Procrastination: we’re all guilty of it. It’s all too easy to blame your lack of productivity on too few hours in the day, but in reality, you have a lot more time than you realise – you just need to learn how to improve your time management skills, as Anita Chaudhuri explains…
Earlier today, faced with a looming deadline, I realised that I was cutting it too fine for comfort. ‘I just don’t have enough time for everything!’ I wailed in exasperation, as I typed a message to a stranger on Instagram asking her where she got her armchair reupholstered, and what the courier costs were. It pains me to admit that I don’t even have an armchair.
This, in a nutshell, seems to symbolise our problem with time and managing it cleverly. When we don’t get around to making our most cherished goals happen, we blame our overbooked schedules, but is a lack of time really the reason, or is it our time management skills that we need to improve?
During lockdown, for the first time in my life, I was forced to confront an uncomfortable fact: even with a vast tundra of white space in my diary, I still wasn’t making meaningful progress on any of my yearned-for life changes, or moving towards my plethora of long-held goals.
Clearly, a scarcity of minutes and hours had not been the culprit after all. So, I went on a mission to speak to productivity experts, therapists, coaches and authors and put together the following eight powerful strategies to overcome that No 1 killer of time, procrastination.
What I have learned will hopefully help you improve your time management skills, use your time more wisely and create the life you truly want – perhaps including an hour to read your book in a beautifully upholstered armchair.
8 ways to improve your time management skills
1. Work out what you are most committed to
‘Time is never just about time,’ observes Nancy Levin, author of Setting Boundaries Will Set You Free (Hay House, £12.99). ‘And nowhere is this more apparent than when there’s a gap between what you say you want to do and what you actually spend your time doing instead.’
In order to improve your time management skills and truly master time, advises Levin, you need to take an honest look at what you are totally committed to in your life. And, when speaking of commitments, she’s not necessarily talking about the appointments in your diary, although those could offer a clue too.
‘You could be unconsciously committed to something you’re not even aware of right now. Invariably, our actions, choices and decisions are serving needs that have been with us since childhood.’
Poor time management skills and self-sabotage
How might this affect my conclusion that I never have enough time to finish my novel? ‘The two most common unconscious needs are safety and love. If you have an unconscious need to please others, you might avoid showing up to write because being a published author might rock the boat in your significant relationships.’
And a person might harbour unacknowledged anxiety about attracting jealousy from their peers if they become successful, or fear being the centre of attention because that wasn’t a role they were allowed to have in their family of origin. The socially acceptable way of avoiding taking difficult action is to say that you don’t have enough time.
If you are unsure about how to identify when you are sabotaging yourself, Levin has a simple suggestion: ‘Pay attention to the experiences and interactions in your life where you feel the greatest level of resentment – that is almost always telling you where you’re not taking responsibility for yourself and what you want in life.’
Reviewing my own life, I think about the family member for whom I’ve just agreed to do a laborious favour because I don’t want to let them down. Levin suggests you think about the role that you’re playing in such a scenario. My role is the helpful and obliging person. People pleasing is my default mode.
But really, how helpful is it if I’m performing the task through gritted teeth, knowing my decision to help means paying a high price in the form of not taking action to support my own needs? Journalling about areas of resentment can help unravel old patterns in this regard too.
Be aware of what you commit your time and energy to
Levin stresses that exploring your unconscious commitments doesn’t mean labelling them bad or wrong, or even trying to change them. It’s about self-awareness.
Committing your time and energy to others by saying yes to a never-ending stream of favours and invitations is a sure-fire way of ensuring that you never make time for what truly matters to you.
Once you understand the origins of your time blocks and allow yourself to put your own interests first, you can start to design the daily schedule that serves you best and improve your time management skills.
2. View your time as a currency
Gemma Bray, author of The Organised Time Technique (Little, Brown £12.99), suggests that a great first step is to view time as a precious currency. ‘I look at time in a similar way to cash. The major difference is that you can’t save time for a rainy day and you can’t borrow time. We all have 1,400 minutes a day – use them or lose them.’
Bray launched her time management coaching business 14 years ago when she was an overwhelmed new mother. ‘Back then, when my time really was not my own, it hit me that time management is not about squeezing every single productive moment out of your day. You need a balance of busy periods and a bird’s eye view of days and weeks, so you have time to do fun stuff and big-picture thinking, as well as the boring, everyday things.’
Divide your day into segments
In order to do this, Bray started breaking her day into 30-minute segments. ‘Assign different tasks to different segments. Some people prefer 60 minutes and some people I know even use their washing machine cycles to time different tasks.’
In practice, this can work in a similar way to a school timetables with different ‘subjects’ laid out across the day, for example: 10am, admin; 10.30am, blogging; 11am, calls.
Rewards for works in progress
Psychologist Joanna Konstantopoulou agrees, noting that short periods of time tap into the brain’s reward system. ‘As human beings, we have the natural desire to complete things. It makes the brain more alert.’
By dividing time into units, it tricks the brain into thinking that it has completed a task, and produces a dopamine hit, even though you’ve only finished a tiny bit of it. Having tested this, I discovered that the genius of the system is that no one segment ever feels overwhelming.
So, every morning for a month, I marked out a 30-minute segment to work on a university application that I was dreading. To my amazement, I was able to stop procrastinating, improve my time management skills and get it completed far more efficiently than if I’d tried to do it all at once.
3. Work out where you are wasting time in your day
‘In order to create a daily schedule that works for you, it’s essential that you understand how you are currently spending – or wasting – your time,’ says Bray. ‘Visualise your day as a bucket with holes in it. Every day, you’re putting in stuff– but time and energy is leaking out of those holes.’
