Time Management: What is it, who has it, and can you improve it?

Time Management: What is it, who has it, and can you improve it?

Time management can refer to a wide range of behaviors and can look very different from person to person. There are lots of different systems and approaches to time management. Making a to-do list, keeping a planner, setting event reminders in your phone, setting goals, prioritizing tasks, and marking events on a calendar can all be part of time management. It’s therefore a little tricky to define time management. However, in general when we talk about time management we are referring to a skill that involves assessing your use of time, planning ahead, and monitoring your activities and use of time (1) .

Effective time management is linked to a number of personality traits. People with better time management skills tend to have higher self-control, which means that they are able to control and refrain from acting on impulses (2). People who are better at managing their time also tend to be high in self-efficacy, which is your belief in your ability to handle challenges and complete tasks successfully  (3, 4). Time management is also linked with conscientiousness, which is a personality trait that describes someone who sets a high priority on completing obligations and doing tasks well (5). However, it should be noted that all of these studies on time management used surveys and self-reports. This means that we cannot determine causality. For instance, we do not know if higher self-efficacy leads to better time management or if better time management leads to higher self-efficacy – or if there is some other factor that influences both of these things. But, these studies do indicate that there are reliable differences between people who are good at managing their time and those who are not.

Interestingly, some of these same factors (high self-control and self-efficacy) are often linked with higher levels of satisfaction and happiness (3, 6, 7, 8). Again, while we know these relationships exist, it’s difficult to determine causality. Are people happier because they have higher self-efficacy (or, by extension, time management)? Or does happiness lead to better self-efficacy and time management? It’s hard to say. But it is reasonable to assume that managing your time can help reduce your stress and help you to be more productive. So that leads to the next question: Can you improve your time management or is this just a trait that some lucky people have and some people don’t?

The literature on time management interventions is somewhat mixed (1). Some studies have found improvements in time management after an intervention. For example, Burrus, Jackson, Holtzman, and Roberts (2017) found an improvement in time management after an intervention for high school students who were low in time management skills (9). In this quasi-experiment half of the students were assigned to be in the intervention condition and half were in the control condition. The intervention involved an assessment of time management skills, feedback on their individual skills (e.g. if a student scored low on goal setting they were told “Remind yourself regularly of your goals. Goals are an investment in your future.”), and homework assignments over the course of 5 weeks. Homework assignments involved goal setting exercises, accounting for how they spend their time, and learning how to use a planner. Students who were in the control condition (and did not receive the intervention) took the assessment of time management skills, but did not receive feedback or homework. One month after the intervention ended all students were rated on their time management skills by their academic advisors. Importantly, the academic advisors did not know which students received the time management training and which students did not. Burrus and colleagues (2017) found that time management improved after the intervention, but only for students who scored low on time management to begin with.