Time Management

The term time management became familiar in the 1950s and 1960s as referring to a tool to help managers make better use of available time. The tool was based on practical experience, in the form of dos and don’ts. The term appears to indicate that time is managed, but actually activities are managed over time. Time management is self-management with an explicit focus on time in deciding what to do; on how much time to allocate to activities; on how activities can be done more efficiently; and on when the time is right for particular activities. Much of the advice on time management concerns the standardization and routinization of activities to increase efficiency. The time gained with this increased efficiency can be used for other activities, deliberately chosen as worthwhile, rather than activities that serve only as means to achieve less worthwhile goals, so-called time wasters. In other words, time is gained for activities that deserve it, and full concentration can be devoted to these activities for a longer period of time.

Similar to self-management, time management is focused on solving problems. Examples of common problems are feeling overwhelmed by the workload; planning too optimistically; being unable to deal with distractions; deadline pressure; and procrastination. The core of time management is to prevent these problems by preparation and planning. Many scheduling techniques can be used that aim at obtaining an overview of tasks, subtasks, and actions and methods to remember them—for example, making a to-do list, organizing it according to priority based on importance (relevant to effectiveness) and urgency (relevant to timeliness), and scheduling tasks to months, weeks, and days.

In addition, time management may be seen as a way to stay on track in dynamic conditions. As such, it is more than planning, and it involves a cycle of goal setting, planning, keeping track of progress (monitoring), and the evaluation of goal achievement. In dynamic conditions, if-then rules help to quickly decide courses of action when situations change. For example, if a coworker requests to do a task unexpectedly, then there are four options, based on the judgment of importance and urgency. If it is both important and urgent, act on it immediately. If it is important, but not urgent, try to find out whether it may be done at a later time that suits your schedule. If it is urgent, but not important to your own priorities, try to delegate it to someone else. If it is neither urgent nor important, then do not do it at all. It is clear that apart from these decision rules, some social skills related to assertiveness are needed in dealing with such requests.

Research on Time Management

Despite the worldwide popularity of time management training, the research on time management has been relatively scarce. That is, although several studies have been conducted among students about study behavior and, to a lesser extent, among individuals in a work setting, there are only a few study results to substantiate the claims of time management to increased efficiency and better performance.

Therese Hoff Macan proposed a model of time management in which time management behaviors such as goal setting and organizing result in perceived control of time, which leads to outcomes such as increased performance and less tension. Research that investigated this model established the relationship between perceived control of time and tension several times. However, the relationship between certain types of behavior and control of time, and between control of time and performance, resulted in inconsistent research outcomes.

Apart from this model, the approach to time management has been largely a theoretical, focused on personal skills, without consideration of why the problems arise and why they are so common. Not much is known about the work context, which may play an important role in the pressures on and the enhancement of the use of time. A more comprehensive theoretical framework of time management than presented so far would have to involve task content and social influences, as well. Relevant issues, for example, are as follows: does a person have the autonomy to self-manage activities over time, to delegate activities, or to say no to certain requests? How heavy is the person’s workload?

Some authors proposed that time management may be seen as an individual difference variable, and there are several indications that some people are more planful and attentive to time than others. Examples of these individual differences are time urgency (the degree to which a person is hurried and focused on time); polychronicity (the preference to handle several activities simultaneously); and time use efficiency. In the next section, procrastination is presented as one of these variables.


Procrastination may be seen as a specific time management problem that involves the delay of activities, even though the person is aware that they are important and urgent. The moral undesirability of this phenomenon may aggravate the problem, and many self-help books and tools are devoted to conquering it.

Procrastination may be studied as a state—in effect, as delay at particular moments. Discounting delayed outcomes offers a good explanation as to why everyone engages in procrastination at least once in a while. That is, people generally prefer short-term outcomes over long-term outcomes. This may explain why impulsive reactions to short-term activities (time-pressing, urgent matters) may be more common than planful execution of longer-term goals, even if these are more important than the urgent matters. Both the avoidance of unpleasant tasks and the approach to appealing tasks may motivate procrastination, and training self-control may be seen as central to overcoming procrastination.

Most of the research on procrastination has devoted attention to the trait perspective, in which procrastination is seen as a generalized tendency to repeatedly engage in this type of behavior. Within the trait perspective, the overarching Big Five factor model of personality may be used. In this model, the factor conscientiousness refers to discipline, order, and achievement motivation. It is highly negatively related to trait measures of procrastination. Neuroticism, a factor that includes anxiety and depression, is a positively related factor, but it is only moderately related. Self-efficacy is also negatively related to procrastination.

The degree to which procrastination is common and influenced by the context at work has not been studied extensively. Most of the research results are students’ self-reports, and a general bias in the self-perception of individuals who admit they procrastinate that generalizes to other traits may not be ruled out. Another point of discussion in the literature is whether procrastination is caused by deeply rooted psychological motives that need to be dealt with in therapy.


  1. Claessens, B. J. C., Van Eerde, W., Rutte, C. G., & Roe, R. A. (in press). A review of the time management literature. Personnel Review.
  2. Koch, C. J., & Kleinmann, M. (2002). A stitch in time saves nine: Behavioural decision-making explanations for time management problems. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 11, 199-217.
  3. Macan, T. H. (1994). Time management: Test of a process model. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 381-391.
  4. Van Eerde, W. (2003). A meta-analytically derived nomological network of procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 1410-1418.

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