When you hear successful people talk about the secret to their success, time management often comes up. But what is this vague and elusive “time management” they’re talking about? What does time management look like in practice, and how do you make it happen when you’re already stretched thin and overwhelmed?
It’s important for anyone who’s busy, overcommitted, or stressed to have an arsenal of concrete, effective time management skills to lean on when things get tough...and when things are easy too! Our expert time management tips will help you make decisions about how to implement time management skills and techniques to organize and guide your daily life, through the good times and bad.
After reading our guide to time management, you’ll be prepared to design a personalized time management strategy based on the skills and techniques you learn about here. In this guide, we’re going to cover the following info for you:
- What is time management, and why is it useful?
- Top time management tips for reducing stress and increasing success
- Best tools to support your time management strategies
So take some deep, calming breaths and settle in to discover some effective time management techniques!
What Is Time Management? Why Is It Useful?
When some people think about time management, the first thing that comes to mind is a meticulously color-coded planner clutched tightly between the jittery hands of the student body president or class valedictorian. While well-organized planners can definitely be involved in effective time management, time management is more than just those things.
Time management is kind of a creative process: it’s curating the time that you have in your life. Think about what a museum curator does: they select, organize, and look after the items in a collection or exhibit. You’re essentially trying to do the same thing. If your life is the collection or exhibit, then your time, health, responsibilities, commitments, and goals are the “items” that you need to learn how to “select, organize, and look after.”
Curators want museum exhibits to be beautiful and meaningful, right? We know you want the same thing for your life! That’s why thinking about time management as a creative, strategic process can be a really important mindset for you to take on.
Thinking about time management in this way is important because—and you probably already know this from personal experience—everyone is stressed out. Really stressed out.
How do we know this? Because teens said so themselves in a 2014 poll. In fact, nearly half of the teens self-reported that they were not doing enough to manage their stress, and 34 percent believed their stress would increase in the coming year. Additionally, most American adults are spending 40 percent of their time at work, and stress-related illnesses account for more than $190 billion dollars in health care costs per year. (That’s a lot!)
So how do you transition from being totally stressed and overwhelmed to curating all the “items” in your life that probably feel like they’re the main source of your stress? By learning about different time management skills, making careful decisions about what will work best for you, and designing an approach to time management that makes you feel strong and confident.
Does that sound like hard work? It can be, but it’s hard work that’s totally worth it in the long run. The first step to designing your own approach to time management—techniques, skills, and mindsets included—is learning about concrete actions you can take to manage your time.
So let’s take a look at seven concrete actions you can take in our list of top time management tips!
Our time management tips will help you stay cool, calm, and collected (unlike this girl, who's definitely stressed out).
Our Top 7 Time Management Tips for Reducing Stress and Finding Success
To help you become a curator of the “items” in your life, we’ve done the research and compiled a list of seven tips for effective time management for you. Now, remember: you know yourself and the items in your life better than anyone, so be choosy as you read our list of time management tips! (If you try to incorporate them all, you’re only going to end us more stressed out.)
So as you look through our tips, make sure you consider what will work best for you, and then start imagining how you want your time management strategies to look.
Tip #1: Assess the “Items” in Your Life Through a Time Audit
We’ll talk more about tools you can use to do this later, but we think a good place to start with developing your time management strategy is assessing the “items” in your life: those responsibilities, commitments, and goals that make up the exhibit that is your life. You can’t curate something until you know what materials you’re dealing with, right?
So start there. One approach that many time management experts swear by is the time audit.
A time audit might sound scary, but it’s actually super easy to do. Just select an amount of time—seven days is often recommended—and keep record of how you spend your time throughout each day in that designated time frame.
Why do a time audit? Because taking inventory of how you’re currently spending your time can help you identify the changes you need to make. When you do a time audit, you’re supposed to record everything . . . including the hour-long “break” you took to watch Instagram stories while you were supposed to be studying for your history exam.
