3 Time Management Tips That Will Improve Your Health and Productivity

Time management can be tough. What is urgent in your life and what is important to your life are often very different things.

This is especially true with your health, where the important issues almost never seem urgent even though your life ultimately hangs in the balance.

  • No, going to the gym today isn’t urgent, but it is important for your long–term health.
  • No, you won’t die from stress today, but if you don’t get it figured out soon, you might.
  • No, eating real, unprocessed foods isn’t required for you to stay alive right now, but it is will reduce your risk of cancer and disease.

Is there anything we can do? If we all have 24 hours in a day, how do we actually use them more effectively?

And most importantly, how can we manage our time to live healthier and happier, do the things that we know are important, and still handle the responsibilities that are urgent?

I’m battling with that answer just like you are, but in my experience there are three time management tips that actually work in real life and will help you improve your health and productivity.

1. Eliminate half–work at all costs.

In our age of constant distraction, it’s stupidly easy to split our attention between what we should be doing and what society bombards us with. Usually we’re balancing the needs of messages, emails, and to–do lists at the same time that we are trying to get something accomplished. It’s rare that we are fully engaged in the task at hand.

I call this division of your time and energy “half–work.”

Here are some examples of half–work…

  • You start writing a report, but stop randomly to check your phone for no reason or to open up Facebook or Twitter.
  • You try out a new workout routine. Two days later, you read about another “new” fitness program and try a little bit of that. You make little progress in either program and so you start searching for something better.
  • Your mind wanders to your email inbox while you’re on the phone with someone.

Regardless of where and how you fall into the trap of half–work, the result is always the same: you’re never fully engaged in the task at hand, you rarely commit to a task for extended periods of time, and it takes you twice as long to accomplish half as much.

Half–work is reason why you’re able to get more done on your last day before vacation (when you really focus) than you do in the 2 weeks previous (when you’re constantly distracted).

Like most people, I deal with this problem all of the time and the best way I’ve found to overcome it is to block out significant time to focus on one project and eliminate everything else.

I pick one exercise and make it my only focus for the entire workout. (i.e. “Today is just for squats. Anything else is extra.”)

I carve out a few hours (or even an entire work day) to deep dive on an important project. I’ll leave my phone in another room and shut down my email, Facebook, and Twitter.

This complete elimination of distractions is the only way I know to get into deep, focused work and avoid fragmented sessions where you’re merely doing half–work.

How much more could you achieve if you did the work you needed to do, the way you needed to do it, and eliminated the half–work, half–wandering that we fill most of our days with?

2. Do the most important thing first.

Disorder and chaos tend to increase as your day goes on. At the same time, the decisions and choices that you make throughout the day tend to drain your willpower. You’re less likely to make a good decision at the end of the day than you are at the beginning.

I’ve found that this same trend holds true in my workouts as well. As the workout progresses, I have less and less willpower to finish sets, grind out reps, and perform difficult exercises.

For all of those reasons, I do my best to make sure that if there is something important that I need to do, then I do it first.

If I have an important article to write, I grab a glass of water and start typing as soon as I wake up. If there is a tough exercise that I need to do, then I do it at the beginning of each workout.

If you do the most important thing first, then you’ll never have a day when you didn’t get something important done. By following this simple strategy, you will usually end up having a productive day, even if everything doesn’t go to plan.

3. Reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule.

I’ve written previously about the importance of holding yourself to a schedule and not a deadline. There might be occasions when deadlines make sense, but I’m convinced that when it comes to doing important work over the long–term, following a schedule is much more effective.

When it comes to the day–to–day grind, however, following a schedule is easier said than done. Ask anyone who plans to workout every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they can tell you how hard it is to actually stick to their schedule every time without fail.

To counteract the unplanned distractions that occur and overcome the tendency to be pulled off track, I’ve made a small shift in how I approach my schedule. My goal is to put the schedule first and not the scope, which is the opposite of how we usually approach our goals.

For example, let’s say you woke up today with the intention of running 3 miles this afternoon. During the day, your schedule got crazy and time started to get away from you. Now you only have 20 minutes to workout.

At this point, you have two options.

The first is to say, “I don’t have enough time to workout today,” and spend the little time you have left working on something else. This is what I would usually have done in the past.

The second option is to reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule. Instead of running 3 miles, you run 1 mile or do five sprints or 30 jumping jacks. But you stick to the schedule and get a workout in no matter what. I have found far more long–term success using the this approach than the first.

On a daily basis, the impact of doing five sprints isn’t that significant, especially when you had planned to run 3 miles. But the cumulative impact of always staying on schedule is huge. No matter what the circumstance and no matter how small the workout, you know you’re going to finish today’s task. That’s how little goals become lifetime habits.

