The Top 10 Time Management Mistakes You May Be Making

Chronic busyness is a modern epidemic. For too many Americans, the phrase “time management” has a misguided definition. Time management, verb: cramming as many things into every waking moment of the day as possible without going insane.

The result is we spend the majority of our time just barely sane, needles flicking back and forth from maximum speed to overdrive, and the result is detrimental to personal relationships. NYT writer Tim Kreider laments:

“Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work. They schedule in time with friends the way students with 4.0 G.P.A.’s  make sure to sign up for community service, because it looks good on their college applications.”

Time-management isn’t merely crunching the numbers and squeezing yourself out like a wet productivity sponge. It’s knowing how to effectively manage yourself, to ensure a healthy bond between future goals and current happiness. In this article, we’ll explore some of the top 10 ways you might be screwing that up.  

1) Keeping a To-Do List

That sound you hear is the screeching of a thousand harried list-makers. How could anyone possibly argue against the to-do list, that most tried-and-true method for getting things done?

Because to-do lists don’t work and successful people don’t use them. A to-do list is just a series of tasks divorced from context, priority, time or difficulty. It’s almost impossible to reach the bottom of a robust to-do list, and all those unfinished tasks stacks up to create serious cognitive baggage, thanks to something called the Zeigarnik Effect.

In Zeigarnik’s study, participants were asked to complete menial tasks like building a cardboard box or assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and then asked a series of questions about the tasks to assess their memory.

What Zeigarnik found was that participants who were interrupted and prevented from completing tasks scored about twice as well on the memory test — which means that when you fail to complete a task, it takes up twice the headspace it would otherwise.

As a result, when your to-do list contains unfinished items, they create a negative psychological drag, like loose flaps on a plane. This drag makes you less productive, leading to more unfinished items, leading to even worse productivity, until pretty soon you’re caught in a tailspin of failure.

2) Not Keeping a Schedule

A schedule is not the same as a to-do list. A to-do list is driven from the bottom up, taking tasks one at a time. A schedule is driven from the top down. You break down projects into smaller goals, then spread them out across days, weeks and months leading up to their final deadline, with plenty of flex-time around each one so you have room to shuffle things around.

Once a day, open your calendar and take a look at all the things listed for today. Then block those out according to the time they will take. If you find they’re going to take more time than you have in the day, you move the least-urgent task(s) to the next day.

There’s a reason every business, organization and high-performing individual uses a schedule rather than a to-do list: because they get down to the heart of what really matters — making sure things get done by the time they need to.

3) Not Valuing Rest

Stephen King once said that, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” What he meant is that the things that surround your work — life, family, friends, videogames, pets, long walks, good food and drink, healthy sleep — are not mere tools. They’re not recovery spells you cast like a wizard in order to retain maximum productivity.

These are the things that matter. No matter what your ambition or aim, there is no work more urgent than the business of living your life and being happy. Failure to recognize that — either giving yourself too little down time, or treating your down time like a necessary evil — is a recipe for disaster.

Your goal should not to be “find time for rest”, because work is a wild animal and it will always expand to claim as much territory as it possibly can. Your mission, instead, is to cage that beast, and build a fence around your work. Inside the fence, let your work run free. When it breaks through the fence, though, you need to be prepared to shoot it and drag it back where it belongs.

4) Failing to Eliminate Distraction

I know, I know; you’re an expert multitasker, and you jump from text to tab to email like a cyberpunk hacker surfing waves of information. Except, you’re not, and you don’t. Sorry to burst your bubble, but the science is in, and multitasking just doesn’t work. For anyone. Ever. Period. No, you are not the exception.


Want proof? Researcher Kermit Pattison and team shadowed workers at dozens of companies. They found that the average worker was unexpectedly interrupted, on average, once every 3 minutes — and roughly 50% of those were self-interruptions, like randomly checking a text.


Sound familiar?

