7 Essential Self-Management Skills: Definition, Examples, and Tips
It’s been an exciting start to the New Year. I’ve decided to take blogging more seriously. I’m making progress towards getting six-pack abs. And our team behind the business (and this website) has doubled in size.
Managing our team of 8 people and getting them aligned with the company mission and goals has been an interesting challenge. As usual, to help guide my approach, I turned to my medium of choice, books. This time on team management.
I picked up a few well-known titles including my favourite to this day, The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo. One concept that seemed to stand out in a lot of different resources was the idea of Self-Management.
Self-Management skills help us take control of our actions, through accountability, productivity and motivation. Team members who have these skills theoretically need less ‘management’ from their boss.
Interestingly this applies as much to team management as to personal development. Whether we want to be an A-level employee, an A* student or a successful entrepreneur, we all need self-management skills to achieve our goals.
But because, for most of our early years we’re constantly guided by teachers, we rarely get to learn these skills, and we almost never think about deliberately improving them.
So, in this post, we’ll talk about the most essential self-management skills, complete with examples, strategies, and rules that we can apply to get better at self-management.
What Are Self-Management Skills?
Self-management includes all the skills that help us control various aspects of our life. This includes the choices we make, our reactions and our ability to prioritise and control our feelings or thoughts.
Deliberate self-management lets us take control of the trajectory of our life. Broadly, we need to think about 2 things – (1) coming up with a plan, and (2) sticking to it. Without these, it’s hard to achieve any personal goals.
Even if we’re not so keen on achieving personal goals, self-management is what all employers will be looking for in new hires. With more companies going remote, people with good self-management skills are more likely to do their job properly without being constantly watched.
For example, on The A Team (that’s what I call our team lol), everyone handles a certain part of the business. They hold themselves accountable with very little management on my side. Or at least, I hope that’s the case.
From an employer’s perspective that’s a much more pleasant experience. In this scenario, I can try to create meaningful relationships with team members rather than be a stereotypical boss who micromanages every employee.
So, no matter which side you’re on – working on your own or being an employee – self-management skills will determine whether you can achieve the goals you chose.
7 Essential Self-Management Skills
There are tens if not hundreds of self-management skills but we don’t need to actively work on that many to be effective in what we do.
Here are 7 self-management skills that I found most useful in both my personal and business life.
“Your brain is for having ideas, not for holding them” – David Allen
Organisation is the backbone of the rest of our self-management stack. Why?
Well, although our brains are complex and beautifully designed, they’re better used for thinking than storing. Sure, we might remember our 7th birthday party but we’ll have a hard time recalling what we ate for breakfast three days ago.
The real ‘trick’ to being more organised is to therefore offload the storing functionality of our brain to external systems. This is a central philosophy in David Allens’ Getting Things Done – he’s big on the idea of Project Lists.
My friend Tiago Forte takes David’s ideas a step further, with a comprehensive system for Personal Knowledge Management called Building a Second Brain.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to talk about the organisation systems in-depth, but broadly, we need:
- A way to capture ideas, todo items and “open loops”
- A way to keep track of the projects we’re working on
- A system for storing and retrieving our notes, highlights, quotes and artefacts of work
In practical terms, this usually involves using: (1) a calendar (I use Fantastical), (2) a todo list manager (I use the Analog system by Ugmonk), and (3) a central note-taking app (I use a combination of Roam and Notion).
Once we’ve built an organisational system into our lives:
- We’re less likely to forget stuff
- We’re less likely to have things slipping through the cracks
- Over time, we’ll build a library of our notes and learnings over the years that we can use as tools for reflection, or for making more stuff
If you’re looking for inspiration on how to set up such a system for yourself, here you can see how I use Notion for note-taking. And for systems to organise your life, take a look at how I do it with Roam Research.
🎯 Goal Setting
In the world of productivity nerds, there’s a constant raging debate on systems vs goals. The pro-goals agenda talks about the power of setting SMART goals, and how that can help us move towards a better future. The anti-goals brigade talks about how goals are pointless without the systems that help us get there. After all, you don’t run a marathon by setting a goal to do so. You run a marathon by signing up to one, training every day, and then showing up to run the race.
This debate is somewhat pointless (and in fairness, I’m misrepresenting it above). The real answer is that both goals and systems are useful.
Goals are our compass. They help point us in the right direction. Systems help us move forward in the direction that we set with our goal.
I’ve recently rediscovered the power of goal-setting. In fact, I’ve started documenting my goals each month on this very website.
I’ve realised over the years that I love goals that are broadly within my control, and I hate goals that are outside of my control.
For example, “publishing 2 videos per week” is a goal that’s very much within my control. But “reach 2M subscribers on YouTube” is a goal that’s very much outside of my control. Equally, “write and publish a book that I’m proud of” is within my control. But “land a spot on the NYT Bestseller List” is mostly out of my control.
