how to find the time you need to get your work done

If you feel like there’s never enough time in the day to get everything on your to-do list done and you’re regularly plagued by the sense that important items are going undone, you probably need to change the way you’re thinking about how you spend your time.

If you feel like there’s never enough time in the day to get everything on your to-do list done and you’re regularly plagued by the sense that important items are going undone, you probably need to change the way you’re thinking about how you spend your time. Here are five tips for reorganizing your days – and maybe your life!

1. At the start of every morning/week/month, get clear on what would make the day/week/month a success. One of the reasons people fail at managing their time is that they don’t get clarity about what the most important things are for them to achieve in any given time block. As a result, they then get sucked into spending time on things that are less important, and realize at the end of the day (or week, or month) that the things that would most powerfully move their work forward still aren’t done. If you’ve ever spent an hour in a meeting that wasn’t crucial for you while your to-do list was filled with high-impact tasks, you’re guilty as charged here.

To avoid this, figure out what one or two items are most important to accomplish on any given day/week/month, and make those your top priorities. Whenever possible, do them first before other things have the chance to intervene. The other items will fill in where there’s room.

2. Schedule time for your own work. If you let it, your calendar will fill up with meetings and other obligations to the point that you won’t have any time left to work on your biggest priorities. Rather than just hoping you’ll find the time, deliberately schedule two- or three-hour work blocks into your calendar, so that you’ve carved out some protected time to do your most important work. Then, treat them just as you would any other important obligation on your calendar; don’t schedule over them, and don’t let people interrupt you during that time. (You might even go into a conference room or another location where interruptions will be minimized during that time.)

3. Don’t be afraid to protect your own time. Work blocks won’t serve their purpose if you let them get interrupted. If someone interrupts with something that isn’t urgent, don’t be shy about saying, “I’m in a work block right now, so can we talk later?” or “I’m on a deadline so I’d love to save that if we can, unless it’s urgent.”

4. If you’re a manager, spend your time in the areas where you’re far better than your staff. Most managers don’t delegate enough and instead hold on to projects that someone else could do because the work feels comfortable or they don’t trust anyone else to do it right. But refusing to delegate means that you won’t free yourself up to take on bigger and more important pieces of work. The principle of comparative advantage is key here: It says that you should be spending your time in the areas where you’re much better than your staff – not just a bit better – because the pay-off will be greater. So while you might be a bit better than your staff at doing client intake, your experience and role means that you’re probably far more effective than they would be at developing new business, and as long as they can do those initial client screens well enough, your time should be spent on the pieces that only you can do.

5. It doesn’t matter what time management system you use – just pick one you can stick with. There are loads of time management systems around – from David Allen’s popular Getting Things Done to tons of apps that promise to revolutionize your organizational systems. The secret to all of them is that it doesn’t matter which you choose; it only matters that you choose something and stick with it. Most systems fall apart because people stop using them, or only use them halfheartedly. So if you’re serious about getting organized, resolve to stick with whatever system you pick religiously for at least four weeks – after that, it should be ingrained as a habit.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Dan*


    One should also note that if the manager is just a “bit” better than the staff at a given function, then the staff should be working on those things as part if their career development anyway. You can’t get better at things you don’t practice, and most people want to improve their skills.

  2. CanadianWriter*

    I know a writer who started tracking every second of his day and turning it into a pie chart. Before he did this he thought he was super busy and didn’t have time to do important stuff, but tv watching and goofing around online were huge slices of pie.

    1. Bryan*

      I feel that way about a lot of people who claim they are super busy. In a perfect world when somebody told me they were busy I would tell them to cancel their netflix subscription.

      1. TL*

        bwahaha! I almost never say I was too busy; I always try to say I didn’t make time for something.

        Because when I really want something to get done, it’s surprising how often it does get done.

    2. LPBB*

      Everytime I start feeling like I don’t have enough time, I just remind myself how much time I spend on the Internet looking at stupid stuff. Now if only I could stop myself from spending all that time on the Internet looking at stupid stuff!

