Improving Productivity with Time Management How to Reprioritize to Reach Your Goals
- Category Mental Health
Ah, time management. So many people feel this is THE solution to their problems: “If only I managed my time better, I could do everything I want." While for some, time management may be a contributing factor to fitting in all your goals and tasks, it may not be the silver bullet you are looking for. Often, it isn’t time management that gets in our way, but rather incorrectly prioritizing our time or having too high of expectations for how much we can do.
This article is the first part of two regarding time management. It explores the relative roles of time management and priorities in our lives, as well as research regarding the benefits of time management.
What exactly is time management?
The name “time management” has been called out as a sort of misnomer. We can’t actually manage or change time itself, but rather how we personally manage the time we have (Claessens et al., 2005). People who have better time management skills do not have more time in their days than those who don’t. Therefore, time management has been defined as a decision-making model that helps people to be able to place structure around their use of time as well as adapt and protect said time when there are other demands on our time (Aeon et al., 2020). The three key components I want to call out within this definition are:
- Time management structure
- Ability to adapt to changes
- Strategies for protecting our time
These components of time management make us more intrinsically motivated to complete the tasks at hand, increasing how much we enjoy the task and also the likelihood that we will finish or accomplish that task (Xu et al., 2020). So, if you are ever struggling with motivation, it may be a good time to take a look at how you manage your time.
However, one important precursor of time management is having an accurate awareness of how one spends their time so they can be intentional about any changes they want to make. In graduate school, I taught a class on academic skills and one of the units was on time management. I had the students track their usage of time down to 15 minute increments for 2 weeks in order to gauge how they actually used their time. This task alone was helpful for people to be able to see that they don’t use their time like they thought they did and to see where they have room to be able to make changes to fit in their priorities.
Benefits of time management behaviors
What does time management actually do for us? Research suggests that time management is linked with many improved outcomes, including a greater perception in our ability to control time. Though we can’t actually control time itself, the perception that we have greater control helps many people feel calmer and more productive (Claessens et al., 2005). Additionally, greater time management skills leads to better performance in both professional and academic settings (Aeon et al., 2020). Time management helps us to be able to actually get the things done that are expected of us in these settings and reduces the likelihood (though doesn’t eliminate the possibility) that we will procrastinate tasks for significant amounts of time. Finally, those with stronger time management skills have improved wellbeing and life satisfaction (Claessens et al., 2005; Aeon et al., 2020). This is largely due to the reduction in stress that we experience because of all of the aforementioned factors.
Despite these benefits of time management, it all means very little if we are not intentional about the priorities in our lives. We cannot manage to incorporate more things into our lives and days than we have capacities for. Thus, I often ask people I work with to consider what is most important in their lives and set their goals and time management strategies around those priorities. This process is similar to gardening, where we have to prune back certain leaves or parts of the plants in order to help the plants to flourish. With our goals and priorities in life, we sometimes have to cut out or cut back on some of the things that no longer serve us so that the things that are important can grow.
One study showed that the difference between people who exercise frequently and less frequent exercisers was not in their time management abilities, but rather in their prioritization and valuing of exercise and their perception of the benefits to managing multiple goals at once. Both groups spent equal amounts of time on their non-exercise goals, but those who exercised more perceived the pursuit of exercise on top of other obligations as life-enhancing and thus were more likely to actually spend time exercising (Jung & Brawley, 2010).
Now, I want to caution that I am not saying that you should cut out all fun or restful things out of your life. I’m not even saying you should multitask by combining fun activities with “productive” ones. In fact, these are likely priorities as they tend to provide us with balance and enhance other areas of our life. However, there are often certain “time wasters” that we develop throughout our lives that don’t serve us in any material way. For example, many people tell me about their tendency to scroll through social media for 20 minutes when they can’t think of what else to do. In this instance, people tend to underestimate how much they can benefit from a 20 minute workout, meditation, or nap.
Importance of balance
I want to refrain from contributing to the narrative that we must always be productive and get everything done on our to-do list. I want to refrain from contributing to the value judgments that are often placed on people who do or do not have strong time management skills. In today’s society — with value placed on efficiency and productivity — it is easy to look at people we consider highly efficient and say they are better than us. We all have different priorities, different needs, and different capacities.
One model of time management, the SLOTH model, recognizes that time is a limited resource. We have only so much time in the day (and our lives) and our time is divided between sleep, leisure, occupation, transportation, and household duties. Part of the issue is that all of these are important for well-being and people tend to sacrifice one (hello sleep deprivation!) to get other things done. So, achieving a balance means that we fit in each of these in amounts that optimizes our own wellbeing. Only we know how much that is.
One study found that people who get the recommended amount of exercise in their weeks tend to combine non-health related goals with exercise to overcome the perception of not having enough time. For example, biking to work (combining exercise and transportation) or walking while socializing with friends (exercise and leisure; Rebar et al., 2019). Therefore, you can get creative with how and where you fit physical activity into your life (or other prioritized tasks) in order to achieve your goals. This helps to maintain a sense of balance in our lives.
I know I am leaving you with all of this information about how important balance and time management are without anything about how to do that. Rest assured that this is coming! Stay tuned for some examples of time management strategies from our very own FB content creators to serve as ideas for how you can manage your own time.