When I’m setting goals, I like the vast majority of them to be within my control (usually ‘input’ goals) rather than outside of it (‘outcome’ goals). Sure, part of me wants to hit the NYT bestseller list with my book. But a bigger part of me wants to enjoy the journey rather than being fixated on the destination, and I know that I have much more fun when the goals I set are in my sphere of influence.
If you’re interested, you can download a Notion template that I use each year to reflect on the past year and set goals for the next one. Try it out yourself and if you get lost, check out my video with a walkthrough of the template.
⏱️ Time Management
Time is our most valuable non-renewable resource.
There are only so many hours in a day and so mastering the self-management skill of time management pretty important if we want to do lots of cool stuff. People often ask me how I balance being a doctor and running a YouTube channel. Here’s a quick 10-point list that I elaborate on in my video.
3 Principles of Time Management
- Our time is our own – When we ‘don’t have time’ to do something, it really just means that it’s not a priority for us. At any moment, we’re doing the thing we most want to be doing.
- The Pareto Principle – 20% of the inputs drive 80% of the outputs. If we can focus on that crucial 20%, we’ll have a tonne more time on our hands.
- Parkinson’s Law – Work expands to fill the time we allocate to it. Is it really going to take 4 hours to do the thing? What if we only had 2 hours to do it? Would we get it done then?
3 Strategies for Time Management
- The 2-Minute Rule – If something’s going to take less than 2 minutes to do, do it right now.
- Batching – Batch multiple instances of the same thing together. Eg: check email once or twice a day, and deal with it in a batch, rather than checking it every 10 minutes.
- Watching TV – This one’s a bit controversial. One of my best-kept secrets to time management is that I have a simple rule for myself: “I’m not allowed to watch TV on my own”. Watching TV is either a social exercise (with friends), or it doesn’t exist.
3 Tools for Time Management
- Alfred – This is a fantastic tool for shaving off miliseconds from every interaction we have with a computer. Here’s a post where I explain it in more detail.
- Forest – This is a fancy pomodoro app timer. I used to use it a lot when in university. I don’t so much anymore.
- 10-Fast Fingers – This is my favourite website for practising my typing skills.
I used to have problems with ‘motivation’. I don’t anymore, because I’ve tried to internalise the notion that motivation is a myth. In fact, I think we’d all be much happier and get much more done if we scrubbed the word motivation from our vocabulary altogether.
Here’s a quote from one of my favourite articles on the subject:
Motivation, broadly speaking, operates on the erroneous assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task.
Put simply, motivation is waiting until you feel like doing something before doing it. Discipline on the other hand, is doing it regardless of how you’re feeling about it. Here’s another fun quote:
At its core, chasing motivation is insistence on the infantile fantasy that we should only be doing things we feel like doing. The problem is then framed thus: “How do I get myself to feel like doing what I have rationally decided to do?”. Bad.
The proper question is “How do I make my feelings inconsequential and do the things I consciously want to do without being a little bitch about it?”.
I return to this article several times a year to remind myself of its paradigm-shifting lesson. Jeff Haden writes about something similar in his book The Motivation Myth.
These days, the only circumstance in which I let myself even think about motivation as a concept is if a friend is complaining ‘aarghh I just don’t have the motivation to work right now’. If I don’t know them very well, I reply ‘yeah me too lol’.
If however, I know the person well, I give them an unsolicited lecture about exactly why motivation is a myth, and why/how they should be cultivating discipline. If they’re still in the room by the end of this conversation, they usually think ‘wow you’re right, I shouldn’t be trying to feel like doing stuff, I should just do it!’
So overall, motivation is a myth. Trying to get yourself to feel like doing something useful is a fool’s errand. A 3-year old bases their day-to-day decisions on what they feel like doing. An intelligent student/adult recognises that feeling like doing something useful should have absolutely nothing to do with whether they actually do it.
😞 Stress Management
While stress shows up in different ways for different people, managing stress and being able to move on when something isn’t going our way is an important part of living a happy and fulfilled life.
I’m quite lucky, in that I almost never get ‘stressed’. I sometimes struggle to relate to the feeling. I like to think it’s because I’ve internalised the teachings of Stoicism, so very little fazes me. In reality, I probably got quite lucky with a mixture of personality + environment + privilege to be in a place where I rarely feel stress.
The Stoicism stuff is definitely a part of it though. For example, one of the key ideas of Stoicism is that “It is not events that concern people, it is their judgements concerning them”. This is incredibly powerful when we can apply it to our life.
Derren Brown’s Happy is one of my favourite introductions to the topic. Or if you like, you can check out my Skillshare class where my friend Sam and I discuss the principles of Stoicism that have changed our lives and help us deal with stress.
When we’re unable to do a job as planned, instead of facing the consequences we tend to grab for the low-hanging fruit, an excuse.