    3. Gobrightbrand*

      Except we’re not robototic work machines. Doing something like watching TV isn’t the same as doing work. People need downtime otherwise they’ll burnout. Sometimes when I’m busy I’m busy relaxing so I am fresh the next day.

      Obviously there’s a difference between spending one hour relaxing (reading book, watching tv, whatever) than spending 5 hours every day watching television.

      1. AAA*

        I’ve so often made the mistake of *not* scheduling in this downtime. You end up overcommitted, burned out, and ultimately less productive.

      2. Sunflower*

        You’ll burn out really fast if you leave no time to relax. The thing is you need to remember to schedule it and stick to it. It’s easy to get trapped in ‘oh I’ll just watch one tv episode’ and 6 hours later you haven’t moved. You need to say to yourself ‘I’m dedicating this much time to doing this’ then I’m going to do this other thing. It’s really good to use for work and your personal life

        1. CanadianWriter*

          That was the problem the man I mentioned had. Relaxation was taking over his life! He worked from home so it was easy to take a break from writing in front of the tv. Office workers will have different time wasters on their pie chart but I still think it’s a valuable exercise.

  3. Jessica*

    Anyone have any good suggestions for alternatives to GTD? I’m trying to do GTD right now but I have so many projects going on at any one time with so many steps involved doing the “weekly review” just seems pointless because I’m trying to get through so much stuff it all becomes a blur after a while.

    1. Kelly O*

      My issue with GTD is that if I stopped and did everything that took less than two minutes, I would do nothing but two minute tasks all day. I do try to batch those sorts of things, but it’s hard when people come to expect nearly immediate responses to emails.

      I had one vendor send me three emails in the course of an hour. I had turned off my notifications to work on a project and when I went to my inbox, they had sent a request, a follow-up, and a third email demanding I call them immediately regarding an invoice they’d sent just the previous week. Heaven forbid I go in a meeting or have to run to the other building… we certainly don’t take lunches around here (and I’m really not joking about that bit.)

      1. Koko*

        Seconding batching as key to my own productivity. I only check email a few times an hour because otherwise I lose too much time to task-switching.

        The other best tip I can give is I have a running to-do list with all my tasks, both recurring and one-off, listed concisely in one place. At the end of each day, I make sure it’s up to date with any new assignments I received that day and I bold the items that I intend to work on tomorrow. Being able to look at my list at 9:00am and immediately see what projects I should be getting started on really helps me dive into productive-mode straight away, whereas I used to lose a lot of the first hour of my day to “orienting myself” (cleaning out my email inbox, taking stock of my to-do list, prioritizing). And conversely, I’m faster and more efficient at orienting at the end of the day when I’ve been in my work groove for a while already, so I always do that at the end of the day instead of the beginning.

      2. anon o*

        Thank you for saying this! I have so many people tell me that – just do the small things that take a few minutes. I’ll often do that and find myself finished all of those (and some of them look like they’ll be a few minutes and aren’t) at 5:00 when I’m not exactly in the mood to start some big project. Especially since all day I’ve got my direct reports and my boss asking me questions and for approvals, etc. so they can move on with projects. I can spend 5 full days a week just on my email!

        Separate from that because I have a lot of different projects going on in different areas I’ve been using – it’s basically just a web paged that’s a to-do list but you can use hashtags to sort. So for example I can enter “ask #bossname about #smithproject #budget” and then it shows up when I filter everything under #bossname when I’m talking to my boss, or everything on #smithproject when I’m working on that. It’s really simple but awesome. And I can hashtag it with the days of the week so when I got in today I just searched for #tues hashtag and bam – everything I needed to follow up on today was there. I love it.

        1. Frazzled To Do*

          Workflowy looks amazing, thank you anon o for mentioning it. I wear many hats and have legal pads full of to do items all over the place. As neat as my Outlook flagged items are I am consistently letting little things fall through the cracks with daily priority changes.

          I am thinking if I keep my big picture items and daily tasks listed there and then keep the smaller support items in Outlook it might make my work day feel more manageable. :)

      3. Christine*

        Yes! I love it when I have a second and a third follow up via email within a brief period of time after the first email. I obviously have not had time to read the first email, not sure why they think it would be any different for the subsequent emails?

