managing time

The Only Time Management Tip You Really Need

Recently I’ve been dealing with the issue of time scarcity. Between this site, my regular job, preparations for the CFA exam, and other projects, things get busier every day. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but in order to fit everything in, I’ve been searching for new ways to use time more efficiently.

Through reading books and articles, I’ve found a dozens of time management tips. Some have been more useful than others, but as I continue to think about it, I’ve realize that it comes down to one essential concept. If you can master this one time management tip, then all the others become trivial.

There is nothing secret or revolutionary here. It’s a basic economic principle that I’m betting you already know. In fact, it’s so simple that it’s tempting to ignore in favor of flashier alternatives.

Ready to hear it already? The ultimate time management tips is:

Cut off activities at the point of diminishing returns.

Simple isn’t it?

Problems with time management arise, not from the activities we choose, but from the amount of time we allocate to each activity. The activities that are essential to productivity are the same ones that leach away valuable time.

Consider the example of email. The first 15 minutes you spend reading and responding to email each day is by far the most productive. This is when you have a ton of incoming mail to process. You’re focused on getting through it all as quickly as possible by identifying the relevant parts of each message and sending quick replies.

But this level of efficiency isn’t sustainable. The longer you stay in that inbox, the lower the marginal returns on your time. After 15 minutes you might not have any important messages left, so you start spending more time on group email lists or casual conversations with friends. After half an hour, email has become a complete waste of time because you have nothing to do besides click “refresh” every 30 seconds.

Break down the productivity of any activity and you’ll find a similar distribution. The beginning brings in the big results until the peak is reached, followed by a sharp decline. The trick is cutting off each activity right after the peak and switching to something new, where high levels of efficiency are possible.

This easier said than done. It’s hard to spot the peak when you reach it, and moving seamlessly from one task to the next is a major obstacle. To improve your time management, focus primarily on two areas: experience and self discipline.


To apply the law of diminishing returns, you need to determine the point when returns start to decline. This depends on many factors. The only way to figure it out is through experience. This doesn’t come automatically. To find the “sweet spot” you’ll need to pay careful attention to your own work habits. How long can you stay productive? What activities do you like to drag out? Where can you salvage time?

By constantly asking yourself these questions, adjusting your behavior, and evaluating the results, you’ll be able to gradually optimize your work habits.

Self Discipline

The second cornerstone of time management is self discipline. You might be able to spot the perfect time to change activities, but if you don’t have the self discipline to make the move it doesn’t matter.

Developing self discipline takes time and practice.

The best way to improve is to impose time limits on yourself, then record and schedule them. If you only make a mental note, it’s easy to forget or ignore, but when you deliberately set alerts to remind yourself to change activities you solidify your commitment and make yourself accountable.

23 Responses to The Only Time Management Tip You Really Need

  1. David Finch says:

    John,your absolutely right… It boils down to self discipline. The challenge however is the time it takes to evolve from a task to a habit. Once you make it though there’s no turning back.

    Great read!

  2. I agree about self-discipline being an important aspect simply because time management is more about self-management than anything else.

    Also, what works for me now is to simply realize that it isn’t necessary (or possible) to do all things 100% perfectly or 100% completely. There’s nothing wrong with putting in less than your best, especially if whatever you’re doing isn’t all that important.

    And finally, delegation rocks!

  3. Self-discipline and will-power are interrelated. Ian at My Bad Habits ( wrote a post on a study about will-power.

    The study suggests that your will-power is finite and is not replenished by moving towards another activity (on the contrary, the second activity will deplete your will-power even more). This means that once you start receiving a diminishing return on one activity, you probably won’t be super effective for the first 15 minutes of the next activity. Instead you need to take a rest.

  4. Lim EeHai says:

    To save time and do more useful and meaningful tasks, we have to be aware of time waster. I sincerely believe that self-discipline is a factor. The resistance to change or the stubborness in one’s mind is an obstacle that must be overcomed to be effective in time management.

  5. My
    time management system is based first and foremost keeping in mind what my life is about and what is most important. For me self-discipline is easy when I focus on what I love. I don’t respond well to “I have to”, but “I love to/want to” is the most powerful motivator there is.

  6. marc says:

    Very good post… BUT, it’s not what people want to hear! How unfortunate. The common sense answer is here, but as you’ve said, it’s not that flashy. It’s sometimes more appealing for people to read lengthy lists and great war stories about how “this one tip” really made their day. As with time management, I think there are many other productivity issues – hell, life issues – that can be simplified in such a manner. How unfortunate that the answer in front of us, the simplest one of them all, seems too easy to be true.

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  8. Great reminders. I find myself wasting valuable time on “non” money making things like reading too many blogs :) and surfing. Cutting those things in half would get me more on track with my necessary items like ebook production, etc…

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  10. Nat says:

    It depends on your priorities, I suppose. I mean, I think that spending time participating in small group, casual email conversations is very important, though not necessarily going to contribute to my annual income, it is important for my overall well being to nurture every personal relationship I have.

    It depends on what your idea of “good returns” is right?

  11. I agree with Nat, maximizing productivity is not always the best use of our time. Hey, I spent 10 years at home when my daughter was little. I can’t think of anything less efficient or more worthwhile.

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  14. Excellent post! You’ve been CPP’d!

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  17. Procrastinating Addict says:

    Awesome article. This is the kick-in-the butt plus advice on how to break this wasteful habit. I’m going to try to print out a time log everyday, and set my activities into each time block. Hopefully, that method will work

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  19. DropShip says:

    It depends on your priorities, I suppose. I mean, I think that spending time participating in small group, casual email conversations is very important, though not necessarily going to contribute to my annual income, it is important for my overall well being to nurture every personal relationship I have.

    It depends on what your idea of “good returns” is right?

  20. Great site! Has good useful information. In my opinion, I believe nobody knows this yet or they don’t think it’ll be crucial to ther lives.

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  22. Amisha Ekaant says:

    Even the most organized person will become stressed out when the time is short. Time management is all about staying focused on our work. Many of the peoples still thinking to save time by multitasking.

    However, multitasking has some drawbacks when we try to complete two tasks at a time. To avoid facing such stressful situation, is better to use good time management software. In our office, we have been using time recording software from Replicon ( ). It is easy to use and can also manage my expenses with it efficiently.

  23. Short Hair says:

    Good post about The Only Time Management Tip You Really Need

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