How to Improve Your Time Management Skills

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to improve your time management skills, then Wharton management professor Michael Parke can help. He’s the co-author of a study that looks at two specific types of daily planning for employees. It turns out there’s no perfect solution — the best type depends on your work environment and the kind of day that you’re having. Parke spoke to [email protected] about the study, which is titled “When Daily Planning Improves Employee Performance: The Importance of Planning Type, Engagement, and Interruptions.” Listen to the podcast above or keep reading for an edited transcript of the conversation.

[email protected]: Let’s jump right in and talk about these two types of planning. One is called TMP, which stands for time management planning, and the other is CP, which stands for contingency planning. Can you walk me through each one?

Michael Parke: Time management planning is really about putting a to-do list together, writing out your tasks, prioritizing those tasks, and then scheduling. I think everyone has some familiarity with time management planning.

Contingency planning isn’t used as frequently or as often, but this is about thinking through your day and what could go wrong. What is likely to be disrupted? What’s likely to be delayed in your work? Or in the case in our study, are you going to be interrupted? And if so, how will you respond? This planning can help deal with those contingencies when things don’t go as planned. It’s thinking through that and trying to prepare ahead of time.

[email protected]: You and your co-authors surveyed around 200 people from all kinds of professions to get an idea of how they are going about their day. What is the key takeaway from this study?

Parke: I’ve been told, “Hey, plan your days and it can help your productivity.” We were really interested in examining that, so we surveyed employees across the span of two work weeks to see what types of planning they engaged in each day and how much. The two we already talked about are time management and contingency planning. We were interested in how that affected their engagement at work, like how focused they were, how much energy they had in their days, and their productivity for those particular days.

What we ended up finding is that, on average, both types of planning independently increased employees’ engagement and their productivity. Controlling for a host of factors, but not taking the type of day into consideration, there was a positive effect of both types of planning. Making lists feels like you’re making progress. With contingency planning, you’re reacting to disruptions and not getting bogged down.

“If you don’t engage in planning, the evidence suggests maybe you should do that.”

However, when we took into consideration the amount you were interrupted on each particular day, that’s when we start to find some nuance. If you were in a day where you were highly interrupted — and this happened in about 20% of the sample on those days — time management planning no longer has any benefits. If you’re planning your days in a very scheduled way and prioritizing, but you face a day where you’re really highly interrupted, it’s not going to give you the benefits. On the other hand, the contingency planning still works even on those very highly interrupted days. Contingent planning’s effects on engagement and productivity were not dependent on how many interruptions they faced. So, that one seems to be a bit more universal and applied, regardless of the types of interruptions people are facing in their day-to-day lives.

[email protected]: It’s really about being flexible and figuring out which one works.

Parke: Yes, I think there are definitely some takeaways in terms of how we can use these two types of planning in thinking through your days. First of all, if you don’t engage in planning, the evidence suggests maybe you should do that. That could even be the night before or on your commute to work or thinking about your day before you begin. Just have some general assessment because that helps you focus on your tasks and do them, as opposed to trying to decide through your day what to do.

The second is, when we plan, we’re too optimistic. There’s something called the planning fallacy, where we are always ambitious and think things will happen faster and get done sooner than we expect. That’s because we fail to account for the disruptions, both being interrupted by others or our own self-distractions. “Oh, I got another notification from my social media feed. Let me check it.” Therefore, things take longer. If people can think about their day — “I’m working at home, so I’m not likely to be interrupted by my colleagues,” or “I’m going to the office, but I’m going to get into this one room to really focus and keep out interruptions” — then get involved in time management planning, go ahead and do that.

However, if you look at your past experience, and you’re thinking, “Usually, I get a few emails in the morning,” or “So-and-so tends to get me around this time,” or “I know this deadline is coming up, so I’m sure I’m going to get a few teammates to check in with me,” then maybe you don’t set as ambitious of a to-do list, and maybe you’re prepared if you get interrupted. That should give you more energy, more engagement, and not get as bogged down or frustrated when you do, indeed, get interrupted.

[email protected]: I imagine there’s a difference depending on whether you’re an employee or a manager. If you’re a manager, your interruptions may be a lot of meetings during the day or the people you supervise coming up and asking you questions. If you’re an employee, it may be your manager who is interrupting you throughout the day.

