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Emily Weissang

An (Honest) Guide to Time Management: Why It’s Difficult, and What We Can Do About It

There's no one way to become a time management pro: conquering your personal organization struggles requires self-reflection and honesty. Let's not put it off - dive right in!

Time management is often the one thing holding us back from picking up new hobbies, shooting for an exciting promotion, changing careers, going back to school - in short, achieving the things that we really want to do with our lives. 

So, if it holds such transformational potential for us, why aren’t we all working on it? Scratch that: why aren’t we all obsessed with it?

Well, in short, because time management is hard. And not just from the perspective of learning how to plan, prioritize, decide, and delegate. Our time management struggles can stem from all manner of complex causes - from how and why we get distracted, to the personal beliefs we hold about ourselves and whether our work is good enough.

And so, in this article, we’re going to get a little introspective. Let's explore why time management is difficult, and what we can do about it.

What is time management?

Time management is the art of allocating and organizing your time effectively so that you can tackle tasks, activities, and responsibilities in an efficient way. The goal is to make sure you can achieve everything that you want to, within the time that you have - without feeling rushed, stressed, or overwhelmed.

Time management is typically considered a soft skill; there’s no specific training or certification you can study for to become a time management expert. With that said, however, there are specific time management techniques that you can implement in order to do more with the time you have.

But before we dive into the details, let’s be clear: we’re not here to wag fingers at anybody and tell them that they are to blame for not being efficient enough. Corny as it sounds, everyone is on a different journey and has different struggles.

Conversations about people’s time management challenges should be judgment free, and take into account the big picture of someone’s entire life - not just their work commitments.

Signs you struggle with time management

Now that we’ve established that this is a judgment-free zone, let’s take an honest look at some of the biggest indicators that managing time is a challenge for you:

You often miss deadlines 

This one is probably the biggest giveaway - or certainly the most obvious. Some of the others on this list are easier to hide. But frequently missing deadlines is much more likely to get noticed by the people around you. 

Unfortunately, developing a reputation for delivering work late can be super damaging to the way you are perceived in the workplace. 

That’s not to say that you’re always going to be at fault, here. Sometimes deadlines are simply unrealistic (we are, after all, moving into a “do more with less” bust period in business). But a crucial part of time management in the workplace is also being able to tell when the turnaround estimate for work is not feasible - and then advocating for yourself by openly communicating your concerns.

You feel overwhelmed

When you frequently feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks on your plate, it might be a sign that you’re not effectively allocating your time. 

Constant multitasking is your “normal”

If your regular day-to-day looks like a juggling act, it’s possible that you’re not allocating enough focused time to get your tasks done in an optimal way. 

There might be all sorts of reasons for this - perhaps you’re getting pulled into too many unproductive meetings or agreeing to help with too many ad hoc projects?

You feel like you work all the time but don’t get everything done

If you’re at your desk 50+ hours a week and still feel you struggle to make tangible progress on the tasks you’re working on, time management might be the culprit. 

However, the sheer workload you’re tackling may also be an issue here. It might be time to have some serious conversations about the scope of your role, prioritizing, and delegating. As we’ve discussed on the blog many times before, managing your stress levels and protecting your work life balance is vital. Burnout from overworking is no joke.

So, why is time management so difficult?

There are many reasons why time management can prove challenging for us. You might read through the following list and relate to one, several, or all of these factors. Some of these will be easier to address than others, requiring just a couple careful conversations with teammates and a few habit tweaks. 

However, some may factors even have complicated, underlying emotional or neurological causes that require a bit of digging. Others yet might be caused or exacerbated by the way work is defined and allocated in your organization.

You find prioritizing difficult 

Massive to-do list, but not sure what to tackle first? Prioritizing might be your main issue, and there’s a number of reasons why this might be the case. You may be missing some context or lacking clarity over what tasks are the most important, or you might not yet have built the confidence to speak up and delegate the less vital tasks.

Suggestion solution: 

Speak to your manager and let them know that you need more insight into what tasks are most critical to meeting business and project goals. Ask for help delegating tasks to other team members, if you feel this is needed.

You’re a people pleaser

Otherwise known as - you overcommit yourself. A lot of us struggle to say “No” when a colleague asks for our help: we want to be a team player (and we want to be liked). But agreeing to assist with everything that comes your way is a fast-track to being swamped. 

We’re more likely to be respected if we communicate our boundaries and let our colleagues know that we are willing to help - so long as we are able without jeopardizing our own work.

Suggested solution:

Learn how to say “No.” Be open with your colleagues about your workload level and commitments; let them know that you’re happy to help them when you can - but that when you don’t have time, they should ask someone else.

Your tasks lack clarity

No, you’re not imagining it: it genuinely is harder to make progress when you lack clear, specific goals, milestones, or performance indicators to help you see whether things are going in the right direction.

If you are being asked to work on tasks that feel like an amorphous blob with no structure in sight, it can really hinder your ability to break things down into workable chunks. You may also be plagued by self-doubt ("Am I approaching this the right way? Am I making meaningful progress?").

Suggested solution:

Go back to your manager and flag your concerns. Ask if there is a work breakdown structure, or if you could create one for the projects you’re working on. Discuss with your manager to establish some clear goals and milestones that you can measure your progress against.

You experience time blindness

This is old news by now, but the folks who taught us in school that humans have five senses were wrong. One of the senses that got missed out was chronoception - the way our brains process the passage of time. And for some people, their sense of chronoception is weaker than others.

This can have a ton of impacts, but in the workplace this can look like over- or under-estimating how long tasks take, losing track of time when working on something, and often being late to meetings. For instance, you might feel like you’ve just spent 20 minutes researching a topic for a meeting - when actually it’s been more like two hours. And possibly you were so engrossed in your research that you missed the meeting. Oops.

Suggested solution:

Time blindness can be a symptom of ADHD (as, indeed, can some of the other struggles on this list). If you suspect that your time management challenges may be exacerbated or caused by ADHD, we recommend that you take the time to engage with some medically reviewed sources and get in touch with your doctor to discuss your concerns.

You’re a perfectionist

Having sky-high standards for the work you complete is often touted as a good thing - but it can lead to time management issues, as well as stress and dissatisfaction. Perfection is a thankless pursuit. You’d be far better off focusing on delivering consistent quality, on time, than turning in all-singing, all-dancing, bells-and-whistles versions of your deliverables…late.

This is one of my personal struggles (Hello, author of the article here 👋 casually breaking that fourth wall). One quote that has always stuck with me is: “Don’t let PERFECT be the enemy of DONE”. And when crunchtime hits, remember that “GOOD is GOOD ENOUGH”.

I made this. It lives above my desk as a constant reminder.


Suggested solution:

Before you begin a task, define the “Success Criteria” - what minimum elements does this piece of work need to contain in order to be considered satisfactorily done? You could even outline a “Good”, “Better”, “Best” version of the criteria - you’ll be tempted to shoot for the “Best” (the most aspirational version of the deliverable you’re working on), but so long as it at least meets the “Good” criteria, it’s technically ready to ship.

However, for the chronically perfectionistic, an outside perspective is likely to be the most helpful. Set up a peer-review system among your teammates, so you can provide each other with a genuinely objective opinion on whether something is good enough to call “Done”, rather than endlessly tweaking it yourself.

You’re a procrastinator

People will often get frustrated with themselves for procrastinating, blaming a lack of self-control and motivation. But the consensus among psychologists is that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

If you have a strong aversion to a task - say, you suspect it’s going to be very difficult - you’re more likely to procrastinate. However, if you fear that you’re not capable of doing a good job of it (perhaps you’re pestered by imposter syndrome?), or if you are concerned that your attempt won’t be perfect (see above), or even if you’re overwhelmed and not sure how to break the task down into manageable chunks - all of these factors can lead to procrastination.

Suggested solution:

It’s time for a little self-reflection. Ask yourself what it is about these specific tasks that makes you want to put them off. If you can identify a likely reason, address it - maybe you’d feel more able to tackle the tasks if you had additional training or support, or perhaps you need to work on your self-confidence.

You get distracted

During the workday, there are so many demands on our attention. If we’re in the office, we might get pulled into conversations, spontaneous meetings, or ad hoc requests that look like a quick job on the surface…but end up eating away hours. It might be a little easier to create an oasis of focus and productivity when we're working remotely, but even then, notifications from emails and instant messages are liable to interrupt us while we’re concentrating.

The reality is that multitasking is a false economy of attention. We make better progress and produce higher-quality work when we are able to dedicate uninterrupted, focused time to our tasks. If you frequently get distracted during your workday, your work is likely suffering because of it.

Suggested solution:

Use a technique like time blocking or time boxing to designate focused time in your day to commit to deep work. Then, once you’ve planned your focused time, mark it in your calendar, change your Slack status - let people know that this is your protected time, and they shouldn’t book you for meetings during these hours.

Also, check out our summary of Deep Work by Cal Newport. He is, quite literally, the guy who wrote the book on this subject.

Time management techniques

Time management techniques are deliberate tools, methods, and tactics that you can learn in order to see immediate improvements in your time management. They might not all work for you, but if you experiment with them, you'll find what helps you stay motivated and increase productivity.

There are tons of tried and tested time management techniques out there - far too many to cover in this article. Which is why we decided to give it the attention it deserves in a separate post:

Read on for Effective Time Management Techniques for Busy People ➡️

Time management skills

Time management skills, on the other hand, are the foundational skills that you need to develop in order to become proficient at managing time. 

This can include skills such as understanding how to prioritize tasks, cultivating good habits and routines, and having the self-assurance to set boundaries and ensure that your commitments can be met while protecting your free time.

