The Ten Most Important Time Management Principles I’ve Learned (and Use)
I’m not one to label myself a time management expert. In fact, there are many days where I look back and am almost embarrassed at how much time I wasted.
But over the last 15 years since discovering minimalism, I feel like I’ve accomplished quite a bit: Becoming Minimalist, The Hope Effect, Five Books, The Clutterfree App, The Uncluttered Course, YouTube, Simplify Magazine, Simple Money Magazine, Becker Method Professional Training.
These accomplishments, I believe, are a direct result of some time management principles I’ve learned and embraced over the last decade+.
I wanted to take a moment and share them with you because I think most are applicable to any and every life. Regardless of your “job,” there are important contributions your life can offer to the world. And if some of these ideas are helpful to you in accomplishing that, I want to propel you forward.
While this is not an exhaustive list of any and every helpful time management technique in the world, here are ten of the most important principles I’ve learned and routinely practice in my life:
1. Pre-Planning My Day
I love a plan. In fact, it probably drives Kim crazy how often I ask, “So what’s the plan?”
But for me, the practice of planning my day is essential to time management. Allocating 10 minutes each morning, or the evening before, to outline my work for the next day, helps me start with focus and motivation. It also helps me know the best time to tackle non-time-consuming short tasks over the course of the next 24 hours. This is also where I’ve learned the value of a 3-Item To-Do List.
2. Focusing on Habits and Process First
James Clear puts it this way, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” In other words, don’t focus on the big goal you want to achieve, focus instead on small, daily actions and doing them consistently and well.
I’ve written elsewhere on my three essential habits for living well: exercise, health, meditation. I find that when I focus on doing those consistently, productivity follows without extra effort.
3. Setting Artificial Deadlines for Myself
This I learned from a podcast episode by Craig Groeschel. Setting weekly deadlines for myself (especially for major tasks) is incredibly effective in both finishing the major task AND accomplishing minor tasks.
For instance, I schedule my own social posts—three/day on Facebook and have done so every day for the last twelve years. This needs to get done every week. My weekly cadence is to schedule all of those posts before Monday ends. Similarly, I set an artificial deadline to finish all my weekly writing projects by Tuesday. These artificial deadlines not only help me overcome procrastination, but they also clear my mind for other projects later in the week.
4. Streamlining Wherever I Can
Call it fighting against decision fatigue or just not wasting time on unimportant things, this is essentially minimalism in action. Intentionally promoting my greatest values (and pursuits) by removing anything that distracts me from it.
Streamlining my day-to-day tasks, often by removing distractions and options, simplifies my life. This could be anything from wearing the same thing every day and eating the same breakfast and lunch every day to keeping the same morning routine and limiting visual distractions on my desk. However you apply streamlining, it’s about reducing choices to focus energy on what truly matters.
5. Accomplishing My Most Important Work First
Mark Twain is credited for saying, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” This phrasing has been used by time management experts to encourage doing your hardest or most important work first.
Personally, I’ve never particularly loved doing the hardest thing first. However, I love doing “the most important thing first.” And while often times those overlap, that is not always the case. Similar to the benefits of setting an artificial deadline, once I complete my most important work each day, my mind is more clear to focus on the rest of my to-do list.
6. Embracing Routine
Over the years, I’ve learned the liberating power of routines and systems. At least, for me personally, I find great freedom in routine.
They enable me to maximize each day. Consistent routines for waking up, morning activities, and even weekly grocery shopping, help me create a daily and weekly framework that allows me to know when meaningful work will get accomplished.
7. Practicing a “Do It Before You Sit Down” Approach to Home Projects
This principle is powerful at home. The idea is simple: If there is something that needs to be done at home in the evening, do it before you sit down after returning from work (or wherever you were that day). Cook dinner, start the laundry, change the light bulb, take out the trash.
Especially when it comes to smaller chores, completing tasks immediately upon returning home, before even sitting down, ensures that these tasks don’t linger and become mental burdens.
8. Completing One-Minute Tasks Right Away
I credit Gretchen Rubin for introducing me to the The ‘One-Minute Rule’ and I love it. As she puts it, “It’s very simple: I must do any task that can be finished in one minute. Hang up my coat, read a letter and toss it, fill in a form, answer an email, note down a citation, put a dish in the dishwasher, replenish the diaper supply by the changing table, put the magazines away…and so on.”
If a task takes less than one minute, do it immediately.
9. Batching My Time
I do not know who to credit for starting the idea of Batching Time. It’s probably been around as long as humankind. But I know the first time I ever heard the phrase was during a scene from The Office Television Show.
The idea is this: Group together similar tasks and then block out a period of time (even if it’s only 20 minutes) to focus only on those items. The concept keeps our brains from constant switching and helps us maximize focus. One helpful application of this step for me is to keep my email inbox closed for most of the day and answering emails once/day.
10. Learning My Natural Rhythms
We’re all unique and so are our body’s rhythms. Some people love working in the early morning hours, while I have other author friends who love doing all their writing in the wee hours of the night. It’s all good.
But once I discovered what my natural rhythms are (more creative in the morning and better at routine tasks in the afternoon), it was a game changer for me. It’s important to both learn our natural rhythms AND lean into them for maximum efficiency.
I also like coffee.
There are entire books written on the topic of time management. And if you struggle in this area, it might benefit you to read one.
No doubt there are many other popular time management strategies out there than the ones I listed here. But these are the ten that have profoundly impacted my life in the last 15 years.
Embracing them has certainly made me more productive. But even more than that, they have helped me be more present and intentional in my marriage, parenting, and faith.