Parke: Yes, I think that’s an interesting distinction to think about — how many of these results apply depending on your role. I think the broader factor is how interdependent your job and role are, meaning how much do you depend on others to get your job done? Therefore, how likely will you be interrupted or need to discuss things with other people?

My sense is that managers probably face more interruptions than an employee, just because they’re in control of more people’s jobs and more people’s work. That may not always be the case, but let’s assume it is. Then managers may actually benefit from doing more contingent planning. Again, instead of trying to focus on getting all your work done, maybe be prepared for those interruptions and have a more manageable to-do list.

I think one of the key things there is that people are enjoying their workdays better when they have that, because if they engage in time management planning and are highly interrupted, they’re not receiving those benefits in terms of their engagement and productivity. If an employee does have control over their work, and they’re not interrupted as much, then time management planning could be very beneficial for them.

“My sense is that managers probably face more interruptions than an employee, just because they’re in control of more people’s jobs and more people’s work.”

[email protected]: Why did you and your co-authors want to look at this topic?

Parke: There were a couple of reasons, but certainly engagement was part of it. I think a lot of the time management discussion focuses on how organizations can get employees to be more productive, so they can handle more demands and do more work and add more value to the organization. We were interested in flipping that. Could these skill sets make people happier, more engaged, more focused and enjoy their work? Could they be more motivated to do their work because they’re being more strategic and informed about how to align planning with their day-to-day work? That’s what we were after. It was how to increase that daily engagement.

I think that also dovetails into this discussion around work engagement, which is always an important topic. It often comes from external sources, so we need to worry about job design, we need to worry about leadership, we need to focus on culture, which are all really important factors for engagement. But employees have agency, too. Can we allow them to be proactive in a smart way, where they’re using these toolsets to make work better for them? That was our interest at a broad level. Could employees actually alter their own engagement within their control and scope of work? And we were happy to find an answer to that, which was yes, they can, especially if they’re planning for these interruptions.

[email protected]: Can you give some tips on better time management?

Parke: There are three steps. The first is, plan to plan. Set aside time, either the night before or the day of, where you think through your day and your tasks. The second part of that process is to consider what type of day you’re going to have. The best way to do that is to look in the past. Look at some repeated patterns of your days, repeated actions. How often are you interrupted? Are you working in the office? Are you working at home? All of that can come in to give you some sense of how much you’re going to be interrupted or distracted at work.

If you expect a day that’s going to be busy in terms of interactions and interruptions and distractions, then contingent planning is probably better because it will help you retool and focus on your priorities for that day. However, if you anticipate that you can kind of sit down and focus, then absolutely get through that to-do list and make it happen.

These are things that we need to learn by doing, so I’m sure there will be days where you thought you weren’t going to be interrupted, and then you were interrupted a lot. We can then update our plans the next time. But those are the three steps: Set aside time to think through your day, consider the type of day you’re going to have in terms of interruptions, and then align it with the time management plan or contingent plan. Those would be the three tools to how to use these research findings to improve, hopefully, your day-to-day work life.

[email protected]: This research was published before the pandemic, and so much has changed. A lot of us are working from home, which changes the kinds of interruptions that we face. If you were to conduct the study now, do you think that your outcomes would be different?

Parke: That’s a great research question, actually. Where it relates in this particular study is when we were investigating interruptions at work pre-pandemic, they were the other-initiated interruptions, meaning that people were coming to you for information or just to socialize. Another category of interruptions is self-initiated, where you distract yourself. You can think about that in terms of working from home or working in the office. Those may differ.

When working in the office, especially if all your colleagues are in the office, you might have more other-initiated interruptions and maybe less self-distraction because your mind is at work. However, at home, the lines start to blur and maybe you’re not interrupted as much by colleagues or others, unless you have a family and kids who are also around. But maybe [at home you are thinking], “Oh, my kitchen is right there. I need a snack.” Or you play video games or have music equipment. There are a lot of distractions that are vying for your attention and you might have those self-initiated distractions.

To your broad question of would the results change, I would want to investigate the nuance behind the different types of interruptions and whether they’re more present in the office or at home. I would still expect the general kinds of patterns — that the more interruptions you have, regardless of the type, the more contingent planning would be better and time management planning would be less beneficial. But it is an interesting question to think about how those different types of interruptions may play out with those results.

How to Improve Your Time Management Skills

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