These skills are not qualities that you can pick up in a day. For most people, they will be developing and honing these skills throughout their careers. But, once again, this is a complex topic with plenty of ground that needs to be covered. So, we covered it here:

Learn all you need to know about time management skills ➡️

Advice from time management pros

Before we wrap this article up, we wanted to bring you some perspectives from busy people who walk the walk of time management. 

These five business owners have, out of necessity, become pros at managing a hectic schedule. We asked them to reveal the one piece of time management advice that has most helped them - and this is what they had to say:

1. Think of your to-do items as puzzle pieces

For Jon Morgan, founder of Venture Smarter, the most effective time management technique he has integrated into his routine is to block time out for specific tasks ahead of time:

Visualize your day as a puzzle, with each to-do task a puzzle piece that can fit into a specific time slot. By assigning dedicated time blocks for meetings, focused work, and even personal activities, you create a structured routine that optimizes your efficiency. This method has not only improved my productivity but has also given me the mental space to fully engage in each task, resulting in more meaningful outcomes.

2. Maybe don’t throw multitasking out completely (just do it smarter)

As we’ve mentioned, multitasking can be detrimental to our productivity. Switching between different tasks that require focused attention leads to greater stress and diminished ability to focus and make progress. However, what about the tasks that don’t require too much attention?

Kelsey Bishop, founder and CEO of Candor, says that her best time management advice is to multitask - but with a caveat. The key is to link a task that requires your focused attention with a task that you can do on ‘autopilot’:

For example, if you have to listen in on a call where you're not presenting, why not put it on while you're getting a walk or a workout in? Or if you commute to work on public transit, you can catch up on emails during your ride in.

3. Know where your time is going

If you want to improve your time management, it helps if you establish some baseline facts: where is your time actually going in the first place?

Figuring this out is the first step according to Matthew Ramirez, Forbes 30 Under 30 alum and founder of WriteLab and Rephrasely. He advises being conscious of where you are spending your time, and using technology to help you keep track:

You cannot improve your ability to manage time unless you keep track of how you spend your time and identify areas where you can do better. I use an app to monitor the time I spend on specific tasks and working on my business. This allows me to see how I am utilizing my time and make necessary changes.

4. Figure out when in the day you work best

We are not machines: we do not and cannot work at 100% effort all the time. For most of us, there are certain periods during the day when we feel more mental clarity and acuity. However, precisely when these times fall tends to vary from person to person (and scientists believe that there’s probably a very good evolutionary reason for this!).

For Aaron Grey, CEO of digital marketing agency Pursuit Digital, figuring out his most productive hours by using the Prime Time Technique was his key to being more productive:

The Prime time Technique has revolutionized my workday and amplified my productivity.

This technique encourages you to track your energy and focus levels throughout the day, so you can begin to see when your natural peaks and troughs occur. In order to get an accurate picture, it’s suggested that you do this every day for at least three weeks.

Once you have this data, you can start experimenting with routine changes to see how you can optimize for your levels of focus and energy. More focused first thing in the morning? Plan to attempt your most challenging tasks then. Have an energy crash just after lunch? Schedule in a short walk in the early afternoon to see if this boosts your energy.

5. Chunk your time into regular focus periods (with regular breaks)

To reiterate: working flat-out all of the time is simply not achievable or desirable for us. It’s important to acknowledge that focused work is tiring, and the more tired we become, the longer our work will take (and the more likely we are to make mistakes) . 

To avoid losing our edge and manage our stress levels, periods of intense focus need to be interspersed with breaks.

Emily Onkey, Co-Founder and CMO of luxury non-alcoholic spirits brands Aplós, has found that the Pomodoro Technique - focusing for 25 minutes, and resting for 5 minutes - works well for her: 

Working in 25-minute focused sprints allows me to refresh my mindset with each session. This approach is based on the Pomodoro Technique developed by Italian software professional Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The idea is to work in 25-minute chunks, with a short break between each stretch. This approach makes tasks less daunting by breaking them into bite-sized pieces in order to improve the quality and quantity of your work while avoiding burnout.

Others prefer to adapt the timings of this model - for instance, focusing for 50 minutes and then resting for 10, or focusing for 45 minutes, resting for 15. It’s worth experimenting and seeing what suits you best.

Wrap-up

I hope this article has given the chronically time-strapped and perpetual-multitaskers among us something to feel optimistic about.

Knocking poor time management on the head and learning how to manage time effectively is within reach of us all. But we do need to be really honest with ourselves about where we struggle, and where these issues come from.

If we can understand the root cause of our time management challenges, we can build better habits and work more effectively - creating the space to accomplish our goals, and leaving room for a life where our well being comes first.

So, to all the procrastinators, perfectionists, the perma-swamped, and the people-pleasers  - hang in there. You absolutely can turn this ship around, and learn how to manage your time in a way that helps you thrive.

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