Do you often miss or nearly miss deadlines? Do you frequently show up a little (or a lot) late for important events? Do you feel like you always have too much work, not enough time?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re likely struggling with some common time management problems. I’ve seen many students and plenty of adults struggle with time management issues, including myself sometimes.
Looking back on my own experiences and those of my students, I realize common themes in our time management troubles. This post highlights some common problems that sabotage even the most well-intentioned schedule. We’ll also look at why time management is so hard for many people and what you can do to start tackling your time management issues. I also created a free time management activity to help you do just that. You can sign up for the action at the bottom of the post.
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One typical time management problem is underestimating how long it takes to complete specific tasks. You may think you can read a chapter of your history book in 30 minutes, but it takes you twice that long. Similarly, you think it’ll only take 20 minutes to clean the kitchen, but an hour later, you’re still working on it.
Underestimating how much time is needed to complete tasks is one reason your to-do list never gets any shorter. If the first item on your list takes much longer than expected, you’ll be behind from the very start. As a result, you end up feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
Your stress and overwhelm may worsen if you see other people who get a lot more done than you do. Trust me; those people aren’t natural time management masters. Instead, they’ve learned the underlying skills for good time management and can put them into practice when needed.
Unrealistic Time Expectations
Another common time management problem is overestimating how much you can get done in a certain amount of time. I see this with my students a lot. They’ll block out an hour to study and plan to read 40 pages and finish their math homework. I appreciate their optimism, but that just isn’t realistic.
I think most people struggle with unrealistic time expectations. It’s a reflection of our fast-paced culture. We have so many apps and other devices that promise to help us save time and be more productive. We rely so much on technology these days, we’ve forgotten that real work requires an accurate input of our time, often a lot of it.
Omitting Transition Time
Transition time includes the time you need to move from one task to another or one location to another. Failing to have transition time in their schedules is another typical time management problem I see among my students.
Some students use the time blocking method of planning. They schedule their day in back-to-back blocks but fail to account for the time needed to transition between them. They don’t leave themselves time to walk from one class to another or change clothes before going to the gym. These may seem like trivial 10-minute tasks, but they add up over the day, putting you behind schedule.
We also need time to transition between tasks mentally. It’s hard to go from studying calculus straight to learning French. Those involve different types of learning, and your brain needs time to adjust. But students will plan a big block of study time and fail to take the necessary breaks to help their brains transition between tasks.
Failing to Plan
Failing to plan is probably the worst of all time management problems. The truth is, if you want to manage your time well, you have set aside time to plan each day.
Every semester I see students buy planners and use them like calendars instead. They’ll write in the due dates for important assignments and big exams, like holidays on a calendar, without planning at all. They may only look at this “calendar of due dates” once a month, then be shocked when they miss a deadline.
The problem here is that students lack the skills needed to use their planners effectively. You must purposefully set aside time to plan every day to plan well. That said, sometimes the planner can be a problem too.
Using the Wrong Planner
Each semester, I find at least half a dozen forgotten or abandoned planners in my classrooms. I try to return the planners to their owners but usually find the contact information section filled out in only one or two. The other pages are similarly bare, containing a few deadlines, some doodles, and lots of blank space.
These students aren’t using their planners. I think the problem for many students is that they’re using the wrong kind of planner. Some students need a lot of space to write notes; others are happy just making lists and others like planners that break down the day into 15-minute segments.
There’s no such thing as a perfect planner, but you’ll be much better off if you can find a planner that fits your personality. If you know you’re the type who likes to write a lot, then you’ll need a planner with plenty of white space or a dedicated notes section. If you’re more of a list person, then a planner that breaks the day into 15-minute increments isn’t the best choice for you.
The planner you use is essential because planning is the foundation of good time management. But planning is a skill, and poor planning skills make time management much harder.
Why Time Management Is So Hard
We tend to think of time management as one skill, and we’re either good at time management or not. The truth is, time management is a set of related self-management skills, including planning, prioritization, and organization. Weaknesses in these areas are among the most common reasons for poor time management.
Unfortunately, most of us are never formally taught good self-management skills. I certainly never had classes on how to prioritize my to-do list, plan a big project, or organize my planner and workspace. Instead, like most people, I had to learn these things on my own, piecing them together as I grew into adulthood.
I want my students (and my readers here) to have an easier time with things than I did, so I’m sharing some ideas to help you start developing better time management. Just remember that improving time management skills takes work, just like it takes work to learn any new skill.
How to Improve Your Time Management Skills
The first step to improving your time management skills is to understand how you spend your time. Tracking your activities for a few days or a week will give you realistic estimates of how long it takes you to complete specific tasks.
Once you have this information, you can create a practical schedule that will eliminate many of the time management problems discussed here. The time-task activity in my free resource library will help you track your time; sign up below.
Once you’ve tracked how you spend your time for a while, you’ll need to do some analysis. Are there some tasks you could eliminate to save time? Or are there ways you can batch tasks to be more productive?
Batching tasks often involves using habit stacking to create new patterns. For example, you can organize your bag, pack your lunch and choose your clothes for the following day each night before bedtime. Grouping these habits is an example of pattern stacking since performing one common trigger you to complete the next.
In analyzing your time, you may tend to procrastinate on specific tasks. Or learn that some tasks always take longer than expected. In those cases, you may be suffering motivation problems rather than time management problems. Getting to the root cause of the issue requires being aware of how you’re spending your time in the first place.
The key thing I want everyone to remember is that good time management is learned. It may come easier to some people than others, but no one is born a good time manager. A solid time management system has several parts, but just paying attention to how you spend your time is an excellent start to improving your time management skills.
Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,