No matter what your industry, passion or trade is, your success will largely be determined by how well you stay on top of your to-do list. Time management has always been an ingredient for success in life and at work, but today’s mobile world puts an even bigger premium on the skill. Luckily, you can stay organized by learning hacks from the world’s most successful people.
Last updated: July 19, 2019
Eliminate Wasted Time
In the book “The Ultimate Guide to Time Management,” life and business strategist and best-selling author Tony Robbins tells readers to treat their time carefully, just like their finances. Robbins believes that managing time adequately is critical, because it is a finite resource that must be conserved.
He suggests converting wasted time into productive time by repurposing time-management dead zones. For example, if you value reading but don’t have the time, listen to audiobooks during your daily commute or read on the train to work. If you have a million podcasts you’d like to explore, listen while you exercise.
Focus on Your ‘Top 5’
Successful people tend to have a handle on isolating the tasks required to be successful — five tasks, specifically, is a commonly cited number.
According to an article published by Business Insider, Berkshire Hathaway investing guru Warren Buffett was asked by his pilot, Mike Flint, for advice on career success. Buffett told the pilot to make a list of 25 goals that come to his mind when he thinks of success in his career and life. Then, he told him to circle the top five goals, and avoid the other 20 until he mastered his top five.
Identify Your Daily Knockouts
Marcus Lemonis, self-made multimillionaire and star of CNBC’s “The Profit,” also takes on five tasks at a time — but those tasks aren’t a year away on the horizon. He relies on a daily “knockout list” that outlines the five tasks he absolutely must complete each day. He writes the list in the morning — not the night before — and commits to tackling those five items in the next 24 hours no matter what.
Schedule Dead Space
Your calendar should be filled with plenty of blank space, according to two of the richest people in the world. In a Bloomberg video interview, Charlie Rose, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett shared their secrets of success and time management.
Gates — who admitted to being overbooked — said he now believes that it’s crucial to schedule dead space into your daily planner. By controlling your time-management skills and resisting the urge to pack every open slot with a task, you’ll have the flexibility to adapt throughout the day and week as things come up and circumstances evolve. More importantly, you’ll be able to use those gaps to spend a little time each day focusing on your passions, which tend to get pushed to the side for people with packed schedules.
“I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy more time,” Buffett said.
Requesting time off might seem counterintuitive to go-getters who are shooting for the stars, but significant scientific research — as well as the insistence of some of the world’s most successful people — suggests that periodic vacations make people more productive.
A 2018 study by Project: Time Off revealed that more than half of all American workers leave some vacation days on the books every year. The study showed that states where employees vacation the most have lower work stress, increased productivity and better overall economic output.
Many of the world’s greatest success stories validate the study’s findings and insist that vacations — time spent physically and mentally unplugged from work — bring focus, better time management and more productivity. According to CNBC, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and former eBay CEO John Donahoe all consider vacations to be a time-management hack.
Take Scheduled Breaks
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can increase productivity by staying connected to your work throughout the day. According to Tina Willis, owner of Tina Willis Law, a boutique law firm in Orlando, Florida, taking a break is key to performing your best during the workday.
“If I’m not in court or attending a deposition or a hearing, I take a midmorning break each day to go for a run or exercise, which helps me stay on track mentally throughout the day,” Willis said. “In other words, I work in the morning, then go for a run, then come back and get back to work. The run helps me stay focused when I am working, which helps me make the most of that time.”
Ignore Social Media
For Willis, social media can be a useful tool for work — as well as a time-leeching distraction. The key, she says, is going to social media instead of letting it come to you.
“To prevent myself from wasting time, I started by deleting any time-wasting apps from my phone, such as Facebook, and turning off notifications for anything that wasn’t essential to my work and life,” Willis said.
By eliminating the perpetual bombardment of updates from social networks, news apps and shopping sites, Willis gets the most out of her technology without giving it the chance to overwhelm or distract her throughout the day. If you can’t bear to remove your favorite apps, Willis recommends an app called Cold Turkey to set blocks and limit access.
Divide Up Your Day
Learning how successful people think is a must for anyone who wants to understand time management. They tend to think in the long term, yet they often manage their time by the minute, not by hours, days or weeks.
Elon Musk is no different. Between his SpaceX and Tesla companies, the visionary entrepreneur is known to put in 100-hour weeks — 85 hours is a short week, according to Business Insider. That’s a whole heap of time to manage, and Musk does it by carving up his time into five-minute slots.
By breaking his day into tiny segments, Musk can focus on the task at hand — and only the task at hand. Even meals are confined to five minutes max. These time-management strategies allow Musk to avoid being overwhelmed by the long game and develop tunnel vision on the moment’s most critical tasks.
Get Up Early
Are you an early riser? If you answered yes, you may be on the right track because a plethora of successful people are known to wake up at the crack of dawn. For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook revealed in an interview with Axios’ Ina Fried and Mike Allen that he gets up just a little before 4 a.m. every day.
Although that hour is probably considered outrageous even to morning people, it’s worth it. A Huffington Post article noted that many successful people rise early to get a head start and prioritize their time. Getting started as the rest of the world snoozes gives early risers rare and precious uninterrupted time.
