple projects demand your attention simultaneously, there's a temptation to multitask. But Cynthia Kubu, a neuropsychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says that multitasking makes us accomplish less and, in the long term, affects our ability to focus and learn.
"The more we multitask, the less we actually accomplish because we slowly lose our ability to focus enough to learn," Kubu says. "If we're constantly attempting to multitask, we don't practice tuning out the rest of the word to engage in deeper processing and learning."
Time blocking can help limit distractions and protect your time. It organizes your calendar into allocated blocks of time to enable scheduled periods of uninterrupted deep work.
This time management method is a favorite at Float and is used by everyone from our CEO to our marketing team.
To implement time blocking, you must:
- Make a list of tasks to work on.
- Estimate how much time each task will take. If you are unsure, track your time using Float. You can compare estimated time vs. actual time to get accurate estimates.
- Block out time on your calendar for each task. For example, you can block out 30 minutes for writing a report. Batch similar tasks together, e.g., admin tasks or answering emails/Slack messages or meetings (a time blocking template can be really helpful with this step).
- Reduce distractions until tasks are completed.
Keep in mind that using time blocks could mean saying no to anything that could throw you off schedule. Don't hesitate to adjust your time block if you get thrown off schedule.
Also, give yourself some space between time blocks to accommodate unexpected changes. Review your calendar regularly—including a morning and evening review, and a longer weekly review.
Best for people who need to limit time spent on activities while maximizing every minute
Timeboxing is an effective time management strategy that limits how you spend your time. Every task you perform has to fit into one or several timeboxes. And you have to finish the task during the fixed time. Talk about pressure. 😅
Timeboxing has its roots in the Agile methodology. It works because it stops us from taking longer than necessary to perform tasks with self-imposed deadlines. Researchers have found that when people become aware of deadlines, they are more likely to perform better, take shorter breaks, and feel less fatigued.
So how do you use timeboxes to manage your time better?
One way is to fit tasks in soft or hard timeboxes. Matthias Orgler, an agile coach explains how the two types work:
“When a soft timebox ends, you allow the current point in a discussion or the current task at work to finish. When a hard time box ends, you drop everything, stop doing what you do and take a break or move on to the next point on the agenda.”
Soft timeboxes allow you to finish the task at hand. The advantage is that the alarm at the end of this timebox reminds you to conclude your task quickly. Hard timeboxes, on the other hand, require you to drop everything and move on to the next task immediately. The advantage is that you avoid dragging out a task or discussion for too long.
Some things to consider when implementing timeboxing:
- Ensure that team members are aware of the constraints placed around time when implementing hard timeboxes during meetings and other activities.
- Always consider your energy levels before scheduling a timebox. It’s harder to finish a task on time when you are working slowly.
- Ensure you know how much time you need for each activity. If you try to fit an activity that takes 2 hours into a 30-minute box, you’ll only end up frustrated.
5. Pomodoro Technique
Best for people who need to eliminate distractions and stop multitasking
The Pomodoro Technique uses 25-minute boxes of work followed by short breaks in between. It was created in 1980 by Francesco Cirrilo, a productivity consultant who was a student at the time. Taking regular breaks helps your brain assimilate knowledge and reset after long periods of learning.
Here’s how to implement the Pomodoro Technique:
- Choose a task off your to-do list
- Set your timer for 25 minutes
- Focus on the task until the timer goes off
- Take a 5-minute break
- Repeat the steps above until you complete your task
- Take a longer break of 25-30 minutes whenever you finish four Pomodoros.
However, the interruptions by the timer might distract your flow state, or you might get frustrated by the rigid procedures. Here’s how Zoë Read-Bivens, creator of the Flowtime technique (a modified Pomodoro), puts it:
“The first problem with the Pomodoro Technique is that the timer is a tyrant. The indivisibility of a Pomodoro is supposed to prevent interruptions. But instead, it often forces an exhausted me to work longer than I’m comfortable with, or it interrupts me when I’m engaged and working well.”
If you find yourself consistently interrupted by the timer, you can allocate longer periods to enable you to complete your tasks without interruption.
6. Parkinson's law
Best for people who always miss the project deadlines or deliver projects on late finish dates
In his essay for The Economist, Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion."
A near-missed deadline. A bug that's left unfixed. A meeting that takes twice as long. We often see the adverse effects of Parkinson's law in our day-to-day lives.
Bob Prieto, CEO and chairman of Strategic Program Management LLC paints a vivid picture of Parkison's law in project management:
"Parkinson's law is something practically everyone has experienced. Think of the engineer who is given a month to prepare a report. It will take a month. Yet the same engineer, with the importance of having the report by the end of the week communicated to them, will likely complete an equal quality report, and if he is late, it will not be by the three extra weeks originally assumed."
It is almost impossible to avoid Parkinson's law, but you can mitigate its effects by doing the following:
- Set realistic and clear deadlines. A defined end date can be the push you or your team need to get work done without dragging it out. Once a realistic deadline is set, you are forced to cut unnecessary steps and distractions and deliver by the due date.
- Estimate tasks accurately. We run into the problem with Parkinson's law because people tend to overestimate how long a task will take grossly. Use Float to track how long you spend working on tasks and then set realistic deadlines.
When choosing a strategy to manage time, remember your team's context and abilities. Team members who do creative work might have to adopt a system that lets them recharge their batteries and manage their attention.
7. Pareto's principle
Best for people who need to prioritize competing tasks and identify the most impactful ones
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 principle, states that 80% of outcomes come from 20% of causes. This concept was first observed by Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto and popularized by management consultant Joseph Juran. Applying this principle to time management means prioritizing tasks that contribute to the majority of your team's results.
Some examples include:
- Following the critical path when faced with a complex project and too little time
- Finding and fixing a major bug instead of short-term fixes
- Creating detailed project plans and meeting with stakeholders instead of hurrying into the execution stage
- Launching a minimum viable product and enhancing it based on feedback instead of striving for perfection from the outset
When applying Pareto's principle to time management, it is essential to remember that while it is important to focus on the most impactful activities, it is also important not to neglect other necessary tasks such as administrative work and responding to emails.
The ratio of effort to results may not always be exactly 80/20. The percentages may vary depending on the task and the context in which it is being performed. Therefore, it's essential to remain flexible and adjust your approach as needed.
Use time wisely with Float
No matter how good a time management strategy is, it won’t be able to help you stay on schedule if you are over capacity.
Float helps you make the most of your time at work by showing you what your team is spending its time on, which team members are taking on more work than they can handle, and whether your estimated hours match your actual hours.
You can foreplan projects before they begin to see the required capacity and availability of your resources. The time tracking tool puts your team in the driver’s seat and lets them log their time as they work, while comprehensive reports provide the data you need to ensure your team is always working on what matters most.