Time Management 101: 4 Steps to Find Time for What Matters Most



You'll find a million time management tips and strategies with a simple Google search. In today's blog post, we’ll save you some time and share a four-step system that will help you find and develop time management strategies that will last a lifetime. Here are the four steps: 

  1. Figure out your relationship with time
  2. Learn how to prioritize
  3. Implement tools and strategies
  4. Reflect on what you’ve done and modify it as needed.

It may seem like extra work to do each step and you may be tempted to skip to Step 3 of using tools and strategies. In the long run, taking the time to implement each of the other steps will increase the likelihood of your time management strategies sticking and having a lasting positive impact on your work and personal relationships. And, hey! It might also help create additional free time for more enjoyable activities you've been missing out on.

Step 1: Figure Out Your Relationship With Time

First up, we have to figure out our relationship with time. How do you experience time? When you're doing stuff, do you run out of time? Do you think things will take way longer than they actually do? Do you have a good idea of how time passes? Or do you have no idea that time even exists? Learning about your relationship with time is valuable because it can help you plan and prioritize your day. If you know that you always run out of time when doing work for a particular class, then you know you need to budget a little more time for those assignments. If you know that you always need an extra 5 minutes to find parking at the office, then you can budget that in and leave home early.

There are some good tools you can use to figure this out. Simply wearing a watch or having more clocks around can help make you aware of time and how it passes for you. Checking out your phone usage stats can also show you how you use your time. Time timers show you how much time has passed with an easy-to-see visual. 

One of our favorite tools among coaches here at Beyond Booksmart is the Budgeted vs. Actual or BVA. We like this tool because it can help you easily determine how you interact with time. To use a BVA, first choose a task and make a guess at how long it’ll take to do it. You then time yourself and do the math. What is the difference between what you guessed (or budgeted) and what the actual time was? It can really help to time more than one task in different areas of your life, but if not, you can just try to pay attention to whether you seem to run out of time or have time left over. It can also help to notice what kinds of tasks seem to take longer than you think they will. You might experience time differently with different tasks. Being aware of these patterns can really help. 

Step 2: Learn How to Prioritize (and do some prioritizing!)

Once you’ve figured out how you experience time, learning to prioritize is extremely important if you want to be better at time management. When you learn to prioritize, you can more easily plan your day with intention. Doing this will help you find it easier to focus and be more present. As you go through your day, you'll likely be more efficient, and hopefully, you'll feel less overwhelmed by all the things you have to do. 

There are two activities that our coaches love to use when helping their clients figure out their priorities and how to make sure that they can fit them into their day. First up is the Big Rocks activity. You may have seen the video of the professor showing his class how you can fit more rocks, pebbles, and sand into a jar if you start with the big rocks first. These rocks represent your priorities, which we plan first because if you put in the smaller things in life first, in this situation, the pebbles and the sand, you won't be able to fit your rocks.

Another fantastic exercise for figuring out priorities is the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as Covey Quadrants. This tool helps you categorize various aspects of your life as Urgent, Not Urgent, Important, and Not Important. Check out this graphic.

Screenshot 2023-06-22 at 3.49.43 PM

Assign the major activities in your day to each quadrant and see where your priorities lie. Using tools, strategies, and effective effort to get the things in Quadrants 1 and 3 done will make it so that you can have more time for the activities in Quadrant 2. Quadrant 4 can also be really helpful. If you find yourself escaping frequently to Quadrant 4 activities, it might be your brain's way of telling you it doesn't like how things are going. It may mean that you need to shift your energy to what's going on in the other quadrants and consider making some big changes.

Step 3: Implement Tools and Strategies

Once you’ve figured out your priorities, it’s time to use some tools and strategies for managing your time in a way that’s satisfying and not frustrating.

First up is to start using a planner or a digital calendar if you're not already using one. Planners and calendars can be used for remembering dentist appointments, work schedules, or other commitments and are especially useful for families or groups who are managing multiple people’s schedules. Some people find planners and calendars helpful for scheduling what they'll do during their entire day, while others like to just be reminded of important activities. If you use a digital calendar, you can set notifications for an additional reminder.

To-do lists help with time management in a few ways. First, they help us remember what we wanted to do, which saves time! We can also use these to-do lists to track what we’ve prioritized to do that day. When choosing what goes on your to-do list, only put down what you can reasonably expect to accomplish in one day. Some people like to start with easy tasks while others prefer to get that one big challenging task out of the way first. If you’re not sure which works best for you, try both approaches out and see what feels best. When it’s time to get going on our to-dos, the Pomodoro Technique can come in handy. It’s a method of working in chunks of time with planned, short breaks. Working in short blocks of time, in general, makes it easier to tackle challenging homework and knowing you only have to work for a short amount of time can be motivating. Used together, To-do lists and the Pomodoro Technique become a powerhouse time management strategy. 

Timers and alarms are extremely useful for time management. In addition to using a timer for the Pomodoro Technique, you can also use them to remind yourself of the passage of time if you tend to get distracted. Timers can tell you that it’s time to get ready to leave or make dinner or any other activity you would like to be reminded of during the day. Our phones have a timer on them, so that’s one option, but if you find yourself being distracted by the presence of your phone, it might be worthwhile to invest in a non-phone timer or a visual timer, such as the Time Timer. Our phones are huge threats to our time management, so keeping them as far away as possible when we’re trying to get things done is a good idea!

Step 4: Reflect and Modify As Needed

Reflecting on all this effort to improve our time management is critical to making changes that actually last. Reflection helps us to learn from our experiences and experiments, become more aware of what works and doesn’t work, and make better decisions about our time management. By incorporating reflection into our time management practice, we can fine-tune the strategies we’re using and figure out what we should keep and what we should drop or modify. 

Reflection can look different for everyone. If you tend to think like a scientist, you might want to track your progress using a habit tracker. There are many habit tracker apps available online, or you can simply use a notebook or spreadsheet to record your progress. You can also just pay attention to how you feel and maybe even write about it in a journal. Do you notice that you’re crossing off more things on your to-do lists? Are you arriving at meetings or appointments on-time more often than you were before? Do you feel like a better friend or partner because you have more time to spend with your loved ones? There are a lot of things you can notice just by paying a little more attention to how things are going for you.

Once you’ve made some observations about your time management strategies, you might want to tweak certain tools, add a new one, or even abandon a tool altogether. You’re in charge of your own time management improvement journey, so make it work for you! If it feels like a huge undertaking or you’re really struggling with your time management in a way that is negatively affecting your life and relationships, it may be time to reach out for help. Our executive function coaches support many people looking to improve their time management skills.

The Takeaway

Effective time management is crucial in achieving success both personally and professionally. By following the four-step system outlined in this post, you can find and develop time management strategies that work for you. By understanding your relationship with time, prioritizing your tasks, implementing useful tools and strategies, and reflecting on your progress, you can increase your productivity and have more time for the things that matter most. Remember, taking the time to implement each step is important for your long-term success and can help you create a more balanced and fulfilling life.

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About the Author

Hannah Choi

Hannah Choi, MA is an Executive Function Coach and host of the host of Beyond BookSmart's podcast, Focus Forward. She has over 20 years of experience working with students of all ages, from preschool to college students. Hannah is a graduate of The University of Rochester where she earned a BA in Psychology, and The University of California at Santa Barbara, where she earned an MA in Education.

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