        I wouldn’t put up with that from a vendor, though.

      1. Susie*

        Me too! I actually prefer it’s not digitized so I can still get work done when systems go down. Sure, it’s restricted to non-computer stuff at that point but it’s better than doing nothing waiting for things to come back up.

      2. Mallory*

        Whoa! I just got back from checking out the Bullet Journal website and I am in lurve. I’m going to get rid of my cruddy legal pad and move into the navy-blue Moleskine notebook I’ve got stashed back, with this as my note system.

    2. HM in Atlanta*

      I’ve been using Total Workday Control (it really only works for me because it was about managing my email-calendar-small tasks in one place).

      1. Mallory*

        I tried Total Workday Control, but I guess I’m more of an analog to-do list person. I like the concept and I like being able to drag emails to tasks, calendar items, etc., but I always revert to my handwritten list — mostly because I can take it with me anywhere, including when one of my bosses calls me into their office.

  4. Sunflower*

    I try to schedule work around when I know I’m going to hit a slump. Between 2-2:30 is when I hit my slump so I try to eat my lunch then or leave my more mindless activities for then. I find I’m most productive around 10-1 so things I know will take a lot of mental capacity I try to do then.

    I also answer all of my emails first thing in the morning when I get in. I find if I can answer all of them, it isn’t in the back of my mind all day and taking up useless energy.

  5. Sascha*

    Does anyone have a recommendation for a good, free task tracking software? I think someone asked last week but I can’t find where that was…I need something to help keep track of my projects and tasks and Excel just isn’t cutting it. Thanks!

    1. Clever Name*

      I like using todoist. It’s available on the web, as a desktop app, mobile app, and integrated into outlook.

      I like it because you can break it into separate projects with hierarchical tasks, and you can set deadlines and reminders. I love putting pen to paper, but I just end up with a really messy notebook where I’m constantly rewriting my list because I have a combination of short term tasks and long term projects with sub tasks. Plus I don’t love the idea of carrying a notebook with me always. I got a PDA about 10 years ago so I could eliminate a paper calendar, and I haven’t looked back. :)

  6. Dulcinea*

    My problem is that a large part of my job involves reacting to emergencies, so I often can’t count on being able to protect a block of time to work on slow burning stuff vs something that has burst into flames. Several conversations with managers (at my initiative) have not resolvedthe problem; they refuse to give guidance on priorities or support when I’m overwhelmed basically just telling me “do the best you can.” With my low level of experience I don’t think I have the judgment I need to do this properly but management does not seem concerned. The problem is, quite simply, I have too much work of two conflicting types…. Basically they want me to do both brain surgery and triage and it’s not working out very well…if I actually were a doctor patients would be dying in this metaphor . .. Anyone been where I am?

    1. Celeste*

      I think you have a management problem, not a time management problem. If they’re asking you to be in two places at once, they’re doing it wrong.

    2. Annie O*

      Yep, I’m in the same situation. In my case, it’s due to matrix management. My bosses do not agree on my priorities, and every time I get them in the same room it feels like a damn hostage negotiation. In private, they demand that I give more attention to their project. I spend a lot of time switching between projects, rushing to meet deadlines, and feeling very reactive instead of proactive. I’ve always been a planner myself, and the current situation is making me bat shit crazy.

    3. Dulcinea*

      Thank you both for you commiseration! I really do like my job aside from the stress but this is one of the reasons I am casually looking elsewhere- a position just opened that would be an excellentfit at a very prestigious org in my field where I hsppen to know a lot of folks…. I am still torn about it but let’s see if I get an offer first and worry about it from there.

      1. Sascha*

        I know exactly how you feel! I’ve been torn between different teams for the last 3 years at my job (been here for 4), and each type of work I do could be a full time job in and of itself. I’ve asked my management to please let me be truly full time on one team only, but my director thinks I’m “too valuable” to dedicate to one type of work so he won’t change anything. So I’m looking for a new job, even though I love my work here, I love my coworkers, my benefits are great…I’m just pulled in too many directions.

