Productivity and time management are more popular themes than ever before and it’s really no surprise. We live in a distracted world, with text messages, work chats, and smart device notifications all vying for attention as we attempt to get real, focused work done. While this may have made doing “deep work” harder, it has also given rise to new time management strategies and techniques.
In this article, we’ll give you an overview of some of the most effective prioritization and time management strategies out there. You may find you want to combine a couple of them to create the ultimate productivity toolkit.
The first section will focus on prioritization strategies as not all time management strategies will teach you how to prioritize tasks. The second section will be centered around time management strategies in the broader sense.
If you prefer, you can skip ahead to the strategy you are interested in.
- Use lists
- Do the worst thing first
- The Most Important Task Methodology (MIT)
- The Eisenhower Decision Matrix (Urgent-Important Matrix)
- The Ivy Lee Method
- The 1-3-5 Rule
- The ABCDE Method
- Eat That Frog
- Warren Buffet’s 2-List Strategy (25-5 Rule)
Time Management Strategies:
- The Pomodoro Technique
- Time Blocking
- The Rapid Planning Method (RPM)
- The One-Minute Rule
- Time Tracking
- Getting Things Done (GTD)
- 168 Hours
Many of the best time management strategies fall short in one way—they do not help you prioritize your work. And, a time management strategy is only effective if it helps you get the most important work off your plate. For this reason, we find it helpful to combine a task prioritization strategy with a time management strategy.
1. First, Use Lists
This is less a prioritization strategy and more a bit of friendly advice. Without a mega list (a brain dump of all the things you need to do), you may find you forget something important. There’s no one right way to keep a list, except the one that works best for you. If you’re a pen and paper person, use paper. If you prefer to work online, use an online tool or app. For my own to-do lists, I use Trello, a Bullet Journal, and Google Keep. Others I know use physical notecards, Google Task reminders, a notebook, or a to-do app like Todoist.
2. Do the worst thing first
No doubt you’ve heard about this prioritization strategy at some point in your life. The worst thing is often the thing you spend your whole day procrastinating around doing. If you start work in the morning and can make a habit of doing the worst thing first, you’ll have the added benefit of getting work done faster and more accurately.
3. The Most Important Tasks Methodology (MIT)
The Most Important Tasks Methodology directs you to select one to three tasks that are essential, and then focus on those throughout the day, instead of a monstrous to-do list. The basic idea is that you don’t do anything outside of those tasks until they’re completed. While I certainly recommend keeping a general to-do list, I’d make sure to keep this one separate. Remember, that general to-do list is your brain dump so that you can focus on the Most Important Tasks!
But, how do you decide what the most important tasks are? Josh Kauffman, author of The Personal MBA, and a well-known productivity expert suggests you think of a critical task as a task that will create the most important results you’re looking to achieve. The thing, or things that would make the biggest difference. Obviously, not everything on your plate is equally important. Kauffman typically uses a 3x5 index card to list his tasks. I use a post-it note. You can use whatever works best for you.
Kauffman also suggests taking advantage of “Parkinson’s Law” by giving yourself an artificial deadline. For example, “I want to get all of my MITs done by 11 a.m.”. Of course, make sure that the “deadline” is realistic. No sense in setting yourself up for failure.
The MIT prioritization strategy will help you focus and achieve results quickly.
4. The Eisenhower Decision Matrix (AKA: The Urgent-Important Matrix)
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a great way to figure out which tasks are most important, especially if you have a long list and don’t know where to start. As the name suggests, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix is the brainchild of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It’s designed to help you determine the urgency of tasks by sorting them by Importance and Urgency. If you ever had to do a SWOT Analysis in school, this prioritization strategy will look familiar.
It begins with drawing a cross on the page, and labeling that cross with four headings: important, less important, urgent, and less urgent. The placement of these labels does matter. Take a look at the diagram above to create your own Urgent-Important Matrix.
Each of the four quadrants also has a different name. The first quadrant is known as the “do first” sector with tasks that need to be done today, or tomorrow at the latest. When you work on these tasks it’s a good idea to use a timer to help you focus.
The second quadrant is called the “schedule” sector as the tasks in it are important but less urgent. In this sector, it’s a good idea to list the things you need to put in your calendar or schedule.
The third quadrant is the “delegate” sector and it includes all of the things that you can delegate because they are still urgent but less important. If you do delegate tasks it’s a good idea to keep track of them in some fashion (perhaps calendar reminders?) so that you can check back in on their progress later.
