All About Time Management

By Kate Eby | May 9, 2017 (updated November 12, 2021)

In the early 2000s, a parable of effective time management circulated through email. The short anecdote featured either a high-school science teacher or a college instructor, plus a jar, rocks, pebbles, and sand. In this story, the instructor puts rocks in a jar and asks if it’s full. The class says yes. The instructor proceeds to add pebbles and asks if the jar is now full. The group again responds in the affirmative. Finally, the instructor shakes in sand that fills all the nooks and crannies of the jar. “Is it full now?” he asks. The class is adamant: the jar really is full. A class member asks, “So, what was the point?” “If you try, you can always fit in more,” notes another classmate. “No,” says the instructor. “You need to fit the important things into your life first. Otherwise, all the other things will take up all the space.”

But how do you divide your rocks, pebbles, and sand into well-packaged, well-spent hours and minutes? In this article, we’ll discuss what time management is, what its benefits are, and how students, professionals, or simply human beings trying to make the most of their years can use it to improve efficiency.

We’ll hear from experts to find out how you can spend time more effectively while also discovering what effective means to you. We offer templates to help you track your tasks, and provide an infographic to visualize how to best schedule your day, whether you’re an early bird or a night owl. After all, as planning expert Debbie Rosemont points out, “We only have so much time in a day. We need to be thoughtful about how we spend it.”

What Is Time Management?

There seem to be as many definitions of time management as minutes in an hour. In general, time management is the ability to use one's time effectively or productively, especially at work. It’s also the act of creating processes and tools to increase efficiency, some of which may include planning, scheduling, and delegating. The Collins Dictionary calls it “the analysis of how working hours are spent and the prioritization of tasks in order to maximize personal efficiency in the workplace.”

These definitions focus on the public world, efficiency, and the workplace. However, time management can be more than just a tool or toolbox to gain approval at the office. “The way we spend our time says a lot about who we are, and our approach can either make or break our happiness,” notes Anna Winterstein. She is the Co-Founder of Smarter Time, an AI-based time management app that guesses your activities and helps you understand and improve your use of time and work-life balance. To her, “Time management is the process of understanding ourselves and learning to make the right lifestyle choices.”


“Time management is the key to success,” says Debbie Rosemont, Productivity Consultant and Certified Professional Organizer at Simply Placed, a business consulting firm. “Time management is about planning and thoughtfulness. We can’t fabricate more time. We only have 24 hours in a day, so we really have to be thoughtful about how we use our time. This way, we get the important things done and have time for what matters most.”

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What Is Time, Really?

Time is defined as a point or a period at which things occur. In theory, time seems like a straightforward concept, but in reality, it gets a lot more complicated. The clock may indicate that you have three hours to prepare a slide deck for a meeting, which seems to you like plenty of time. However, the reality is that if you’re interrupted by an emergency call or get drawn into a sudden email thread, poof - your work time is gone. 

A Brief History of Time Management

The official concept of time management centers around time management in the workplace. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, there wasn’t much managing to do - farmers and hunters were governed by nature. Over time, however, factories demanded regular hours and a punctual workforce, which necessitated some level of time management.

In the late 19th century, Frederick Taylor promoted his theory of scientific management, one of the first of a century’s worth of theories on management. He believed that you could study work to find the most efficient movements and steps, and then teach those findings to employees. Working at Bethlehem Steel, he ensured that laborers completed more work for the same amount of money. Yet, he was fired in 1901 because workers were ultimately demoralized and too tired to sustain the high level of productivity.

Notions of assembly line efficiency and improved business processes grew throughout the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with Henry Ford’s radically innovative development of the moving assembly line for automobiles, productivity in a wide range of industries increased dramatically. In the 1950s, industry experts began to construct the idea of time management as a way to govern individuals. Peter F. Drucker may have been the first to write about time management for professionals, but many credit Allan Lakein’s 1973 book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life with sparking the modern interest in time management and personal productivity. The groundbreaking work features enduring quotes like, "Time = Life. Therefore, waste your time and waste your life, or master your time and master your life.” (Even former U.S. President Bill Clinton mentioned the book in his biography.) Still, perhaps no other self-help book has held people’s attention like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), which approaches time management through the exploration of life principles and priorities.

Why Is Time Management Important?

