Time Management Skills for Keeping Afloat

Time Management Skills: We are not robots.

There are enough articles on developing time management skills out there in the world that I think we all kind of know the gist. As someone who’s accidentally found herself in a field that tends to be either BUSY ON FIRE or suspiciously quiet, plus volunteer work, plus evening language classes, plus side gigs and personal pursuits, plus, well, the internet and all its distracting glory still exists, I have read and tried and promptly forgotten or discarded about 99% of them.

It’s not the knowing that’s hard; it’s when you’re drowning, remembering to put those time management skills to use. But emergency situations call for emergency measures: when I’m struggling just to keep afloat, these are the essential, non-negotiable time management skills I deploy.

Say no

Say no to that person who comes over to your desk and is like “Hey can I ask you real quick-”
Say no to a meeting that doesn’t need to happen (at all, right now).
Say no to answering that email that just came in (but I know you already looked – it’s ok, when something could catch on fire AT ANY MOMENT you feel like you have to).
Say no to things that aren’t important, urgent, or both. Some stuff you can’t say no to, but the unimportant, non-urgent things can definitely slide right now.

Ask for help

This can mean delegating. This can mean talking to your coworker to take some of your immediate workload, or something that will start to fall behind if you don’t get on it right now (and you can’t, because you’re doing 10 other things right now). This can mean talking to your boss and saying “I have too much and am worried about X, Y, and Z not being done well as a result, what can we do?”

Sometimes asking for help doesn’t accomplish anything. Sometimes you have shitty coworkers or shitty bosses. Sometimes your amazing coworkers and amazing bosses are just as busy as you are and have no bandwidth to lend. Sometimes the things you need help on aren’t easily given to other people. But just sending out the “help” signal can be valuable for setting expectations and covering your own butt, and the worst case scenario is you’ll be right where you were before you asked for help, so why not.

Decompress, but don’t dick around

We are not robots. Even having all these time management skills in our brains, it’s not like, run program, beep boop, operating at 100% efficiency all day. Take strategic breaks to decompress, but be vigilant about a) what the break is and b) how long it lasts. When I am really trying to power through something but my mental capacity is fading fast, or I find myself less and less able to deploy even the emergency time management skills, I find the following rules most effective for an efficient mental reset:

  • 10-15 minutes max
  • Eat something. Did you have lunch? How about a snack? No crap. Efficient brain food only. (Coffee counts in moderation.)
  • Go outside. Ideally, walk around the block. It’s nice to remember there’s a world outside your office.
  • Leave social media alone. That way lies madness, breaks that go over 15 minutes, and distracting thoughts.
  • But do look at a picture of your dog / pet / someone else’s pet / something else you find cute and relaxing.
  • Go back to your desk on time and refreshed.

Remember it will be fine

It was fine last time. It’ll be fine this time, too. Hell, this time tomorrow you’ll have forgotten all about today’s little emergencies (because tomorrow will have inconsequential emergencies of its own).


For time management skills that involve battling your own brain’s procrastination tendencies, have you tried the Pomodoro technique? I also assembled some productivity tips for getting your head in the right space to handle what the day has in store. Or if you’re looking for more writing-specific advice, take a peek at these tips for just getting started.

Digital House Cleaning

I have a mild obsession with organization. Inbox zero is my daily goal. Clutter gives me hives, and my micro-sized apartment means the clutter threshold is pretty easy to reach. I try to be ruthless about my housecleaning – mostly starting with just not buying useless things in the first place, though lord knows ASOS and Japan’s cute accessories have sucked me in more than once – and that extends to attacking clutter in my digital life.

The internet makes it easy to accumulate things, articles, friends, bookmarks, apps, music, movies, pictures, whatever, because it has no physical presence, and as long as there’s hard drive space left who cares? But all those things take time, and for me a lot of the enjoyment of being online is lost when I can’t focus on the things that would give me the most pleasure, and instead see this wall of things to do, read, see, and interact with.

Kids these days are talking about the fear of missing out (FOMO), but the truth is you’r always going to miss something. And that’s okay, because for me, if I’ve got all my stuff neatly organized and prioritized, I’m not missing anything better than what I’ve got right in front of me.