And finally, the fourth quadrant is known as the “don’t do” quadrant as it’s there to help you eliminate the things you really don’t need to do. For example, checking social media throughout the day, aimlessly browsing the web, and so on. The things that go in this quadrant are often the things that prevent you from dealing with the tasks in the other quadrant.
The nice thing about this strategy is that it will give you a birds-eye-view of what’s on your plate, and some actionable methods for dealing with it. To help yourself out, try keeping the number of tasks in each quadrant to no more than eight.
5. The Ivy Lee Method
The Ivy Lee Method is a delightfully simple prioritization strategy with a fun story involving Ivy Lee himself, that illustrates just how effective it is. I won’t spoil the story for you in the interest of time, but if you do get a chance, check it out on James Clear’s website.
The gist of this strategy is that at the end of each workday you write down the six most important things that you need to accomplish by tomorrow. The catch? Only six things. No more.
Next, you prioritize those items in order of true importance. This might be a good opportunity to combine this method with the Urgent-Important Matrix, though you can of course use any method for ordering tasks by level of importance.
When you start working the next day, you work on the first task. Only when the first task is done do you move onto the second one. You work on the rest of the list in exactly the same way. If you end the day having completed all of the items on your list, you can either move on to the next day’s items, or on to any other tasks you need to accomplish. Then, you rinse and repeat, setting aside time at the end of each day to write the next day’s top 6 priorities.
The real benefit of this approach is its simplicity. It forces you to get to the core of what really matters, and it helps constrain you.
6. The 1-3-5 Rule
The gist of it is this: Begin each day by assuming you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things. Ideally, you’d create this list the night before so that you can hit the ground running. Alex recommends you tweak this “Rule” if you spend a lot of time in meetings or have other commitments. For example, maybe for you, it’s the 1-2-3 Rule. Only you can know how much you can accomplish each day.
This strategy will help you focus, and give you a clear picture of what can and cannot be done if something else gets dropped in your lap. This way, you’ll be able to report to your manager and tell them which task will need to be set aside if you’re to focus on the new one.
7. The ABCDE Method
At its core, the ABCDE Method prompts you to assign a letter to each of the tasks on your plate. "A" tasks are the most important tasks—the things you must do, or there will be consequences, or that if you do, will have the greatest reward. If there is more than one "A" task on your list, use numbers to give them sub-ranks. For example, "A-1" is more important than "A-2," which is more important than "A-3," and so on. If possible, try to keep your "A" list short (one or two items are good), otherwise, you’ll just end up with a regular old list!
"B" tasks are important too but they don’t have the consequences and deadline that "A" tasks do. You should do these tasks only once you’ve completed the "A" tasks. "C" tasks are nice to do but don’t have any consequences if you don’t do them. Beware of these tasks as they may be the distractors! "D" tasks are the tasks that you can delegate to someone else so that you can work on the more important "A" tasks. Finally, "E" tasks are the tasks that really don’t fit into the other categories. They’re the ones you should remove from your list entirely.
8. Eat That Frog!
Eat That Frog is a natural follow-up to the ABCDE Method as it will help you decide on that “A” task. It’s also a good mix of a prioritization strategy and a time management strategy. Time management expert, Brian Tracey, is also credited for being the inventor of this technique. You can read more about it in his book, "Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time." His inspiration for it is said to have come from a quote by Mark Twain:
“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
If you’re prone to procrastination, have a hard time getting the most important things finished, or feel overwhelmed by your lengthy to-do list, this strategy might be right up your alley.
Here’s how it works:
- Begin each day by identifying your “frog”—the hardest or most important thing on your plate. You can only choose one frog. If you have two important frogs (tasks) eat the ugliest!
- Eat your frog (AKA: Do it now). Don’t save your frog for later or spend too much time thinking about it. Eat it now so that you don’t put it off later when you’re tired and struggling to concentrate.
- Repeat this every day.
The best thing about this strategy is that it helps you get work done at the time you are most likely to be at peak productivity—the morning. Even if willpower rises and falls throughout the day, usually in the morning you are at a peak. Take advantage of it!
9. Warren Buffet’s 2-list Strategy (25-5 Rule)
Many prioritization strategies are actually about choosing the “right” task to work on—usually the most important, urgent, or impactful task. Warren Buffet’s 2-List Strategy (also known as the 25-5 Rule) takes this a step further by helping you determine your larger focus areas. You could use this strategy to work on day-to-day tasks, but you may find it works better for you paired with another prioritization strategy.
