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Self-management skills for a messy world

January 27, 2021 - 16 min read

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What are the benefits of better self-management?

What are the most important skills for self-management?

Tools and tips to improve your self-management skills

Self-management is one of those “must have” skills for today. Maybe you’ve heard it thrown around as something everyone should work on. So the good news is, you can develop better  self-management skills. But what is it? 

I might define self-management as the notion that you can regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a way that’s appropriate to the situation. That’s a good starting definition of self-management. 

You may be familiar with the terms self-control, or self-regulation, which are similar. They all encompass the concept that you can and should control yourself in a way that is good for you and those around you. However, self-management is a bit different in that there’s a greater sense of proactive choices, planning, and a time element, too. 

Self-control tends to speak to us in the choices of the moment--for example saying no to the piece of cake or second drink. Self-regulation brings to mind modulating emotional reactions in the moment--for example, not screaming your frustration at a co-worker. In contrast, self-management has an actual goal or output that you are moving toward through your control. Self-management is about choices that have impact now and in the future. 

In the context of work, self-management is controlling yourself to make choices, absent someone telling you what to do, that are good for you and for your work, work environment, and company. This becomes even more important as companies seek to become more agile and adopt flatter structures. In this article, we’ll consider the benefits and dive into self-management skills definitions and examples.


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What are the benefits of better self-management?

Being better in control of what you think and do can have benefits that extend well beyond the work day.  

6 Ways Self-management Can Help You

  1. Better productivity. The practices of self-management also improve your overall time management. Positivity, focus, and prioritization will help put your work hours to more effective use.
  2. Better relationships with coworkers. When you show up every day as a reliable colleague who manages his/her time, attention, and energy to collaborate with others and help deliver results, your coworkers will value you. Everyone can appreciate these qualities.
  3.  Better mental health. While procrastinating an unpleasant task may offer temporary relief, the stress and anxiety caused by outstanding work is depleting. Staying on top of work and getting rid of anxiety-inducing projects leads to a better frame of mind.
  4. Better physical health. Better control of your calendar can create time for exercise (AND SLEEP!), leading to better health. Reducing stress can build up your immune system, leaving you less susceptible to the next round of colds or flu.
  5. Be seen as promotable. You manage your time? You work well with your team? You are the go-to guy/gal for solid solutions?  Who wouldn’t want to promote you?  Practicing self-management helps you shine for your supervisor—and those above!
  6. More time for enjoyment. It is easier to maintain boundaries between work and non-work, and get on to the other parts of your life, when you keep a well-planned agenda for your days and deal with work conflicts as they arise. You’ll also have better energy and a positive attitude to your passion projects.

What are the most important skills for self-management?

If you look at self-management as a concrete set of skills, you can practice them to develop mastery. These seven self-management skills apply to work and to life. See how many you already do, and where you can still grow.

6 Skills for Managing Yourself

  1. Acknowledge emotion without being ruled by it.  Managing yourself doesn’t mean to ignore your emotions.  Anger, frustration, even jealousy are real and natural responses. The problem arises when anger leads to an outburst, or jealousy sours a relationship with a friend or colleague.  Keep emotions from clouding your day by recognizing and naming what you are feeling and why. Take a few deep breaths and acknowledge the validity, then choose not to follow it. 
  2. Know your strengths AND weaknesses. Everyone loves a team member who shows up with a “can do” attitude.  But, what if you can’t do?  Take on tasks that play to your strengths—project management, for example.  But if your PowerPoint skills are rudimentary, you’re not doing your team any favors by volunteering to create an important presentation.  Of course you want to grow, but not at the expense of others.
  3. Listen and appreciate divergent views. Workplaces small and large are recognizing the importance of diverse perspectives and backgrounds as a source for growth and innovation. As you strengthen your self-management skills, make sure it’s not at the expense of taking the time to listen and consider input from people who think differently than you do.
  4. Practice good sleep habits. Sleep is a skill? Yes. The research on sleep is indisputable: when you don’t get enough you are not at your best. It’s more difficult to control emotions, to think quickly and logically, to regulate your food intake, and on and on, without enough sleep. And for most, “enough” is 7-9 hours.  Get. Your. Sleep.
  5. Manage your nutrition and activity. Your body cannot function properly without the right fuel and without keeping all the parts in good working order. The skills here aren’t new, but you might not have considered their relationship to self-management.  Consuming protein, carbohydrates, good fats and all of those nutrients can help with proper brain function, mood regulation, and energy levels.  And keeping your body moving is a crucial component in good mental health.
  6. Take time away from work. It’s ironic that we longingly talk of going on vacation, yet many of us resist taking time away from the job.  The benefits of doing so include better mood, better health, and even a more efficient workflow. Self-management means that we take steps to show up as our best self—at work and at home. Disconnecting from the workplace is key for recharging the energy needed to be that best self.

