10 Common Time Management Mistakes

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

Learn how to overcome several common
time management mistakes.

How well do you manage your time? If you're like many people, your answer may not be completely positive! Perhaps you feel overloaded, and you often have to work late to hit your deadlines. Or maybe your days seem to go from one crisis to another, and this is stressful and demoralizing.

Many of us know that we could be managing our time more effectively; but it can be difficult to identify the mistakes that we're making, and to know how we could improve. When we do manage our time well, however, we're exceptionally productive at work, and our stress levels drop. We can devote time to the interesting, high-reward projects that can make a real difference to a career. In short, we're happier!

In this article, we're looking at ten of the most common time management mistakes, as well as identifying strategies and tips that you can use to overcome them. These ten mistakes are:

Mistake #1. Failing to Keep a To-Do List

Do you ever have that nagging feeling that you've forgotten to do an important piece of work? If so, you probably don't use a To-Do List to keep on top of things. (Or, if you do, you might not be using it effectively!)

The trick with using To-Do Lists   effectively lies in prioritizing the tasks on your list. Many people use an A – F coding system (A for high priority items, F for very low priorities). Alternatively, you can simplify this by using A through D, or by using numbers.

If you have large projects on your list, then, unless you're careful, the entries for these can be vague and ineffective. For instance, you may have written down "Start on budget proposal." But what does this entail? The lack of specifics here might cause you to procrastinate, or miss key steps. So make sure that you break large tasks or projects down into specific, actionable steps – then you won't overlook something important.

You can also use Action Programs   to manage your work when you have many large projects happening at once. (Action Programs are "industrial strength" versions of To-Do Lists.)

Mistake #2. Not Setting Personal Goals

Do you know where you'd like to be in six months? What about this time next year, or even 10 years from now? If not, it's time to set some personal goals!

Personal goal setting   is essential to managing your time well, because goals give you a destination and vision to work toward. When you know where you want to go, you can manage your priorities, time, and resources to get there. Goals also help you decide what's worth spending your time on, and what's just a distraction.

To learn how to set SMART, effective goals, read up on Locke's Goal Setting Theory  . Here, you'll learn how to set clearly defined goals that will keep you motivated.

You might also enjoy our Book Insight into Long Fuse, Big Bang by Eric Haseltine. This book teaches you how to focus on your long-term goals without overlooking your short term priorities.

Mistake #3. Not Prioritizing

Your assistant has just walked in with a crisis that she needs you to deal with right now, but you're in the middle of brainstorming ideas for a new client. You're sure that you've almost come up with a brilliant idea for their marketing campaign, but now you risk losing the thread of your thinking because of this "emergency."

Sometimes, it's hard to know how to prioritize  , especially when you're facing a flood of seemingly-urgent tasks. However, it's essential to learn how to prioritize tasks effectively if you want to manage your time better.

One tool that will help you prioritize effectively is the Action Priority Matrix   , which will help you determine if a task is high-yield and high-priority, or low-value, "fill in" work. You'll manage your time much better during the day if you know the difference.

You might also want to go through our Bite-Sized Training session How to Prioritize, to further enhance your skills.

Mistake #4. Failing to Manage Distractions

Do you know that some of us can lose as much as two hours a day to distractions? Think how much you could get done if you had that time back!

Whether they come from emails, IM chats, colleagues in a crisis, or phone calls from clients, distractions prevent us from achieving flow  , which is the satisfying and seemingly effortless work that we do when we're 100 percent engaged in a task.

If you want to gain control of your day and do your best work, it's vital to know how to minimize distractions   and manage interruptions   effectively. For instance, turn off your IM chat when you need to focus, and let people know if they're distracting you too often. You should also learn how to improve your concentration  , even when you're faced with distractions.

Additionally, our article on managing email effectively   teaches you how to gain control of your email, so that it doesn't eat up your entire day.

Mistake #5. Procrastination

Procrastination occurs when you put off tasks that you should be focusing on right now. When you procrastinate, you feel guilty that you haven't started; you come to dread doing the task; and, eventually, everything catches up with you when you fail to complete the work on time.

Start by taking our procrastination quiz   to find out if procrastination is a problem in your life. If it is, then learn the strategies you need to beat procrastination  .

For instance, one useful strategy is to tell yourself that you're only going to start on a project for ten minutes. Often, procrastinators feel that they have to complete a task from start to finish, and this high expectation makes them feel overwhelmed and anxious. Instead, focus on devoting a small amount of time to starting. That's all!

You might also find it helpful to use Action Plans  . These help you break large projects down into manageable steps, so that it's easy to see everything that you need to get done, and so that you can complete small chunks at a time. Doing this can stop you from feeling overwhelmed at the start of a new project.

Tip:

Our Bite-Sized Training session, Overcoming Procrastination, gives you more in-depth strategies and tips for dealing with procrastination.

Mistake #6. Taking on too Much

Are you a person who has a hard time saying "no" to people? If so, you probably have far too many projects and commitments on your plate. This can lead to poor performance, stress, and low morale.

Or, you might be a micromanager  : someone who insists on controlling or doing all of the work themselves, because they can't trust anyone else to do it correctly. (This can be a problem for everyone – not just managers!)

Either way, taking on too much is a poor use of your time, and it can get you a reputation for producing rushed, sloppy work.

To stop this, learn the subtle art of saying "yes" to the person, but "no" to the task  . This skill helps you assert yourself, while still maintaining good feelings within the group. If the other person starts leaning on you to say "yes" to their request, learn how to think on your feet  , and stay cool under pressure.

