An often overlooked component of Time Management is the skill to be truly “aware” of time.  It can crop up in two different ways.  The first is having an awareness of how long tasks actually require.  The second is having an awareness of the passage of time itself.  This post will focus on the first.

An awareness of how long things actually take. 

It seems like an easy thing – to know what you have to do and be able to estimate how long to allow for it to get done.  Not always.  Think about when you started a new job, took on a new role, or started a new semester at school.  Gauging how long to allow for tasks and assignments takes a while to determine given a lot of new (and unknown) factors.  Even how long to allow for moving around campus or travelling to appointments means your transition time is unknown until you’ve done it a few times.  We have to make ourselves aware of the time needed as we tackle those first assignments and get used to a routine.  Hopefully you allow yourself time to deal with the learning curve.  Once you hit your stride, you can better plan to tackle assignments and projects because you now have information you can use to plan realistically.

It’s not only those dealing with new situations that deal with this, however.   In a daily world of multi-tasking, interruptions, incoming communications, distractions, you name it, how often do we get to truly focus on one thing at a time?   You may have been submitting that monthly report for years but could you actually identify HOW LONG it takes you to accomplish it?  Do you find yourself scheduling time for a task but finding it takes a LOT more than you allowed?   The importance of having this awareness is that it helps you make better decisions about how to allot the time you do have available.  Try these strategies to get a better handle on how long you spend on tasks:

  • Apply the 80/20 rule.  If I were to suggest that you quantify the minutes you spend on every single activity, you’d stop reading right here – and I wouldn’t blame you.  Instead, I’d recommend that you identify the 20% of your activities that result in your biggest payoff.  Now that could be a few crucial tasks, reports, etc. that are critical to your role. OR, you could approach it with those things that take up the biggest “chunks” of your time.  Another item is to look at activities that are your biggest challenges.  However you define it, start with those few activities or categories and decide to really get to know them better
  • Track them.  You can use any of a number of ways to track this.  The simplest is to use a time log (basically just a list of the task and how much time you spent on it – Google can help you find some great templates to get you started).  Just keep a running list either tallying minutes/hours or maybe a start/end time.  Another way, if you don’t like the idea of tracking manually, it to assign yourself a slot of time where you will do NOTHING else but that task.  Maybe start with a 15 or 30 minute slot and schedule as many of those throughout the day or week until the job is done.  Some technology solutions could be helpful too (like You mainly want to gather info here and the way you do it isn’t as important as gathering actual info on time spent. 
  • Quantify the task.  You want to come away with an amount of time that is reasonable for doing the task going forward.  You may need to look at time spent over the course of doing the task a few times.  What takes 1 hour one month, may take 2.5 the next.  Think about what is “typical” and then allow a little extra.   Also, build in time for “gathering”.  Do you need to go back to reference emails or communications?  Are there reports to pull?  Do you need input from others before you can begin?  These often get overlooked so that the time we thought we were going to work on the task gets eaten up by the work we need to do just to get started!
  • Consider how many times you stop and start.  It takes time to switch gears mentally.  That is the primary reason that multitasking has been proven NOT to work.  Switching between even basic tasks will take several minutes every time you stop to check email, answer the phone, or chat with someone walking by your desk.  To transition into meaningful focus, you’ll need to allow even more time – – 10-20 minutes.  If the task requires a lot of concentration, you can see where allowing distractions can easily end up spreading a one hour task out over a whole day.  If it is a multi-step task you are looking at, you’ll likely have stopping points where you may need to do different types of work, stop to communicate for others, or perhaps wait for info or others to complete their own portions of the assignment. 
  • When is the best time for you to do that task?  For those 20% of tasks you identify as most crucial, it’s important to give them the most appropriate part of the day.  If they require “brain work”, put them into a time of day where you can best focus.  I learned long ago that if I work on writing, course creation, or blogging in the late afternoon, it takes almost twice as long and I don’t feel my work is its best.  I do this much better in the mornings.  Likewise, there are tasks that are important but don’t require that same level of concentration but are still important.  I make myself do them in the afternoon so that I can save my focus time for other activities.  You may make choices around the best time based on your own rhythm or even things such as when it’s easiest to connect with others regarding the task, when you are less likely to get interrupted, etc.
  •  Apply what you learned.  You can now make some decisions around how you tackle those tasks.  What makes the most sense as to when you work on them and how long you need to allow?  You’re more likely to stick to your plan when you acknowledge what is realistic about how long a task takes and you’ve really thought through the best way to approach it.  Interruptions and “fires” will still pop up, but you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll need to shift and how long it will take.

Cindy B Sullivan is a Time Management Consultant and Certified Professional Organizer.  Cindy works with individuals and corporations to identify ways to be more efficient and productive through individual coaching, consulting, organizing, and training.  Visit to see more blog posts, events, and to follow us on social media.  For a complimentary consultation, email Cindy at [email protected]