In today’s society, time management is essential. Almost nothing in public life — school, work, job hunting — can be effective without some degree of time management. “The sooner we learn to manage our time,” emphasizes Winterstein, “the sooner we can hope to achieve a feeling of serenity and well-being in our lives.”

According to Winterstein, the benefits of good time management include:

  • Better self-understanding
  • Improved productivity
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Reduced wasted time
  • More constructive hobbies
  • More functional work-life balance
  • Increased satisfaction with your choices
  • Improved, easier relationships with friends and family

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The Benefits of Time Management for a Professional

Here is a basic list of how time management can help you in your professional life:

  • Greater productivity and efficiency
  • A better professional reputation
  • Increased opportunities for advancement
  • Greater opportunities to achieve important life and career goals


“Have you ever had a day when you felt a weight lifted off your shoulders because you got so much done?” asks Gavin Jones, Founder and Managing Director of MeeTime, a company that makes an iPhone-based meeting and presentation timer. “What about when you left for vacation? You left on time, right? You did all the important stuff and dropped the rest, right? Do this everyday, and you can feel the stress disintegrate.”

The Benefits of Time Management for Students

In many respects, studying is a job, so the advantages of time management for an employee can be the same as for a student. However, students can reap some additional benefits from employing time management practices:

  • Set up good habits for life. High school and college present opportunities not only for building knowledge in various disciplines, but also for establishing good habits.
  • Learn to balance multiple roles, such as student and employee.
  • Acquire a better sense of purpose as a student.
  • Improve performance.

These potential benefits aren’t mere speculation. In fact, according to a 1990 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology regarding college students’ time management, “As subjects perceived they had more control of their time...they reported higher performance and GPA.”

The Benefits of Time Management for a Company

Organized and efficient employees just feel better. Time management offers blue and white-collar workers additional advantages, including:

  • Better morale
  • Lower absenteeism
  • Less employee burnout
  • Greater productivity

The Consequences of Poor Time Management

While time management offers benefits, there are disadvantages to managing your time poorly. Consider the possible cascading effects of any of these conditions:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Disorganization
  • Poor work quality
  • A poorer reputation and a stalled career
  • Higher stress levels
  • Wasted time

What Time Management Is Not

Rushing and working long hours have little to do with effectiveness. “Some people feel like to have more time they just need to work harder or faster,” insists Rosemont. “There’s a confusion that’s not uncommon - people equate being busy with being productive, and they get frustrated when they can’t just work faster and get more done.” But it’s not possible to work harder to make more time. “We can find ways to save time, but it’s about being smarter with time. Sometimes, it’s about taking things out of, as much as about putting things into, your calendar.”

The Criticisms and Pitfalls of Time Management

Of course, there are no panaceas for performance - not even time management can cure all performance ills. In fact, some academics over the past 20 years contend that there is no single, universally agreed-upon definition of time management. Moreover, a survey of academic writing on time management finds that prior to 1982, there are no existing empirical studies of conventional time management methods.

Research suggests that while time management may be helpful, it may not directly impact effectiveness. A 1994 study by Dr. Therese Hoff Macan revealed that “engaging in some time management behaviors may have beneficial effects on tensions and job satisfaction, but not on job performance.”

Practical concerns also exist. Some people get easily distracted by exploring the latest shiny tools. How easy is it to spend time downloading time management apps or buying new, pretty day planners? “Falling in love with finding a new methodology can become just another form of procrastination,” says Jones. 

So, if you do amass free time, what will you do with it? “The main drawback that I think people are ill-prepared for is that once they’ve freed up some time using these techniques, they don’t know what to do with that extra time,” says Jones. “You will find that some of your excuses for being too busy are gone, and you’ll have to find some new reasons not to go to the gym, not to go for a drink after work with your annoying colleagues, or not to go home to your screaming kids!”

How to Improve Your Time Management Skills

Now that you know the consequences of poor or no time management and the benefits of good time management, how do you effectively manage your time?


First, you need to know where your time goes. “Proper time management starts with proper time tracking,” says Winterstein. “There is no way we can make the right decisions about something we know nothing about. That’s why using an Excel file or automated time trackers to figure out exactly where your time goes is the basis of sound time management.” 