Here’s how this big-picture prioritization strategy works:
- Think of your top 25 career goals or top 25 tasks you want to accomplish this week. Write them down.
- Circle the top five goals or tasks on your list. You should now have two lists. The 20 remaining goals or tasks, and the five circled goals or tasks.
- The five you circled are the ones you should start working on now. The other 20 are the ones you should avoid working on at all costs!
This strategy works well because it helps you minimize context switching—distractedly switching between tasks—that sabotages your productivity. In fact, a study by Microsoft found that when disrupted, 40% of the time, the disrupted task was not resumed immediately following the disruption.
Warren Buffet’s 25-5 Rule, or 2-List Strategy will help you single-task so that you can work more efficiently through your to-do list. After all, the cost of interrupted work is more than harmful to just productivity. It also increases stress, feelings of frustration, and perceived effort.
Time Management Strategies
Once you have a handle on how to prioritize your work effectively, you’ll want a strategy for helping you manage that work throughout the day. It’s important to recognize that if you don’t make a plan for getting things done, you’re most likely going to be controlled by someone else’s focus. Use one or more of these time management strategies in conjunction with your favorite prioritization strategy to get more productive.
1. Pomodoro Technique
Perhaps one of the best-known time management strategies, the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, is simple to learn and easy to implement. It can improve work and study habits, help cut down on interruptions, and improve work estimation efforts. You can learn more about this technique in Francesco's book, "The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time-Management System That Has Transformed How We Work."
A pomodoro is a tomato-shaped timer. Of course, you don’t need to actually buy the tomato timer, you can just use an app like HourStack, a stopwatch, or something else. A pomodoro is also the interval of time spent working. For example, each pomodoro is 25 minutes long.
The core process includes six steps:
- Choose the task you want to work on—big, small, important, unimportant (this is not a prioritization strategy).
- Set the pomodoro (timer) for 25 minutes.
- Work on the task until the pomodoro (timer) rings.
- When the pomodoro rings, put a checkmark next to the item.
- Take a short break. If you can, get moving, grab a coffee, eating something healthy.
- Continue the cycle. Every four pomodoros, take a longer break—something in the order of 20 or 30 minutes is good.
You can also adjust the length of your pomodoro to suit the work you do. Perhaps your work is better done in 40-minute increments, or even 90-minute increments—there’s definitely research to show that longer working periods like this are associated with increased productivity and performance.
Eventually, the very act of setting a pomodoro will get you into that focus mode.
2. Time Blocking
Time blocking is a time management strategy that involves breaking your day up into distinct blocks of time. Within each of these blocks, you will work on a specific task. The length of each block of time is up to you, but it is best to put them on a calendar so that you can accurately track tasks against how much time you have in a day. To do this, some people use Google Calendar, others use a tool like HourStack that also includes in-built time tracking and integrations with to-do list apps.
To start using this time management strategy, begin by making a list of all of the things you need to do. Now, prioritize that list. Next, open up your daily or weekly planner. Lastly, schedule your tasks or projects onto the planner. If you have a lot of really small tasks, you might try something called “batching.” For example, instead of blocking off time to respond to each email in your inbox, dedicate a single block to replying to emails.
Some people like to work in five-minute blocks, others, in hour-long blocks, others still in four distinct blocks of time each day. The benefit of this strategy is its flexibility, as well as how easy it is to implement.
To learn more about this time management strategy, read our in-depth guide to time blocking.
3. The Rapid Planning Method
Motivational speaker, Tony Robbins, is the designer of the Rapid Planning Method (also known as RPM).
It’s a results-oriented planning system that helps you figure out and then focus on what you want. When you know what you want, or what the target is, it’s easier to go after. This “knowing” gives you purpose and the drive to follow through and sets you on the path to creating a MAP (Massive Action Plan).
Tony Robbins says that RPM is actually a system of thinking and not a time management system. We decided to include it anyway as it offers you an innovative way of thinking about your to-do list.
RPM begins with three questions:
- What is the result or outcome that you really want to achieve?
- What is your purpose? (why do you want that result/outcome?)
- What specific actions must you take to make it happen? (This is your MAP)
There are four steps to creating an RPM Plan:
Step 1: Begin by listing the things you want to accomplish.
Step 2: Start chunking those things you listed into groups. Perhaps there’s one for work, one for personal, and one for family and friends. Divide that list further if you need to.
