The quality of our time management techniques determines how healthy and productive we stay as we deal with stressors and changes in our professional lives. Since the transition to hybrid and remote work models, the time management strategies many of us relied on prior to the pandemic may no longer be as effective.
One new reason many of us struggle to manage time now is due to what Microsoft describes as an increase in the “digital intensity” of the workday: most of us are switching tasks more frequently now that we aren’t in the office as often (or at all). That’s the result of trying to compensate for a lack of in-person contact by relying more heavily on emails, chats, and virtual meetings.
At the same time, many of us are still figuring out how to manage the dissolving boundary between our personal and professional lives. Instead of dealing with a daily commute, many of us are now working in home environments where distractions and interruptions are common. For those of us who are parents or caregivers, there are even more challenges.
WFH: Effect on productivity
A 2021 study from the University of Chicago demonstrated how remote work reduces productivity by up to 20%. The likely cause? Although workers in the study maintained consistent levels of output, the time it took to achieve that output increased. In other words, work appears to take longer when it’s done at home.
|30%||Average increase in hours worked|
|18%||Increase in work occurring outside business hours|
|17%||Increase in the number of emails sent|
|10% – 20%||Estimated decline in productivity|
Part of the reason why work seems to take longer when it’s done remotely is that our days appear to be busier. According to Microsoft, since the transition to WFH began, users of its Teams platform have been spending more than double the amount of time in meetings. The average meeting time has increased by 10 minutes, and Teams users have seen their use of chat increase by 45%. Chats sent outside normal business hours have increased by 42%.
What hasn’t changed? Average response time. In other words, we are responding just as quickly to this higher volume of emails and chats. It’s a wonder some of us get anything done at all.
Effect on worker wellbeing
While a decrease in overall productivity isn’t great news for businesses, it’s the effect on workers’ well being that’s the real story here. Being busier doesn’t necessarily mean being more productive, but it does mean a higher risk of worker burnout.
According to the University of Chicago study, workers spent a significant portion (up to 12 hours!) of their non-working hours to maintain the same level of productivity as they did prior to working remotely. Microsoft notes that “higher productivity” (or what is at least perceived to be higher productivity) is “masking an exhausted workforce.”
For some, the work week may feel like it never ends, simply because it doesn’t. For companies already facing labor shortages as a result of the Great Resignation, helping workers reclaim their personal time and reinforce the boundary between work and home life may be especially critical when it comes to safeguarding worker health and retaining employees.
10 time management techniques for wellness & productivity
Effective time management techniques can help us bring order to chaos and reclaim some of the personal time we may have lost during the shift to remote or hybrid work models. Here are 10 time management tips that can help you stay healthy and productive.
1 – Achieve time awareness
We can’t make better use of our time in the future unless we understand how we’re spending our time today. Practicing the simple art of time awareness can help with that.
Most of us have a general idea of how we spend our time, but we tend to focus on the big rock items on our lists: major projects, important meetings, or tasks related to our performance reviews. Although we might be able to list these types of items off the top of our heads, we may not be accurately estimating the amount of time it takes to complete them. Those miscalculations can be costly.
We also tend to overlook the smaller commitments and fine details of our routines. While these may seem inconsequential when taken individually, cumulatively they can consume a disproportionate amount of our time and derail or delay other priorities.
The single most important thing any of us can do to better manage our time is to figure out what all we have to do, and then do a better job of estimating how long it will take to do it.
This type of review can be thought of as a “time audit,” and it’s the foundation for the remaining time management strategies in this article.
2 – Triage your priorities
Time audits give us a better sense of how our time is being spent on average, but every week will vary in terms of the specific commitments and tasks we have to manage. That’s why it’s important to start prioritizing tasks on a regular basis.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to set priorities for the week is through the use of what’s known as an Eisenhower Matrix. This is a simple planning tool that anyone can use to sort tasks into four categories based on how time sensitive they are, and how important it is that they be completed with precision or quality.
The Eisenhower Matrix
This exercise can help differentiate between tasks or activities that need to be completed today from those that can be scheduled for another day or time. Even more importantly, it identifies tasks that can be delegated or disregarded. Some of the activities from these two categories will be tasks that can be automated.
3 – Automate to eliminate
With the Eisenhower Matrix, some items that fall into the “delegate” and “delete” categories can be resolved through task automation. Examples of work that can be automated include approvals, document generation, emails, notifications, and status updates. Other tasks that are repetitive, occur frequently, or that don’t require complex problem-solving skills are also candidates for automation. Rather than hand these tasks off to other team members, or write them off completely, these activities can be handled with a workflow management system.
4 – Minimize task switching
Popular culture sometimes portrays multitasking as a defining characteristic of successful people and overachievers. In reality, the benefits of switching between tasks come at a cost. Research shows that it takes longer to complete tasks when we switch between them than it does if we complete them one at a time. The rate of error appears to increase along with task switching, and, by one estimate, task switching can cost workers up to 40% of their productivity.
