We all recognise the importance of maximising the time we spend on the jobs that deliver the most value. That’s why time management is one of the most frequently cited soft skills on job adverts and CVs. Organising and managing our time to take control of our energy levels and makes us more productive, gives us more freedom in our work lives and is a huge advantage to career progression.

Effective time management is about finishing your set work as promptly as possible without compromising on quality. There are a few simple lifestyle changes that have consistently been shown to have a positive impact on time management:

  • Get better sleep – when we are tired we find it difficult to maintain attention, and our ability to work to deadlines suffers as a result. Getting a full eight hours every night gives the brain time to recharge and renew focus.
  • Reduce stress and take breaks – high stress levels also impact your ability to manage your time. Even when you have lots to do, it’s vital to take regular breaks, step away and clear your mind. You’ll find that when you return to your desk it will save you time in the long run.
  • Minimise distractions – working in an open plan office, having your social media accessible at a click of a button or keeping your mobile phone in view can all cost many valuable hours in a day. When we lose focus, it can take upwards of ten minutes to get back into our ‘flow’ state. When you’re working on something difficult, go somewhere quiet and switch off everything apart from the task in hand.


Techniques for better time management

In the modern workplace environment, with an ever-accelerating pace of social and technological change, the ability to manage your time effectively has become an increasingly precious commodity. It’s no surprise that several leading business writers and thinkers have devoted themselves to creating better time management strategies.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that the most successful people in our knowledge economy are those who are able to switch seamlessly into a focused mode, free from distractions. Newport’s argument is that our value in the modern world depends on “quickly learning complicated things”, something that cannot be achieved without concentration. Instead, most workplaces encourage us to spend our time on ‘shallow work’; “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

The more time we spend in shallow work mode, the harder it becomes to switch our mindset. There has been a lot of time management advice that recommends making time for deep work, but less practical tips about how to do it.

Newport cites the Harvard Business School academic Clayton Christensen, who outlines a few practical tips in The 4 Disciplines of Execution. He recommends:

  • “Focus on the wildly important”; spending unbroken, dedicated time each week on a single, simple but ambitious outcome.
  • “Act on lead measures”; judging success by factors that you can measure immediately, such as the amount of time spent working on the problem rather than the outcome of that work.
  • “Keep a compelling scoreboard”; find a way to track your lead measures and celebrate milestones as you pass them.
  • “Create a cadence of accountability”; hold a regular short review to confront your scoreboard, commit to specific actions and understand the outcomes of those actions.

In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel H. Pink describes a strategy for blocking out your time to match your ‘chronotype’ – the times that your body clock naturally tends towards sleep. Left to your own devices, are you a ‘lark’ – someone who tires early in the evening and wakes at first light – a ‘night owl’ – someone who struggles with mornings and finds it difficult getting to sleep until after midnight – or a ‘third bird’ – somewhere in between the two extremes?

By understanding your chronotype, you can aim to schedule different kinds of work for the times you are best suited to them:

  • Larks start the work day with lots of mental energy and their attention dips after lunch. If you’re a lark, you should try to do your most demanding deep work – anything which requires analytical or strategic thought – during the morning. Save more creative and ‘fun’ work for the end of the day when you need a pick-me-up, and fit in administrative tasks around those two
  • Third Birds reach their mental peak in the middle of the work day. If you’re a third bird, you have the luxury of being able to do most kinds of work at most times, but you’ll be able to do your best analytical work then.
  • Night Owls start the work day without much mental energy and feel at their most capable later in the afternoon. If you’re a night owl, you should work in the opposite way to a lark, scheduling creative projects in the morning while you’re still feeling loose and saving deep thought for later in the day.