Once you’ve done a time audit, you’ll have another nifty resource on your hands: a list of all of your weekly responsibilities and tasks. You could develop the list from your time audit into a comprehensive list of recurring tasks and responsibilities, then evaluate the items on that list, KonMari style: for each task or commitment on your list, ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” Then, keep or discard accordingly.
Of course, we know you can’t “discard” your required math or English courses...but lots of students overwhelm their schedules with tons of extracurriculars because they believe that quantity equals quality to college admissions committees. Additionally, you’ll also figure out where you’re wasting the most time. (Hint: it’s probably the Internet.)
Here’s a reality check for you, though: college admissions committees are more interested in seeing your commitment to excellence in a few well-chosen extracurriculars than in seeing that you were a member of a bunch of different clubs or organizations. Taking your list of responsibilities and commitments to task through the KonMari method can help you shave that list down so it only includes things that enable you to grow, thrive, and achieve results that are meaningful to you and to college admissions committees. Win-win!
Tip #2: Learn More About Yourself
Since you’re the primary curator of your time (at least, in an ideal world), it’s worth it to assess yourself as a part of your time management strategy development, on top of assessing all of the other “items” in your life.
This one’s more of a meta-tip—we’re asking you to really think about who you are, how you function, your strengths and weaknesses, your needs...we’re asking you to self-assess, and then to make plans for time management based on that self-assessment.
And, here’s another plus: self-assessing can actually be a ton of fun. Have you ever taken a personality quiz? We recommend setting aside some time to take a personality test or two, then seeing if the results tell you anything new about your personality. That’s one great way to self-assess! Some personality assessments that are commonly used in workplace environments and by colleges and universities include the StrengthsQuest, the Myers Briggs, and the Riso-Hudson Enneagram Type Indicator. (You can even take a Sorting Hat Quiz, which isn’t official, but it is fun.)
So what exactly can you learn from personality tests that might help with your time management? Well, personality tests usually generate reports based on your responses that provide an analysis of things like:
- How you perceive the world
- How you make decisions
- What motivates you and what stresses you out
- Your top strengths and weaknesses
- How you respond to external pressures, like interruptions, distractions, or others’ expectations
- How you function in interpersonal relationships, like in a team environment or workplace
Can learning about these aspects of your personality help you design effective time management strategies? You betcha. We recommend taking your results from these tests with a grain of salt, since no personality test out there is perfect, but getting to know yourself a little better can be really helpful when you sit down to make decisions about your time management strategy.
Tip #3: Take Time to Make a Plan and Prioritize
We’re going to talk more later about actual tools you can use to keep track of the plans you make, but right now, we just want to emphasize this: making a plan for your week, for your day, and for long-term tasks and projects is extremely important.
In order to create plans that prioritize urgent items and make the most effective use of your time, management experts recommend focusing first on effectiveness, then efficiency. We’ll break those concepts down into concrete actions next!
Focus on Effectiveness
To make a solid plan, first assess the expectations, goals, or outcomes for your day, week, or specific task or project. Take ten minutes in the evenings to evaluate your goals for the next day and sketch out a plan for how you want to achieve those goals. Do the same thing at the beginning of every week. Map out which tasks you want to complete in the morning, afternoon, and evening, and how much time you think it should take to meet your goals for those tasks.
Then do the same thing for long-term or multi-step tasks or projects. Carefully read the assignment sheet your teacher gave you for that research paper or final project. Highlight it and annotate it. Ask yourself or others: What should the finished product look like? Who else is involved in this task, and how do I get them to actively participate? What tools, resources, or information do I need to acquire in order to complete this task?
Making plans is good. Letting your goals guide your planning makes your plans is even better!
