Time Management


Time management is the employment of various methodologies to help us achieve more by making better use of our own finite personal time. Incidental benefits may include greater levels of satisfaction and a reduction of stress. Definitions vary but generally focus on such things as:

John Lennon
English singer and songwriter John Lennon (1940-1980) wrote the words Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans (Beautiful Boy, Double Fantasy album, 1980). The 'Life' that Lennon refers to, will typically be the activities identified in to-do lists and time tracking exercises, the 'Other Plans' presumably relate to an individual's longer term goals.

Of course, our default system for organising and regulating personal time still principally involves the use of our brain and its associated memories. The value of supplementing this with a variety of formal techniques depends on the extent of discretionary personal time at an individual's disposal. An employee in the developing world with an excessively long workday might have very little, while a full-time self-employed full-timer or a retired person could often have a fair amount.

To-Do Lists

Most people will use a to-do list from time to time as a memory aid. This may be just a one off item; for example a diary /calendar entry, a shopping or packing list or else action points in the minutes of a meeting. Traditionally this has been recorded on paper (see Appendix A); increasingly it will be made electronically as

Among the many advantages of electronic to-do lists are that they can provide alerts and reminders and are relatively easy to update, while the paper versions are quicker to create and do not require access to any technology.

Another common memory aid takes the form of visual cues - for example leaving some items you need to take on a trip by your front door, or else just a note on the kitchen table.

As a supplement to or replacement for a to do list, US comedian Jerry Seinfeld has advocated focussing on just one key activity that will take several days to complete. Every day the activity gets progressed, a large X is marked on a calendar creating a chain of Xs. The object being not to break the visual chain until the activity is completed. (

A to-do list can be prioritised using the so-called Eisenhower Matrix (named after the US President and WW2 Supreme Commander) (

Recurring diary and calendar entries (e.g. birthdays, monthly meetings etc) generally have several implied sub-tasks. If one is planning and scheduling a project it may be necessary to break down each item into a subsidiary to-do list.

Benjamin Franklin

However to be part of a time management regime all these methods needs to be a daily discipline. This was the case with US icon, Benjamin Franklin who started each day with the question What good shall I do this day

It should be added that US time management guru David Allen, in his best-selling book Getting Things Done (Penguin Books, 2001), states that a daily to-do list doesn't work. He argues that it detracts from the minority of items that don't need to be done immediately. However he does recommend a 'Next Actions' list which seems to closely resemble a to-do list, except that it does not have to be rewritten daily.

Time Tracking

A useful first step to improving the way you use your time, is to know how you currently spend it. A simple manual record will often suffice. This could be in the form of a sheet of paper or a notebook in which the time each activity begins and ends is recorded. A possible design is attached as Appendix B.

However using time tracking software makes it easy to start and stop as you change tasks and analysis and review is easier. Among the host of smartphone apps that can currently help you do this include 'Toggl' (, 'Clockify', 'Timecamp' and 'Rescue Time' (

Whether using paper or technology, the next stage is to analyse how your time has been spent and where you're being the most productive. Could time on inessentials be reduced with some items being delayed or delegated? Could your efficiency on productive activities be improved by:

In some work settings personal recording of time spent may be replaced by independent observation (e.g. professional sport). Famously, scientific management icon F.W.Taylor used this type of detailed analysis of a key process at Bethlehem Steel to identify a worker who could produce at nearly four times the average expected rate.

Goals and Progress Assessment

In a workplace setting, US psychologist, Edwin Locke was able to demonstrate that employees are motivated by clear, well-defined goals. (Toward a Theory of Task Motivation and Incentive. 1968, Edwin A. Locke). A 2016 UK/US study has indicated that, in addition to having identified goals, monitoring progress towards them, tends to improve performance and makes goal attainment more likely. (Does Monitoring Goal Progress Promote Goal Attainment? - Psychological Bulletin 2016, Vol. 142, No. 2, 198-229). It follows that, time management is more likely to be successful, if:

In most work contexts both the activities and goals are likely to be corporately defined often involving groups of individuals. As with goals for personal time and for the self-employed these will frequently involve isolated projects rather than being all-embracing. But comprehensively defined goals seem more likely to lead to the most satisfactory time management outcomes. Such goals would be expected to cover such areas as: Accommodation; Employment; Family; Finance; Fitness; Personal Health; Recreation; Relationships; and, Self-Development. A possible design for a Goal Summary & Progress Report form is attached as Appendix C.

