At the beginning of the academic year I was reflecting on my own time management skills as I prepared a lesson on that very subject for my students. How time flies, its now February and I am still contemplating how to improve my time management skills. I wonder if this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment? I know what I am supposed to do; I use some of the time management practices but things slip, deadlines are missed (even if its just the ones I set myself) I want o post blogs at least twice a week, but its been 14 days since my last post. So as I reflect again, on my time management skills I thought a blog on the subject seemed appropriate and opportune.
Time management seems such an easy concept – how we plan and organise activities to make best use of our time; but when you start analysing the key skills to successful time management, it is made up of so many different components. Looking at the individual skills within time management, I would say I am skilled in most of these on their own:
- I can be organised
- I am a master-list maker
- I can prioritise and decide what is important
- I know how to identify and remove or manage distractions.
So if I am proficient in all of these skills individually, why then do I struggle so much with managing my time?
Thinking about it, I have identified 8 reasons why my time management fails (calling them gremlins); they are a work in progress so I cannot guarantee any remedies; but being aware of pitfalls at least means we can look out for them and try to manage them – sometimes successfully, but not beating ourselves up when we do not get it quite right.
I am a perfectionist, I find it very difficult to accept that something might be “good enough” so keep working at refining my work. This is a constant struggle and I cannot say to date, that I’ve been 100% happy with anything I have posted so far but happy enough to at least post something. I try to take a step back and accept that 100% perfect is never going to happen. I will always find something to change. I need to keep my unrealistic standards in check and ask myself what is wrong with what I have written that means I cannot post rather than is it good enough. Good enough is a difficult concept to grasp for a perfectionist as honestly, I will always believe good enough is just one more change/alteration away.
Taking on too much
I believe it is important to understand what is the cause of your time management problems. Sometimes its not the time management skills per se, but that we are trying to do too many things at the same time. Whether that is our own unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve or we find it difficult to say “no” to others so we end up with too many things to do. We need to learn to be realistic about what we are capable of doing (we are not super-humans) and we need to be comfortable saying “no”.
I was recently asked to join a Board of Management of a local charity. It was an amazing opportunity and I could see a lot of reasons for taking on the role. However, as much as I was excited and flattered by the offer, I knew logically that it would not be in my best interests to accept. I am currently involved in some programme development, and want to spend time developing my blog. I had to decide what was most important and while I think it would have been a good opportunity, the timing was just not right for me.
Under-estimating how long tasks/projects will take
Until I started tracking my time, and creating a diary plan outlining how I intend to spend my time each day, I consistently under-estimated how long was needed to complete a task. This can add a lot to stress levels as you put yourself under pressure trying to complete tasks on time or not meeting deadlines. As I said above, these are the struggles I still have today and there are times when I can under-estimate the amount of time a task requires. Some tasks are straightforward to judge how much time to allocate; but sometimes we can get tasks that prove more difficult or complicated than expected. The ideal would be to build in extra time to allow for such obstacles.
The steps I try to adopt routinely include taking time to plan out my day; ideally I try to plan at least 2 weeks ahead and if I am really organised, further ahead. I also update my plan with any notes (timings, changes to activities). If I am working on something that I feel is difficult to allocate the right amount of time, this allows me to monitor what I do and make adjustments.
Before planning out my day, I try to make a to do list of what I would like to achieve that day; but I find it more effective then to identify the three most important things from that list and focus on completing them first. Then I can return and select 3 more. I find for me this keeps me motivated as I can see my progress. I put my 3 items on a post it and keep it nearby so it serves as a visual prompt to remind me of what I am doing, and my achievements. However, I need to be careful about scheduling breaks etc otherwise I forget lunch.
Too busy to plan/apply time management principles
My best-laid plans fly out of the window when I get busy. I know I should keep on top of my scheduling. The act of writing out my daily plan before I start in the morning does seem to keep me focused, but when I am busy or feel I know what I need to do, I just get stuck in. When I do that I tend to just focus on that one thing all day or until its complete. The risk is my perfectionism takes over; I get engrossed in what I am working on and the other tasks I also need to work on sit ignored. I guess, for this obstacle, I just need to keep writing and sticking to my plans – consciously doing this especially when I have a clear idea in my mind of what I want to achieve for the day, even if it just allows me to break for lunch. This blog is a prime example, I had time allocated and should have finished 45 minutes ago, but I am nearly done so I will keep going but it does mean that my next “task” might be dropped.
Apparently perfectionists are master procrastinators because we worry that we will not be able to produce work to our high standard, so we can sabotage ourselves by avoiding the work. There are many ways we procrastinate and why, but irrespective of what I am doing when I procrastinate, my common justification is that I need “thinking time”, but perhaps telling myself that I need to think more, that I am not ready to start. The received wisdom is that by planning out our time, we should be able to get started and avoid procrastination. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/procrastination
For me, having a plan scheduled out and sticking to that plan does help me reduce the amount of time I spend procrastinating because I am making conscious decisions and having the day planned out means I am more accountable to myself about what I achieve in the day and how I use my time. The satisfaction felt when I complete a task on time, or even early, is now a stronger motivator to keep me on track than the pull of procrastination.
Working at home should mean there are less distractions than being in the workplace, however I believe with us making more use than ever of programmes such as Microsoft Teams there is more potential for interruptions and distractions. When I need to focus I turn off notifications and set the notifications others see as “do not disturb” or similar so they know they should not expect immediate responses back.
The other form of distraction that I need to be alert to is other tasks which occur to me; that I go off and complete that rather than completing the task I sat down to work on. I have started to keep a notebook to hand to jot down ideas that occur to me. So for example, I could be marking some coursework and observe a common problem encountered by the students which may make a good blog topic. My instinct is to stop the marking to run with the idea for the blog. However, I can now write down the idea in notes, and then return to the marking. It means I retain the ideas for the blog, but it does not break my flow too much with the marking.
Finish off tasks
Sometimes tasks are nice and straightforward and can easily be completed within the one period of time. This is not always the case and I find I end up with many tasks 95% complete but I need to finish off the supporting administration for example. Because its admin, I tend to put it to the side, thinking I will come back to it – in reality, months later that admin can still be outstanding. I am not sure if this is technically time management, but I have included it because I need to plan these administrative/finishing off tasks so that I can close off the activities. Related to this, I also plan to build in 30 minutes at the end of the day to review and finish off the activities for the day and particularly while working from home, also to give me the division between work and home so that I do not continue working into the evening.
Lack of Discipline
As I said when I started out I know what I am supposed to do to manage my time effectively and I start off with the best of intentions, but then I get busy and the good time management habits start to slip. Beyond perseverance and continuing to planning out my days, I am unsure of how else to be more disciplined; so any ideas or suggestions would be gratefully received.
I had the conclusion to this blog already written (I know, I always tell my students to write conclusions and introductions last) but I have been reflecting as I write about my experiences with time management and some of the potential solutions have occurred to me as I have been writing so I guess I should review my progress in the future, and perhaps update this too.