3 time management rules I wish I’d learned 10 years ago.

I hate to say it, but when I manage my time well, it’s because I’m paying attention to the obvious. Sadly, I haven’t always been very good at noticing the obvious.

No doubt some of you mastered these time management tricks years ago. But I’m pretty sure some of you are right where I am–struggling to pay attention to the things right in front of your face. For you, I’m sharing my own personal time management reminders today.

They may be obvious to some, but it took me a whole decade to figure out these 3 rules. Hopefully, that means someone will find a shortcut today.

1. Do a reality check.

I believe in hoping for the best. But I’ve learned the hard way that I may want to stay up till 2 a.m. to finish my big project, or for my kids to skip their naps for fun plans, or to visit 5 different relatives on Christmas Day.

But I know from experience that I can’t stay up till 2; that no plans are fun with sleep-deprived kids, and that if I’m not exhausted by the second Christmas Day get-together, then I certainly will be by the third.

I’m trying to train myself to do a reality check before making plans. How are things really gonna shake out? I can’t always know, but I can come pretty close if I stop to think about it.

2. Time management is energy management.

For years, I thought time management was about time. So when I planned how to spend my time, I would look at my calendar and book up the vacant hours.

Those plans worked on paper–but I couldn’t follow through in real life. Because time management isn’t just about time: it’s also about energy.

These days, I’m paying attention to not only how much time events take up on my calendar, but how much–and what type of–energy they demand from me. I’m asking myself, how does this event affect me? Do I have the time I need to recharge? Can I maintain this schedule? If I can, will I even enjoy it? 

I’m especially guilty of ignoring the Energy component during the holidays. I’ll pack in the activities–only to find myself too exhausted by the living of them to actually enjoy them.

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast

3. Think 3 steps ahead.

Laura Vanderkam compares time management to chess. Master chess players don’t just think about their next move; they’re always looking three—or more—moves ahead. They anticipate outcomes and make contingency plans. That’s the only way to win.

I’ve been training myself to think ahead when I schedule my time. I’ve been deliberately thinking through possibilities and making contingency plans. Not for everything, of course. But I have been taking Laura’s words to heart: “if the stakes are high, it’s good to be in the habit.”

When it comes to logistics, I don’t think well on my feet. It’s enormously helpful for me to think through contingencies beforehand, instead of when I’m in the midst of a crisis.

Can you relate to my personal rules? What rules shape your personal time management?

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  1. Audrey says:

    These are awesome. I often forget to account for the time it takes to travel between plans and then I end up stressed and annoyed that I agreed to leave me bedroom at all!!

  2. deborah says:

    I so hear you on #2! Just because someone else can do what seems like ten times more than I can, doesn’t mean I operate the same way.

    I tend to have three times more that I WANT to get done in a day compared to reality! 🙂

    I think we can learn from other’s experience, but I also think some of these things we learn with experience and living it. Realizing I don’t have the energy for that many activities because of prior times!

    • Naomi Jensen says:

      Yes, you are so right!
      And what’s ironic is I find that the things I really WANT to do are the best for me in the end. If I stop framing them as something I “should” do, I find that I actually do want to exercise or eat well, etc. It is totally about how I am approaching the use of energy. Working out or cooking can be fun but I make them into chores. Which I know a lot of us do.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes! I could not agree more! When I started a long-overdue process of reconnecting with myself (about 2 years ago), I took certain words completely out of my vocabulary. Words like “should” and “busy”. My #1 takeaway from this post will be to definitely consider the energy component when booking plans. Some times you need to recharge, spend the day in yoga pants, and being completely unproductive 🙂

  3. Corrie Anne says:

    My husband and I recently took a class for young marrieds that really focused on this. It was led by an older couple and they taught us to have a weekly planning meeting together each week, and to work through making decisions for our family that are spiritually expedient. More or less the same concept. It’s been really helpful!

    • Joanna says:

      I so agree Lori. I have always been a list maker, even allotting times to certain tasks, then running out of steam before the list is finished.
      Wish I was 20 again lol.

  4. @Anne- thanks for mentioning my post. Yes, what does one do if you need to give a speech in another town at 6, husband also out of town, and you’ve arranged a babysitter (who has a day job) to pick up kids at school at 4:00, but then due to inclement weather, they do early dismissal? These are the questions that require a chess master!

    • Anne says:

      Yes they are, and I was thinking of you and your chess playing (aka time management) skills when Sandy knocked out your power earlier this week. I was impressed at how your advance planning kept you in good stead (and therefore didn’t appear to interfere with you meeting your deadlines).

