3 Ways to Improve Personal Time Management

Is your life totally disorganized and chaotic? A healthy routine may be the starting point you need to discovering deeper problems. In this episode, Dr. Monica Johnson looks at how to build out a schedule for yourself.

Dr. Monica Johnson
6-minute read
Episode #389

Today, we're going to talk about establishing healthy routines. As any of my patients can tell you, it's a topic that I harp on routinely—and for good reason! I find that what fascinates most people about psychology is doing the in-depth work and digging into the whys. But what I tell my patients is that without a solid foundation, you can't always get into that deep stuff in a way that's beneficial to you. It's hard to contemplate the meaning of a fire when it's actively spreading and burning down your house! This is where healthy habits and routines can come into play.

What is a healthy routine?

You might be wondering—what does a routine encompass? The answer to that question is everything! I basically have my patients schedule everything that isn't a bathroom break because that's how you build habits. A good routine is built around time blocks, which is a chunk of time that you've designated for a type of activity. For example, I might have a time block for my routine of getting ready for work, or a time block for writing and recording this podcast. Each time block is made up of tasks, which are the individual things that we do within the time block. There are typically two types of tasks, recurring and one-time tasks.

Your values should be displayed in your routines. For instance, if you have a value to attend to your relationships, then you should have time blocked into your schedule to spend time with others. If being physically healthy is a priority for you, then you should have time blocked and tasks related to exercise, medical appointments, and grocery shopping to ensure that you have time for it. If faith is important, then perhaps having blocked times for religious services, religious reflection on your own, readings, and volunteering might be healthy for you.

We're more likely to keep routines if we can connect them to what we value because then there is buy-in. Values are also important because we don't always like the tasks related to upholding our values and we often need reasons for why we do what we do. I dislike the task of exercise, for example, but value physical mobility, mental clarity, and investing in long-term quality of life. Consequently, I engage in exercise because it's tied to my values.

How to build time blocks

Let's talk a little bit about how to actually build a routine. I suggest everyone start with time blocks for morning and bedtime routines, as how you start and end your day is crucial. I also recommend time blocks for household chores, free time, and time for others. This is not an exhaustive list whatsoever, and you should explore what kind of time blocks might work for you. For example, a student may have time blocks for study time.

Assigning colors to different time blocks is helpful in organizing your schedule, whether it's pen and paper or a digital calendar, and keeping it a little fun! Don't overdo it with colors, but if you have five different types of time blocks in your routine, it's helpful to have a color assigned to each one.

Now let’s talk more about the tasks associated with those time blocks. You might think that blocking the time is enough to establish the routine, but for many, it’s not enough detail. While this is not universally true, many people who have poor time management skills can have poor decision-making skills. I've seen people make the time blocks and then sit up and think, "Okay, I know I'm supposed to be working right now, but what kind of work? Should I check emails or start working on that report that's due Friday? They can then spend half of their time block simply trying to figure out what to do, and some, depending on their mental state, will just give up. Assigning specific tasks to the time block can help, as you'll start the block with a better idea of how you should be spending that time.

A lot of those tasks may be recurring—i.e. tasks that you need to do daily, weekly, or monthly. Remember to not judge your tasks. I've had folks who work from home and had fallen out of the habit of showering or brushing their teeth daily. Consequently, they wrote down that showering was a recurring daily task for them during their morning routine block. There is no task too basic to build into your time blocks!

Recurring tasks are also helpful when you need to engage in chunking. At times, you might have a task with multiple steps or just take too much time to finish in one sitting. For example, you might have a work presentation in two weeks. During your work time block, you can set a recurring task each day to work on the presentation for two hours.

Errands are typically a recurring task as well, but remember that the term errands is too general. Break down your errands into individual recurring tasks like grocery shopping, cleaning the bathroom, and running the dishwasher.

3 mistakes people make when establishing routines

The first mistake people make in establishing routines and engaging in effective time management is not writing things down. Depending on how you work best, this might be electronic, paper/pen, or a hybrid method. What is crucial here is consistency! Don’t use an electronic method one day and a paper and pen the next or you’ll end up getting frustrated and dropping it altogether.

If you're new to this and want to test out a method, give yourself enough time to explore the merits and downsides of the method. Trying something out for only a day or two is unlikely to give you the data you need to go forward. I typically try new things for a month—by that point, I can usually write a dissertation on what works or doesn’t and have figured out improvements for a 2.0 version of the routine.

The second common mistake I see is not prioritizing yourself. I see this show up in a few different ways. Maybe you don't block out breaks for yourself or give yourself buffer time between time blocks. The goal of creating those blocks and tasks is not to schedule every minute of your day with activities. Remember to pace yourself; in my typical workday, a break can range from 15 to 60 minutes. Within an eight-hour workday, I take a minimum of 90 minutes of break time. If you're doing an activity that is extremely mentally or physically taxing, you may need more break time. Breaks and buffer time also give you a cushion for when things don't go as planned. If you're running a little behind, your break may be able to absorb some of the damage.

Another way not prioritizing yourself shows up is by not blocking that "me" or "free" time. I use the term me or free time interchangeably, but the idea is the same: it's time for you to do whatever serves you! If you need some quiet time to read a book or if you simply want to lie on the couch and ponder questions like "What would life be like if we only had four fingers like the Simpsons?" this is your moment!

I tell my patients that we want to optimize, not maximize our schedules. The goal is for time to be spent meaningfully and not wastefully. A day spent studying for a test, socializing, or knitting on your own can all be meaningful. We all need time for ourselves to replenish our batteries and reinvest in our mental health bank. As an individual, you may need more or less of this me time, but whether it's three hours or twelve, I want it blocked! And remember, this time is of equal importance to every other time block you have. That's right, your free time is just as important as your work time. The same way that you show up for work, you need to show up for yourself!

The third mistake is giving up too soon, not being consistent, or being too rigid about your schedule. When it comes to building a schedule, I use the 80/20 rule as a guideline. This essentially means that you need to be following your routines 80% of the time to get the benefits of them. However, that other 20% gives you the leeway you need for all of the things you just can't plan for (life disruptions, your mood, the weather). If you're too rigid with your schedule, you'll only end up increasing your anxiety levels and stress, which will lessen many of the positive effects. You don't need to be perfect, you simply need to be consistent, and 80% is good enough.

What’s your biggest time management tip or favorite scheduling tool? Let me know on Instagram @kindmindpsych. You can also reach out to me via my email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com, or leave a voicemail at (929) 256-2191‬.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Monica Johnson

Dr. Monica Johnson is a clinical psychologist and owner of Kind Mind Psychology, a private practice in NYC that specializes in evidenced based approaches to treating a wide range of mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorders). Additionally, she has a focus on working with marginalized groups of people including BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and alternative lifestyles to manage minority stress. She is also dedicated to contributing to her field professionally through speaking, training, supervision, and writing. She routinely speaks at conferences, provides training and workshops at organizations, supervises mental health trainees, and co-authored a book for professionals on addressing race-based stress in therapy.

Dr. Johnson earned her bachelor's degree from the University of South Carolina, completed her Psy.D. at the Arizona School of Professional Psychology, and completed her postdoctoral training year at Cherokee Health Systems in Knoxville, TN. She currently lives in Manhattan where she indulges in horror movies, sarcasm, and intentional introversion. You can find her on Instagram and online at kindmindpsych.com

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Johnson to answer on Savvy Psychologist? You can send her an email at psychologist@quickanddirtytips.com or leave a voicemail for the Savvy Psychologist listener line by calling (929) 256-2191‬.