How to Fix Bad Time Management Habits

Identifying the Problem

If you think you have a time management problem and you want to find a quick solution, you're unlikely to achieve this. Like many people, you may have read a few books or articles on the subject, and maybe even downloaded (and deleted) apps that were supposed to help you feel organised and in control of your endless to-do list, but to no avail.

This isn't surprising, because improving your time management won't be a "quick fix". But don't despair: you can make big improvements by using a simple but effective approach.

First, you'll need to identify what type of time manager you are. Then you can go about breaking the bad habits you may have. To help you get started, here is a short guide to four of the most common "problem styles" for time management, and how you can become more efficient at organising your time.

Balancing time

The Procrastinator

The procrastinator finds that they are unable to meet deadlines because they often put off doing things, maybe without good reason. If questioned about it, they may say they are waiting for the right time or they need to be in the right mood to start.

They often underestimate the amount of work required, so can also give unrealistic time estimates. These people often claim that they work best whilst under pressure (which of course they create in the first place by leaving things for so long).

In addition to the problems that they cause for themselves by procrastinating, they often cause negative impacts on those around them that are relying on them to get certain jobs done.

Breaking the habit

If this applies to you, you should learn to manage any reluctance to do certain tasks, since this will make you postpone your work for no reason. Also, take time to think about how long each job will take you, and what else you do in the meantime: this will bring home any need to get started more quickly. Understand why you are doing things, then focus on taking action rather than maybe waiting for things to fall in place.

A key to breaking the habit of procrastination is to focus on other people when doing tasks that impact others. If you're working with somebody on something, and you leave your portion until the last possible moment, it does not leave them sufficient time to add their contribution. Rather, focus on providing them with as much time as possible. Consider the person that has two jobs to do, both of equal importance. The one differentiation is that the one job only needs your input, while the other job requires input from somebody else. The simple solution is then to focus on the job that involves somebody else. Doing that job first gives them more time, and then you can still focus on the second job.

This works just as well at home as it does at work. For example, you have two jobs to do. One involves washing something, the other is to go out and purchase groceries. You need to perform both tasks today. However, the purchasing groceries job has an element that impacts somebody else. Another family member cannot start preparing the next meal until you have returned with the groceries. So choosing to do that job first allows you to give the other person more time.

The Easily Distracted

According to leading behavioural psychologists, modern humans have a steadily shrinking attention span. These days, it's reported that we can't focus on one thing for up to the 9 seconds often ascribed to a gold fish. (We believe that to be quite a bit too harsh, but it makes the point.)

With technology at our fingertips, we are nevertheless losing our ability to maintain focus, and it affects many aspects of our lives. In the workplace, easily distracted employees have time management issues, often starting their projects strongly, but failing to complete them on time. They are frequently people who get bored easily and attempt to overcome this with multi-tasking. This rarely works, and is usually counter-productive, so will lead to missed deadlines.

Easily distracted person

Breaking the habit

The most effective technique is to stop trying to multi-task. Our brains are simply not wired to focus and refocus effectively within short periods of time. If you find that you are easily distracted, focus on finishing off one job before moving onto another. By doing this, you'll get more done with less stress as you are not pulled in so many directions at the same time.

In addition to stop trying to multi-task, massive gains can be made simply by removing distractions where possible. You can close the door to your office should you need to, or put up a Do Not Disturb sign.

Turning off technology will help too. If your mobile phone is off, or on silent, there's less chance of it distracting you. Remove the temptation!

The Perfectionist

Regardless of what they are working on, perfectionists are usually meticulous in what they do, often to the detriment of practicality. In chasing this ideology, they end up taking far too long with many things they do. Because every aspect needs to be right, time is wasted on unnecessary or superfluous details. Because of their high standards, they are critical of themselves and others, and can have problems in delegating work. But in trying to do everything themselves, even if they have the required skill set, the workload is often simply too much.

It is clear why these people miss deadlines, and although pursuit of the highest standards is a laudable objective, in practice it is usually not a practical way to think.

Breaking the habit

If you are a perfectionist, take the time to assign a priority to each task, and a limit to how long it takes to complete it. When you feel you are over-running, stop to think whether you are dragging yourself deeper by doing things which are "nice to have" but actually irrelevant. This is not easy to do, but it will help if you redefine quality as achieving the necessary results in the time available.

For the perfectionist, we suggest the acronym GOOD, which you can be used in the context of something being good enough. It may not be perfect, but if it's fit for purpose, it's good enough. So, use the GOOD acronym.

G - Gets Things Done. If whatever has been done so far enough to get things done and actually achieve results? If yes, do you really need to keep tinkering with it for infinitely smaller gains?

O - Outlines Objectives and Goals - If you're aiming for achieving results, and not simply being perfect, you need to outline what your objectives are, and what goals you need to set to achieve them. Then, when you have done enough to hit your goal and reach your objective, you can stop working on it.

O - Overcomes Barriers and Obstacles - trying to achieve a result, rather than simply make something perfect, means that you will hold up what you have done so far, in order to see if it is sufficient. If there's a problem, you then start to overcome the problem. If you try work on something until it's perfect before holding it up for proper scrutiny, you may keep working till you think it's perfect, only to realise you still have major obstacles to overcome. Rather focus on what obstacles your project needs to overcome, and when they're all done, you're very close to being ready.

D - Delivers Results. Good enough gets results. Perfect never gets released.You need to auim to get results, not deliver perfection.

The Disorganised

Although there are flattering reasons that can explain poor organisation -- like high intelligence (boredom), high energy (multi-tasking), broad thinking (poor attention to detail) and a creative personality - there can be no escape that poor organisation is a killer as far as time management is concerned.

In fact, a disorganised person will often have an excuse for their behaviour: whether any of the above, or that they are "too busy", they didn't get an email, something turned up, and so on. But in truth, give the same workload and the same time scale to complete it,  and they will take longer than other people.

And if the effect on their own work is significant, it is also very frustrating for others because answers to problems are not available, making things messy and difficult to manage.

Disorganised work

Breaking the habit

The first step, and one which will have an enormous effect, is to prioritise your tasks. You will change your life by using a To Do list which you update every morning (and lunchtime too, if you really want to succeed). Give it a week so you get used to this way of working, and you will never look back.

Doing It Right

We don't pretend that the above is an exhaustive list, but these are broad types which include many sub categories (for example, a disorganised person can be someone who doesn't work to a plan, or who just focuses on the jobs they enjoy, or helps the people they like, or simply doesn't realise how long things will take them). So there should be plenty in what we say that could apply to you.

If you can relate to one or more of these broad classifications, maybe it's time to consider how it's affecting your work and life. Whether you are a perfectionist, disorganised, easily distracted, or a procrastinator (and we're usually a mix of several) the bad habits we don't address will have implications for how we organise our lives outside work, as well as in our jobs.

But even if you are a good time manager (and few of us really are), you will still have areas you can improve ... and if we can get more done in the same time -- or take less time to do the same work -- why would any of us complain?