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Time management hacks are everywhere: Cut down on meetings. Quit checking your email. Pick a uniform, and wear it every day. And that’s not even counting the dozens of apps designed to streamline your life and turn you into an ultra-efficient, to-do list vanquishing machine.
But the truth is that all the hacks and apps in the world are nothing without a base level set of time management skills. As Erich C. Dierdorff put it in an article for Harvard Business Review, “would anyone seriously expect that purchasing a good set of knives, high-end kitchen equipment, and fresh ingredients would instantly make someone a five-star chef? Certainly not.”
Not everyone is a natural time-management guru, but not many of us are born professional chefs, either — in both cases, these skills can be learned. Here are the best ways to get started.
It’s 5 p.m. Do you know where your day went? In all likelihood, probably not. Humans are notoriously poor at estimating how long it takes to complete a task, with one study finding that only 17 percent of us can do so effectively. Beyond that, we also tend to underestimate how much time we spend on low-return items like emails, attending meetings and checking social media.
The best way to learn where your day is going is to conduct a time audit. Over the course of a typical week, use a notebook or spreadsheet to document how you’re spending your time on an hour-to-hour basis, from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep. By the end of the week, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of how you really spend your time.
Treat your time like it’s money
Your time, like your money, is a finite resource. Unfortunately, writes Allison Rimm at HBR, “people rarely budget their time with anywhere near the rigor they apply to their finances.” But what if they did?
Once you’ve conducted your audit and have a better understanding of where your time is going, the next step is to figure out how to budget it. Consider categorizing it as fixed time — what you have to do — and discretionary time — what you want to do.
If you want to be even more organized, Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How To Invest Your Time Like Money, suggests a system of priorities-based decision making.
First, clarify your priorities by writing them down in order from most important to least important. Then, translate those priorities into actions by planning them into your schedule and evaluating whether your time investment aligns with your stated priorities.
Next, cut activities from the lowest-priority areas, which will allow you to lower your expectations’ time cost without guilt. Finally, if you still don’t have time for what’s most important, refine your schedule. This usually means trimming down high-priority areas in order to leave room for lower-priority but still essential items.
Make priorities-based decisions
Another skill for developing awareness is thinking about how the tasks you’re doing now will impact your future. But rather than running these calculations constantly, which can lead to decision fatigue, allow priorities to take the lead.
Defining your priorities has a ripple effect on your choices. For example, you’re asked to serve on the board of an organization you respect. You don’t want to disappoint anyone, but accepting would mean sacrificing time spent with your family, which is one of your top priorities. By framing it like this, your decision is already made — without having to go through the time-consuming, anxiety-inducing trouble of weighing the pros and cons.
Keep in mind that your priorities will likely change over time, and that’s okay. Review your goals and values on a regular basis to ensure your actions are still in line with who you are right now. Conducting these reassessments will help keep you on the track you actually want to be on and prevent you from getting stuck.
Know your own rhythms
My company, JotForm, has more than 300 employees and over 10 million users. Growing it to the size it is today would not have happened had I never learned to work with my own rhythms — and allowed my employees to do the same.
I found my peak hours through a lot of trial and error, though author Yulia Yaganova suggests rating your energy, focus and motivation and the end of every hour over three weeks. Once you’ve identified your peak hours, arrange your schedule to complete your most creatively intensive work within your most productive periods of time.
At JotForm, our flex policy has resulted in huge spikes in productivity among team members. Because everybody works differently, those who prefer to sleep in are welcome to start working later, while early risers can harness their most productive hours while things are still relatively quiet. Letting everyone work with their own rhythms boosts morale and contributes to a good company culture that attracts and retains top talent.
Sometimes, no matter how strategic we are, things don’t go as planned. Maybe a doctor’s appointment ran longer than expected, your child got sick, your car wouldn’t start. These things happen.
Rather than trying to force yourself to stick to an unrealistic schedule, allow yourself some flexibility. Don’t try to do your most creative work when you’re stressed about the car — instead, finish some administrative tasks that require less mental space. It can be helpful to preempt the unexpected by noting ahead of time where in your schedule where you have some wiggle room to adjust for sudden changes.
Time management apps can be useful tools, but only when you’ve got the fundamentals down first. Think of all the schemes out there to lose weight quickly without changing your eating habits or lifestyle. They almost never do what they promise. Just as getting healthy inevitably involves the hard work of diet and exercise, learning to manage your time will not magically happen by finding the right app. But once you do learn these skills, you’ll have them for life.