Whether it’s landing a promotion, meeting concurrent deadlines, or working on a side project as well as your day job, honing your time management skills will lead to greater outcomes and reduced stress—both at home and at work. Using strategies to better prioritize tasks and avoid procrastination is helpful in boosting performance and productivity, regardless of your position or level of seniority.
With an aim to work smarter, not harder, these time management tips encourage you to make the most of your workday—propelling you through your to-do list and permitting you to stop and rest when you need it most.
1. Focus on one thing at a time
Checking your phone, watching the news, listening to a podcast, and scrolling social media is common practice during the workday—with smartphones and computers offering easy access to digital distractions. Yet hearing clamoring voices through your headphones, or receiving Instagram notifications between emails, scatters your focus and means you’re never totally engaged with the task at hand.
Committing to focusing on just one thing for a predetermined period of time is a good way to break this habit, and putting your phone in your drawer and muting Slack and email notifications will help you get there. While you might have to remind yourself to stay on task initially, as soon as you’re engrossed, the time will fly by—and so will your to-do list.
2. Set time limits for each task
Certainly, procrastinators enjoy relaxation and a better mood in the short term, but they typically feel negative consequences that include heightened stress, lower task performance, and reduced well-being as deadlines draw closer. One time management tip to avoid behavioral delay is to add more immediate time pressure; create artificial deadlines for smaller subprojects and adjacent tasks.
Promising yourself that you’ll be done reading emails by 10 a.m., or that you’ll take only two hours to create slides for a presentation, are good ways to keep yourself accountable. Plus, setting a timer for each task will kick-start the adrenaline that’s so often required when meeting a tight deadline.
3. Prioritize wisely
If you don’t take the time to think it through, work prioritization can happen inadvertently—as you respond to bullish stakeholders or breeze through the easier tasks first. This approach, however, can leave you scrambling to complete more important projects and failing to give high-impact work the attention it deserves.
The “Most Important Tasks” (MIT) methodology helps counter this and is a way to intentionally set daily priorities. The time management process encourages you to create a list of two or three MITs every morning—these are tasks that will make the biggest difference to the outcome or bring the greatest results. Your MIT list should be separate from your regular to-do list, and it should be prioritized above all else.
To determine your MIT list, ask yourself questions like: What are the most important things I can accomplish today? What tasks will have the biggest impact on achieving my ultimate goal? Then, ensure that you structure your day to work on those MITs at the times you’re most productive.
4. Learn to say no or delegate more often
If you’re trying to impress executives or launch a startup, it’s easy to take on too much in the name of getting ahead and increasing ownership. After a while, however, this approach becomes unsustainable. Understanding when to say no is essential in managing time effectively: If you’re trying to do too much, stress will increase and productivity will fall.
Being picky about your projects can have a positive impact on revenue, too. For Brandon Perlman, founder and CEO of influencer marketing agency Social Studies—with a headquarters by WeWork space in New York City—saying no more often is key to growing and scaling his business.
“It’s about process, efficiency, methodology. We’re moving away from selling everybody everything at every price,” Perlman says, whose motto for this year is “less is more.” “We’re going to do fewer deals but higher-quality ones—bigger deals. Saying no will be a trend in 2020.”
5. Don’t let the details drag you down
To gain momentum and productivity, make a point to keep a high-level perspective as you move through tasks. Sweating minor details can lead to unwanted stopping points, distracting you with factors that won’t have a huge impact on the final outcome. Instead, consider writing down your thoughts or every item on your to-do list to clear your mind for higher-level thinking.
This is especially beneficial when launching a product or composing a large strategy, times during which getting caught in the weeds can become a mental blocker to actual progress. “Get your product to market as fast as possible,” says Katia Beauchamp, CEO and founder of beauty and grooming retailer Birchbox, who spoke at a recent WeWork event in New York City. “It’s like pulling off the Band-Aid [and accepting that] it’s not going to look like what’s in your head—yet.”
6. Understand your work rhythm
There are countless articles and books that explore the morning routines of successful people. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin, and Bob Iger, the head of Disney, all wake up at 5 a.m. or earlier. They use that extra time to exercise, catch up on emails, set intentions for the day … the list goes on.
Such an early wakeup time is not necessary for productivity—people have different chronotypes (or waking rhythms), and these habits typically change with age. The takeaway, however, is that understanding your body and its circadian rhythms is a step toward increasing productivity.
It’s a good idea to evaluate the times of day you work faster compared with when you’re most likely to feel sluggish, and structure your day accordingly. Sleep, exercise, and eating can all be adjusted to ensure you’re feeling your best throughout the day, and productivity will follow.
7. Sleep eight hours each night
Whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, the importance of sleep doesn’t change. Several studies show a linear association between sleep and productivity, with maximum productivity reported among those who sleep eight hours each night. Lack of sleep has also been tied to reduced performance, lower reported performance, and increased absenteeism.
To help boster productivity and employee satisfaction, many companies are investing in well-being programs for their staff—and some of these include sleep optimization. Professional services firm Ernst & Young, for example, offers sleep therapy to its employees, while London PR agency Forster Communications provides its staff with tool kits to monitor sleep and recovery.
For Bruce Mackintosh, founder of the fitness app SoSweat and a WeWork Labs member at WeWork 8 Devonshire Square in London, avoiding an alarm clock is how he gives his body the rest it needs each night. “I don’t use an alarm. I’d much rather get the rest I need; that way I’m able to perform better during the day,” says Mackintosh.
8. Stop and switch off
While it may seem counterintuitive, knowing when to stop is key in maintaining productivity long-term. Whether it’s a lunch break, a weekend, or a proper vacation, giving yourself a rest period will help you work faster and harder upon your return. A recent survey found that corporate leaders with more paid time off are able to maintain higher focus throughout the rest of the year. The researchers put this down to time management: Having less time at your desk forces you to waste less time.
“There’s always going to be too many things on your to-do list,” says Brown. “Work out which ones you should be doing and give it your best shot throughout the week. When it comes to the end of the day on Friday, park it.”
9. Turn time management tips into habits
The time it takes to develop new habits varies between individuals. However, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of adoption. Remaining extremely diligent during the first weeks of the process is associated with eventual automaticity. Beyond this, it’s best not to berate yourself if you miss a single day—it won’t undo the progress you’ve made already.
Whether it’s streamlining focus, waking up early, writing to-do lists, or catching up on extra sleep, these time management tips will help you increase productivity and breeze through your to-do list. And although establishing new habits takes time and effort, you’ll find the payoff—at work and at home—will be multifold.
Caitlin Bishop is a writer for WeWork’s Ideas by We, based in New York City. Previously, she was a journalist and editor at Mamamia in Sydney, Australia, and a contributing reporter at Gotham Gazette.