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Time Management

4 Causes of Poor Time Management

...and suggestions for how to deal with each.

Key points

  • Good time management requires competence in four key areas.
  • Don't underestimate the toll that poor time management can take on one's career and personal relationships.
  • Understanding the cause of one's poor time management can help identify the tips most likely to improve it.

A Harvard Business Review summary of the literature on time management describes three components of the good time manager:

  • Awareness: reasonably estimating how long something will take
  • Arrangement: listing, prioritizing, and tracking goals and specific tasks
  • Adaptation: adjusting to interruptions and changing priorities

Among my clients, I’ve seen a fourth component of time management: respect. The client cares for the people who will be affected by their time management.

I’ll describe each of the four components in a bit more detail and offer suggestions for improvement.

 VectorTunes/Wikimedia Commons/CC 4.0
Source: VectorTunes/Wikimedia Commons/CC 4.0


Some of my clients lose track of time. They wonder where the minutes, the hours, even the days go. They’ve been helped by playing two “games.” Both use a timer, whether the one on your phone, the stopwatch on your watch, or a kitchen timer.

The Short-Time Guessing Game: Set the timer for two minutes. Check it when you think it’s been 30 seconds and again at 90 seconds. Repeat that until you can always get fairly close.

The Longer-Time Guessing Game: For your next few activities, write your estimate of how long you think each task will take. For example:

  • Drive to work: 45 minutes
  • Get ready to begin the first task: 15 minutes
  • Answer email: 20 minutes
  • Write the first draft of the report: 90 minutes

Now, log how long the tasks actually took. Keep playing that guessing game until your estimates are usually within 10 to 20 percent.


Some of my clients have adopted my system for keeping track of to-dos. My time-sensitive to-dos, for example, client appointments, go in my week-at-a-glance calendar. Anything I want to do in the next day or two but needn’t be done at a specific time goes on a 3x3 memo cube. Both sit on my desk and I check them often during the day.

If I didn’t work at home, I’d use my phone’s Google Calendar for the time-delimited to-dos and Apple Notes for my not-time-delimited to-dos. Of course, you have to get in the habit of both writing all your to-dos and checking that list throughout the day.


Often, we become aware of a task that’s a higher priority than the task we’re doing. Too often, we reflexively decide to defer the higher-priority task because we want closure on the task we’re working on. Or we defer the more important task because the current one is more pleasurable.

Or we get distracted by a thought or by someone. That can tempt us to take a minute to indulge the distraction. Alas, too often, the distraction lasts far longer than we realize.

My clients find it helpful to stay vigilant to a moment of truth: the moment you become aware of a higher-priority task or of a distraction. The goal is to consciously, not reflexively, decide whether it’s wise to complete your current task before turning to the higher-priority one, and whether to allow the distraction, and, if so, how long to let it distract you.


Some of my clients’ time-management problems derive from insufficient respect for the victims of their poor time management. For example, there’s the person who’s waiting for your reply to their email. Or someone who’s waiting for you when you’re either late or a no-show.

Most of my clients don’t intentionally disrespect their victims. Usually, my clients just haven’t written it on their to-do list or don’t check the list often enough. Or they enjoy trying to cram in so much before their appointments that they’re late.

What has helped is for my clients to put themselves in their victims’ shoes: How would that make you feel? Some clients have told me that their victims often say, “It’s OK, don’t worry about being late.” But privately, they may feel at least a little demeaned if you don’t respond to their email or you’re late.

From a pragmatic perspective, it may also help to remember that disrespect may take a toll on one’s career and personal life.

So, do you want to try any of these tools for improving on any of the four components of time management—awareness, arrangement, adaptation, or respect?

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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