Focus on Efficiency
The second step to making effective plans involves breaking your tasks or projects down into manageable pieces or stages. As you build your plans, start by asking yourself some questions: When must the entire task be completed, and how much time will it take? Which parts of the task are going to be the most challenging or time-consuming? Which parts of the task can I complete or prepare for early? Breaking big tasks down into smaller pieces can help you allocate your time to completion of that task appropriately.
Breaking big tasks down into smaller pieces can also be really helpful if you’re prone to procrastination, or if you get so anxious about big, overwhelming tasks that you can’t get work done. A couple of tried and true approaches to getting yourself going on tasks you really don’t want to do include the “Swiss Cheese” Approach and the Pomodoro Technique. These methods have some differences, but both encourage you to allocate a small amount of time to working on something—say, twenty minutes—and getting one small piece of it done.
Advocates of the Swiss Cheese Approach and the Pomodoro Technique claim that just getting started and getting a little bit done can often give you the confidence you need to push through and finish the bigger task. Even if that’s not the case—or if you don’t have time to finish the entire task in one sitting—these techniques help you chip away at a big task or project over time. If you’ve planned well, you should have plenty of time to complete big projects incrementally and meet both your goals and deadlines.
When you're dialed in and focused, you maximize your time.
Tip #4: Curate Your Environment Into a Full-Focus Zone
Another key to managing your time well is managing your environment. But what does it mean to manage your environment? Here’s an example: researchers have found that increasing natural light in work environments can increase workers’ productivity by reducing negative factors like eyestrain, headaches, and blurred vision. In other words, we’re talking here about how your physical environment affects what you get out of your available time.
Now, we know that you have minimal control over your environment at school. But what about when the final bell rings and your time becomes yours again? That’s when you can really take ownership of curating a work environment that enables you to meet your goals and work efficiently.
Some questions you can ask yourself to help curate your environment to maximize your time include:
- How does my workspace make me feel? Calm? Jittery? Restless?
- What could I change about this space to make it suit my needs?
- What is distracting me in this space, and is there a way to eliminate that distraction?
- What sounds, smells, tastes, textures, or visuals motivate me and help me focus, and how can I incorporate them into this space?
Simple questions, right? But maybe you haven’t thought about your workspace in this way before. Maybe helping you focus and get your work done is just a matter of filling your workspace with some natural light, finding a more comfortable chair, or turning off your phone until you get your urgent tasks completed.
So evaluate your workspace and figure out what’s best for you. Working in a space that works for you will decrease the amount of time you spend on physical distractions, which means you’ll be using your time more effectively!
Tip #5: Take A Breather
Managing your time effectively isn’t just about penciling work into every available second in your day. It’s also about scheduling in breaks so that you can get more out of your work time. Taking planned, meaningful breaks can replenish your energy and motivation when you start feeling sluggish or distracted. Taking a breather is an important time management technique!
You could use the self-assessments that we talked about earlier to help you decide how to approach taking breaks. Taking fifteen minutes to stretch, grab a snack, or walk around outside for a few minutes can all be reinvigorating, but you’ll ultimately want to spend your break time doing something that works for you.
What we don’t recommend is spending your break times doing something that could easily spill over into the next thing on your schedule, especially if that will make you anxious or upset. For example, if you pick up your phone to scroll through social media and you know you’re going to have a really hard time putting it down and focusing on your work again, just don’t get on social media. Save it for later, when your work is done.
Work is important, but it's equally important to make time to relax!
Tip #6: Make Time for the Things That Sustain You...
You probably know people who skip meals, guzzle energy drinks, or only sleep three hours a night because they’re so busy and stressed. But research shows that sleep deprivation can contribute to various health problems and have negative effects on mood, memory, and concentration. And it’s pretty difficult to thrive if you aren’t fueling your body and brain properly.
We understand that, when you’re already stressed and overwhelmed by the mountain of things you have to do, spending valuable time on eating, sleeping, exercise, and leisure can feel like a waste. The problem is, if you don’t dedicate some of your time to doing these things well also, it’s going to hurt your productivity in other areas.
