The first thing I need to tell you is to forget everything you know about time management.
People have been thinking about this concept wrong for years.
The thing is, there really is no way to “manage time” — time is a constant and it will keep moving regardless of anything you do. When we talk about having better time management, we’re really talking about how we can be more productive in the time we’ve been allotted.
So instead of thinking about how we can manage time, we should really be thinking about how we manage ourselves.
This is important because we are constantly creating productivity hurdles for ourselves that we have to jump over, making it harder for us to do our jobs effectively. These hurdles could be the types of office we work in, the number of hours we work, or the way our brain is wired (more on this later).
Before you continue: Make a commitment to yourself to pick at least one thing from this list to change about the way you work — and keep it up for at least two weeks.
Change Your Mindset
When tasks build up, we are more likely to start getting thought loops about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. This can lead us to feel both guilt and shame.
Unfortunately, as humans, we then spend a lot of time procrastinating in order to avoid those feelings.
Clearly, this achieves nothing and ultimately just adds more negative feelings to our work, jobs, and lives. We need to start finding new ways to manage the number of tasks we have, as well as acknowledging that we will always be playing catch-up with our work (and that’s ok!).
One of the best (and worst) traits of student affairs professionals is that we’re perfectionists. We want to make sure that our work is having the most positive impact and that our students have the best college experience. We know that if we make a mistake, it can affect our engagement with an entire year’s cohort of students, which in turn creates engagement issues in later years!
The problem is that our strive for perfectionism leads to us putting off the work we should be doing or taking the risks we should be taking. Instead of worrying about having the right resources, striking at the right moment, or waiting for the perfect system, put something less than perfect out there and spend the rest of the time iterating. Pilot programs and focus groups are your best friends for this reason!
As more and more tasks stack on top of us, we naturally have less time to look after ourselves. And with what little time and energy we do have left, we try to squeeze in self-care to offset that burden of stress. This is not healthy.
“When we consider self-care to be something that we only do when we’re on the brink of burnout, we’re only furthering our unwellness.”
— Dustin Ramsdell, Why We Need to Radically Rethink Self-Care
Managing your time and tasks effectively could, therefore, be seen as the ultimate form of self-care since you are allowing yourself to get more things done and preventing yourself from future burnout.
4. Think about whether you’re task-focused or people-focused.
Understanding what motivates you is a huge component of effective time management. If you’re a task-focused person, the satisfaction of getting stuff done (or done right) should be your main motivator. You might need to find ways to build in more control over projects or allot more time for research rather than rushing to finish a project.
If you’re people-focused, your main motivation comes from working with others and/or getting acknowledged for your work. In this instance, you might want to find new ways to collaborate on projects, ask others to hold you accountable to deadlines or find opportunities to showcase the work you’ve been doing.
5. Manage your “urgency bias”
New research has shown that our brains are wired to direct our attention to things that we perceive as urgent. The operative word there is “perceive.” That means no matter the reality of our tasks, if someone or something seems more urgent, we can’t help but focus on it.
This is why planning out tasks carefully is so important. Something can be urgent, but not necessarily important. And equally, something can be very important, but not urgent.
Use some of the tips below to organize your tasks appropriately and work with your urgency bias, not against it.
Helpful Tips and Tools
6. Find the right software to help you
The best technology tool for you will always be the one that does what you need without having to add steps to your working routine. And remember, don’t settle when it comes to software. Find something that does the job well; trying to fit a circle into a square hole isn’t worth it just because there’s a free alternative.
To make your work life easier, we, of course, recommend Presence for managing your student events, organizations, co-curricular learning programs, and data analytics; a service like Buffer or Tweetdeck for your social media management; and Mailchimp for scheduling simple, yet beautiful newsletters.
7. Schedule extra time before and after meetings
It might seem strange to encourage an industry that is already swamped with meetings to dedicate more time to them, but this will actually save you time.
Arriving early to a meeting allows you to ask yourself a few questions, “what do I need to get out of this meeting?”, “what might I need from the people in this room?” and “do I need to stay for the whole thing?” Your time is important, so if you’ve accomplished everything you need from this meeting, excuse yourself (just check-in with your supervisor about leaving early beforehand).
Similarly, try not to immediately go back to whatever you were doing beforehand.
Spend 5 minutes thinking about what was talked about in that meeting, establish how and when your assigned actions will take place, and file away anything else. You want to avoid being in a situation where you remember two hours too late that you were supposed to do XYZ for a meeting you had the day before. (This creates the guilt and stress we talked about before).
8. Create guidance documents or FAQs
If you find people asking the same questions over and over again, create FAQs or how-to guides that you can refer people to instead. But this comes with a word of warning — we sometimes spend far too much time creating guidance documents for things that we really don’t need to.
Exercise judgment when it comes to these types of files.
Recommended tools: Google Docs, Google Sites, or a self-created Wiki.
9. Decide what can interrupt you
If you have a task that is going to take longer than an hour, make a conscious decision beforehand what you are going to allow to interrupt you. A push notification is just as disruptive as someone walking into your office, so figure out which types of requests deserve your attention in that second (and turn push notifications for social media off on your phone).
10. “Only plan for 4-5 hours a day.”
This quote comes from David Heinemeier Hansson, a programmer and founder of Basecamp (formerly 37signals). There’s only so much productivity we can do in one day. Trying to schedule for every minute is a surefire way to fail (and induce more stress). So instead, plan for a 4-5 hour workday and let the rest happen.
11. Use a traffic light system to monitor task progress
If you’re a visual person, write down all your tasks for the week or month in a spreadsheet (or AirTable) and highlight them with either red/amber/green. This can help give you a quick glimpse of where you’re falling behind.
12. