No matter what career you pursue, time management skills will always be a boon. By learning how to maximize your productivity in the limited time you have, you can get work done more quickly and minimize your stress. Understanding key principles of time management will also make you an attractive candidate for jobs centered around completing important tasks in a short time frame–which is most jobs at one time or another.
To really impress potential employers with the resumes you share and the questions you answer during interviews, review the following time management skills and get comfortable using them to master your time usage.
Identifying high priority tasks
Knowing how long it takes to complete certain tasks
Creating responsible, reasonable schedules
Picking the right time to be productive
Asking for deadline extensions well in advance
Picking the right place to be productive
Getting rid of distractions
How to present time-management skills
Time management skills: organizing tasks into high- and low-priority tiers
Before making any schedules or adding due dates to your calendar, try sorting the tasks on your to-do list into at least two categories: 1) the tasks you need to get done right away and 2) the tasks you can save for later. If you want, you can sort your list of tasks using the four quadrants of a popular diagram called the Time Management Matrix or Eisenhower Method:
Time Management Matrix Table
#1: Important tasks that need to be completed soon
#2: Important tasks that can be completed later
#3: Unimportant tasks that need to be completed soon
#4: Unimportant tasks that can be completed later
When you sort all your responsibilities into these four categories, you’ll get a better sense of what your true priorities really are. Tasks in Quadrant #1 must be done right away. Tasks in Quadrant #2 should be scheduled for a later date (albeit a date well before their deadline).
Theoretically, you should complete the tasks you sort into Quadrant #3 right after completing the tasks in Quadrant #1 and complete the tasks in Quadrant #4 last of all. In practice, you should think carefully about the tasks you put in these bottom two quadrants and decide whether they’re worth the time and energy you’re putting into them.
You might decide to remove these tasks from your schedule entirely (especially if they’re not work- or life-goal related). Alternatively, you might develop a way to complete these low-urgency tasks more quickly and with less effort. Either way, you’ll have more time to prioritize your most important work and meaningful chores.
Knowing how long it takes to complete certain tasks
With good time management skills, you’ll almost never be overwhelmed by the work on your to-do list. Freed from the curse of working overtime or scrambling to submit content before a deadline, you’ll have more time for leisure activities, socializing with friends and family (or associates in your professional network), sleep, and planning future endeavors. You’ll also have more mental energy to think about your long-term goals and work to overcome career stagnation.
To strike the right balance between work and leisure (while also not taking on more responsibilities than you can handle), it’s useful to know just how long it takes you to complete certain tasks. This specific time management skill is extra important for people with freelance or remote work careers, who need to design their own schedules from scratch and avoid procrastination of their own accord.
The simplest way to figure out how much time you need for certain tasks is to experiment. Set a timer on your watch or phone, start work on a task you regularly perform, and see how long it takes you to complete the assignment if you work at a steady, non-frantic pace.
Once you’ve measured how long it takes to complete key tasks in your work schedule, you can look at your to-do list and roughly know how many hours you’ll need to get everything done. With this ability to estimate your total number of work hours, you can get a better idea of whether your work-load is something you can actually tackle in the time you’ve been given.
Computer entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Harvard dropout Bill Gates is famous for both his role in the Personal Computer Revolution and an illuminating quote about workplace productivity: "I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it."
This quote can be interpreted in multiple ways. First, it means you can greatly improve your day-to-day productivity by trimming unnecessary tasks and wasted effort from your daily grind (for instance, creating a template for documents rather than writing them from scratch each time).
You can also use this Bill Gates quote as a lens to examine the moments in your work schedule where you often feel “lazy.” If you figure out why you’re unmotivated (boring work, feeling unappreciated, etc.) you can take steps to make your daily grind more personally rewarding.
Time management examples: designing schedules that are realistic
If you’re employed at a remote or hybrid workplace, you’re probably the one who chooses when you start your work-day, when you take breaks, and when you “clock out” for the day. Even at on-site workplaces with a rigid nine to five work-day, you may be responsible for organizing your own schedule or the schedules of team members working on a project together.
In any of these scenarios, it’s important you learn how to design a schedule with clear, achievable goals, milestones, and deadlines.
Using the Time Management Matrix above, you can decide which workplace tasks to complete first, assigning them to your calendar in order of highest priority to lowest priority. With your list of average task durations, you can also get a rough idea of how much time you and your colleagues need to complete all their tasks - a day, a week, a month, etc.
If you’re adding deadlines to your calendar (or the company’s calendar) you should always add a margin of error - that is, extra time for you to complete your tasks just in case you’re delayed by something unexpected. As the old saying goes, under-promise and overdeliver.
Picking times where you can complete tasks with maximum productivity
Most people tend to be very energized in the morning or afternoon, growing more fatigued in body and mind as the day drags on. Others might defy this rule, being “Night Owls” who keep unconventional sleep schedules and actually do their best work late at night.
If you’re responsible for designing your schedule, you can improve your productivity by starting your work day close to the time where you’re most alert and focused. If you have the power to shape the schedule of your subordinates (at retail storefronts, for example), you can help them be more productive as well by giving them a say in when they “clock in.”
