Time management is an essential skill that everyone can and should take seriously. All of us run the risk of becoming so overwhelmed by the pace of work that we come home too exhausted to spend quality time with family or friends.

Time management and disorganization go hand in hand, and an inability to organize often starts early. According to a study by Greenfield Online, 47% of college students polled felt their high school “did not prepare them with the organizational skills required to do well in college.” And, “54% felt that they would get better grades if they ‘got organized and stayed organized.’ “

College students aren’t the only ones who are having trouble managing the day-to-day grind. It affects all of us, and no matter where you are in your career, failing to have the skills to organize tasks and manage your time can ultimately lead to burnout out (or career stall out).

Let’s discuss a few ways to improve your time management skills.

First, it’s important to recognize that time management is a skill that can be learned and improved over time.

Poor time management is often the result of poor habits. And poor habits can be broken and replaced with good habits – that’s what we need to work on.

1.    Maintain TWO to-do lists.

The most basic element of good time management is maintaining a to-do list of things to accomplish each day (and try to keep a separate list of bigger goals that you are trying to move toward, like getting a raise, or going back to school, or making a big purchase). The key is to break down things into what you can do TODAY, and the bigger prize on the horizon.

Don’t try to keep a to-do list in your head. As soon as you realize you have a task to accomplish, write it down. Otherwise, something may occur even thirty seconds later that will drive that task out of your head. Those forgotten tasks can pop back into your mind later and ruin your evening or just invade the private space you have when you’re with your friends or family.

Another suggestion is to prioritize the items on your lists. Put the ones that are most critical at the top of the list and break them down into small achievable steps. And, for each list, rearrange things so that the tasks that absolutely have to get done on that day, come first.

Most people struggle with the items of a to-do list that require changing behaviors or habits. Instead of saving those challenging decisions or behavior until last, do them first and get them out of the way. Having unpleasant tasks out of the way will improve your mood, and ease the stress of having them continually hanging over you.

2.    Learn to delegate.

“In the time it takes me to explain what I want done, I could do it myself.”

That’s an oft-repeated refrain, and one solution is to use technology. For example, use speech recognition software to give instructions on a task you need completed (or to make quick notes to yourself that don’t have to be perfect).

Whenever technology can make your life easier, I say give it a try. Just the experience of trying can keep you nimble (and you never know when you’re going to hit the jackpot and find something that can help you stay organized and on track to achieve your goals).

3.    Put things where you can find them (Modern translation: Name documents and file them appropriately).

Do you put your keys, wallet, and cellphone in the same place every day (wait, who carries a wallet anymore)? Staying organized means consistently putting things where you can easily retrieve them. In our digital world, a lot of time is wasted on a daily basis by people searching their computer/One Drives for documents they need that they just can’t find. By giving documents descriptive names (and placing the name in the footer of the document, it will save a lot of time. For example: OneDrive/Public/WindowDesigns/Dormers/Rev 1-14-19.

Good organization impacts time management, and by being clear and consistent with your naming/filing, you’ll make it easier on yourself and your colleagues to whom you might share or delegate work.  

4.    Take a break periodically.

While procrastination is a bad habit, working straight through on a project without taking breaks is not always a good idea, either.

Take a mental health break every couple of hours. Don’t get on your smartphone and surf the web! Go for a walk around the block to get some fresh air, and some exercise, then come back to your desk and get back to work with renewed energy.

What about your time at home?

Once you get home from work, do you feel that you have some of the same time management problems? i.e., too many things to do and not enough time? 

It may be a controversial suggestion – but I say limit the distractions and time-sucks of digital life. YouTube videos and reading message boards is a great distraction, but if you’re not careful, you miss things that are a lot more important (like spending time with your kids, friends, or spouse). People are a lot happier when they get and receive the companionship of others – it’s not so clear that time on your device is offering the same returns.

Here’s an interesting Ted Talk, “Why our screens make us less happy,” by psychologist Adam Alter.

Yes, I’m advising you to watch it on YouTube…but it’s an educational video, not a 15-minute cat fall compilation video!

Just remember that developing time management and organizational skills is a process, but it’s not difficult if you take the tips and work to turn them into habits which will pay off for you in the future.

About: Dr. Mac Powell is Certified Mental Performance Consultant® by the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and an executive in the world of higher education who is passionate about developing strategies for growth and development. He has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Missouri and has taken his skill in helping people to roles of leadership around the world. He is the Chair of ACE Commission on Education Attainment and Innovation and of Council of Applied Master’s Programs in Psychology.