How to Sharpen Your Time Management Skills

Gusto Editors

When you think of time-management skills, what comes to mind? Procrastination? Timers? Checklists? You know when it comes to succeeding in business, your career, or simply reaching any personal goal, time-management skills are essential. But what if there was a new way to practice time-management—one that could totally shift the way you work and live?

Gusto is committed to helping you excel in every aspect of business, which is why we’re partnered with CPE Academy, to bring you regular, educational webinars by renown speakers. In “How to Get Your Time Management to Thrive This Busy Season,” speaker Amber Setter teaches us a new way to look at time management by creating a few simple new habits. You can view the full webinar here.

Amber Setter is a consciousness coach who helps individuals and groups cultivate awareness and expand what is possible in their professional and personal lives. A natural intuitive, she brings insight and compassion to all of her offerings. She is a certified, non-practicing CPA who worked as an accounting recruiter before pursuing her coaching business.

Time-management strategies

In the webinar, Amber started off with a few well-known time-management strategies. She stressed that while these strategies might seem simple, they really do work—as long as you are committed to doing them.

Time-management strategy #1: Set technology boundaries. Amber explains earlier in the webinar that accountants are knowledge workers who must solve complex problems on the job, and who need a lot of mental energy available to them at all times. Distractions, like excessive mobile notifications, can deplete that energy. 

But setting technology boundaries—like refusing to respond to emails at the dinner table—can help. Instead, you might designate two points during the day where you’ll check and respond to email, such as in the morning and at lunch. Similarly, consider turning off notifications for social media and news platforms. 

Amber also shared that a lack of technology boundaries at work can lead to avoidance behavior: In other words, without proper boundaries, we’re much more likely to reach for our phones when in the middle of a complex, challenging, or stressful project that requires our attention.

Time-management strategy #2: Create time-blocks for projects. If you have a project you need to work on—such as a tax return or a review—set aside a specific amount of hours to do it. Amber shared that she has observed perfectionistic tendencies in many accountants. While it’s great to be attentive to detail and be consistently accurate in your work, spending too much time on projects depletes overall productivity and effectiveness. Try to wrap up your work within the time frame you’ve set, then reward yourself afterward. This would be a good time to use social media: Instead of glancing at it throughout the day, save it for after your project.

Time-management strategy #3: Create to-do lists that are actually manageable. Have you ever noticed that your to-do list is neverending? As soon as you cross one item off of the list, another one pops up. Since there will always be more things to add, prioritize. A list with 50 things on it is overwhelming. Number your list and make it reasonable. Determine what the most important thing to do each day is. Apart from being easier to accomplish, this type of to-do list can help you identify your personal values since you’ll be forced to cut some things from it. What ends up staying is a reflection of your personal values. What might stay on your list? 

Woman sitting at a table outlining her schedule for the week to manage her team

Habits as time-management tools

Amber draws many of her time-management theories from the book The Power of Full Engagement. This book lays out how it’s more important for us to manage our energy than our time. One great way to support this energy management is through rituals, which relieve us of the constant need to decide what to do. A ritual is automatic; it requires no thought or decision-making, and therefore depletes less mental energy. When we create rituals for ourselves, we free up more energy to use on other tasks. 

“Rituals are behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious. Unconscious [means] they’re automatic. [They are] those things that you know to do, and that you don’t have to spend time wondering, ‘Should today be the day that I exercise or should I go on Friday?’  No. … [It’s] your automatic thing that you do that day.”

 Amber Setter

The Power of Habit also informs Amber’s work. The book discusses how to create a habit and includes research demonstrating how habits are key to personal and professional success. It’s the small, everyday actions we take that form the patterns that shape our lives.

Amber shared that she always goes to an exercise class on Monday nights. She never has to question it. It’s automatic. What habits could you put into place? What personal care activities could you schedule every day? What work habits could you create? Maybe you always take a 15-minute break after two hours of work. Maybe you decide that you only answer emails in the mornings over your coffee. Or maybe you drink coffee while working on your to-do list everyday. You don’t question when you’ll get to these tasks; you know you will get them done at that specific time, every day.

The importance of rest and renewal

Amber referenced another great resource, a New York Times article titled Why You Hate Work. The article references a study done on an accounting firm during the busy season. The researchers had accountants work in the way that The Energy Project advises (they stress the importance of rest) as opposed to the way the accountants normally worked. She explained: 

“They [worked] for 90-minute uninterrupted periods. They took 10 to 15-minute breaks in between, and they took a full one-hour break in the late afternoon. …  Once this group had completed a designated amount of work, they were allowed to leave for the day. … The results were surprising and not so surprising. … They found …  that those who worked in this way … achieved much greater results. … [Fewer] inefficiencies, [fewer] errors in their work. People were rested … [and] performing at a different level instead of constantly working and eating lunch at their desk and doing some of those unhealthy behaviors that are done. … [They were] less stressed out, [had] more emotional energy, and their turnover rate was much, much lower.”