Finish something today, even if the scope is smaller than you anticipated.

Time Management Tips That Actually Work

There are thousands of time management apps and productivity gadgets. You’ll find more calendars, reminders, and task lists than you know what to do with. But in my experience, the most effective and practical time management approaches are simple.

When it comes to living a healthy and productive life, I do my best to focus on three things…

  1. Eliminate half–work and focus deeply.
  2. Do the most important thing first.
  3. Stick to your schedule and build the habit, no matter how small the accomplishment.

How have you managed your time better and accomplished more at work, at home, or in the gym?

22 Comments

  1. Andrew says:

    James!

    Always looking forward to Mondays and Thursdays…

    Your posts always help put life back into perspective. Helping us stay happy and healthy.

    Thank you sir.

    • James Clear says:

      Andrew — I’m excited that you feel that way. I always look forward to sharing my ideas with you. I’ll do my best to keep the good stuff coming your way.

      p.s. Thanks for being part of our little community!

  2. Tammy R says:

    James, I really like how all three of your important points are so connected. I keep a pretty rigid schedule. Because I used to commit to too many activities, I would do many things but none very well, and I rarely felt like I had accomplished anything extremely important during the day even though I bragged a 60+ hour work week. Now I finish exercising by 7:30 every morning which allows me to write before I begin my other work for the day.

    Now that I reflect, it isn’t luck. I have made it possible that I can engage in those activities first. When I didn’t make it possible, they didn’t happen.

    Your posts always give me those prompts to reflect and adjust. Thank you!

    • James Clear says:

      Tammy — thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I love hearing about you have made positive changes in your life. Keep up the good work!

  3. Tony says:

    Great point about the relationship between scope and schedule. Thanks for the article!

  4. cj says:

    James! A barn-burner of an article, again. I am now in the business of creating urgency since, as you say, it isn’t really there. Like with fitness and diet. It’s not the same as an armed ax murderer chasing you down a dark street at 2AM. But I create urgency with these matters by telling myself they are indeed life and death and they get done, excuses screech to a halt, people no longer get in the way, results ensue. Nothin’ like it.

    • James Clear says:

      Hahaha — you’re right. Axe murderers and fitness share very little in common. Kudos on making the connection though!

      Keep up the good work, CJ. It’s great to hear about your transformation. And as always, thanks for reading!

  5. Marya says:

    Another one of the articles that made me say, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” I appreciate the notion of reducing the scope of the activity if I don’t have time to do the whole activity. That will certainly help me to get into the habit of doing THAT SAME THING at the same time. I have trouble with consistency, and I know that this small tip will help shift my thinking. Thanks!

    • James Clear says:

      Marya — I’m glad you found the article helpful. I think you’re on the right track. In my experience, forming habits (no matter how small they are on certain days) is the secret to long term success. Keep up the good work!

  6. John Kester III says:

    Great work here James, keep it up!

    I really like this quote, “Stick to your schedule and build the habit, no matter how small the accomplishment.” We can always move toward our goals and the days of putting things off are over!

    JK3

  7. MOOSE says:

    James –
    I have a rare exception I have found to the Half-Work rule that helps me to keep a habit going. I thought I would share with you. I am loving your site, and I couldn’t agree more with the idea that we are rarely fully engaged. I am still working on intermittently disengaging in order to passionately re-engage, so maybe we can discuss that further sometime?

    But for now: my rare exception. I have used half-work to my advantage in keeping up the habit of cooking all of my own meals. In my previous life, I felt like cooking was a waste of perfectly good time when I could be learning, having fun, or doing other stuff to disengage. Now, thanks to the myriad of podcasts out there, I listen to podcasts covering a range of topics, from health to business to science shows, while cooking. It allows me to feel as if cooking is not another chore, but instead that I am still disengaging during that time by doing what I enjoy – learning. In this respect, I am totally half-working on my cooking and half-learning, but it allows me to stick to my habit and enjoy it much more. I found this to be an interesting little exception to the usual rules. I wonder if there are more exceptions that could prove useful!?

    Happy experimenting,
    marshall moose moore

    • James Clear says:

      Moose, I like this example. I’m sure there are some people who would argue that by only doing one thing (either cooking or listening to a podcast) you would be more fully engaged in that task and thus you would enjoy it more. As an end result, your feelings of happiness might increase because you spend more time “being in the moment.”

      For me, however, I can see how this combination could work well. If cooking is something that you’re not going to be fully engaged in and passionate about anyway, then adding an enjoyable task (like listening to one of your favorite podcasts or playing fun music) can be a great way to combine things and make the entire experience better.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Moose. It’s great to have you reading here!

