The words “10 principles” written on a background of stopwatches.

John Adair’s Ten Principles of Time Management

Ten principles of time management twenty years ago that still stand the test of time!

6 min readJul 27, 2021


John Adair is a renowned leadership thinker, author and consultant who was written whole books of tips for managers and business leaders. He is renowned for his ten principles for time management which aim to give simple no-nonsense time management practices that everyone can follow. He wrote these principles in his book “John Adair’s 100 Greatest Ideas for Effective Leadership and Management”.

In this article, I’ll give you a whistle-stop tour of his ten principles. At the heart of his principles is the belief that your success in managing your time should be measured solely by the things you achieve. It is this principle of understanding the quality of work and personal time that drives the principles and, in my view, gives them weight.

Develop your sense of time

You must think about how your time is spent at the moment. Without understanding where you are, it is impossible to improve in a meaningful way. You should conduct a time audit for a few days where you slavishly write down what you are doing and make a note of the key themes will allow you to look at what could be changed and where time is being wasted. These days it’s worth using the features in social media apps to check how much time you’re actually spending on them; it can be quite an eye-opener!

Identify your long term goals

Work out what you are trying to achieve and where you are now. This will allow you to plot the way from a to b. Having longer term goals allows you to consider the seemingly impossible, after all, the goal is a long way off! These goals are your “north star”, the direction you’re heading, and if you know where you’re heading, planning the route is easy.

This leads nicely into another of Adair’s principles.

Make medium term plans

Take the big goals you identified and break it down into medium term goals that contribute to the larger goals you’ve identified. No one can eat an elephant, as the phrase goes, but it’s possible to eat a little at a time. Identify points along the journey that contribute to the overall goals, but have meaning in themselves. For example, if your plan is to have a book published, have an interim goal of creating a marketable synopsis or self-publishing a collection of short stories.

Once you have some interim goals that contribute to your main aims, you should then break the medium term goals into short term steps that will help you to achieve your aims.

Plan your day

Make a list of what you’re looking to achieve each day. If you don’t do this, all you’re doing is “traveling hopefully” and you will end up drifting from distraction to distraction. By having a list that you’ve prioritised, you will at least know what you must work on to achieve your goals.

Write your list first thing in the morning and number the items in importance order. Don’t work on the list in a different order. Start with number one and work along. Realistically, don’t expect to achieve more than a few of your priority items (as life has a habit of interfering), but be aware that everything you do is a meaningful step in the right direction.

Make the best use of your time

You, and you alone, know when you are most productive. Your most productive time may be first thing in the morning before any interruptions have built up, or last thing at night when your mind begins to buzz. Whenever it is, you need to learn when you can be most productive and maximise that time. Consider this for a moment and use your self-knowledge to further your goals, working on your valuable projects at the best times. Don’t do low value work, such as filing or tidying, at times when you are mentally the most productive.

Organise your workload

Have a system that works for you and stick to it. Use the computer to store your to do list? Fine, make sure all your tasks follow the same process. Move post-it notes from one side of a desk to another? Fine, make sure that you don’t lose bits of paper! As long as it works for you, it’s your system. The important thing is to have a system that works.

As well as the obvious benefits of a to do list system that you can trust, you’ll also get added benefits. For example, you’ll find that, if you trust your system, once you capture a task, your brain will find it easier to move on. If you find yourself lying awake at night mulling over all the things you need to do, it can be a sign that you don’t have or trust a decent work management system.

Manage your meetings

Make sure they have a purpose and if they don’t, cancel the meeting. Be brutal with your time management in the meeting, don’t let others ruin your meeting. Make sure you know the agenda so you cover what you need to do. Always tell everyone what you are expecting to achieve at the beginning of a meeting. Always finish on time so that you get used to the discipline of getting things done in the time you allotted; if you don’t get everything done, schedule another meeting to finish up. If a meeting isn’t going well, feel free to abandon it. It’s all about treating your time and other people’s time with respect.

Delegate effectively

Delegate anything you can. Anything that someone else does is something that you don’t have to do. Make sure you’re clear about what you expect and when you expect it to be done, making sure that you’re being reasonable.

Just think about how you can use the time you free up if you learn to trust other people to do things that you normally do.

Make use of your committed time

Use time that you can’t help spending to further your own ends. Traveling time becomes reading or thinking time. Waiting for someone becomes returning phone calls time. A tedious repetitive task becomes time to catch up on a podcast. It’s your time, use it for things that you want to do. You really can come up with some creative ways to reuse time that you’ve already committed.

I find that it’s worth spotting little research and admin tasks and keeping them on a handy list means that I can dip in whenever I have a few moments to spare.

Manage your health

Make sure that you don’t neglect your health. The moment you are ill or tired, your productivity drops and your effectiveness lessens, worse still you could suffer long-term negative effects and seriously jeopardise your goals. We are often tempted to make trade offs that pit our health against a short term goal, perhaps pulling an all-nighter to get an essay done or working a 60 hour week to finish a project. Try not to; the key to long term success is sustainability.

Make sure you get enough sleep. Make sure you get time to rest and have time to spend on things that help you to recharge. Eat healthily. Don’t neglect physical exercise. Try not to drink too much. We all know what we should be doing, but often fail. Try setting yourself actual goals instead of vague aspirations and treating them as seriously as your work goals.

So, there you go, that’s Adair’s ten principles of time management with a little interpretation from me. I’ve found them useful and, even though I often drift away (no one’s perfect), I do find that the pass the test of time and I’m sure you will too!




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