So make time to eat healthy, nourishing food, if you can. Take your time eating—enjoy it. Try to get eight hours of good sleep a night. Exercise in a way that makes you feel strong. Pay attention to how your body is responding to the pace of your life. Spend meaningful time with your family and friends. And reward yourself when you meet a goal!
You work hard! You deserve to spend some of your time on meaningful activities besides work. Doing so will increase your positivity, and you can use that to catalyze productivity during your working hours as well.
Tip #7: ...And Eliminate the Small Things That Don’t
Saying “no” to things is easier said than done, but this is an essential part of effective time management. Even the most talented people can’t do everything, and they shouldn’t try. In order to be excellent at the things that you really want to do, you have to have enough time to learn, grow, and invest in those things...which unfortunately means you’ll have to say no to other things.
Now, we’re not talking here about resigning from your officer position in the National Honor Society or dropping varsity choir. We’re talking about developing an instinct for when to say “no” to the little things that add up over time. These are the things that come up in the middle of the week that you didn’t plan for, the little favors or extra tasks that you’re randomly asked to take on.
For example, if you hold leadership positions in organizations you’re involved in or if you’re known for being a high achiever in your extracurricular activities, your advisors or peers might ask you to take on more and more responsibilities because they know you’re awesome. But what can end up happening is that the same people take responsibility for things over and over, even though there are plenty of other people with extra time on their hands and not a lot to do.
You could think of saying “no” to taking on more small things as an opportunity to let other people step up and learn how to lead or take responsibility. If you’re swamped one week and someone asks you to take on an extra task at your student council meeting, consider saying something like, “My plate is already pretty full this week, but I think Emma would do a fantastic job managing that task. I’ll come with you to ask her if she’d be willing to take the lead on that.”
Saying “no” gives you more time to excel at the things that are meaningful to you. It also helps clear the clutter out of your brain and your to-do list. One of the neatest benefits, though, is that it gives other people the opportunity to shine. Who would’ve thought that effective time management could have such amazing benefits?
Good time management comes down to having the right tools for the job. (Probably not these tools...but you never know!)
5 Best Tools To Support Your Time Management Strategies
Now that you’ve read our top seven time management tips, we also want to hook you up with some time management tools that can play a role in growing your time management skills.
Here’s the bottom line about time management tools: whether you choose from our list below or do your own research, it can be extremely helpful—even essential, for some people—to consistently use specific time management tools that support your developing time management skills. We live in a fast-paced world, and you don’t have to do it all on your own!
We’re going to look at five different types of time management tools that you can use for different approaches to time management. Check them out and decide what works for you!
Tool #1: Paper Planners
Paper, you say? Nothing new and flashy about that. That may be true, but physically writing things down by hand helps you process information on a deeper level, which can help with mental recall later on. So that’s one big advantage of keeping a paper planner.
If your school has strict rules about whipping out digital technology during or in between classes, a paper planner might be a good choice as well. Plus, there are a ton of options out there for planners that are aesthetically pleasing and designed for optimal productivity that also won’t break the bank. And an added benefit is that you can choose a design that fits both your needs and your personality!
Advantages: Won’t crash when the WiFi does; fully high school-approved; great for detail retention; affordable (if you want it to be!)
Tool #2: RescueTime
If you’ve already been looking into time management apps, you’ve probably seen RescueTime mentioned all over the place. RescueTime runs securely in the background on your computer or mobile device, tracks your time spent on apps and websites, then generates a detailed report that lets you know how you spent your time that day.
If you found the idea of doing a time audit (mentioned above in Tip #1) really appealing, RescueTime might be the app for you. Once you’ve used RescueTime to assess how you spend your time on your digital devices, you can even use it to set alerts that let you know how much time you’ve spent on a certain activity, block distracting websites for designated periods of time, and log highlights about what you accomplished during the day.
