In the light of daunting global sustainability challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and food security, improving our understanding of the complex dynamics of the Earth system is crucial. However, large knowledge gaps related to the effects of land management persist, in particular those human-induced changes in terrestrial ecosystems that do not result in land-cover conversions. Here, we review the current state of knowledge of ten common land management activities for their biogeochemical and biophysical impacts, the level of process understanding and data availability. Our review shows that ca. one-tenth of the ice-free land surface is under intense human management, half under medium and one-fifth under extensive management. Based on our review, we cluster these ten management activities into three groups: (i) management activities for which data sets are available, and for which a good knowledge base exists (cropland harvest and irrigation); (ii) management activities for which sufficient knowledge on biogeochemical and biophysical effects exists but robust global data sets are lacking (forest harvest, tree species selection, grazing and mowing harvest, N fertilization); and (iii) land management practices with severe data gaps concomitant with an unsatisfactory level of process understanding (crop species selection, artificial wetland drainage, tillage and fire management and crop residue management, an element of crop harvest). Although we identify multiple impediments to progress, we conclude that the current status of process understanding and data availability is sufficient to advance with incorporating management in, for example, Earth system or dynamic vegetation models in order to provide a systematic assessment of their role in the Earth system. This review contributes to a strategic prioritization of research efforts across multiple disciplines, including land system research, ecological research and Earth system modelling.