 Amber Setter

While this study was powerful, the firm eventually reverted to its old ways of working. The senior leader explained, “We just don’t know any other way to measure our people except by their hours.” This goes to show the limitations of measuring people by their hours rather than their outcomes. A billable hour might not be a quality hour. A person can spend the time but be less effective. 

So rest not only feels good, but it actually can lead to greater effectiveness on the job. Consider how you might incorporate rest into your routine. Can you pry yourself away from a task for a 15-minute break?

Rituals and habits to support the four pillars of energy

Now that we know the power of rituals, we can apply them to the four pillars of energy Amber discussed in the webinar [link to article 2]. To recap, your energy and, therefore your time falls into four categories: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. You must tend to these pillars for optimal energy and professional productivity. Let’s look at each one.

Female holding up her apple watch to check her time

To maintain your physical energy, you might schedule a specific workout to do every week, such as Friday night paddle boarding, Monday morning yoga class, or weekend hikes. You might decide that you will always have a green smoothie every morning. Or you could have a regular evening routine which includes stretching and reading a book before bed.

To support your mental energy, you’ll want to consider what supports your ability to focus. Since rest is critical for focus, you might have a ritual of always taking a real break after 90 to 120 minutes of focus on a project. You don’t question if you’ll take the break. It’s automatic. If you feel resistant to this, remember that many brilliant people have their greatest insights when they step away from complexity and rest their minds. Albert Einstein said 

“I think 99 times, and I find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”

To take care of your emotional energy, you might consider learning skills to help shift you out of a negative state. You’ll first need to understand what situations and people trigger you and how that makes you feel. You can then create a practice to help recenter yourself when you get into that state. You might consider having a list of positive things in your life, writing a gratitude list, deep breathing, or going to a beautiful place in nature after work on your off days.

To tend to your spiritual energy, you can develop a habit of clarifying your priorities. Your spiritual energy depends on living out your truth and aligning with your bigger picture values. Consider creating a weekly habit of journaling to explore your priorities. You might ask yourself some important questions.

“Think, ‘What do I really enjoy, and what do I not enjoy, and how do I have more of what I enjoy, and how do I get rid of those low yields that drain my energy?’ Are you allocating enough time to the things that you say are important to you? Do you have enough time for your family? Do you have enough time to be involved in your community? What do you truly value? And are you aligning your time and your energy with what you value? That’s key to spiritual energy. And [it’s] also just being of service to others … it really lifts our boat … when our contribution is attached to something greater.”

 Amber Setter

Remember, spiritual energy does not necessarily have anything to do with religion or even spirituality. It has to do with your bigger picture values, hopes, and desires, which can shift over time.

Supporting long-term rituals

Once you’ve established what matters to you and created rituals to support them, you’ll need to have regular check-ins to evaluate your progress. A great way to do this is through what Amber calls a “standing meeting with yourself” that you have each week. Schedule this as an appointment with yourself and review your master to-do list. What have you done and not done? You might then look at the list itself. Do you like what’s on the list? Are your priorities still in alignment with where you are now? Do you need to cross a few things off, add some other things, or make adjustments? You might notice that some things are too difficult or overwhelming to do on your own. Can you delegate them or otherwise get support with them?

In addition to the check-in, you might consider using a tool like the Best Self Journal. Studies show that writing things down instead of just thinking about them can actually alter the neurochemistry in your brain to support learning. So even if you are primarily digital, you might consider keeping a journal of some sort. Amber shared a great tip: Not only does she have annual goals, she writes them down every day under the day portion of her journal.

Finally, having an accountability partner can make staying on track easier. You might consider working with a friend, a colleague, or even hiring a coach to work with. Just like hiring a personal trainer, a professional coach can help you boost your productivity and learn to earn more by doing less through wise time investments.

Learn more about how to sharpen your time management skills

While we have a limited amount of hours in the day, making wise time investments can help free up more time in the long-run by supporting our well-being. Studies show that rest and relaxation can support optimal professional performance, lead to fewer errors, and enhance problem-solving abilities. This alone can save you more time.

Creating rituals and habits to support your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy has many benefits. Not only are you ensuring that you’re taking concrete steps to support each pillar, you are also freeing up more energy to focus on more important tasks.

You can use simple, effective tools such as time-blocking, creating technology boundaries, and creating effective to-do lists to support your time management. You’ll also want to incorporate regular self-check-ins, journaling, and time with someone who can keep you accountable for your new lifestyle.

Gusto’s mission is to create a world that empowers a better life. We understand that professional aptitude and personal fulfillment go hand in hand. Don’t forget to check out our other articles based on this webinar, “Using Time Management to Improve Your Accounting Abilities” and “Enhancing Your Energy to Strengthen Your Time Management Skills.”

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Gusto Editors Gusto Editors, contributing authors on Gusto, provide actionable tips and expert advice on HR and payroll for successful business management.
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