If you search for “time management tips” online, you’ll find page after page of advice. Sources ranging from personal blogs to peer-reviewed papers will tell you about the one easy trick that will save you hours of stress and lost productivity.
While many of these proposed techniques are useful, others sound too good to be true. In reality, the right approach depends on the people, preferences, tasks and teams in question.
Learning how to manage time can be a complicated process that is different for everyone. Here are a few common misconceptions you may have encountered, as well as effective strategies you can use instead.
1. Urgent tasks don’t always have to be accomplished first
We’re sometimes told to work on shorter, more pressing assignments first because it feels good to get simple tasks out of the way and build momentum before focusing on what really matters. By succumbing to what researchers call the “mere urgency effect” (prioritizing urgent tasks over important ones), however, you risk missing out on opportunities for strategic planning and creative thinking.
Managing your time more efficiently requires that you think critically about how to filter and order tasks and avoid prioritizing based on the amount of stress something causes—and setting long-term goals can help.
“If you haven’t clarified your A-item priorities, or if you are trying to take on too much, it’s hard to avoid getting sucked into the black hole,” writes Michael D. Watkins, author of The First 90 Days. He suggests establishing a few clear outcomes that you can keep top-of-mind. “Devote some time to clarifying and getting buy-in for them. Write them down. Put them up on the wall. Look at them every day and ask yourself, ‘How does what I’m doing help to advance these?’ ”
One of the best time management tips for reducing stress-based prioritization is to round up time estimates for completing a project. “Assuming a project will take between 10% and 25% longer than you expect is typically a good place to start,” writes University of Texas at Austin professor Art Markman. “It’s basically just a way …to make room for your mental blind spots in the time-management department.”
That said, it’s important to remember that there’s no “correct” way to manage time—you might be the type of person who craves urgency and thrives under pressure. As long as you’re being deliberate with your priorities, communicating with teams and getting your work done, you’re using the right approach.
2. Focus on managing your attention, not your schedule
As far as time management tips go, working on a tight schedule can be useful for staying on top of work and balancing time effectively, especially if you’re managing multiple projects and deliverables. But for some, scheduling the entire day can feel restrictive.
According to Chris Bailey, the author of Hyperfocus: How to Be More Productive in a World of Distraction, managing your focus is actually a lot more important than managing your time. “You can show up to meetings when you’re supposed to, and are fully capable of keeping your calendar on track. Most of us our good at managing our time,” he writes. “What we’re not good at is managing our attention.”
Even the most well-scheduled day can be thrown off completely if we’re distracted, and it’s not easy to regain focus on the spot. In order to improve “attention management,” executive coach Monique Valcour suggests that you reserve time for daily self-reflection. It can help you understand what’s working, what’s not, and how to tackle the next day more effectively. “If one approach isn’t working, try another rather than continuing to hammer away fruitlessly,” she writes.
Whether you’re a chronic scheduler or prefer flying by the seat of your pants, what matters most is that the system works for you. “Productivity strategies … lose their potential to motivate when they don’t feel meaningful,” says Valcour. “Try reframing something you have to do in terms of your core values for stronger and more sustained focus.”
3. Consider the benefits of outcomes instead of crossing off tasks
Starting your day with a to-do list is one of the most tried-and-true time management tips. But while many people find the act of chronicling to-do’s soothing and useful, others can get bogged down by the rigidness of routine.
In a perfect world, to-do lists help us ensure that we get through our tasks without missing anything and give us a sense of accomplishment when we check something off. By focusing on accomplishments and prioritizing productivity, though, there’s a chance we could be limiting our creativity. To-do lists often work because they give users a clear path to a particular outcome—do A and then B and then C—but research from the Wisconsin School of Business shows that giving people a well-defined problem with a clear solution can be stifling.
For a more open-ended approach to time management, try to focus on outcomes instead of tasks. “This approach focuses people and teams on a concrete result, not the process required to achieve it,” says Jennifer Robison, a senior editor at the Gallup Business Journal. “Employees, then, have a high degree of autonomy to use their own unique talents to reach goals their own way.”
By adopting an outcome-based company culture, leaders can increase innovation and engagement across an organization. If completely focusing on outcomes isn’t realistic for you and your team, try an alternative to individualized task management. Consider a daily status meeting for your team to share priorities, ask teams to check in asynchronously online, or centralize task management with a project manager.
Create your own combination of time management tips
The next time someone claims to have found a magic solution to send productivity skyrocketing, remember that there’s value in doing things your own way. It’s our individual systems and routines that enable us to be more creative and focus our attention on what’s most important. Invest in how and why you do the things you do—in a way that works for you—and you’re well on your way to living your most productive work life.