  5. I definitely tend to think on the ambitious side of what I think I can get done. But I often don’t account for my children’s impact on things. A baby who doesn’t nap, a preschooler who argues over everything and soon the day is over and so little has been accomplished. The things that help me are planning as way ahead as possible (I sometimes decide what I’m going to wear for the weekend on Thursday so I can make sure everything I need makes it through the laundry cycle) and making lists. I have lists for everything. I still forget things (and lose lists) but sometimes just the act of writing it down helps.

    • Anne says:

      Bethany, I completely relate to this. I tend to think on the ambitious side, and plan for the “best case scenario.” Sometimes that’s how it plays out, but not too often.

  6. Mary Lou says:

    Thank you for an excellent reminder to those of us with fibromyalgia. Our energy resources are truly limited and we need to guard them carefully in order not to wind up on the couch the following day(s). For us, time management truly is energy management. I will post a link to this article on the fibro blogs and websites that i follow.

  7. Elizabeth Kane says:

    I like that idea, “time management is energy management.” Not all activities are created equal! Right now, I’m un-learning my perfectionist tendencies. They’re exhausting, and they’ve been holding me back too long. I’m putting realistic time limits on tasks I need to do in the day (the important ones first), and then try my best to stick to the time frame I think they’ll take.

  8. Your “energy management” idea is absolutely brilliant! So often lately, I feel like I’m frazzled and doing too much but then think – but my schedule isn’t actually that full. I think I’m totally failing to manage my energy and give myself space to recharge. Thanks for the great thoughts!

  9. Jamie says:

    The biggest lesson I have learned in time management is to guard my time jealously. There will always be more I could do (and would love to do) than I physically can, so I can’t afford to waste my time. I invest myself first in things that pay precious dividends (like my marriage and key friendships), and then give what remains to everything else. I no longer allow myself to feel guilt for not putting in tons of overtime or not volunteering for every event at the non-profit I work with.

    I’ve discovered that I don’t need to be ashamed of having limits and boundaries, and that when I respect them other people will too.

  10. Tim says:

    Good list, Anne. On #2, one thing I do is look at what’s worth my energy, not necessarily what’s worth my time. If it’s worth my energy, then I tend to be able to make time for it. If it’s not worth my energy, then I won’t give it the time of day.*


    *See how I did that, using a metaphor with a literal sense of the word “time”? I crack me up!

  11. Laura says:

    I think the most important thing in time management is to give yourself permission to not do certain things. Not as in, “I’m not going to do X and I am so stressed by that,” but instead “X is less important than Y and Z, so I’m going to focus on those instead.” Then you can feel good about what gets accomplished instead of being eaten alive by the stress. Sometimes getting to that letting-go point can be pretty hard though!

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  13. Melinda Stanton (Auntie Em) says:

    Brilliant. After really overdoing it at work this spring, I articulated #2 this way– that some activities take up more “brain space” (energy) than others, and need more margin. Plus, the very nature of my job is fairly draining because of the large number of people involved, and by the end of the school year, the cumulative effect has about drained me dry.
    Thanks so much for the insight!

  14. Gilana says:

    I can relate to all three of these steps, being a single mother of a two-year old, and having completed a Bachelor’s Degree in 3 years rather than 4 🙂 Time is definitely a gift from God and every minute counts!

    I must ask, that planner in the picture looks mighty attractive.. Where would I find one of those?


  15. Beth says:

    Your blog helped me connect the one thing that was missing! Energy management, dealing with a thyroid disorder and recovering several issues has left me with days that I feel horrible for one reason or another, and that my energy is not what it used to be. I still schedule like I was in my 20’s and that I have that endless amount of energy I had. Thank you for that! Feeling a lot less guilty now.

  16. Barb says:

    Energy management has another side to it. You also have to be mindful of what jobs you do when. Your energy ebbs and flows throughout the day (hence the mornig person and the night person). For example: I am a night person and have a ton more energy at night that I do during the day. So for complex mind tasks like designing new pieces I need to schedule that for the evening and night. Mindless tasks are better for me in the morning.

  17. Richard Buse says:

    I’ve really had to learn to apply this toward vacations to keep them becoming too packed with activity and not enough genuine relaxation time. I don’t attend nearly as many business conferences as some folks, but I find many planners of such events seem to neglect this aspect, too: All those presentations in succession just cause mental fatigue.