    4. Koko*

      I had this issue at a previous job. I ran our entire marketing program, but when they laid off the office manager, they diverted all his non-financial tasks (which were given to an outside bookkeeper we hired for a fraction of his salary) to me. My boss also relied on me as her personal assistant, to book her travels, mail her packages, seek redress of her grievances with vendors/restaurants/etc. The unplannable, pop-up, emergency nature of most of the office manager/PA duties severely interfered with my ability to do the long-range marketing projects effectively–those tasks kept getting bumped or delayed because of pop-ups and emergencies, until I was up against their final deadlines with mountains of work still to be done. I always ended up pulling Adderall-fueled all-nighters on the eve of marketing deadlines because those hours I was supposed to be sleeping were the only time I could work without interruptions.

    5. Pip*

      If you have any co-workers who are able to handle your triage for a short period, you could work out a deal where Huey and Dewey take care of all the triage for one afternoon so that Louie can focus on the brain surgeries, and then you rotate so everyone gets some scheduled, uninterruptable brain surgery time.

      1. Dulcinea*

        That would be a great solution if we were better staffed; unfortunately it’s just not that way where I work. Each of us have clients that we alone are solely responsible for and the files are too complicated to be easily handed from one person to another (it’s no way to run a law office, if you ask me, but I’m not in charge…heaven help my clients if god forbid I were hit by a bus because even though I keep detailed notes and calendars in the files to protect against that kind of thing, whoever gets handed my cases will probably have too many of their own to look at any of my notes).

    6. Vox De Causa*

      I’m right there! Between scheduled meetings and unscheduled pop-ins from a manager who prefers to think out loud, I don’t have more than about an hour (not all at once) to work on my own work. I have tried blocking time off on my calendar and shutting my door, but I am still interrupted by those higher up the food chain, even when I state clearly “This is my scheduled time for writing the performance reviews that are due at the end of the month.” I really don’t know what else to do other than go hide somewhere, but I NEED my multiple monitors so high-tailing it with the laptop isn’t the greatest solution.

      I do love my job, it’s just tough to find time for tending to my direct reports’ needs, accomplishing my own assignments, and putting out the inevitable fires when I’m in meetings nearly all day.

      tl;dr, Thanks for your comment, I feel the same.

  7. Ali*

    I needed this so bad. I find that I do fine focusing and getting things done at my full-time job (my manager always gives me good marks for being one of the most productive on my team), but on side projects, I struggle to find time. I will definitely keep these suggestions in mind as May starts!

  8. lachevious*

    What if you have the time, but lack motivation? I’m afraid I’ve become a bad employee.

    Several years ago I was the bomb. now, after a couple of pretty toxic toxic jobs, burn-out, depression, procrastination, blah blah blah – I find it really hard to care about working hard for no good reason. If I can get paid doing the bare minimum and everyone seems happy with my work, why should I bother doing more?

    Sorry for the negativity, just been in this place (mentally) for a long time.

    1. Ali*

      It’s OK. I have been at my job for four years and am starting to feel like I need a change and don’t feel as motivated. I would like to move into a different segment of my company, but there is not a lot of turnover or opportunity to advance. It makes it hard to come in every day and I feel more irritable by things like a coworker taking a lot of time off for his wedding, whereas when I was pretty happy at work, I’d probably not even care if he were getting married. I have wanted to meet with my boss for a couple weeks and he will not schedule a time with me despite him saying he would (yet he has time to force team-building games on all of us), so it’s frustrating knowing he won’t even answer e-mails or set up a meeting.

      I’ve been down for a couple of months since I realized I very likely will not end up in my dream field, so I guess my advice would just be to keep your options open (if you are able to job search) and find at least something positive in your work day that keeps you going. For me, it’s working remotely and being able to get up and stretch if I need to, or work in front of the TV, without anyone saying anything about it.

      1. lachevious*

        Thank you, Ali! It helps knowing others experience these feelings, as well.

