How to ace time management (11 Tools)


“The antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.” – Nir Eyal

Why it works

Productivity isn’t about squeezing in more things, but about doing the right things. Bestselling author Nir Eyal (pictured above) compares managing your day with to-do lists to running your life on Windows 95. Why? Because to-do lists “allow us to get distracted by the easy or urgent tasks at the expense of the important work”. This is, hands down, exactly how I used to spend my days until a couple of years ago. 

I’d run my workday off my to-do lists and email inbox. I’d capture everything that came to mind on an ever-growing list of things I needed to get done. Also, there was the email inbox, which is – let’s face it – a to-do list put together for us by other people. As a result, I’d spend my days reactively instead of proactively, with easy or urgent tasks crowding out the important work. This would lead to multitasking, a loss of focus, and continuous work without breaks. At the literal end of the day, I’d usually end up stressed out, overworked and ultimately unproductive.

Fortunately, there’s a better way to win your day: managing time instead of managing tasks. Back in 1967, management Guru Peter Ducker wrote: “Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time”. Against this background, here are 11 tools to help you ace time management.

How to do it

1) Pomodoro Technique
Francesco Cirillo’s popular method is a great way to improve focus and avoid exhaustion. It’s simple: break work into 25-minute focused intervals with 5-minute breaks. While Cirillo’s method is helpful for shorter tasks, it’s far from ideal for challenging deep work that requires extended focus. That’s why I use an altered version of that method called Pomodoro 2.0. Learn more about it here.

2) Timeboxing
Popularized by Nir Eyal in his book “Indistractable”, this method is how the most successful and busy entrepreneurs of our time – including Bill Gates and Elon Musk – win their day. You start by ​​deciding what to do, estimating time for the tasks, and scheduling them on your calendar. Then, you follow the plan and adjust if needed. If you want to delve deeper into timeboxing, read this wildly popular article.

3) Eat The Frog
Created by Marc Twain and popularized by Brian Tracy, this technique is all about doing your hardest task first thing in the morning to boost productivity and reduce procrastination. The frog is a metaphor for your most important task — usually a difficult one that you dread doing. As it turns out, timing matters. So, use our 30-3-11 Rule to time it when your motivation peaks: 30 minutes, 3 hours, or 11 hours after waking. For 75% of us, mornings are best. If you want to learn more about the 30-3-11 Rule, check out this article.

4) Two-Minute Rule
This classic method by productivity guru David Allen allows you to clear small tasks and gain momentum. If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it immediately to prevent buildup. If it takes longer than 2 minutes, schedule, delegate, or delete it. A note of caution: If you apply this rule indiscriminately, you’ll keep yourself busy doing easy or urgent tasks at the expense of important work. So, only apply the rule in a way that is aligned with your schedule – ideally timeboxed around collaboration, focus and defocus.

5) Pickle Jar Theory
This technique by Jeremy Wright is a wonderful way to spend your time in line with your priorities. He proposes treating time as a jar. In the professional domain, big tasks are the rocks, smaller tasks are the pebbles, and minor tasks are the sand. The idea of that metaphor is to prioritize big tasks first instead of filling your whole jar with pebbles or sand. In the personal domain, the rocks are your health and relationships. Click the links if you want to learn more about taking care of them effectively.

6) The 3-3-3 Method
This is a killer method from bestselling author Oliver Burkeman for balanced productivity: focus for 3 hours on your #1 thing; timebox 3 shorter tasks (e.g. email); and plan 3 maintenance tasks (e.g. health). If you like the approach, check out Burkeman’s New York Times bestseller “Four Thousand Weeks”, which I’ve gifted more than any other book. And if you want to learn more about how I use the 3-3-3 method to win my days, here’s my article on the topic.

7) Task Batching
Group similar tasks, like emails or calls. Do them together to reduce mental switching. If possible, I schedule all of my calls between 10 am and 4 pm to protect the beginning and end of my days for deeply focused work. And with emails, I go for some three daily email sessions – and turn my email program off in between. By doing the same, you’ll stay on top of (urgent) emails, make time for the most important work each day, and double (!)your productivity. To learn more about why and how, check out my 3-2-1 Method here.

8) Getting Things Done
Another classic technique from David Allen, Getting Things Done (GTD) will enable you to keep your workflow smooth. It includes five steps: capture (collecting tasks); clarify (deciding if they need action); organize (sorting tasks into categories); reflect (reviewing tasks regularly) and engage (doing tasks based on priority). If you want to delve deeper into the GTD approach, check out Allen’s website or book here.

9) 1-3-5 Method
Popularized by Alex Cavoulacos and similar to the 3-3-3 method by Oliver Burkeman, this is an excellent approach to keep yourself balanced and productive. If you want to learn more about the rule and how to apply it, check out this article and template from Cavoulacos here.

10) Kanban Board
For decades, this method by Taiichi Ohno has been a staple of software development and project management to streamline and track progress. Fortunately, it has made inroads into personal productivity in recent years. It’s quite simple: create a board – using a tool like Trello or Asana – with multiple columns, such as “To Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.” Then, move tasks through columns to stay organized as an individual or team.

11) Reverse Scheduling
As Stephen R. Covey famously wrote in his great book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” you want to start with the end in mind. So, plan your day backward to ensure you have enough time for all tasks and relaxation. A great method for pulling this off each day is productivity expert Cal Newport’s shutdown routine. Here’s why and how.

You see, every minute matters. Good-bye, chaos. Hello, efficiency.

End each day feeling accomplished and stress-free.