She suggests a time ‘boot camp’, which involves making a list, preferably as you progress through the day, of everything you do, including interactions with others and time spent online. ‘It’s an illuminating and challenging process,’ says Bray.
‘Typically, after they have done the exercise, people will come back to me and say: “I thought I had no time to myself but now I can see that I spent 90 minutes on my phone this morning and I don’t even know what I was doing!” There’s no hiding place.’
Reclaim your time
Bray suggests that you begin your time analysis by writing down your non-negotiables – sleep, work, commuting, family responsibilities, cooking and eating. Then take a close look at what else is taking up your time.
‘You will quickly identify the people, places and things that might potentially be time leaks and how they’ve been acting as roadblocks to you getting the most out of life. Sometimes, it’s safer to hide behind the comfort blanket of “I don’t have enough time”. Once you’ve broken through the barrier, it can be incredibly freeing.’
4. Tailor your schedule to suit your strengths
Not all schedules are created equal, observes social entrepreneur Sharath Jeevan, author of Intrinsic (Octopus, £14.99). ‘Start by asking what time of day you feel most motivated. For example, I know I get my best writing done first thing in the morning. I’m much more sociable in the afternoons, so I schedule my social interactions, meetings and calls for later in the day.’
Experiment to find your ideal schedule
If you don’t know what time works best for different activities, experiment with conducting a cerebral task and a social task at different times of day. Journal about how well both tasks went and what feelings and emotions arose for you.‘
Structure your days accordingly and, most crucially, don’t offer other people the chance to sabotage your creative or focused time zones. Mark them as off limits in your diary. I tell people that I’m available for meetings between 12pm and 3pm daily,’ says Jeevan.
5. Prioritise what’s important to improve your time management skills
Jeevan believes that to-do lists are not particularly motivating, no matter how much you enjoy ticking items off on the page. ‘Busyness and purpose are two different things. It’s far better to have just one or two key goals for your day.
‘Every morning, look at your list. What is the purpose of this day? Maybe you have one really important work meeting or you’re helping your child with a project. If those go well, you know it will have been a good day and anything else you get done is a bonus. We often get lost with 30 items to do but hardly any of it really matters.’
Bray agrees. ‘I don’t have a to-do list – I have a rolling to-do notebook. I write down everything and what doesn’t get done today, I happily roll over until tomorrow. Your to-do list will never be finished.
‘Prioritise what’s important – that’s it. And, if you’re getting stressed about not ticking off certain items, ask yourself “what would happen if I don’t do this?”. If the answer is “I will lose my job”, then do it. If it’s more along the lines of: “if I don’t bake the cakes for the PTA, probably nothing will happen”, then you’re off the hook on that one.’
6. Focus on your wants and set boundaries
There is one area in which I definitely struggle to master my own time – my interactions with other people. ‘Can I just pick your brains for five minutes? Can I ask you something quickly? Can we hop on a Zoom call for a few minutes to sort it out? Let me just show you this – it won’t take long…’.
I always shy away from setting definitive limits around the time such exchanges involve. A 15-minute catch-up over coffee lasts an hour and a half because, as an extrovert, I enjoy being around other people and, yes, I want them to like me!
Levin has some sage advice to tighten our interpersonal time boundaries. ‘Most people think that boundaries are something that other people cross, as in “yes, she absolutely invaded my boundaries”.
‘However, if your boundaries are being crossed, you are the one crossing them because it’s not anyone else’s job to uphold or honour your limits. Knowing this key fact moves you out of victimhood and into responsibility and empowerment.’
Put yourself first to improve your time management skills
I must admit, I struggle with this and invariably feel guilty if I have to say no to someone or leave the Zoom call after 40 minutes because I find video calls unbelievably draining. ‘You need to flip a switch in your mind,’ advises Levin.
‘Instead of concentrating on what the other person needs, wants or feels, change the question to: what do I need, want or feel? Your resentment will lessen the minute you do that, and you will find that you are able to give your time freely and generously in a way that serves you too.’
7. Work smarter, not harder
Yes, it’s a cliche, but Konstantopoulou says many of us struggle to complete big projects. She agrees that working harder – often a combination of longer hours and more stress – is not helpful. She cites a Harvard University study that revealed workers who put in 70 hours a week were no more productive than those who did 50.
‘Time management skills help you to improve how efficiently you use your hours, but the best thing is to learn to cope with stress through breathing techniques, exercise or yoga, for example. That will help you cope with deadlines, rather than take more time to finish. Also remind yourself of past successes. Self-belief helps you to rise to the occasion.’
8. Slow down time
Research shows that, as we get older, time seems to speed up. One reason is that life events involving ‘firsts’ remain in our memories for longer than repeated activities.
A University of Leeds study found that 93 per cent of vivid life memories concern unique or first events. If you want to slow time, nurture the quality of your waking hours.
Nurture every moment to improve your time management skills
‘“Time nurture” is a phrase that I invented as a way of focusing on how to make time motivating and meaningful. Yes, it’s about having novel experiences, but it’s also about acting with purpose,’ says Jeevan.
‘Most of us are social animals, so we naturally find purpose from feeling that our time is being used to help others. Engage with others and get involved in activities that confirm the end results of you serving them. Sending emails or attending meetings is unlikely to do this.’
It is also important not to overschedule. When things go wrong with time management, it is often because we try to micromanage every moment of the day. ‘We’re not machines,’ says Jeevan. This is true. When I attempt to micromanage my time, I eventually rebel and don’t stick to any plan. ‘Remember to make space for unpredictability and adventure,’ he encourages.