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My Time Management Gremlins

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.

Perfectionism

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.

Procrastination

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.

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Being Distractracted

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.

9 Tips for understanding Assessment and Exam Questions

Image by PaweĊ‚ Englender from Pixabay

You’ve just been handed your first assignment/essay of the year; you read the question. You thought you understood the topic, but the question in front of you leaves you feeling confused and you start to panic. I can confirm that this is a common experience and you are not alone.

My years of teaching tell me that every year students will struggle to understand the questions set. It must feel to them that the qualification authorities use their own language. As a lecturer, my role is to help students decipher this language. Today I’m going to outline 9 tips to help students navigate the assessment/essay and exam questions they face.

Turn your Question into a Checklist

Usually your questions will ask you to do various things. Often work can be returned for resubmission or as a fail because the student has not answered all parts of the question. You need to take the time to read the question and identify all the different things you are being asked to do.

Break your question down by identifying all those different elements. Are you being asked to simply describe something – or is there an additional element to your question? For example:

Compare and Contrast Best Practice and Best Fit approaches to HR Strategy. Assess the effectiveness of one of these theories for your own organisation and make recommendations regarding improvements that could be made.

The above question requires you to do 3 different things:

  • Compare and Contrast Best Practice and Best Fit
  • Assess the effectiveness of one in respect of your own organisation
  • make recommendations for improvements

Breaking the question down like this helps you to think about what you are being asked to do, and by creating yourself a checklist, you can ensure that you cover everything that you are being asked to do.

Use Highlighters

Image by Zoltan Matuska from Pixabay

An easy way to analyse your question(s) to help you understand them and to create the checklist discussed above is to use highlighters to pick out they key words and phrases. This allows you to focus on what’s really important and you should be able to identify what you are being asked to do. Using the example above, I’ll underline the words I would highlight:

Compare and Contrast Best Practice and Best Fit approaches to HR Strategy. Assess the effectiveness of one of these theories for your own organisation and make recommendations regarding improvements that could be made.

Once you have highlighted all the key words you will have clues about what you need to do to answer the question and it will help you to understand how to focus your response.

Assessment/Essay Question Language

Assessors will use a range of different assessment instruction words to indicate how they want you to approach your work. I used 4 in the question I created above as our example (compare, contrast, assess and recommend.)

You need to know if you are being asked to describe, explain, analyse etc and it is important that you understand what each different term means and what your assessor will be expecting from you. This Oxbridgeessays blog provides a detailed explanation for each of the different words and what we, as lecturers and assessors, are looking for. Its really important that you write appropriately for the instructions given – you may fail your assessment if you describe when you have been asked to explain or analyse, so understanding these words is really important.

Reword the Questions

Sometimes in class, when we’re working on question interpretation, I will task my students with rewriting the question. You would find it useful to put the question into your own words. It helps you to understand what you are being asked to do, and if you get stuck, you should ask your lecturer/tutor.

Analyse Past Exam Papers

If you are studying for an exam rather than working on an assessment/essay, I would recommend reviewing past papers. Over time you will find you can identify trends. As you are being assessed on the content of your course syllabus, there is a limit as to what you can be assessed on. This means the same themes will recur, but the questions will be phrased differently. By studying the questions in past papers you will become familiar with the different ways the same question can be asked which means when it comes to the exam you are more familiar with the examiner’s writing style and more likely to be able to interpret your questions correctly in your own exam.

Write your own Questions

To help get you in the mindset of your examiner/assessor, you would find it insightful to write your own questions. Again, this is a technique I use with my own students. It takes you out of your comfort zone, but it will help focus your studies and aid with interpreting the questions you will face too.

I usually develop this activity and have my students answer each other’s questions and then the authors of the questions mark the answers. This can be an interesting exercise as not only are the students thinking about their marking criteria – what constitutes a pass/fail etc but they also discover that their peers may not interpret the question as expected, which demonstrates the need to be clear in writing and interpreting the questions.

Peer Marking

I’ve referred to this above, but if its not an activity done in class; working with your classmates you could practice marking each other’s activities/practice assessments. Putting you in the mindset of the assessor makes you more critical which should mean when you return to your own work you should have a better understanding of what you need to do to meet your assessor’s expectations.

If you need to work on your own, you could set aside some answers you have written for at least 4 days, then mark them (get a red pen). It may feel strange marking your own work but the time gap should give you enough distance to be more objective.

Practice Writing Answers to Mock Questions

The more you practice writing you will become more familiar with the content of your course/studies. Reading a book or articles etc gives you a lot of information, but you need to consolidate your learning. Answering questions allows you to take the learning from your reading and really make sense of it. Turn your knowledge into understanding. Answering questions allows you to develop and check your understanding. You will also identify any gaps in your knowledge or if there is something you don’t understand. It will also help you develop your academic writing and exam techniques.

Answer the question set

If you have followed my tips above you should be on track and less likely to tell me/your assessor everything you know on the topic, and stay focused on the question(s) set. I do have one final tip for you though. Keep a note of the question(s) you are answering in sight as you work (I’ve even been doing this drafting this post) and keep asking yourself how does what you’re writing answer the question. If you can answer that question and haven’t included the explanation in your answer, you should add it.

If, however, you find you can’t answer it, they you have possibly got side-tracked. Often I read information and ideas that are really interesting, but don’t score the student any marks as its irrelevant to the question posed, plus you’re using up your word count. When this happens you need to be ruthless and remove the irrelevant material. It is hard to do, but I guarantee it will be worth it.

Good luck with your assessment/essay writing and exams when the time comes.

Image by FireFX from Pixabay

Now over to you …

What words in assessment/essay questions do you struggle with?

What things about assessment/essay questions cause you problems?

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