US consultant George Doran coined the catchy acronym SMART as a guide to the necessary requirements for an organisation's or individual's goals. (Doran, G. T. 1981, Management Review, 70, 35-36). The letters of this acronym stand for

While these goal requirements have an intuitive appeal, and Doran and others claim to have applied them successfully, as yet there do not appear to be any research findings to support them. Indeed some have argued that they can be dysfunctional. For example US author, lecturer, and explorer Lei Wang argues that goal-setting using SMART criteria can lead to:

Work Organisation

For efficient operation in most trades and occupations it is important to organise the tools and materials that you use so that everything comes readily to hand. The phrase A place for everything and everything in its place is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin (1705-1790) who spent much of his life in the printing business. Certainly the neat storage of movable metal type in purpose-built wooden cases would have provided an obvious illustration of this maxim.

For effective time management, in an office environment it is just as important that the paper and electronic files must be efficiently and systematically stored. Spending time searching for missing items is both wasteful and stressful.

David Allen (Getting Things Done p97) makes a distinction between what he calls discrete filing and general reference filing. Discrete filing he defines as contracts, financial information, or other categories of data that deserve their own place and indexing. General reference filing he defines as articles, brochures, pieces of paper, notes, printouts, faxes-basically anything that you want to keep for its interesting or useful data and that doesn't fit into your specialized filing systems and won't stand up by itself on a shelf. For this paper based general filing he recommends storage in manilla folders labelled with a hand held label maker and filed in strict alphabetical order.

A weakness of any storage system that stacks things in piles or stores them in folders or drawers is that only the top item or else the label on the drawer or folder is visible. This WIV (what is visible) factor can be an advantage of superficially less tidy systems where there are more visual cues. In a WIV-poor environment, there is a limitation of such cues and the individual becomes more reliant on their memory or technological prompts.

It can be argued that the modern world is becoming increasingly WIV-poor with a dependence on gathering information from screens of different sizes. Research is beginning to uncover the role of the brain's frontal cortex in visual perception. It seems to explain the surprisingly common phenomenon of not being able to see something in plain sight when the brain is overtaxed. In addition the visual fixation of the human eye can limit thought and can damage eye health with what is called Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). To alleviate CVS the American Optometric Association has formulated a 20-20-20 rule. This involves taking a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.

If the individual is working in physical proximity with their colleagues their work space may need to allow collaborative effort. Legendary US inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) worked in a collaborative way with his staff in his purpose-built work space at Menlo Park, New Jersey. In an early version of MBWA (management by walking around), Edison interspersed periods of solitary activity and thought with interaction with his staff: Edison himself flits about, first to one bench, then to another, examining here, instructing there; at one place drawing out new fancied designs, at another earnestly watching the progress of some experiment. said a contemporary New York Herald reporter

Interruptions and Relaxation

While Thomas Edison's was able to lock himself away to relax and develop his thoughts, it is much more difficult to avoid regular interruptions in these days of social media and instant electronic communication. Turning off phones and televisions can help, as can making a note of what you were working on before you were interrupted.

Relaxation has been shown to contribute to productivity. More than a century ago, scientific management pioneer, F.W. Taylor (1856-1915) was one of the first to establish that in an industrial setting taking rest periods could lead to increased output and improved quality. Recent research has confirmed that taking frequent breaks during the workday helps office workers maintain higher levels of productivity.

This principle has been incorporated in several popular time management regimes. Italian consultant Francesco Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to pace his study work at a Rome university in the 1990s.

This led him to promote his Pomodoro system in which 25 minute work sessions are interspersed with 5 minute breaks. By contrast, Julia Gifford working at a Latvian conglomerate has suggested that 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest and recuperation is the ideal combination.

Other researches show that while tiredness inhibits creativity, going for a walk stimulates it.


The value of formal time management will depend on the amount of control and individual has over the use of their time. For most of us at some times in our lives our activities will be largely externally dictated. However we can all occasionally benefit from diaries, calendars and to-do lists to regulate our lives. Key components of any time management regime are the:

Optimum progress towards one's goals will be aided by: