Five Typical Time Management Problems (and How to Fix Them)
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 there are common themes in our time management troubles. This post highlights some common problems that will 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 activity at the bottom of the post.
Five Common Time Management Problems
One common time management problem is underestimating how long it takes to complete certain 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 get worse 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 a real input of our time, often a lot of it.
Omitting Transition Time
Transition time includes time you need to move from one task to another or one location to another. Failing to include 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 time to change clothes before going to the gym. These may seem like insignificant 10-minute tasks, but they add up over the course of the day, putting you behind schedule.
We also need time to mentally transition between tasks. It’s hard to go from studying calculus straight to studying French. Those involve different types of learning and your brain needs time to make the adjustment. But students will plan a big block of study time and fail to take the breaks needed 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 then use them like calendars instead. They'll write in the due dates for important assignments and big exams, like holidays on a calendar, without doing any 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 are lacking the skills needed to use their planners effectively. In order to plan well, you must purposefully set aside time to plan every day. That said, sometimes the planner can be a problem too.
Using the Wrong Planner
I find at least half a dozen forgotten or abandoned planners in my classrooms each semester. I try to return the planners to their owners but usually find the contact information section filled out in only one or two of them. The other pages are similarly bare, containing a few deadlines, some doodles, and lots of blank space.
Clearly 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 breakdown 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 than breaks the day into 15-minute increments isn’t the best choice for you.
The planner you use is important because planning is the foundation of good time management. But planning itself 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 we’re 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, how to plan a big project, or how to organize my planner and workspace. Instead I, like most people, 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 of 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 gain understanding of how you actually 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 certain tasks. Once you have this information, you can create a practical schedule that will eliminate many of the time management problems discussed here.
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 habits. 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 together is an example of habit stacking, since performing one habit triggers you to perform the next.
In analyzing your time, you may find that you tend to procrastinate on certain tasks. Or learn that there are some tasks that 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 the first place. The time-task activity in my free resource library will help you track your time; just sign up below.
If you’re reading this post, I’m guessing it’s because you’re worried about time management. Do you recognize yourself in any of the common time management problems? Struggle with other time management issues? Please share in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.