This goes for anyone. Students can carry an app or a notebook and jot down how much time they spend in line to buy a bagel, checking Facebook, or actually studying. Professionals can do the same. How long do your meetings last? How much time do you spend chatting in the breakroom? How much time do you burn on email? The same goes for creatives, who — ironically — often fear that too much organization will stifle their creativity. Rosemont finds the opposite to be true with her clients who do creative work: “When you have things organized so you can find them when you need them, creativity flows uninterrupted.” Winterstein finds that, “Stay-at-home moms can organize a hectic day and sometimes carve out some precious time for themselves.”

Time tracking can even have a surprising benefit, according to Winterstein: “It can rid us of the guilt and fear we have about never doing enough, because more often than not we’re doing too much.”

Now that you know where you time goes, you need to make adjustments, which need to be based on priorities. So, think about it: What’s important in your work life? In your home life?

There are many methods to determine priorities. The following is a quick overview of the most well-known techniques:

  • The A-B-C Method: This method recommends you group activities under each letter, from most to least important.
  • Pareto Analysis: Sometimes used with the A-B-C method, you proceed with the idea  that 20 percent of your efforts will yield 80 percent of the results.
  • The Eisenhower Method: This method teaches you to separate tasks into four boxes, important and urgent, important but not urgent, unimportant and urgent, and unimportant and not urgent.
  • POSEC: Prioritize, organize, streamline, economize, contribute.

Consider that if you keep postponing big or important tasks, you may be procrastinating. Or, maybe these tasks just aren’t that important after all.

Next, when you get clear on priorities in all parts of your life, you need to start making to-do lists. Of course, the best task-tracking tool is one you’ll actually use regularly. Many mobile and desktop apps exist, but there are also plenty of printed daytimers available, some geared toward particular professions. Sometimes, even a simple pad or notebook works. We’ve included to-do list templates that you can use on your desktop or print out to create your own binder.

Different methods exist for how you keep track of things. You can keep daily lists and weekly or long-term lists. Many time management professionals advocate making your list first thing when you get to work each day, while others suggest making it at the end of the day (to plan the next day’s agenda). Rosemont recommends the latter. “Take a little time at the end of each day using a task management system or a to-do list to bring into focus what you need to do, so you can leave,” she says.

Now, that you have identified your priorities, how do you go about working through your to-do list? The pros have conceived of systems for this as well. One method is getting things done (GTD), formulated by David Allen. In GTD, you do the little tasks first, and then break any big tasks into chunks. Another is the Pomodoro Method. With Pomodoro, you work for 25 minutes at a time, taking a break of a minute or two before working for another 25 minutes. After three or four 25-minute sets, you take a longer break.

These methods may work perfectly in clock time, but what about in real-world time, with its unknowns and interruptions? How do you stay on track?

 1. Learn to Say No: “A lot of us want to be people pleasers and we don’t want to say no,” says Rosemont. “Everytime we say yes to something, we’re saying no to something else. So, if I’m at work and I say yes to a project, I may be saying no to going home to dinner at night,” she continues. By saying yes, you may also be agreeing to work on something you don’t feel qualified to do or something you don’t like doing. In those circumstances, just saying yes might not be a good choice.

“The suggestion I have for people who have a hard time saying no is to consider saying ‘yes, and,’” says Rosemont. “This works well for bosses, but it also works well for parents because it’s more fun to say yes to your kids than it is to say no,” she laughs. The basic idea is to gently express the conditions under which you are agreeing to do something. She gives examples: At the office,“Yes, I can help you with that project, and can you please help me to understand which of these other projects need to be demoted.” With kids, “Yes, you can watch television after you finish your homework.”


Arden Clise, etiquette expert based in Seattle and author of Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth, agrees that you can qualify your yeses, but thinks you can also just say no. “It is okay to say no,” she says. “Just be polite and say why you can’t do the task/favor/project. Then clearly say no. Don’t say maybe or give a noncommittal answer, such as ‘Let me think about it.’” Be bold. Rather than giving a slow maybe, give a fast no. Like ripping a Band-Aid off, it will be less painful for both parties in the long run.” 

​  2.Know When You’re at Your Best: Do your important, most difficult, or least favorite tasks then. Are you sharpest first thing in the morning? Do your budgets then. Do you feel less inhibited late at night? That’s a great time to get on paper all your thoughts for your presentation. Syracuse University has produced this infographic to show how you might structure your day depending on whether you’re an early bird or a night owl.