A few of my personal tactics for digital house cleaning include:


  • Use an app like CCleaner to get rid of the most junky junk.
  • Go through your photos, videos, and music. If you don’t use it and won’t ever look at it, delete it.
  • Look at your apps, programs, and games. When is the last time you used/played/ran something? You can keep stuff you use infrequently but are vital when they come up – for example, I need to hang onto Photoshop and iMovie because there are no better programs when image and video work come up; but I can get rid of the 5 todo apps that I’ve installed trying to find the one that works best for me.
  • Create a “Dusty Music” playlist on iTunes. I like to set it so music I haven’t played in the last month appears on it. I listen to the playlist at work, making sure I cycle through my “dusty” music. Every cycle or so I run into songs I don’t really like or want to listen to. I mark those songs with one star, and next time I open up iTunes I delete the one star songs.
  • Refresh your background image and clean up icons from your desktop
  • Organize the files you want to keep into sensible folders that help you find where stuff is
  • Rename files so you know what they are before clicking. Also, quit calling stuff v1, v2, etc. Append the date to the file name if you have to keep multiple versions of the same file.

Social Media

  • How many of your Facebook friends do you actually know? Talk to? Want to see updates from? I find it really cathartic to go through and just unfriend people who might be perfectly nice people but who I straight up don’t know. Strangers with good content are for Twitter, my blogroll, or Instagram and Pinterest.
  • How many of your accounts do you actually use? If some of them are to park or protect a name (for example, I have my full real name parked on most networks as it is unique and I wouldn’t want anyone else vindictively snagging it) go for it; but if not, delete it.
  • Speaking of those strangers on the internet, do you really want to see content from every single person in your Twitter feed, your RSS feed, your Instagram feed, your Pinterest homepage, where ever? If you don’t like their stuff more than half the time, unfollow them. Also, are some of the people you follow essentially the same? I know I like dogs, but 5+ Dogstagrams are probably not necessary…

Digital Expenses

  • Do you have any recurring digital expenses or subscriptions you really don’t use? TV, MMORPGs, newspaper subscriptions, subscription boxes, domain names you just don’t use. Unsubscribe! It might not seem like much month to month, but even $5 is too much to pay for nothing.
  • Stop backing every single neat looking Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Definitely stop browsing the trending campaigns on those front pages. There’s loads of cool stuff out there, and a lot of it deserves to be funded. But unless you will really, really want whatever the thing is a year from now, you don’t have to be the one doing the funding. (Exceptions made for friends’ games and legitimately useful things that will get multiple uses and solve existing problems I had before I saw the shiny new thing that would solve those problems.)
  • Stop online “window” shopping to kill time. Read a book! Reading a book has never caused you to whoops accidentally purchase anything (except the next book in a series, which I feel like we can allow).

Other Miscellany

  • Are you backing everything up? Are you backing it up more than you need to? iPhone, Dropbox, Google Photos, and computer-wide backup services often overlap each other. It’s nice to have things double backed up sometimes, but triple or quadruple is overkill. Make sure your services aren’t unnecessarily overlapping and sucking up precious cloud storage space you could leave free for something else.
  • Let go of infinite time wasters. Set limits for how long you poke around Tumblr, Hulu, Netflix, Twitter, that one blog you like, that shopping site where you just need to get one thing but oh look there’s a sale page, whatever. Ten minutes is a good start.
  • Be honest with yourself. Is what I’m doing really how I want to spend my time?

I sense a major photo library overhaul in my future.

The Efficiency Trap

I read too many “lifehack” blogs. I’ve tried out too many calendar apps, todo lists, time trackers, and project managers. It’s tempting, when the next new thing comes up that solves all our productivity problems, to give it a try. Because surely this widget will save me from myself, from procrastination and unproductivity. If only I have the right tool it will be as effective as magic.

Yeah, no.

Reading about and trying out different efficiency hacks is its own procrastination. And with certain tools, they cause me a lot more trouble than they solve. I declared habit bankruptcy a while back, when my efficiency/productivity/better life kick got out of hand and I just had too much for my flighty human brain to handle in a single day. So apps like Timeful, where you’re supposed to block out hours of your day for this task or that, just give me hives. Trello, the much beloved project- and life-organizer, is excessively detailed for my grocery list, writing todo, work todo, don’t forget about this other random task needs.

I still hold out this hope that the perfect app or tool will come along, that slots seamlessly into my life and replaces all the haphazard habits I’ve made do with until now. But I’ve really gotta stop spending so much time trying to find it, and more time doing all the stuff I say I need help tracking.