We can all struggle with time management sometimes. There are many reasons for the gremlins to appear, but today we explore some solutions to keep them at bay.
This is a revised version previously published in Curiosities, Castles and Coffee Shops on 1st September, 2022.
Its the beginning of the 2023 academic year and I’m preparing for a class where we will discuss time management. It may be part of the unit I’m teaching, but time management is a skill we can all benefit from. Therefore, I thought it was time to revisit this post.
The original post (2020)
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? Most of us know what we’re supposed to do. I use some time management practices but things slip, and I miss deadlines (even if its just the ones I set myself). My intention is to 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, a post on the subject sees appropriate and opportune.
Time management seems such an easy concept – how we plan and organise activities to make best use of our time. However, when we start analysing the key skills to successful time management, there are so many different components. Looking at the individual skills within time management, I would say I’m skilled in most of these:
- I consider myself to 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 (my 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.
As a perfectionist, I find it very difficult to accept that something might be “good enough”, so keep working at refining my work. For me, this is a constant struggle and I cannot say that I’m 100% happy with anything posted. I try to take a step back and accept that 100% perfect is unachievable. There is always something to change. I need to keep my unrealistic standards in check, asking myself what’s wrong with what I have written that means it’s not good enough to post. Good enough is a difficult concept to grasp for a perfectionist as honestly, I will always believe good enough is just one more alteration away.
Taking on too much
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 finding 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-human) and we need to be comfortable saying “no”.
A local charity recently asked me to join their Board of Management. It was an amazing opportunity and I could see many reasons for accepting the role. However, as much as I was excited and flattered by the offer, logically I knew that it wasn’t in my best interests to accept. Currently, I’m working on programme development, and want to spend time on my blog. I had to decide what was most important and while I think it would have been a good opportunity, it wasn’t the right time.
Under-estimating how long activities will take
Until I started tracking my time I consistently under-estimated how long a task would take. This adds to stress levels as we put ourselves under pressure trying to complete tasks on time or failing to meet deadlines. There are times when I under-estimate the amount of time a task requires. While some tasks are straightforward to judge how much time to allocate; others can prove more difficult or complicated. The ideal would be to build in extra time to allow for such obstacles.
The steps I routinely adopt include taking time to plan out my day. Ideally I try to plan at least 2 weeks ahead. I also update my plan with notes explaining changes (timings, changes to activities). If I am working on something that seems difficult to schedule, it allows me to monitor and make adjustments.
Before planning my day, I prepare a to do list of what I want to achieve that day. I find it more effective to identify the three most important things and focus on completing them first. Then I can return and select 3 more if time permits. This keeps me motivated as my progress is visible. I put my 3 items on a post-it and keep it nearby as a prompt reminding me of what I am doing. It also highlights my achievements as I score them off the list. Limiting to 3 items also feels manageable, so I don’t feel overwhelmed. That said, I need to be careful about scheduling breaks etc otherwise I forget lunch which isn’t a good idea.
Too busy to plan/apply time management principles
My best-laid plans fly out the window when I get busy. The act of writing out my daily plan before I start in the morning does seem to keep me focused. However when I’m busy or I know what’s required, I just get stuck in. When I do that I tend to focus on that one thing all day. I get engrossed in what I’m working on and ignore everything else. I guess, for this obstacle, I just need to keep writing and stick to my plan. It means other important elements are included, even if its just breaking for lunch. My blog is a prime example, I allocated time and should have finished 45 minutes ago, but I am nearly done so I will keep going, compromising other tasks.
Apparently perfectionists are master procrastinators because we worry that we will be unable to produce high quality work. We sabotage ourselves by avoiding the tasks. 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”. I tell 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
September 2022 Update:
I know this is still a problem as it took me 3 days to finish a post as I was taking time to consider its ending. In hindsight, by delaying the completion of that post, I was making things more difficult for myself. However, by focusing this morning I was able to finish this one off in 30 minutes.
For me, scheduling my day and sticking to it helps me reduce the amount of time spent procrastinating because I’m making conscious decisions. By planning out my day, I am more accountable. The satisfaction felt when I complete a task on time is now a stronger motivator to keep me on track than the pull of procrastination.
Working at home should mean there are fewer distractions than in the workplace. 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 my status as “do not disturb”.
The other form of distraction that I need to be alert to is other tasks which occur to me. Focusing on completing that rather than addressing the task I sat down to work on. I have started to keep a notebook to hand to jot down ideas as they occur. I could be marking coursework and observe students making a common mistake which could make a good blog post. My instinct is to stop the marking to run with my inspired idea. However, I can now capture the idea briefly, returning to the marking. It means I retain the ideas for posts without breaking my flow too much.
Finish off tasks
Sometimes tasks are nice and straightforward, quickly and easily completed. This is not always the case and I find I end up with many tasks 95% complete. An example could be finishing off associated administration. I tend to put it to the side, thinking I’ll 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 final 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 wind up for the day. This is particularly important while working from home, to maintain the division between work/home to avoid working into the evening.
Lack of Discipline
I know how to manage my time effectively and I start off with the best of intentions, but then I get busy and let the good time management habits slip. Beyond perseverance and continuing to plan out my days, I am unsure of how else to be more disciplined. I encourage you to share any ideas, suggestions or experiences in the comments.
I had the conclusion to this blog already written (I know, I always tell my students to write conclusions and introductions last). However, I have reflected as I write and some potential solutions have occurred to me, so I guess I should review my progress in the future and update this post.
September 2022 – update
Things are better but not perfect (is that perfectionist still making her presence felt?) I think this is likely to be a lifelong struggle, but I know the tips above work, making a difference.18 months on from when I stopped writing my previous blog, I am more organised and managing my time better. So far, I’m writing posts for my blog regularly but this blog is still new. Maybe the fact that I have a personal driver pushing me forward this time is the difference.
It takes time to build habits and there will be ups and downs. When I’m managing my time better, I’m able to do more things – things that are important to me. I also have more time for myself.
Our time management gremlins come in all shapes and sizes and they make return visits. In August 2023, I’m still fighting them, but I believe I’m winning.
Just remember don’t feed them after midnight.😁
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