        Your advice about finding something positive at work to focus on it very helpful. I have been trying to stop doing the “what the hell am I doing with my life” self-talk and negativity – just seems like my career is going backwards and I don’t know what to do to correct it, or if I even have the energy to try anymore, but, that’s life I guess :)

        1. anon o*

          I have this problem a lot too and I find it helps to focus on the big picture, I remind myself how good it feels when you do a good job, whether or not anyone else cares. It makes me care again. I don’t know if I explained that well but it helps me when I’m burned out. Like – I like to think of myself as good at X, that feels good, so….I’m going to do my best at X and that’s its own reward. That doesn’t always work though.

    2. Kelly O*

      No, I’m with you.

      At this point it doesn’t feel like it’s going to matter how hard I try. I won’t get caught up here, and I can’t seem to make people happy, so just doing what it takes to get by and going home at least gets me out of here for however many hours until I have to come back.

      I started tensing up on the drive back home yesterday. I know it’s not healthy, but it just is what it is right now, as corny as that sounds to say.

      1. Ali*

        Sounds about right. It’s not that I ever used to be sad my work shifts were done for the day, but now I feel like I look forward to the end of them more than ever, especially when we are slow. I just find myself thinking…get through the day and get outta here to sleep/play a Facebook game/move on to a side project.

        The worst is that no one in my personal life gets it and they will say things like “Just remember you work from home!” No. That does NOT make everything all better. Stop it.

        1. lachevious*

          I am thrilled when my day is over.

          My *tasks* are so menial it’s hard to be happy about anything I do. The things I can do are appreciated, if not really understood, by my managers – but the work itself is so freaking boring.

          I feel like I am overpaid and under-utilized, which I guess is better than being underpaid. Still feels off, but I don’t know what to do about it – I’m not even sure this is the type of work I want to do anymore, not that I have any idea what I would do instead. Okay, for real, I’ll stop whining……….starting now.

          1. Kelly O*

            All I know is this job reinforces my desire to NOT work in AP. Ever again.

            I mean, I’d created my own purchase orders for things, but had never been on the actual processing end of it, and it’s just miserable for me. You’d think I’d be better at this, but it just drains me.

            1. lachevious*

              Ugh I feel your pain. All we can do is hang in there and work work work.

              I think what I will do is take more time off of work – even if I just stay home and watch Golden Girls in my jammies – at least I love doing that! Haha :)

  9. Viv*

    My son and I (both in great new jobs right now) were just talking about time wasters vs productive non-task time spent in an office. For example, chatting for about 5 minutes in the morning is good politically. We studied ourselves and came up with some good solutions.
    1. checking personal mail, FB, etc. should be scheduled and only turned on when it is being checked. This also applies to non-urgent work-related RSS feeds and social media. Schedule it the same way print reading is scheduled. That saves about an hour a day of distraction
    2. going downstairs for a coffee is about 10 minutes plus 10 minutes of getting back on task. Not a big deal if you stick to point 1 when you return because you are refreshed
    3. having lunch at your desk actually wastes time. Since you “never got a lunch break” as one of my coworkers frequently claims, you spend time not sticking to rule 1.
    4. Smoking is a huge time-waster now that it must be done outside (we don’t smoke) but the “smoking kids” have personal interaction time that can help or hinder careers. (See Friends episode where Rachel takes up smoking to fit in)

    This is definitely a YMMV issue but my issue is mostly distraction. When I am on task I am a fast and efficient worker. When I am half on task I am a mess!

    1. lachevious*

      This is really cool! It’s funny that you mention smokers –

      I am the only smoker in an office of 80+ and I actually miss using those breaks to get to know my coworkers. Makes for a lonely, long day!

    2. Mallory*

      #3 is so true! I’ve been making myself go away from my desk for lunch, because I’m guilty of taking extra time for personal stuff (reading AAM, for example) because I “never got a lunch”.

    3. fposte*

      The worst thing that ever happened to my productivity was working on a machine that also has endless procrastination possibilities.

      I need to update my LeechBlock settings.

  10. Feed Fido*

    I don’t really think it is possible to do work like a machine for hours on end, unless of course it is rote work. Intellectual work, requires natural breaks- at least for me. I have been doing a lot of online learning lately and 30 minutes straight is my limit till I need a little distraction.

    For me- it’s looking at the big picture: am I reaching my goals on time? I have always managed to do my work and come up with new ideas, so I don’t berate myself for distraction.

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