Step 3: Create your RPM blocks. Here's how: For each of the things you want to accomplish, create a table with three columns. The first column is a numbered list of the steps it will take to achieve your desired outcome. The second column is the result you’d like to achieve. The third column is a reminder of your purpose (your "why").
Step 4: Create a fun, empowering role or identity for each of the things you want to accomplish. For example, if you troubleshoot IT at work all day, and you’d like to accomplish setting up a server for the first time, you might call yourself a Tech Detective. You can have multiple personalities—in fact, it’s encouraged!
To learn more about this technique, check out Tony Robbins’ Time Your Life Workbook download.
4. The One-Minute Rule
When I was young I recall my father saying, “never touch the same paper twice.” The one-minute rule isn’t so different. The idea is simple: If you can complete a task in a minute or less, do it immediately. This might be responding to a quick email, requesting a refund, scheduling a task, or sending a tweet.
The strategy was coined by Gretchen Rubin, author of "The Happiness Project." She says it’s a great way to keep small, nagging tasks under control, which ultimately makes her feel less overwhelmed. If you have a ton of small tasks or suffer from anxiety, this might be the strategy for you!
5. Time Tracking
While “tracking time” isn’t a strategy with an elegant name, it is a technique you can use to get a sense of how long it takes you to do the things on your plate, focus for a targeted amount of time, or identify those activities that are wasting or misusing your time.
When you don’t keep track of your time it’s easy to feel like time is flying, especially if you operate more reactively, putting out fires and responding to others’ needs.
Time tracking doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, you can start tracking your time in small increments just to get a sense of how you’re doing. Maybe you do this every 15 minutes, or each hour. Do it for a few days and then see how you’re stacking up. You can use a product like HourStack, or you can use pen and paper—whatever gets you actually doing it.
Once you have an idea of where your time is going you can start to think more objectively about how you want to use it moving forward. For example, if meetings are taking up a surprising number of hours, perhaps you can skip a few, or suggest an email update. You might also get a sense of the hours where you are most productive. Energy levels rise and fall throughout the day so use this to determine when you, personally, might be at your best.
Some options for time tracking tools include:
- A tool like HourStack with in-built timers on every task
- A pomodoro timer or kitchen timer
- The timer on your phone or watch
- An app that includes time tracking
Your gut instinct is not a timer, but it is a good place to get started, and a fun exercise to see how good you are at estimating how you spend your time. I suspect the reality will surprise you!
6. Getting Things Done (GTD)
Getting Things Done is a productivity and time management strategy created by David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” It will help you eliminate chaos and give you the space to work both strategically and creatively.
As with many other time management strategies, step one is capturing all of the things that are taking up your attention or causing stress. Write them down so they’re out of your head. Step two includes processing those tasks. Are they actionable? What next step should you take on them? Should they be put on hold? Put in the trash? Worked on immediately? Step three includes organizing them in the appropriate places—perhaps a weekly planner, a calendar reminder, a filing system, or several lists. Make sure you review these items frequently to keep them updated.
Now, as tasks enter your life or come in through the door you can add them to the GTD workflow: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage. If a task takes no more than two minutes, do it! If it’s not actionable, add it to a trash list, or a someday/maybe list. If the task does not take a single step to complete, plan the “ task project.” If it needs to be worked on at a later date, schedule it.
With these parameters in place, you can start working on each task, checking it off your list.
7. 168 Hours
Most of us are used to thinking about time in either 24-hour increments, or eight-hour increments. Very rarely do we plan in 168-hour slots of time—the number of hours in a week. This means, we often think we have less time than we do to accomplish things, or that we fall prey to the optimism bias and set ourselves too many tasks to complete within 24 hours.
168 Hours is a time management strategy created by author and time management expert, Laura Vanderkam. Central to the idea is that you spend a week or two first tracking your time so that you can understand where it is going. You’ll also want to identify your “core competencies”—the things you do best and that no one else could do better than you—for example, working on your relationship with your partner or kids. Once you’ve done these two things you can use what you have learned to build a more effective weekly schedule. It’s really that simple. This is a great time management strategy to use in conjunction with something like time blocking.
What Time Management Strategy Do You Use?
We love hearing about the techniques people are actually using to get work done.
If you feel we are missing an effective time management strategy from this list, tweet us @hourstack to let us know.
Updated August 24, 2021 in Tips & Tricks