Stop getting in your own way. Decide on something to do, and then eliminate any possible interruption outside of that thing. Put your cell-phone in a desk-drawer. Turn off your email notifications. If anyone tries to talk to you, pick up the nearest blunt object and wave it in their general direction until they go away.

5) Wasting Your Commute

Public transportation is cheaper than driving. It’s not up for debate. The fact is, your car comes with a whole lot of costs attached — not just gas, but insurance, maintenance, tires, license and registration — and they overwhelmingly outweigh the cost of just taking a bus. However, your daily commute is costing you in another way, too: By taking up your time.

Conventional wisdom in America says the trade-off between a car and public transportation is time. You can drive somewhere whenever you want, the logic goes, but you can only catch a bus when the busses are running, and if you ride the bus, you might wind up late.

This completely ignores the fact that as many as 27% of car-commuting workers of habitually late anyway, due to, you guessed it, car traffic. More importantly: When you’re driving, you’re not doing anything else. Unless you’re texting, in which case you’re an idiot.

It’s estimated that the average commute takes 16-31 minutes a day, depending on where you live. That’s time you could be spending doing something more interesting, if someone else did the driving.

6) Underestimating Tasks

The Pareto Principle, also called the 80-20 rule, is a statistical idea which states that in any given system, 80% of the effect comes from 20% of the cause. It’s a simple guideline with a wide range of applications, and nowhere is it more true than time-management: 80% of your time is spent doing 20% of your tasks.

What this means is it’s all too easy to underestimate a task, then find it eats up most of your day. When scheduling, you should ask yourself not “how fast can I get this done,” but “what is the greatest amount of time this could possibly take?”

7) Overestimating Yourself

The Daily Muse has an awesome downloadable guide it calls the 1-3-5 List. Essentially, it’s a to-do list, but with all the crappy parts stripped out, because it forces you to limit your activity. Here’s how it works:

Every day, you’re allowed to do 1 big thing, 3 medium things, and 5 small things.

That’s it.

It works because it demands recognition of the fact that you are one person with a finite amount of time in the day. Where other to-do lists offer an endless scroll of things to put off, the 1-3-5 list is a tight daily schedule with iron-curtained borders. It says, “You can only do this many things today. Choose wisely.”

8) Taking on Too Much

The goal of time-management is not to be aware of the clock every minute of every day. It’s not to fill your time with endless busy-work. It’s not to make sure you work for 8 hours exactly and wring them for every ounce of productivity.

The goal of time-management is simply to make sure you do the things you need to do, by the time they need to be done. That’s all. So take your hand off the stop-watch and your foot off the gas. Ask yourself what needs to be done today, tomorrow and a week from now, then do what needs to be done.

9) Not Stopping When You’re Done

Here’s the problem with a to-do list: it creates a closed system that has no ability to acknowledge there’s more to getting things done than just doing a bunch of things. When your to-do list stretches a mile off the bottom of the page, there’s no incentive to ever stop. After all, how can you stop? There’s still so much to do!

When you’re done, you’re done. So STOP. Have a beer and congratulate yourself. If you can’t get done, then you’re trying to do too much. Being busy all the time is not the optimal state of being. It won’t achieve your goals, and it doesn’t make you seem professional. All it does it make you look, and feel, like a crazy person.

10) Using a Time-Management System You Don’t Like

While there is hard science to back certain best practices, the truth about time-management is that it’s a lot like working out: The best system is the one that actually works for you. There’s not a health expert on earth who would argue that walking is a less efficient way to lose weight than running — but if you absolutely hate running and are totally in love with walking, then walking is what you should do.

Doing something is always better than doing anything, and “nothing” is where you’re likely to wind up if you pick a system you hate and then drop it.

Ask yourself what your overall work objective is. What do you want your day to look like? How do you want to feel when the day is over? What method of working has, in your experience, succeeded in getting the best results from you, and what are you most likely to stick with?

Find a time-management strategy that meets your objective, then try it and stick with it for a predetermined amount of time. If, at the end of that time, it’s truly not working, then try something else — but try something, because the #1 time-management mistake you can make is simply not bothering at all.