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Time Management for Knowledge Workers: Tactical Time Management

The lowest three levels of time management—action/work, task management, and project management—correspond to what I call the tactical level of time management.

They contain the practices that you use day‑to‑day and hour‑to‑hour to make the most effective use of your time.

The purpose of tactical time management is to help you accomplish the important outcomes or results associated with your work as effectively as possible.

The power of tactical time management lies in its ability to help you effectively manage everything you need to do, and all the new work that keeps popping into your life without feeling anxious or overwhelmed.

It allows you to work productively even when you have a large number of pending projects and tasks.

Over the last thirty years, tactical time management has become increasingly important because of the changing nature of work and the myriad of ways we can spend our time.

Changing Nature of Work: Knowledge Work

The nature of work has changed dramatically over the last one hundred years and especially over the last thirty, which has caused many time management practices that worked well for previous generations to become obsolete.

In the early part of the century, work for most people meant doing the same manual repetitive tasks in a factory setting over and over again. Traditional time management for this type of work environment focused on making the factories as efficient as possible.

Fast forward a hundred years and it is clear that our lives have changed. For many the nature of work itself has changed. We are now in the age of what is commonly called knowledge work.

Experts estimate that the number of knowledge workers surpassed the number of manual workers in the 1950’s and now represent well over two thirds of the work force in the United States.

Knowledge work presents different time management challenges than other types of work because the nature of the work itself is different.

Dealing with Large Projects and Small Tasks

Part of the challenge is that knowledge work can vary a great deal from one moment to the next. Some tasks like making a call or writing an email can be relatively simple and completed quickly.

Other tasks like writing a proposal, preparing a client presentation, writing a software module, or doing research can be large and complex multi‑step projects that require days or even weeks to complete.

Even the same task of writing an email can vary from very small and simple to large and complex depending on the issues involved and the intended audience.

The challenge is to keep the large projects moving along while at the same time dealing effectively with all the small stuff that regularly shows up.

Having to deal simultaneously with big projects and small tasks is a new challenge for knowledge workers.

Figuring Out What Work Needs to be Done

Another challenge is that the work itself may not always be well defined. Knowledge workers have autonomy and discretion over how to perform work tasks; they are frequently given a desired outcome or result and asked to decide for themselves how to make it happen.

Part of the job is to figure out what work needs to be done and how to go about doing it. Because of this, there is often no clear‑cut way to declare when something is really done.

When is the task of writing a marketing report or doing research for a project completed? How good, polished, or thorough does it need to be before it can be considered ‘done’?

The real answer is that it depends on many factors: who is going to read it, why it’s being prepared, how it is going to be used, etc. It takes judgment and experience to determine when you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns where additional work will not add enough value to justify the added cost and effort.

Multiple Simultaneous Projects

Knowledge workers are also expected to work on multiple projects simultaneously. It is not uncommon to have several pending large projects with overlapping timelines and an assortment of smaller tasks that all need to get done.

It is just not practical to assume that you can simply pick one thing, work exclusively on it until completed, and then move on to the next thing. This is especially true for managers that need to supervise the work of their staff while still getting their own work done.

Rapid Inflow of New Work and Information

Another aspect of knowledge work that traditional time management practices have not dealt with effectively is the rapid inflow of new work, ideas, and information that knowledge workers have to deal with.

There are a number of ways that others can communicate with you: email, telephone, fax, drop in visitors, meetings, memos, and regular mail. Each represents an opportunity for additional work to get added to your plate.

A question from a co‑worker, an email from your boss, an action item from a meeting, a memo from marketing, not to mention your own ideas and insights that come up while doing your work.

All these different sources of input can easily overwhelm you if they are not managed properly. Since none of these communications carry an explicit ‘there is some work in here for you’ label, each has to be filtered and reviewed to determine if there is work involved and what that work actually is.

For many people, the image of drowning in a sea of information, emails and paperwork is not too far from reality.

Collaborating and Communicating with Coworkers

Knowledge work also requires more collaboration and communication with coworkers. The complexity and knowledge required to complete large projects often make it impossible for any one person to know or be able to accomplish everything that needs to be done by themselves.

While this collaboration is absolutely essential, it can also cause problems of its own if not managed properly since productive knowledge workers require large amounts of uninterrupted time to think and get into flow.

In this age, virtually all types of work have some aspects of knowledge work in one form or another. Even work that previously may have discouraged autonomy, discretion, and creative thinking is becoming more knowledge oriented as companies realize that they need help from all their employees if they want to remain competitive.

So Many Choices, So Little Time

Even though the term knowledge work is intended to reflect changes in the nature of our work environments, it could very easily apply to our personal lives as well.

Look back at all the different things that make knowledge work challenging and ask yourself whether they apply to your personal life.

Do you have a lot of variety in the things you need to accomplish in your day, ranging from small tasks to large projects? Are you told how to spend your time, or do you figure this out on your own?

The separation between personal and work life is getting more and more blurred. The idea that you can compartmentalize your time into work and personal life just isn’t practical anymore.

Each affects and influences the other, which is why more and more people are realizing that managing their work and personal life as a whole not only makes sense, but is a better way to manage their time and increase their overall productivity.

One of the reasons why managing time at the tactical level has become more difficult in the last one hundred years is that the number of ways you can spend your time has increased dramatically, while the number of hours in a day remains the same.

You are probably faced with hundreds, if not thousands, of choices every single day. Choices about what to wear, what to eat, what to work on, what time to get to work, what to do during lunch, how many projects to work on, when to work on them, what to do when you get home, how much TV to watch, when to play with your kids, when to exercise, when to spend time on yourself...the list goes on and on.

The essence of tactical time management is the realization that you cannot possibly do everything there is to do: you have to choose certain things over others.

Tactical time management helps you take conscious control of your decisions regarding how you will spend your time and what you will work on at any given moment.

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