      • MOOSE says:

        Hey James –

        I agree, some people would definitely say I would be happier if I was doing just one of those tasks and not mind-wandering (have you seen the TEDx on happiness by Matt Killingsworth?). This is a perfect case-study of an example where you cannot believe everything you are told, and must test it out and see what works for you! After all, Einstein is said to have thought up his theory of relativity while riding his bicycle. That’s definitely not staying in the moment!

        I find that I have also come up with some of my best ideas while daydreaming (My ideas have not received as much acceptance as Einstein’s … yet!). Of course, it is certainly important to be conscious of how often it occurs; again, I agree with you that about 90% of the time half-work is detrimental to our productivity and happiness. However, if I allow myself to half-work or daydream at certain times (while cooking for myself – I will include listening to podcasts in this because they often spark ideas that I daydream about while hopefully not burning my lunch), I greatly expand my potential for coming up with an idea that I may not have had otherwise.

        For me, the major breakthrough in this respect came when I started to do some brain training, which allowed me to begin to recall things that I thought of while daydreaming (the types of things that commonly slip away…). The brain training I worked with (and am still experimenting with) included dream-hacking as well as conscious n-back training.

        It seems to me that there is something in our genes that allows us to mind-wander and daydream during times that are not life-or-death situations. Mark Sisson has talked about the importance of letting yourself daydream. I imagine that our ancestors, with far more time spent in fight-or-flight situations, did not have the ability to daydream as much as our current lives allow us to. Yet, in moments when they were able to let their minds slip off, there must have been an evolutionary benefit to them doing it (perhaps the idea behind the creation of the knife came from daydreaming?). The problem today is that we have much more time spent in situations when we can daydream (or worse, mind-wander negatively = worry), and thus we need to learn on an individual level how to manage it effectively. For some, that is never half-working or day dreaming. For others, it may be more often.

        All the best until next time,
        moose

        • James Clear says:

          Moose — these are great examples. I love hearing about your experiments and discoveries. Keep at it and keep sharing. It’s great to have you in our little community here.

        • Nutter says:

          Moose, you sound like a very interesting guy.

          I’m with you on the daydreaming thing, but because I I lose focus TOO often I have to treat it as a reward. So, if I’ve been a good girl and achieved my goals for the day I can…put something blues-y on the stereo, waltz barefoot around the kitchen singing (horribly), and cook up a bunch of paleo meals, all while my brain is on “idle”…

          (Oh, yeah. There’s often a glass of merlot in this equation.)

          BTW, Mark Sisson totally rocks, eh?

          • moose says:

            Nutter, I am a super-interesting guy. Totally modest, too. You sound like an interesting girl!

            I like the idea that you can allow yourself to if you have achieved your goals for the day. I totally agree, and it applies to more than just daydreaming. Right now I am working on setting my goals appropriately, though!

            I find that a glass of merlot can really help with the creative process too, or at least make me think my waltz moves are better than they really are.

            As for daydreaming/listening to podcasts, James inspired me to write a post on it.

            Maybe it explains a little more. I would love to keep the thoughts going on the topic!

  8. Jennifer says:

    Hi James!
    I really appreciate this post and the applicable suggestions. I certainly agree with them and feel that perhaps I know them subconsciously yet it’s extremely helpful to bring them to the forefront. In terms of doing the most important thing first, I realize now reading this that I do that with my 5-min meditations and positive affirmations in the morning as soon as I wake up. I enjoy them first thing because it’s the best time/way to prime for the day and also because I probably won’t have the time later, or remember. The meditation has also helped to increase focus which reduces my half-work at the office, and also increased intensity during workouts (e.g.supersets with plyos) which relates to the first point. Thanks a million!
    - Jennifer

    • James Clear says:

      These are great examples, Jennifer. Thanks for sharing. I’m sure other members of our community are getting a lot out of reading that.

      I’ll do my best to keep the good stuff coming your way. And in the meantime, keep doing those meditations and workouts!

  9. Being someone who prides herself on being productive, it can be hard to admit that from time-to-time I allow myself to become so distracted. Half-work sucks the life right out of you! Doing my most difficult task first thing in the morning (eating my frog!) has become a winning strategy for me too.

    http://www.livingprimal.ca/3/post/2012/11/carolyns-november-challenge-eat-my-frog.html

    Thanks for the great website/blog!
    Carolyn

  10. tatjana says:

    They say the teacher will come when the student is ready. The three advices in the article are exactly what I needed in this point of my life – real lifesavers.

    Thank you, James, for turning theory in practice – this is what I often lack with certain “gurus”. And thank you for enspiring me every single time.

    Tatjana

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