  18. Annette Holbrook says:

    I have never considered the energy component. It’s such an important part of the equation!! No wonder my to do lists are always left with tons of stuff on them! My husband always accuses me of having my own time/space continuum. I always THINK I can way more done than I can in a specified amount of time. Reality doesn’t really set in until I’m late. I’ve recently started to REALLY consider how long it truly takes to get XYZ done and if I have the real world time to do it. Now I’m going to have to analyze the whole energy portion of my list. Sigh Hopefully at the end of the day, it’ll leave me less frustrated.

  19. Mukkove says:

    Thank you for posting this. The idea of scheduling energy and not just time is a piece I have been missing. I’m excited to begin working that into my thinking and planning.

  20. CHSmile says:

    You are spot on about energy levels in relation to time management. I’m one of the oldest among the parents at school and one of the oldest in several circles where I put in my time. While it is frustrating, I’m sure, for some of those around me, I can’t keep up and continue stay healthy and happy the way I once did. I have to keep a bit of cushion in my day and assess as I go along if I should fill up that blank square or simply slow down for that time. Thanks, MMD!

  21. There’s a great book on managing your energy by Tony Schwartz called the Power of Full Engagement that makes the point we have FOUR types of energy: physical, emotional,mental, and spiritual. Think of them as a pyramid with physical at the bottom and spiritual at the top. Physical energy is the foundation and bedrock for the rest. It helps me figure out which energy needs renewing when I’m struggling to move forward.

  22. Victoria says:

    I’m going to comment as someone who has lived by these principles for years after learning the hard way that saying “Yes” to everything and everyone just DOES NOT WORK…Let me tell you, when I stepped back and took stock and made it a point to do this regularly, my life changed! Not only was I getting things done and feeling energized, I was doing them all WELL.

    These three rules are ones I live by and they’ve taught me that I’m completely replaceable. Knowing that gives me the freedom to say “No” when I need to with absolutely zero guilt.

  23. Kristen says:

    My whole entire life changed the day I learned how to say, “No, I am sorry, but I cannot do that.” No explanations, just no. Best time and energy management secret known to man (or woman).

  24. Abby says:

    The thing I most need to keep in mind is a variation on #1: I need to be more flexible about my plans because a lot depends on how my young kids (ages 1 & 3) are doing. There are days when doing X number of things is realistic, and days when the exact same plans aren’t realistic at all. Things change day to day with them, and if I have made plans it’s hard for me to drop them even if one of them is teething and needy, or if we all have colds, or it’s going to be nightmare to go to story time because we’re in the middle of a major defiant stage. Once I’ve written down my plans to reorganize the office, I tend to feel extra upset when I spend the day carrying a fussy baby on my hip instead….

    • Jenny says:

      Steven Covey talks about this. We all have times in our lives (mothers of young children or caring for elderly parents) where our roles aren’t balanced. For you at this stage being a Mom should be #1 of your Top 3 goals of the day.

      In a very small way I do this with my work. One of every 6 weeks I am the programmer on call and have to fix problems & answer questions. Instead of letting myself get stressed about not accomplishing something from my to do list, I have learned to put on call as #1 on my Top 3 of the day. Then I can respond free of my self-imposed guilt, knowing that when I am interrupted by the on call issue I’m doing my #1 goal of the day.

      I’m saying caring for fussy babies and teaching that defiance isn’t acceptable are way more important right now for you than an organized office. The first two can’t be scheduled but when you make them the priority for your time/energy suddenly the other tasks will assume there proper importance in the scheme of things.

      That’s why doing the work to figure out your roles as Steven Covey suggests and doing the same with values as suggested by Hyrum Smith are very necessary steps. Knowing your roles/values makes reducing the list of nearly infinite tasks we could spend time & energy on much simpler down to what is really doable possible. It frees your mind and emotions to concentrate your mind on the tasks you want to accomplish not the shoulds/coulds/ought-to-haves. Its something we should all every few years as roles/values/goals change over our lifetimes.

      2015 was a non-productive year because my life had a major role switch and I failed to process that into my life; instead I just have been waiting around for someone else to take care of everything and then tell me what I need to do next. It doesn’t matter how deep I bury my head in the sand, after a while I realize that to move forward I have to pull my head out, shake off the sand, and figure out where to go from here. No one else can ever do that for us no matter how hard we might wish they would.

      Reading this blog and reflecting on your comment and others has been a help for me. My #1 for today and until the process is complete is to shake off the sand, look around, and then get on with the rest of my life.

