Can you really manage time? Well, not really – time is fixed. We have 24 hours in a day, and even though we can’t change it, we can manage the events we are trying to fit into those 24 hours. How do we use that time to keep us productive, accomplish all the tasks we need to, and how do we not worry about getting it all done?
If we can’t change time itself, we need to make sure the important and urgent tasks are completed. To do that, we need to prioritize the tasks we have before us. How do we do that? An easy way to do this is to make a To Do List. You might already do this, but how can you prioritize the most important things on the list? Whether you use a daily, weekly or monthly list, how you tackle the items on the list is how you prioritize the tasks.
The goal is not to get the most items done, but to get the most important items handled. Sometimes these items are long-term in nature, and we put them off because there is not a large block of time to accomplish it. But that is where prioritizing comes to the rescue. If you rank the items on your list into High Priority, Medium Priority, and Low Priority, that helps you see where to start. Color coding also helps in seeing at a glance what is most important. Grouping items also allows you to get multiple items accomplished relatively quickly – for instance, if you have errands to do, group them by location so that you can do several tasks in the time it might take to do one. That way, several of the items come off the To Do List quickly.
When you can take off several items quickly, that releases the time needed to accomplish those longer-term tasks. Sometimes activities that are both important and urgent must get done, but we tend to spend too much time on urgent issues (but not necessarily important) and not on those that are most important. How many times do we complain about drowning in a “fire hose” of tasks that have been dumped in our laps? It could be helpful to break difficult or long-term tasks into sections so that the large task to approach in a series of more manageable tasks.
Some other ways of helping to prioritize tasks can be summarized as:
- Use a calendar or planning tool to record meetings or appointments, class times, block out time for tasks (like homework or assignments), record family or other recurring obligations, and other items like travel, meals, etc.
- Know how you spend your time. There are many tasks that take up our time but don’t allow us to keep on task with our To Do List. Keeping a log (on your calendar or otherwise) will show you where you are expending time and effort. Those areas you identify as most time consuming will help you determining how to proceed. In some cases, you can eliminate those activities that are not keeping you focused on the tasks that need to be accomplished.
- Scheduling your time appropriately. Busy people are said to be those that get the most done – how is that possible? Busy people schedule their time to accomplish their tasks at the times that are most effective for their productivity. They know the times of day where that seem to work out best. If you know that you have the most energy in the mornings, you should block out time for the highest priorities during the morning hours and not allow interruptions. If you know you will be traveling on the bus or train at certain hours, schedule tasks that you can get done during that time. Leave time in your scheduling to allow for some creativity, planning time, and relaxing.
- Delegate tasks. If you are able to assign responsibilities to someone else to accomplish an activity, it will free up time where you can do other things. Make sure the person that you seek to accomplish the task is capable and willing to assist in helping finalize the task. Checking in on the progress of the task will allow you to assist if needed. Make sure you show gratitude for the accomplishment. Another way to “delegate” a task is to pay for the service – like mowing the lawn or computer support.
- Don’t procrastinate. It’s really easy to put off tasks that are difficult or unpleasant. This could be the most important task on your list, so try breaking it down into smaller segments so you don’t get overwhelmed. Be aware of deadlines to make sure all of the task can be accomplished in the time allotted. A good way to do this is to start at the end and work backwards to schedule out the task in the time you have to get it done. This is especially helpful with a book that needs to be read, or a large project that needs to be accomplished over several weeks. And don’t forget to reward yourself when you finish the task!
- Beware of external time wasters. Many parts of your day are taken up with items other people might impose on you, or time wasters that suck you in and you lose track of the time spent – things like lengthy phone calls, unexpected visitors, screen time and social media, email, instant messages, family obligations, etc. Remember the tasks that need to be accomplished and try to cut down the interruptions that might occur with any of these activities.
Most people find that poor organization results in poor time management. When you have a system that allows you to handle information only once, it keeps clutter down and allows for less time expended. Professional organizers recommend that getting rid of clutter is helpful.
To reduce all distractions from your study space, try sorting items into one of three boxes – Keep, Give Away, or Toss. That way once you reduce the clutter and organize the workspace, you can put together a system that keeps your work area clutter-free. Once you handle a piece of information, you have some options on what to do next:
- Throw it away, delete it, or otherwise get rid of it.
- Delegate it – give it to someone else to do, file, or respond.
- Act on it yourself. Then throw it away or file it.
- File it temporarily until it needs action or until additional information is received. Follow-up can be done with a “tickler” file that holds information temporarily.
- File it permanently where you can find it later.
Another area of organization, and time management, is to organize your thoughts. When your train of thought is focused, you accomplish more. The more you can stay on task and finish one project before moving to another, the more you can achieve. And, it also makes you more effective in your process. Psychological studies have shown that multi-tasking does not save time. Actually, it is actually the opposite. You lose time when switching from one task to another, resulting in a loss of productivity. It also may lead to difficulty in concentrating and maintaining focus when you really need it.