We all have the same amount of hours in a single day.

Then how is it that some people manage to accomplish so much, while others end each day exhausted and unfulfilled, wondering, “Where did the time go?”

Most of us have been there.

Hurrying around from one activity to the next, always in a rush, tired, and anxious.  It’s seems like it’s a constant battle to balance personal and professional obligations.

And many modern professionals are taking strain under the load. Research shows vacations are decreasing, productivity is dwindling, and stress-related illnesses are climbing.

But it doesn’t need to be this way.

It all comes down to time management skills. With the right time management skills, you can take control of your time, tackle your goals, and live the life you’ve always wanted.

Clarify Your Goals

Ideally, you have all the time in the world to pursue your hopes, dreams, and desires.

But in reality, time is finite.  The clock never stops ticking.

Now, while you can’t change the number of days in a year,  you can better use the limited time you have.

One way to do this is by setting goals.

What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want to complete that online course to grow your career? Perhaps you want to invest more time in face-to-face meetings with clients?

When setting goals, write them down. Studies indicate people who document their goals are more likely to hit their targets.

By determining your goals, you can decide what to prioritize and what to cull.

2. Track Your time

Tracking your time is a critical time management skill.

When you track your time, you notice patterns. Maybe you’re spending hours each week in meetings you don’t need to attend? Perhaps you need to curb your social media surfing?

You’ll identify these weaknesses once you start tracking your time.

After this exercise, study whether you’re allocating enough time to achieve your personal and professional goals.

3. Prioritizing

So, you’ve made some big decisions, and you’re ready to take on your goals.

But you still have a never-ending list of tasks staring back at you.

One answer is to prioritize.

This Harvard Business Review article examines workers who improved their productivity and performance through prioritization.  The analysis covers knowledge workers at 39 companies in the United States and different European countries.

“Our research indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time—an average of 41%—on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others.”

It’s a familiar scenario for most modern professionals. Here’s the solution:

“Knowledge workers can make themselves more productive by thinking consciously about how they spend their time; deciding which tasks matter most to them and their organizations; and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest.”

The benefits were compelling. Workers saved hours. They improved productivity and delivered real business benefits, like increased sales.

Here is the step by step process to save time with the right prioritization system:

  1. Identify low-value tasks
  2. Decide whether to drop or delegate
  3. Allocate freed up time

4. Beat Parkison’s Law

Mastering your time means conquering Parkinson’s Law.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever sat in an hour-long meeting that could have ended 45 minutes ago.

Then you’ll recognize Parkinson’s Law. Cyril Parkinson introduced Parkinson’s Law in a satirical essay for The Economist in 1955.

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Now, here is where time tracking helps.

Using your data, you know how much time you need to invest in particular tasks.  Decide in advance how long you’ll spend on a task. Stick to that deadline. Even if you don’t finish within the time period, the sense of urgency will increase your focus.

Experiment with time management tools like the Pomodoro Method. The Pomodoro technique breaks your day into 25-minute blocks of focus, separated by five-minute breaks.

5. Reduce Distractions

These days, it’s almost impossible to escape disruption. The average professional receives 121 emails each day, according to this Radicati report.

And because you’re worried about missing an important message, you typically respond immediately.

Interruptions add up. Research shows it takes up 25 minutes to get back to a focussed state after receiving and responding to an alert.

Minimizing distractions is an important time management skill.

It’s also necessary if you want to improve your focus, writes Cal Newport in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

“Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.”

Here are practical tips for reducing distractions:

  • Turn your phone off. Even better - put it another room. Research suggests the presence of our smartphones divide our focus, and reduce our problem-solving skills.
  • Keep your workspace uncluttered and organized. Scientists found clutter decreases our ability to concentrate.
  • Extend this approach to internet research by limiting the number of open tabs.

6. Overcome Procrastination

It’s the day before that sales proposal is due, and you’re scrambling to finish on time. Again.

On top of the panic, you’re beating yourself up. This isn’t some last-minute request. You’ve been putting it off for weeks.

Sound familiar?

Don’t feel too bad. You’re genetically disposed to procrastinating.

Scientists believe ancient humans were impulsive. They needed to be to survive. When predators were always lurking and food was scarce, you made decisions fast. In the modern context, that biology means you’re an easy target for distraction - which ultimately leads to procrastination, according to Medical Daily.

“Now scientists suggest this absence of necessary impulsivity is what allows tasks that don’t threaten our lives to lead us to distraction. Since we don’t have vicious, sharp-toothed animals keeping us on high-alert, our natural sense of impulsivity leads us astray. We check our email and browse social media not because we lack self-control, but because we’ve replaced our sense of urgency.”

Fortunately, our impulsive ancestors passed on some positive traits, too. Our ability to perform complex planning helped us survive and thrive and over other species of human.

Here is some great encouragement from psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl:

“So, before you impulsively (pardon the pun) blame your genes and human evolutionary history for your procrastination and find yet another excuse for justifying needless, self-defeating delay, take a moment to put these new truth claims in the context of your other traits and abilities that show substantial genetic contributions.”

And for a practical remedy to curb procrastination, researchers suggest changing how you perceive time.

From the research paper:

“People assume they should attend to the present; their future self can handle the future. This seemingly plausible rule of thumb can lead people astray, in part because some future events require current action. In order for the future to energize and motivate current action, it must feel imminent. To create this sense of imminence, we manipulated time metric—the units (e.g., days, years) in which time is considered...Time metrics mattered not because they changed how distal or important future events felt ...but because they changed how connected and congruent their current and future selves felt.”

That project with a two-week deadline? Think of that as 14 days. Even better, scrap the weekends. Now you have ten days left to get the job done.

Do you future self a favor and write up that presentation today.

Another way to improve motivation is to begin a project at the start of a new week. The fresh start effect is our tendency to tackle goals at the start of a new time landmark, e.g., a new week, month, or year.

This study found Google searches for exercises and diets increased following new time periods:

“The popularity of New Year’s resolutions suggests that people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks. If true, this little-researched phenomenon has the potential to help people overcome important willpower problems that often limit goal attainment ...these landmarks demarcate the passage of time, creating many new mental accounting periods each year, which relegate past imperfections to a previous period, induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.”

Schedule that project you’ve been putting off for the start of the week. When you’re done enjoy the satisfaction that comes with doing the job well and way ahead of time.

7. Process Automation

Process automation is a valuable time management skill. When you automate your processes, you spend less mental energy mulling over everyday decisions.

Create templates for reports, emails, and other frequently used documents. Store these in a central document management portal to save time.  

One easy way to save time is to use a business process automation documentation tool like Trello, eversign, or Basecamp.

Take Control of Your Days With Tested Time Management Skills

Once you put these time management skills into action, you’ll end your days feeling fulfilled and eager to take on your next challenge.

Which time management strategies will you invest in now to reap the returns today, next month, and years from now?