Knowing your times of peak productivity also lets you be more strategic with the work you tackle first and last. If you have a task that is large, difficult, or personally boring, you can try to work on that near the start of your work day. Interesting or entertaining tasks can be done in the middle of your work day, while short, simple tasks can be saved for the end.
Depending on your career and how much control you have over your work day, you might even be able to improve your productivity by limiting your total work hours per day or splitting up your work schedule with regular breaks. The key is to end your work day or arrange a break at the moment where your focus and energy starts to rapidly diminish.
A recent article on the BBC website explored the ongoing debate over whether a six-hour work day would reduce employee burnout and improve their productivity.
The article’s author, Kate Morgan, cites a research paper from Stanford University about how workplace productivity falls off as weekly working hours increase beyond 35. She also discusses a case study in Sweden where nurses at an assisted living facility were happier and more productive after adopting a 6 hour workday schedule.
Asking for deadline extensions and delegating work in advance
Self-knowledge lies at the root of all the time management skills described above: knowledge of what you’re capable of and familiarity with your current limits.
If you’re poorly organized, struggle with procrastination, or don’t have a schedule planned out, it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew and take on too many responsibilities. In contrast, knowing what you can accomplish at your maximum level of productivity will help you identify scenarios where you truly need more time to complete your assigned tasks.
Asking for a deadline extension just before a project’s due date can be stressful and humiliating–ditto for last minute requests to delegate work to others. If you ask for extensions well before your deadlines, however, your bosses and supervisors are more likely to grant your request and will have more time to adjust their own plans and schedules to compensate.
Similarly, delegating work to team members early on so they aren’t swamped with surprise deadlines is an essential part of becoming a great manager.
A sample deadline extension request letter
Dear [Supervisor Name Here],
I’ve been hard at work on [Task #1 Here] and [Task #2 Here]. Unfortunately, the [Process Here] is taking longer than expected. I worry that if I rush to complete this project before [Deadline Here] the quality of the work will suffer as a result.
Would it be possible to extend the current due date from [Deadline Here] to [New Deadline Here]? If necessary, I should be able to [Concession Here].
Thank you for your consideration,
[Your Name Here]
Creating a work environment where you can be productive without distractions
When answering job interview questions about your work life balance, don’t be afraid to talk about times where you struggled with procrastination or had trouble focusing on certain tasks. Use these described flaws as a springboard to talk about ways you learned valuable lessons and reworked your workspace to improve your productivity.
Whether you’re working in an office or at home, small, deliberate changes to your surroundings can increase your comfort, boost your energy, and get you in the right mental state to get work done without interruptions or wasted effort.
These are a few ways you can create a good space for working without distractions.
Shut off internet access when working on tasks that don’t require an online presence.
Have healthy, non-messy snacks like nuts or small fruits on hand to refuel and stifle cravings.
Create a neat, uncluttered remote work office that’s symbolically separate from your home.
Engage in medications, stretches, or low-impact exercises before starting work.
Drown out distracting noises with white noise or a soft ambient soundtrack.
Invest in chairs and desks that are comfortable and promote good posture.
Work in rooms and public spaces that are quiet and full of natural lighting.
Avoid multitasking whenever possible to be productive and as an example of time management skills
The term “multitasking” brings to mind intense feats of mental dexterity: driving a car while talking on the phone, sword fighting with a rival while insulting their family, playing several musical instruments as a one-person band, etc. In practice, most “multi-taskers” will still perform tasks one at a time, but shift focus rapidly between each incomplete project.
This fracturing of attention can wreck the productivity of employees as they get distracted and find themselves forced to correct an increasingly large number of small mistakes. For this reason, stripping multitasking out of your work routine is a great way to improve your time management.
To avoid multitasking, set aside moments in your daily schedule where you focus on a single task, working exclusively on it for a pre-planned amount of time (30 minutes, an hour, two hours, etc). Additionally, limit the total number of tasks you work on in a single given day. Finally, get small, incidental tasks such as checking your email out of the way at the start of your schedule so that you’re not tempted to work on them while busy with another task.
How to present time management skills
Do discuss these time management skills in your resume or cover letter
Don't discuss these time management skills in your resume or cover letter
Identifying high priority tasks
Being able to multitask
Eliminating lower priority tasks
A willingness to constantly work overtime
Delegating important tasks to the right colleagues
Never saying no to extra responsibilities
Never asking others for help
Figuring out whether project deadlines are realistic
Never taking breaks
Saying no to extra work when you have to
Never asking for a reasonable deadline extension or delegating work
Always searching for ways to improve your work efficiency
Use time management tables to identify the tasks that are the most important and most urgent.
Time how long it takes for you to complete certain career tasks while working at a normal space.
Create a schedule that lets you complete all your urgent tasks well before their official deadlines.
If possible, start and end your work at times where you’re most energized.
Check your planned schedule to make sure you can complete all your assigned tasks on time. If not, ask for an extension or delegate some responsibilities in advance.
Adjust your workspace so that it’s well-lit, comfortable, and free of distractions.
Improve your productivity, focus, and time management by avoiding multitasking as much as possible.