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Changing the Time Management Mindset

The secret to regaining control of your schedule

When I ask the people I work with what skills they would like to develop, time management almost always tops the list. They feel stressed out, overburdened, and running behind schedule. They are convinced there is a secret they haven’t figured out yet. Is it sticky notes? Calendar blocking? Efficiency tools like, Asana, or Slack?

So what is the secret?

Unfortunately, like most real, adult problems, there isn’t actually a secret switch that makes this issue go away. However, I do think the closest thing is working on your mindset and not on your color-coding.

That isn’t to say there is no place for time management tactics and tools (I personally love a hand-written to-do list). The problem with focusing on these things as solutions is that too often people get caught up in perfecting the tool and lose sight of the end game—saving time on whatever is actually important.

So what mindset changes help with time management? I’d like to walk through three critical pieces.

Building in slack

People often think that achieving efficiency requires mapping out every minute of every day so there is no wasted time. Maybe this works in an ideal world, but I’ve yet to find that in my own job. Instead, I anticipate issues, unexpected projects, and delays, because anything else is delusion.

I no longer give these distractions the same level of weight as I used to, because I’ve already planned for them. I don’t know what they’ll look like or how big they’ll be, but I accept them as part of the job.

Prioritizing with mission

If you care about doing a good job at your job, there will be an endless amount of work that you can do. You will still have to face the fact that resources are limited. Your time is limited. That means you’ve got to make trade offs and you’ve got to prioritize.

Where this gets dicey is that, so often, prioritization is a huge time suck in and of itself. Even worse, it usually is a group activity, so there is a lot of time and effort that goes into picking A over B and so forth. This means lots of planning time and little execution time. I’m not advocating that you function without a plan or ignore other stakeholders in your decision-making. Instead, I recommend a more eloquent approach to prioritization: one that focuses on mission instead of tasks.

Assuming you are an individual contributor, and not responsible for setting the mission of others, I recommend holding each potential task against your specific role’s mission (and your personal mission as well). How well does doing this thing contribute to my mission in the short, medium, and long term? Focus on achieving the things that have the biggest impact first and let the others things fall to the side.

If you’re not sure what your mission should be, you can try asking your boss, but you can also probably ascertain it by looking at a couple of things: 1) what are your goals based on/how is your comp structured 2) what does your manager’s manager report on about your work and 3) what makes your manager/department look good. Some combination of these things is probably what you should actually focus your time on.

Accepting unfinished business

Finally, you need to come to terms with having things be undone. If you feel stressed every time something is not finished, you’ll always feel stressed. This isn’t about abandoning projects, it’s about keeping sanity when you have a fast-paced and multifaceted job. If you keep moving in the right direction, eventually you’ll get there.

One thing that I’ve found extremely beneficial for myself is compartmentalizing my work. Yes, I need to do all 20 of these things, but right now I’m doing this thing, so those other things will wait. Instead of stressing about the 20, I see if I can check off this 1 and reduce the overall number.

I allow myself to feel accomplishment in each one, to remind myself of progress instead of getting bogged down by unfinished work.

And yes, I do put “lunch” on my to-do list because, honestly, a woman’s got to eat.

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