Mistake #7. Thriving on "Busy"

Some people get a rush from being busy. The narrowly-met deadlines, the endless emails, the piles of files needing attention on the desk, the frantic race to the meeting... What an adrenaline buzz!

The problem is that an "addiction to busyness" rarely means that you're effective, and it can lead to stress.

Instead, try to slow down, and learn to manage your time better.

Tip:

"Do More Great Work", by Michael Bungay Stanier, is full of ideas and tips to reduce the "busywork" that you're doing, so that you're more excited and engaged in the work that matters. Click here for our Book Insight on it.

Mistake #8. Multitasking

To get on top of her workload, Linda regularly writes emails while she chats on the phone to her clients. However, while Linda thinks that this is a good use of her time, the truth is that it can take 20-40 percent more time to finish a list of jobs when you multitask, compared with completing the same list of tasks in sequence. The result is also that she does both tasks poorly – her emails are full of errors, and her clients are frustrated by her lack of concentration.

So, the best thing is to forget about multitasking  , and, instead, focus on one task at a time. That way, you'll produce higher quality work.

Our Expert Interview with Dave Crenshaw, looking at The Myth of Multitasking, will give you an enlightening look at multitasking, and will help you explore how you can manage simultaneous projects more effectively.

Mistake #9. Not Taking Breaks

It's nice to think that you can work for 8-10 hours straight, especially when you're working to a deadline. But it's impossible for anyone to focus and produce really high-quality work without giving their brains some time to rest and recharge.

So, don't dismiss breaks as "wasting time." They provide valuable down-time, which will enable you to think creatively and work effectively.

If it's hard for you to stop working, then schedule breaks for yourself, or set an alarm as a reminder. Go for a quick walk, grab a cup of coffee, or just sit and meditate   at your desk. Try to take a five minute break every hour or two. And make sure that you give yourself ample time for lunch – you won't produce top quality work if you're hungry!

Mistake #10. Ineffectively Scheduling Tasks

Are you a morning person? Or do you find your energy picking up once the sun begins to set in the evening? All of us have different rhythms, that is, different times of day when we feel most productive and energetic.

You can make best use of your time by scheduling high-value work during your peak time, and low-energy work (like returning phone calls and checking email), during your "down" time. Our article, Is This a Morning Task?   will teach you how to do this.

Key Points

One of the most effective ways of improving your productivity is to recognize and rectify time management mistakes.

When you take the time to overcome these mistakes, it will make a huge difference in your productivity – and you'll also be happier, and experience less stress!

Tip:

To continue improving your time management skills, take our Time Management Quiz  , which will help you identify where your strengths and weaknesses lie. You can also take our Bite-Sized Training session, the Time Management Audit, to hone your skills to the next level.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Click here for more, subscribe to our free newsletter, or become a member for just $1.

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Comments (5)
  • Dianna wrote Over a month ago
    Hi MLoraine,
    I agree that multitasking is an inefficient way to work. I find that when I multitask it's iin relation to conflicting demands and priorities that I haven't reconciled. I've used the tips in this article very successfully and thought you might be interested. http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/managing-conflicting-priorities.php

    What do you think triggers your multitasking?

    Dianna
  • MLoraine wrote Over a month ago
    So, so true about trying to multi-task. I've been trying to practice focusing on one task at a time and it's proven to be more effective and allows me to deliver at a higher quality.
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you, Michael, for your offer.

    We are going through a huge culture change. That said, we have the right CEO for the times and we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    I work in a large regional telecom with over a hundred years of tradition and presence in six provinces, all with their own unique cultures. The regional telecom was formed through a series of mergers and divestitures. We are now a subsidiary of a national telecom.

    I am not a "life-er" with the company and have worked in other industries, some small businesses. It can be tough to watch employees who have started their careers with one version or another of the company respond to the annual lay-offs and high performance demands of the CEO. She is a no nonsense leader who speaks candidly with employees. A refreshing change from previous CEOs who permitted the communications department to spin a positive story and gloss over business realities. She is tough, but not without compassion. And, she wants the company to be a success story. Employees are not used to an adult to adult relationship. They are learning, though.

    Personally, I find working in a turnaround environment exciting. We are beginning to see signs that the business strategy is starting to take hold. The key for me is to maintain focus and do all that I can to ensure that my contributions move the company closer to reaching its goal. Everyone has a role to play in the business' future success. And as I am responsible for talent management and leadership development, I have numerous opportunities to influence change. It may sound hokey to some, but I truly believe in the company and the CEO.

    Zuni
  • MichaelP wrote Over a month ago
    Zuni, tks for your input and it sounds like you have an awful lot going on in Nova Scotia at the moment!

    Having posted the top ten as a reminder it would be great to hear how when reality conflicts with the ideal you still find a way of surviving!

    How else can our community help you in these turbulent times?

    cheers
  • zuni wrote Over a month ago
    Hi all,

    This article definitely nails the biggest time wasters. The challenge is to consistently apply the techniques in your daily work.

    One of the key objectives of my company is to reset the cost structure. We are operating in a highly competitive market space and implementing a new technology platform that will turn the business around. In the meantime, and until sufficient infrastructure is in place to turn revenues around, we are in a cost cutting mode. Ultimately what this means is downsizing as labour is our largest cost.

    In such an environment the focus is on high performance and results. Multi-tasking has become part of the fabric of our business culture. Interruptions and quick changes in direction are also common.

    I plan to summarize the "top ten" in bullet form and post it right where I can see it to remind me what I need to do to increase my effectiveness.

    Zuni

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