One study found that 66% of academic students would create an excuse to get an extension on their assignment rather than admit to their mistake. While this statistic isn’t shocking to anyone who’s spent some time at university, the same study found that this statistic doesn’t change when we alter the weight of the assignment. Namely, no matter if the assignment equalled 5% or 40% of the final grade, students were equally keen on making excuses.
Why is that a thing? Well, it’s more convenient to turn to out-of-our-control sources and use those as an answer for why we failed. If we fail it’s other people’s fault, bad luck, or awful weather (greetings from the UK ☔). Yet, when we win it’s our preparation, skills, and hard work that, of course, this time paid off.
It’s a convenient approach but also the one that’s doomed to failure.
The power of accountability is what separates wantrepreneurs from actual achievers. Without it, we won’t get consistent results with any goal that we want to achieve. It’s also what makes us trustworthy in the eyes of other team members, our employer, or our fellow students.
To take a personal example – through my first 2 years of being a junior doctor, I made plenty of mistakes. But each time, I’d explain the situation to my seniors, apologise for the mistake on my part, and figure out how I could learn from the experience. I’ve never had a negative response to that approach.
🚀 Meaningful Productivity
So we’ve figured out our goals, we’ve created systems around them, and we’ve incorporated them into our pixel-perfect schedule. At this point, we just need to execute on our marching orders, preferably in an efficient fashion, while enjoying the process.
This is where the self-management skill of productivity comes into play. Productivity is about making the most of our time or, put more specifically, creating a certain amount of meaningful output over a certain period of time.
I like to think about productivity through the Productivity Equation.
Mastering the skill of productivity is really about finding what you want to do and then creating a system that may include all sorts of rules, hacks, and tricks to get it done sooner rather than later.
5 Ways to Improve Our Self-Management Skills
If you’ve read this far, a lot of this self-management stuff might feel intuitive. Yeah of course, we should be more organised, and more productive, and take responsibility for our actions.
But it’s one thing knowing that we should, and another thing entirely to deliberately practise the skills of self-management. Here are 5 things we can keep in mind to boost our self-management skills.
🙇♂️ Choose to be Satisfied
We can’t stay productive all the time or completely stick to our schedule 24/7. That’s okay.
I’m sad that I have to say this, but it’s okay to take some time to recharge. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up if we’ve ‘wasted’ a few hours. No one cares, in the grand scheme of things.
At the end of the day, you don’t have to beat yourself up. You can choose to be satisfied with how you spent your time.
— Ali Abdaal (@AliAbdaal) January 25, 2021
⌛ The 2-Minute Rule
There are many spin-offs of the 2-minute rule but the one I use for more productivity and accountability states that:
“If a task will take less than 2 minutes, do it right now.”
If it’ll take longer than 2 minutes, I tend to write it down on my todo list (I use a combination of paper + Roam Research for this). Right now, I’ve got a load of random crap on my desk, including 2 coffee mugs, a done candle, and a load of books I was using for thumbnails yesterday. It would take less than 2 minutes to clear everything up, and it would drastically improve my quality of life to have a clean desk while writing this.
🧮 Strive for Consistency
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. We don’t want to use all our energy on a Monday to end up a slump for the next 6 days.
Instead of looking for these rare bursts of energy, we should focus on 1% progress each day. This is something that James Clear teaches in Atomic Habits. There’s no need to do our best all the time. If we can be good every day, we’ll get much further compared to someone who goes all in and burns out.
Consistency is more important than intensity.
🗓️ Stick To The 2-Day Rule
This is a fun idea that I first discovered in one of Matt D’Avella’s YouTube videos. The 2-day rule is quite simple and, just like its 2-minute sister, aims to help us build momentum and stay mindfully productive.
The 2-day rule states that:
“You won’t allow yourself to skip a goal/habit/activity for two days in a row.”
Let’s say we want to get better at time management. And, let’s assume this means filling out our calendar and then sticking to it the next day. We might allow ourselves not to stick to the schedule for one day, as long as we show up the next day.
This approach is much healthier than a rigid-but-wishful “I’ll do everything I planned” hack. This way, we introduce room for mistakes (which will happen) but without sacrificing the end goal.
📚 Take Advice from “Self-Management Experts”
The good thing about trying to achieve a goal is that, most likely, someone has already done it. So, instead of running blindfolded and hoping for the best, we can use the advice from those who’ve already got to where we want to be.
As always, my favourite format for getting almost any advice is books. For under $15, we’re getting years (if not decades) of research and wisdom condensed into a format that’ll take us a few hours to read or listen to.
To get some inspiration, check out my Book Notes where I share books I read with a some notes and a quick summary of each.
Self-management is one concept that can help us achieve our personal and business goals. While it’s no easy job to develop these skills, it’s totally worth it, and has the potential to drastically improve our lives.
If you’re ready to commit to levelling up your productivity – one of the core self-management skills – check out my free Productivity Masterclass on Skillshare. I cover all sorts of things that I learnt and applied over the years, including tips, hacks, apps, and principles that helped me get where I am.