Write It Out
Juggling multiple devices that bombard you all day with messages, emails, calls and alerts can give a fractured and scattered feel to your workflow and priorities — none of which helps with time management. Fitness entrepreneur and trainer to the stars Tracy Anderson corrals the frantic pace of her busy life with a unified, visual representation of her obstacles, goals, challenges and plans. This can take many forms, but for her, it’s a simple notebook that she referred to as her “brain dump” in an interview with CNBC.
Map Out Your Day
Former Google career coach and job strategist Jenny Blake said she visually centralizes the fragments of her work and life with mind maps, which use spokes to connect a central idea to related concepts or tasks. This gives her the opportunity to physically see a snapshot of her day, year or decade while mapping the best way to reach her goals, both near and distant.
Protect the First Hour of Your Day
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E Time Coaching & Speaking, as well as a time-management coach, speaker and best-selling author.
She believes that the critical first hour after you wake sets the tone of your entire day — and you must defend it at all costs.
“I find that it helps immensely to not have meetings to start my day,” Saunders said. “During this first hour, I take time to organize myself, including completing my daily plan, getting an email in order and taking care of other small, time-sensitive tasks. This allows me to come at the rest of the day from a place of clarity and strength. I feel prepared for my meetings and know which larger tasks are most important for the day.”
Set Aside Project Days
According to Saunders, you can help yourself by dedicating an entire day to stepping outside of the day-to-day busy work required to actually get things done.
“I have one day a week where I don’t have coaching calls,” she said. “For me, Wednesdays work best. During those days, I also put up an ‘away from email’ message. Those are days to work on project work and also to do networking or marketing meetings that might otherwise not easily fit into my schedule. This is a time to work on my business instead of in my business.”
Front-Load Your Monday
Saunders has developed a unique and effective way to manage the snowball effect of unchecked items on her to-do list that find a way to bleed into the following days.
“I taper down my planned work from Monday to Friday,” she said. “By Friday, I have fewer new planned activities, so I have space to wrap up what spilled over from earlier in the week.”
Dr. Richard Gutkowski, author of the book series “Debt is a Four-Letter Word — But it Need Not Be!” helps guide young adults to financial responsibility. During the process of getting published, he encountered roadblocks in social media and other new technology that he needed to reach the millennials his books are designed to help.
“Being well into senior age, I faced overwhelming learning curves, upkeep, maintenance time and other demands — and I lacked passion for it,” he said.
Instead of attempting to manage the task himself, Gutkowski found an easy and relatively cheap solution in hiring a college student who understood the technology and the demographic.
“She develops content for and maintains all applicable social media outlets, produces my newsletter and ghostwrites a weekly blog post based on topics in my books,” he said. “In five hours weekly she does what was taking me days and days and days.”
Learn How To Say No
According to the Financial Times, “no is the new yes.” Good people naturally want to help others when they can, but every time you agree to take on a task that could be done by someone else, you give away a piece of your time for free. The more you say yes, the busier you’ll get. You will have less time to do your tasks and may poorly manage the time you have left.
According to Inc., Warren Buffett once said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”
Cut Out Multitasking
“Multitasking” was a buzzword that applicants wrote on resumes to impress hiring managers. They, unlike the rest of the candidates, could perform several tasks at the same time, which made them time-management deities. Well, not so much.
According to Entrepreneur — and a bevy of scientific evidence — humans were designed to focus on the task at hand. Multitasking seldom works, and it’s probably not on the list of best time-management techniques for you. Inc. reported that Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of Atlassian, summed it up by saying, “Do one thing at once. Stop multitasking!”
Indra Nooyi, former chairwoman and CEO of PepsiCo, managed one of the most hectic schedules in the world. One strategy that contributed to her success required making a strict partition of life/work goals, responsibilities and tasks. According to a 2017 interview in Fortune, Nooyi drew up a list — in her case, a list of 50 to 60 tasks — and split it into two columns, one for work and one for personal. No matter how big or small the task, if she didn’t complete it, the task carried over to the appropriate column on the next day’s list.
Manage Your Inbox
Author Kevin Kruse interviewed 200 of the world’s most successful people for his book, “15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management.” A consistent pattern soon emerged. According to Kruse’s Forbes article, all of the individuals interviewed meticulously managed their email instead of “reacting” to incoming messages as most people do.
Although they all follow their own nuanced approach, many successful people treat emails like any other task: something that must be scheduled, managed and completed as quickly as possible.
Write Shorter Emails
Kruse said that many industry leaders schedule a handful of sessions — often three per day — to check and respond to emails. This way, their days aren’t bled dry by the steady drip of incoming messages. He also noticed that email brevity is a common theme among the successful. HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes, for example, writes brief emails no longer than three sentences. Finally, Kruse wrote that many high achievers seem to share one email trait: They relentlessly unsubscribe from any unnecessary lists and newsletters.
Looking at the everyday habits of successful people can offer helpful insight into their time-management skills. Successful people across all industries and walks of life have different morning routines, but there is one unifier — they all seem to have one.
Some read, others pray. Certain people browse the news, check their email or hang out with their pets. What they do is less important — the fact that they regularly do the same thing every morning when they wake up is key. All of them report that their morning routines set the pace for the day and help them visualize and tackle the day’s priorities.
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Amen Oyiboke-Osifo contributed to the reporting for this article.