So why do we think multitasking makes us more productive? Research suggests that multitasking makes us feel more productive because we mistake being busy for productivity. In other words, task switching creates an illusion of productivity because we are constantly moving from one activity to another. Task switching — along with an increase in meetings, emails, and chats — reduces available focus time. This means we have less time to do the deep, meaningful work that contributes to true productivity. Less focus time may also diminish our capacity for innovation, according to research from the University of Chicago.
5 – Create task groups
An alternative approach to multitasking or task switching is to organize work activity by type. Grouping activities by type improves efficiency because different types of work require different types of skills and different models of thinking. For example, report building and performance measurement require analytical thinking. Writing, problem solving, and planning depends on the ability to think creatively. By grouping similar tasks together, we are able to spend more time “in the zone.” That magical state of mind where we really get things done.
For work items that can’t be automated, delegated, or deleted, create blocks of time to address specific types of activity. For instance, designate time in the day to manage emails, chats, and other modes of communication all at once. (This is what is known as an asynchronous communication model.)
6 – Tackle higher priority items first
It might be tempting to prioritize simple activities and low-priority tasks in order to achieve quick wins and make our schedules feel less cluttered. But these tasks may not result in a sense of accomplishment that makes our work satisfying. They may also derail or delay the kind of work that truly matters in terms of our goals and performance.
Refer back to the prioritization from the Eisenhower Matrix exercise. Tasks that are urgent and important should be addressed before anything else on your list. That means directing more of our energy to where it will have the most impact.
7 – Eliminate distractions
Most of us struggle to stay on task at least part of the time. Between all of the digital signals that compete for our attention — desktop alerts, phone notifications, chats, texts, a wide range of apps, social media, and news sources — it can be difficult (if not impossible) to stay focused on work. And that is to say nothing of the other distractions that come with working from home.
Digital distractions are a problem, according to scientists. Researchers at Stanford found that “people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” In other words, distractions don’t just affect productivity, they hurt our performance as well.
The solution here is to take advantage of any and all opportunities to reduce distractions. That may include restricting the time we spend attending to our cell phones, snoozing alerts, and reducing our exposure to other sources of information. Most of the apps we use have features that allow us to limit interruptions. Use them!
8 – Exploit your chronotype
Research supports the idea that being a morning person or an evening person is not only a real personality trait, but it’s one that may be determined by our genetics. It’s also something we can leverage to improve our work performance and increase productivity.
Most people probably know intuitively whether or not they are night owls or morning larks. If you’re at your peak during morning hours, that’s the time you should set aside for high-priority tasks. If your magic happens later in the day, then saving those items for the afternoon might make more sense. Once you understand when you work best, it’s only a matter of aligning your most important activities with the windows of time in which you are naturally at your peak.
9 – Acknowledge Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s Law (something of a misnomer according to this article) states that “work expands to fill available time.” Translation: deadlines impact efficiency and productivity; if we allow ourselves more time to complete a task, we will usually take longer to complete that task.
The wisdom here isn’t that we can manage time better by adjusting our deadlines. It’s that we should reconsider how much time we spend on our tasks. Take writing as an example. Any experienced writer can tell you that nothing they write is ever truly finished, but there is a point at which it’s ready to publish. Could they continue editing, revising, and fine-tuning their drafts ad infinitum? Possibly, even though most of them don’t have that luxury.
Sooner or later, they hit the point of diminishing returns on the work they do. The additional time spent on an activity simply isn’t justified by the results doing so will produce. Identifying that point and then moving on to more valuable tasks is a highly effective time management technique that can increase productivity and reduce time waste.
10 – Reinforce the work-life boundary
Remote and hybrid workers face the unique challenge of mentally and physically separating two spheres that occur in the same space. Remote work tempts many of us to toil away in the evenings or on weekends. If we fall into this trap, however, long-term health and productivity are likely to suffer. As other writers have put it, “are we working from home, or living at work?”
One solution is to create a routine or ritual to mark the end of the workday. For those who previously worked in an office, the daily commute probably provided the mental transition from work to home life. In the absence of the commute, however, we still need to find ways to transition out of our work mindset and into our private home lives.
Germans call this transitional ritual the “feierabend.” The translation is a little muddled, but, in general, it refers to the end of the work day and the beginning of leisure time. One writer describes it this way:
The German approach seems to acknowledge that there will always be tension between the work self and the private self. Rather than attempting to reconcile the two, the disconnection that comes with Feierabend establishes boundaries between them.
BBC: How ‘Feierabend’ helps Germans disconnect from the workday
Whether it’s taking a walk, hitting the gym, or engaging in another activity that helps you shift gears mentally, it’s important to try and establish a regular routine that separates the work day from home life. Doing so helps us rejuvenate and refocus, keeps us healthy, and prepares us for the next workday.
Rethink your time management strategy
The key to time management is to understand and rethink how we’re spending our time. Once we have a good sense of what we’re doing and how long it takes us to do it, we can start prioritizing our tasks so that our time and energy are directed towards the most important activities.
Automate tasks whenever possible, delegate work that someone else can do, and use tools to minimize distractions and task switching whenever possible. Effective time management is about staying well and staying productive no matter where or how we find ourselves working.