Time Management and Wellbeing

If we want to understand our relationship with time, we have only to look to how we talk about it. In the more relaxed Spanish-speaking cultures, people say, “Anda el reloj”: “Time/the clock walks”. In the German culture where emphasis is on things working, it functions. In the precise French culture, time marches. In English, of course, our watch – and time in general – runs, as in “running out”.

It should be no surprise, then, that in the English-speaking world, we view time as a precious commodity: we can “buy time”, live on “borrowed time”, or try to “save” time. If we don’t manage to organise ourselves in relation to it, we are accused of “wasting” time or “spending” too much of it on something unimportant.

How many times have you heard excuses like these for not being prepared/on time/ready?

  • “I just don’t have time”. In fact, each of us has all the time there is: 24 hours each day, seven days each week. How you are choosing to spend yours may not be working well for you.
  • “I am overloaded”. Yes, you probably are: overloaded with lower-value things you chose to do which got in the way of your high-value, high-priority tasks.
  • “I’m not disorganised, just too busy.” Methinks thou dost protest too loudly. If you have to tell us how organised you are, chances are that you aren’t.
  • “I’m late because I was held up”. Late is late, regardless of whether traffic was diabolical or your two-year-old spilled his orange juice on the rug. Here’s the hard truth: you just didn’t leave early enough!
  • “I’ll get that done/sent to you/organised by tomorrow.” Yeah, right. We’ve heard that one before. It’s first-cousin to “The check is in the mail.”

We could go on, but you get the idea. Those who don’t have control of their time also do not have control of their lives. They are not living effectively or, mostly, with much satisfaction. And they leave a trail of destruction in their disorganised wake: for their families, friends, and co-workers to pick up. On the other hand, when you are an organised, effective self- manager, you’ll see these benefits coming to you:

  • Greater productivity and efficiency
  • Reduced stress
  • Enhanced opportunities for advancement
  • A better professional reputation
  • Increased opportunities to achieve important life and career goals

Moreover, with effective use of your time, you will avoid the tragic consequences flowing from these aspects of poor time management:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Poor work quality
  • High stress levels
  • Poor professional reputation and career going nowhere
  • Inefficient work flow (Mind Tools, 2016)

Managing your time better is a proven way to increase your overall wellbeing. But where do you get started? In this article, we examine a time management technique you can start implementing in your life today: the master and daily lists.

Replacing your traditional “to-do” list

The building blocks of your new organisational skills will be a pair of lists which replace the traditional “to-do” list: a master list and a daily list. But there is a prerequisite organisational task for you to do before these can make sense. That is the setting of your goals. When you know where you are headed and what you are trying to achieve, you are able to prioritise tasks according to how important they are. Failing that, you could end up like many poor time managers: being able to tick off a large number of tasks as done, but realising belatedly that they were all low priority ones that didn’t advance the important goals!

Perhaps you are already familiar with the fine art of goal-setting. In this case, please ensure before proceeding that you have completed your (written) goal-setting and are clear on what the most important goals are for each area of your life. If you are uncertain about how to set workable goals, we encourage you to review this seven-step method of setting goals.

Mastery through the master list

What we’re going to say next will sound heretical to some: throw away your traditional to-do list. In fact, here is more heresy: it doesn’t matter what system you are currently using to organise yourself: day planner, diary, electronic calendar, or even a smart phone app. Whatever system you are using is ok, but it will all work better when you start using a master list in conjunction with a daily list.

A master list (called the “writing pad” by time-management expert Brian Tracy, 2015) is a pad of paper onto which you record all the possible notes, activities, action items, etc., for an entire week. The daily list is a single piece of paper onto which you plan a realistic number of key activities for that day alone (more on daily lists in a moment). These two lists together replace the “to-do” list.

Once you get the hang of these lists, they are easy to use. Here are some pointers on the master list:

  1. Have one master list. Things from both your work and personal life all get mixed in together on your master list. It’s easier to manage with a single system and you feel less fragmented as a person.
  2. Write down thoughts and then forget them. Are you addicted to sticky notes? Use them for bookmarks, but not for sudden recall of errands you must do, or people you must call. When ideas occur to you, jot them down on the master list so that you don’t lose them; you thus keep your mind free to focus on your higher-priority tasks. If your master list isn’t handy, leave a message on your voice mail or send a brief text to yourself for later retrieval and placement onto the master list.
  3. Keep the list spacious. Leaving lines between entries and/or plenty of margin space will help ensure that you can make notes without cluttering it up too much. You need to be able to read the items easily so that you don’t “lose” tasks before you can action them or transfer them to your calendar.
  4. Make the master list for the whole week. Rewrite it regularly, say on Friday afternoon if you work Monday to Friday, or perhaps Sunday evening if you are a student or have a different rhythm of work. Your master list is only rewritten once a week: not every day or two! And here is a crucial point: you then file last week’s master list for future reference.
  5. Think of the master list as a brain dump. At the moment things go onto the master list, you do not prioritise or organise them; you merely jot them down: as they occur, loosely (never mind about spelling or grammar), and quickly, so that you can get back to the important, high-priority task you are working on.
  6. Do jot down details. Sadly for those who hate them, details are crucial. Jot them down – the venue as well as the time for an appointment you have just made; the creative solution you need to employ for the major project – so that you prevent misunderstandings and confusion later. It may all seem clear at the moment you are thinking about a particular detail, but, especially when we are stressed, details escape us quickly.
  7. Have a mindstorming session shortly before the end of your day. If you are working, turn off or ignore your phone and do not check emails for the last ten to 15 minutes of your day. If you are a student, shortly before you leave the campus (or your workspace at home if you are an online student), take time to empty out as many thoughts as you can from your mind. Getting them down onto your master list ensures that you are ready for the next day’s daily list to be drawn up. Capturing thoughts onto the master list frees you to have a personal life and creates separation between work/ academic life and your personal life. Because this doesn’t take too much mental energy, it’s a good “end-of-day” thing to do.
  8. Review your master list throughout the day. Look for items that need to be scheduled. Put these onto your daily list and cross them off your master list (which will not get every item crossed off it every day – that is not the way it works!). However, note the next point.
  9. Evaluate your performance weekly when you rewrite your master list. At this time you transfer items not yet completed to the new master list you are drawing up. As you do this, compare completed items with those you are transferring: do you see any trends here? Are there perhaps some types of tasks which you acknowledge are important and need to be done, but you have trouble getting to them week after week, for example: having “that conversation” that you don’t really want to have with a co-worker, progressing your taxes, or finalising that important assignment?
  10. Keep your list handy at all times to reduce “drive by shootings”. Those “Gotta minute?” interruptions are often the most common way you lose control of your schedule. Some requests, of course, you may need to handle right away, but you can examine your list and schedule others more appropriately: meaning, at a time that suits you and still satisfies the requester.
  11. Use noon as a deadline. Some time management experts claim that 90 percent of all our productivity gains are in the morning (Zeigler, 2005). Getting one or two high-priority tasks done in the morning will make you feel good about your whole day and reduce pressure later in the day.
  12. Take your “cod liver oil” in the morning. Just a few generations ago, parents made their kids swallow a spoonful of cod liver oil for their health. Apparently, it tasted disgusting, but it was believed (and is still believed) to be very healthy. Your master list probably has a few spoonfuls of “cod-liver-oil tasks” on it: those things you know are good for your career, your academic status, or your personal life, but they aren’t appealing at all to do.

We say, do them early, while your energy levels are high and you are productive. Brian Tracy calls them “live frogs” and exhorts followers to “Eat that frog” right away in the morning (Tracy, n.d.). Then, as Mark Twain said in coming up with the original metaphor, everything else that day will be a pleasure by comparison! Similarly Ken Zeigler (2005) advocates eating at least one “veggie” (those tasks that we regard like children regard the vegetables on their plate) right away in the morning, and then “eating” one more before lunch (adapted from Zeigler, 2005).

Suggestion: Why not take a coffee break now, put your feet up, and pad and pen in hand, start drawing up your master list?

Detailing the daily list

In conjunction with the master list, good time managers have a daily list, drawn up every day from items on the master list. The daily list can be paper or it can be an electronic plan. Whatever format it takes, its purpose is to guide you to do the most important, high-priority tasks in a timely fashion and to work in other – possibly urgent and not always important – tasks, as time and circumstances allow.

Here are some points about how to set up and use a daily list.

  1. Start to draw up the list the day before. Like the weekly master list, which we advocate writing at the end of the week (a low energy/productivity time anyway), the daily list is best begun at the end of the day before. You choose two to six tasks from your master list and put them onto the daily list (either paper or electronic). How many tasks should you choose? The answer depends on how much of your next day will be genuinely under your control. How many meetings, appointments, classes, deadlines, or other commitments do you already have? Work with this reality and leave some room in your day. This is because the next morning, you will undoubtedly find a few email tasks, voice mail requests, or even text messages which will impact on your time management. Some of these you may have to respond to quickly, so you need to have some cushion in the day that you begin to plan now. As you go through the emails/voicemails/texts, you are looking only for spoonfuls of “cod liver oil”: just those things that will be good for you to do.
  2. Put a star by the list’s two biggest “spoonfuls” of cod liver oil and “take” them in the morning! Zeigler (2005) notes that, typically, the top two tasks will provide 80 percent of the value of all the tasks listed. Thus a good strategy is to build the rest of the day around these two tasks and try to fit in the less high-value things around them. Your aim should be to complete at least one early in the day and a second one by lunch.
  3. Try to plan your daily lists such that you are not transferring items to the next day’s list. One reason for this is that it is disheartening to do so, making you feel like you are not accomplishing much or using your time well. Another reason is that it takes yet more time to re-write items. Regularly putting too many items onto the list might mean that you are over-planning or unrealistic; you could be perceived as disorganised: either way, not a good look to bosses, co-workers, teachers, family, or friends.
  4. Work with concentration cycles. These are normally about 90 minutes; after that, you need a short break. This could be something as simple as getting up to get a drink or doing a short, low-priority but pleasant task from your daily list. After the break, you should be able to engage concentration again.
  5. Take breaks between tasks. Even if you are not at the 90-minute boundary, taking a short break to shift gears after each task will keep you fresh and productive (adapted from Zeigler, 2005).

Suggestion: Don’t delay on this one. Draw up your daily list from the master list you just did for the week.

In summary, good time management is good self-management. It is about living life on purpose and choosing your activities and tasks in accord with that purpose, which you define with your goals. Knowing what you want to achieve and where you are headed makes it easier to prioritise without delay the not-delicious-but-important tasks, to manage the many distractions and interruptions, and to stay focused on those tasks with your full attention. Managing yourself well through time is satisfying, high-performance-inducing, and career-facilitating. Get started today!


  • Mind Tools. (2016). What is “Time management?” Mindtools.com. Retrieved on 11 January,, 2016, from: hyperlink.
  • Tracy, B. (2015). Interview with Estrada College. Retrieved from: hyperlink.
  • Zeigler, K. (2005). Getting organized at work: 24 lessons to set goals, establish priorities, and manage your time. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-145779-8