  25. Anna says:

    All of these are things I use. I tend to have lots of great plans and ideas floating around in my head. For examples, at holidays, my tendency is to want to fit EVERYTHING into our schedules. But I’ve realized that if we take things slowly, we will enjoy the things we are doing more than rushing through things while everyone is tired and overdone. I also used to fill almost every minute on my schedule. If I have the time, I should be doing something. But from an energy standpoint, that is not realistic. I can pull off occasional days like that, but not every day. If I feel like I need an hour by hour schedule, I know to plan in breaks for myself and time to spend with the kids. And thinking ahead is important in so many areas. If you are in a crisis, it’s not the time to make decisions. It’s better to have a general plan, and then just make decisions about the things the plan doesn’t cover or the things that change. And in other areas, a little planning ahead goes a long way, too. Planning homeschool times around a vacation is one example. 🙂

  26. Kim says:

    These are SO true! I like your book in the first pic. I need something simple for a to do list and I think that might be just basic enough to make it work. Keeps me from making a list a mile long. 🙂 And then feeling overwhelmed and never starting. Awesome post!

  27. Laura says:

    Love the suggestions here, I am going to try to work these into my daily routines, one at a time. I’ve already had my ‘Reality Check’, and it was a rough ride. What has helped me the most recently is figuring out how much time each task takes. How long do I really want to take/spend on myself to get ready for the day in the morning without looking like a hippie straight from the festival circuit? How long is it really going to take to make a lovely, fresh, local meal for my family? How long do I truly need to spend tending to our finances? I gave up on figuring out how long it will take to get the laundry done, somethings just never finish! lol I am always in a rush, always hurrying to the next task before the first task has finished. Then I have trouble remembering to even go back to the first task that I started…in the end, nothing gets done. It is an ugly cycle. These things seem like easy stuff to accomplish, but for me right now, it’s not. I am starting from the ground up, fresh from crisis. I’ve told my doctors for 20 years that I thought I still had ADHD, not one of them would listen, until recently. Knowing I was struggling, but not truly knowing what with has eaten up years of my life, has been very difficult, and even shameful to me. Getting my crap together finally is HARD! The biggest thing this article has helped me to see is that time management = energy management. What a huge light bulb that is to me, thank you so much for that! Thinking 3 Steps ahead is useful too, intimidating right now, but useful. It fits right in with figuring out how much time each task takes. I can flesh those out with your advice from there. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  28. Rose says:

    The part about thinking 3 steps ahead made me cringe because it reminded me of someone I don’t particularly like as a person but admire their ethic. She once told me she plans weeks, months even a quarter ahead for things. I always shrugged it off like… that is too much pressure. But now I realize I have slowly been doing that. I have been trying to be more organized and part of what has worked for me is breaking big tasks into little, measurable ones. I have things on my todo list app scheduled out for a year in advance and it has really helped me with school projects and work projects as well. Great tips!!

  29. Oh my goodness I love this – It’s like you’re speaking right to me – so guilty of all of this. I have terrible time management due to optimism – I always think I can fit more in than I can but then I hate being late but almost always am! eeek! This really is fab and sound advice and I love how you have laid it out in 3 simple steps – I’m going to take heed going forward – THANK YOU 😀

  30. Stephanee Grace Chittum says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I know it’s an old post, but even now, it’s still helping people like me!! Those tips don’t come as common sense to me! So as simple as the concepts are, they are incredibly helpful nonetheless! And if it were truly “common knowledge”, I would have heard it by now! Thanks again! =)

  31. Tracy says:

    I would just like to say that I really liked your post and I love your blog page. The layout, the simplicity, I was compelled to read more posts just so that I could enjoy your blog more. Very elegant.

  32. Laura says:

    Wow! I never heard the idea of time management really being energy management, but it is so true!! I read some of the previous comments and I am not the only one to find that point accurate! I will be quoting you on this! And thank you for helping me to understand it!

  33. Gayle Lawrence says:

    It took me a long time to figure it out, but the key for me is to do everything I can ahead of time. My younger self with young children would have said to this, “I don’t have time to do anything ahead of time!” ?

  34. In my early(ish) 40s now, I feel I am glimpsing grace enough to say
    1) I do better with less. Know when to say when. It’s easy for me to say No now…most of the time.
    2) Nothing is better than early to bed early to rise! I aim to be asleep by 9 and awake by 4:30.
    3) Think in terms of Laura Vanderkam’s 15-minute blocks. While I’m waiting for kids, especially on the weekends, I’ve been cranking out handmade greeting cards (and loving it!!).

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