Source: Communications@Syracuse, the online masters in communications

  3. Keep Tidy: Organized spaces and files can make your life infinitely easier. It may also help your esteem and reputation because of the professional appearance of your work space and because you look good when you’re able to find something quickly. Along with that, keep a notebook and pen handy for notes and meeting minutes, so you aren’t jotting things down on scrappy papers that can get lost. In addition, analogous to the whole notion of keeping things tidy, remember this Einstein quote: “You don’t need to memorize what you can look up in a book.” You can use the energy and time usually spent looking for things to do constructive, fun projects.   

  4. Don’t Procrastinate: “There are a number of reasons why people procrastinate,”  Rosemont points out. “The number one reason people procrastinate is that they’re perfectionists, and they drag their feet on getting started, or maybe they feel the work will never be good enough.” Sometimes, people don’t feel competent enough to do a job, or the job is so big, they feel overwhelmed. In those cases, notes Rosemont, you need to ask for clarification about what the result should look like. For example, if you’re a student contemplating a term paper, think about asking a TA for ideas about how to get started.

“Another reason is that it’s simply something you don’t enjoy doing,” Rosemont continues. “For example, if you ask me to create a budget and crunch numbers, it’s just not my cup of tea. It could be the highest priority of the day, but I’m still gonna drag my feet on it.”

If you’re feeling fearful or overwhelmed, you need to clarify what is expected and see if breaking a big job into smaller chunks makes it feel more manageable.

  5. Don’t Multitask: When you’re multitasking, your focus is divided and you lose efficiency. If you need to work on a lot of things at once, try to group them into similar tasks so that the transition between tasks is more seamless.

  6. Stay Calm. Don’t Stay Late. Get Rest. Take Breaks: This boils down to your health. No matter what you do in life, you can’t be effective if you don’t get enough sleep. You also can’t work at your peak if you’re stressed, but being organized and engaging in good time management may help you calm down and feel more rested. Once these elements are in place, they keep working for you.

During your day, you should take breaks, have a proper lunch away from your desk, and go for a short, 10-minute walk in the sunshine. Try not to work late. Coming back in the morning to look at your work with fresh eyes may be more productive than struggling through while you’re exhausted.

Nowadays however, particularly in the United States, we feel we must always be on call - for example, you probably have your email on your phone. Having a work and social plate that is always piled high is regarded as a sign of productivity and success. We bring our laptops on vacation and receive work email on our phones. “Checking email and working through vacation leads to burnout,” says Rosemont. “Vacation is the time when you should unplug. You’ll return far more energized, refreshed, and recharged, better able to focus on your priorities.”

Consider the story of the lumberjacks, which is attributed to time management guru Dr. Stephen Covey. Here’s the basic storyline: Two lumberjacks were working in the woods. One was a little cocky and thought he could show up the other lumberjack. He worked like crazy. He was pretty sure of himself because, periodically, the other lumberjack actually stopped chopping and sat down. However, at the end of the day, the cocky lumberjack was astounded to see how much more his friend had cut down. “How could you have stopped so often and still gotten all this done?” “Because,” his coworker replied, “when I sat down, I also sharpened my axe.”

Breaks keep you sharp, and they just make you feel good. Try the tips in this article to ensure that you have breaks in your busy and productive life. 

Time Management Tips for Students, Professionals, and Everyone

Here are some indispensable tips for students looking to manage their time more effectively:

  • Have a regular place for study.
  • Get it started — don’t procrastinate.
  • Create a study schedule so you can devote time to each subject.
  • Summarize lecture notes each day.
  • Minimize final revision notes to include just graphs, tables, or major points.
  • Get plenty of rest — sleep is important too. 

Tips for professionals:

  • Use the same planner consistently.
  • Keep a master planner.
  • Take time to plan time — daily.
  • Say no. If you don’t have time for the assignment, don’t take the assignment. Delegation plays a key role here.
  • Prioritize by due date and duration.
  • Open your email and chat platforms at specific times, so you are not constantly interrupted and tempted to answer pings.
  • Use rules in your email program to automatically funnel messages to appropriate folders, so you can deal with them accordingly.
  • Keep a notebook so you aren’t writing notes or recording meeting minutes on loose papers.

Time management tips for everyday life:

  • Take care of your health, and sleep so you can function.
  • Take time to plan time — daily.
  • Say no.
  • Pencil it in.
  • Unplug so you can focus when you have to get something done.
  • Take breaks to clear your mind.

Forgive yourself for not getting everything done.

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