Do you feel like you’re always busy but you never check anything off your list? Are you being productive with your time? When moving through my time as a student and transitioning into professional life, I learned I had a need for a customized time management plan to achieve my goals. Here are some quick tips and practices I’ve found helpful while navigating my to-dos.
If your mind wanders and you’re easily distracted, it can help to organize those thoughts. If your desk and notebook are cluttered with sticky notes, lists, and notes in the margins, consolidate things into one list. If you prefer to write, choose an area where you can write your to-do list, keep the list running, and check things off as you complete them. This will help you keep your thoughts organized and you’ll avoid spending valuable time searching for your lists.
Consider a digital list—start a digital document or task list on your device that you can access from anywhere. A digital list can help you keep your thoughts portable and in one place, and you can check off or delete things as they’re completed and add to-dos on the fly. Use your list to plan your day and maximize your 24 hours. Consider the following suggestions.
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Exercise A: Understanding how you currently spend your time can help you be more productive. Review your daily tasks—preparing for your day, caring for children, commuting, attending school, eating, sleeping—every task of your day. Create a list of these tasks. Review your list, determine the time you spend on these tasks, and add the time alongside the task. Next, add up the time. How many hours are consumed by your daily tasks? Knowing there are 24 hours in each day, how much time does this leave for focusing on your goals, such as career development or studying for exams? Is there anything you didn’t list that consumes your time, such as screen time? Consider which items should be a focus and which should be deprioritized or delegated.
Exercise B: What do you want to accomplish each day? Do you feel like you never accomplish what you hope to? As often said by many in the professional development space, “Hope is not a strategy.” I’m most productive when I plan every minute of my day. This may sound extreme but try it. List time every 15 minutes. Now, schedule your day in those time slots—wake up, work out, shower, drive to class or work, and the tasks you complete.
This exercise can help you identify the areas of your day not used to meet your goals, or the time you’re not productive and may be wasting. Be sure to include scheduled breaks and a few minutes to indulge in time for things you enjoy. If you find yourself distracted by your phone and social media apps, schedule time to scroll through your apps of choice. It’s the same idea for checking email.
Do you forget to do things? Set timers and alarms. When you’re scheduled to switch to a new task, have an assignment due, or need to remember an appointment, use reminders and alarms. These can be extremely helpful to lighten your mental load.
You may be thinking, I plan my day but then something goes wrong to derail it. How can you plan for a sick child or flat tire? Learning to evaluate urgent tasks and how to manage them is key to pivoting and getting back on track.
You may be familiar with the term “putting out fires,” which refers to unexpected or urgent tasks. First, evaluate the “fire.” Is it truly a fire that requires immediate action? Can emails or questions wait to be answered? Be honest with yourself, and if something can wait, respond during the time you have allotted to respond to emails and texts. If the task is urgent and requires immediate action, take the action, then return to your plan for the day and make adjustments.
We’re so used to responding immediately or feel that responding immediately is expected. But not everything needs to pull us away from our tasks, and it’s our job to determine what should.
Determining what needs immediate attention is not always easy. To avoid having to make the decision at all, schedule time to work without distraction. Turn off notifications on devices and email accounts to create focused work time to meet goals.
If your goal is to earn an “A” on an exam or complete tasks by a due date, what intentional steps will you take to get there? Setting a goal of uninterrupted work time to meet that goal is more likely to get you there than simply hoping you will do well.
Establish routines to study or complete work and set boundaries to help you stick with them. Focusing on goals helps with this. For example, say your goal is to graduate dental hygiene school with a 3.5 or higher. To do this, you must complete course work on time, prepare for exams, and meet clinical requirements. Does picking up more hours at your current employer, going out to lunch with friends, spending time scrolling on your phone, or binge watching the newest show get you closer to that goal? More money and downtime are important but focusing on the goal is a must.
Don’t forget about delegation. Whether in your personal or professional life, call on others when you need help. This may be hard to do, but if you’re struggling, it’s important to reach out.
Conduct a self-audit
Of course, all these suggestions have their exceptions. A time management plan is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. As you develop a plan that works for you, take time to evaluate that plan. After implementing it for a time—give it at least a week or so—complete an audit on how the plan is working for you.
Could you improve a workflow or your ability to avoid distractions by silencing notifications? Little changes can make a big difference. Reflect on current plans and successes and give yourself what you need, but don’t be afraid to schedule time for rest and things you enjoy. You got this!