If you’re looking for help actually managing your time spent on various tasks throughout your day, check out RescueTime!
Advantages: Performs a daily time audit for you; keeps you accountable to your goals and schedule; manages distractions; supported by macOS, Linux, Android, and Windows platforms.
Cost: The Lite plan is free, and you can upgrade to Premium for $9/month.
Tool #3: Be Focused
If you’re one of those people who gets easily overwhelmed by big picture stuff or you thought the Pomodoro Method (Tip #3) sounded cool, try out Be Focused, an app that segments out your workflow into timed increments and designated breaks.
You can set your timed work increments and breaks to time frames of your choosing, and the app also generates a pie chart reporting how much time you spent on a given task and tracking your progress. In other words, it lets you add time-conscious structure to your day!
There’s one downside to Be Focused, though. Unfortunately, this app is only available for iOS devices, but if you’re looking for a similar app for other devices, take a look at focus booster.
Advantages: Handles the Pomodoro Technique for you; runs pre-programmed timers that you can use to guide your workflow
Tool #4: Google Apps
This one’s a classic. Google Apps provides you with a lot of capabilities: emailing, archiving and organizing your files, creating slide presentations, and keeping up with a calendar are just a few. While you don’t have to use all of Google’s apps, if you’re interested in centralizing your schedule, email, contacts, and project files, this is a great option.
Google’s can also be super helpful if you have to do a lot of collaborative projects, papers, presentations, or planning for events and activities too. Google Drive allows you to share media files with anyone who has an email address, and you can create and edit files collaboratively using Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, and Google Slides. And even better: the only thing you have to do to access these powerful tools is sign up for a Google account!
There’s also a strong possibility that your future college or university will assign you a Google account once you get on campus, so getting familiar with the many different ways that Google Apps can aid you in your academic career right now could give you a jumpstart on being an A+ college student in the future.
Advantages: Accessible wherever there’s an Internet connection; usually school-approved; lets you store everything in one place; easy file-sharing and collaboration capabilities; usable on mobile and desktop
Tool #5: Evernote
If you’re a compulsive note taker or list maker, take a look at Evernote. Evernote provides a central location where you can store and organize notes, voice recordings, pictures, and videos. This app might also interest you if you like to meticulously archive your notes and materials using some kind of intricate organizational system of your own design.
This is probably sounding similar to Google Drive, so here are a couple of features that Evernote has that Google Drive doesn’t. Evernote allows you to apply tags to individual notes, so if you have notes that fall under more than one category, for example, you can tag them accordingly. Evernote’s search feature is more granular than Google Drive’s as well: you can search the contents of notes, notebooks (collections of notes), tags, and even attachments.
The freedom to design your own organizational strategy could be overwhelming to some people, though, so Evernote might be a great resource to take advantage of when you start feeling really confident in your time management skills.
The only downside with this option is that, in order to access Evernote’s full capabilities, you’ll have to upgrade to Evernote Premium, which comes with a monthly fee. If you upgrade to Premium, though, you can access Evernote from any device, even when you don’t have WiFi or mobile data.
Advantages: Enormous storage space; multiple options for organizing and labelling content; easy to save content you capture on-the-go straight into Evernote; work from any device, anywhere (with Premium)
Cost: Free for Evernote Basic; $7.99/month for Evernote Premium
Now that you have all the tips and tricks you need to start managing your time, let’s jump into planning. (Planning is your friend!) But getting started can be a little intimidating, so we’ve created timelines to make things a little easier. Here’s a complete planning guide to studying for the SAT (and one for the ACT, too).
Are you a procrastinator struggling to get your time management skills in order? We’ve been there. That’s why we’ve developed cram guides to the SAT and ACT. Click here for the SAT cram guide and here for the ACT cram guide!
The trick to getting into the college of your dreams is planning ahead. (Sensing a theme here?) Here’s our guide to choosing the right AP classes for you, so you can make the most of your high school career.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.