Some self-management skills are more specific to the workplace. Here are six that will show your maturity, reliability, and value to the company:

6 critical skills for self-management in work  

  1. Prioritization. The right task at the right time. Rarely do we focus on only one project at a time. We’re always juggling deadlines and deliverables. Are you choosing the ones most important to your team, your boss, your company? Are you devoting the most effort to the aspects where you can add the most value? 
  2. Solution-orientation. Inevitably you will encounter a hitch and have to make your manager aware of the problem. This is a great opportunity to practice, and show off, your self-management skills. Think through a solution (or two), and present that along with the problem. You’re flexing your problem-solving muscles and possibly taking work off your supervisor’s plate.
  3. Resolution over escalation. Whether it’s an operational or logistical glitch, or perhaps an interpersonal disagreement, before sending it up the chain, think through the problem and, if appropriate, take steps to alleviate it before escalating. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consult with others, and do escalate issues where the consequences of failure are irrecoverable. Being thoughtfully proactive shows your professional maturity.
  4. Reflection. Are you part of a process in need of improvement or a project that had a bumpy journey? These are opportunities to reflect and seek perspective. Imagine yourself looking down on the situation from a third-story window--this level of abstraction can reveal new options.  
  5. Ownership. Acknowledge your role in “the messes” as well as the achievements.  When a project hasn’t gone well, when a deal falls through, when a client is unhappy—these are times when you can show your maturity and willingness to invest yourself.  Own it, fix it, and learn from it.
  6. Agility.  You’ve crafted a fabulous way to package a deal for your new client. Your team chooses someone else’s approach. Can you let go of your idea and embrace the team’s direction with all of your energy and support? That’s a self-management skill that will get you noticed in the best way.

Tools and tips to improve your self-management skills

The tools and techniques below are fairly universal. Start with the ones that best address your particular weak spots.  Take it as a challenge to strengthen those muscles and grow!

  • Meditation apps. There are lots of meditation apps out there (Insight Timer is my favorite) with hundreds of guided meditations. Taking 5-10 minutes each morning to calm your mind, reset your mood, and prepare for the day’s challenges can be a remarkably effective way to prime your self-management capacity.
  • A Planner.  Let’s go “old school” for a minute. There’s nothing like using a paper-and-pencil planner for getting—and staying—organized.  The physical act of prioritizing, plotting time, and writing things down can be incredibly helpful to ensure that you’re using your work time as efficiently and effectively as possible. 
  • Control over email/instant messaging.  Is your email set up so that you get a *ping* and a visual alert every time you get a message?  Do you work with instant messaging turned on all the time?  You need to stop that right now.  Those constant interruptions KILL your ability to concentrate, and research shows that we lose minutes to recover to each one.  Multiply those minutes over the hundreds of messages you get each day, and you can see why time is getting away from you.  Turn off notifications in email settings and schedule times when you turn off Instant Messaging, as well. 
  • Your Calendar.  You’ve got one, but are you in charge of it, or vice versa?  Here are two ways you can use your calendar to help with self-management:
  • Color code appointments to get a better sense of how you’re spending your time. Too many blue meetings, where you’re just a passive listener? Not enough peach time for you to work one-on-one?  Time to adjust.
  • Block time to actually work. For many of us, much of our workday is consumed by meetings, leaving little time to think or tackle projects. Make chunks of time unavailable on your calendar, and then protect them. The first few times you decline a meeting may feel awkward, but you’ll get better at it. 
  • Project management software. Managing yourself well as part of the larger group is important. Tools like Trello or Asana can help you work effectively with others by communicating deadlines, creating shared accountability, and reducing confusion around ownership of project components. 
  • Morning and evening review. At the end of the day, it’s tempting to flip off the computer and dash away from your workspace. Similarly, at the beginning of the day, you may want to scoot in at the last minute and hop right on a meeting. Neither habit serves your self-management. Instead, spend 5-10 minutes on your planner and calendar.  Go over what went well, what needs to be moved to the next day, and what stands out as highest priority. 

Use these tips, practice your skills, and you’ll be more likely to spend time on projects that matter, to honor deadlines and commitments, and to be better in control of your workday. Isn’t that what self-management is all about?



Published January 27, 2021

Becky Eason

BetterUp Fellow Coach, ACC PhD

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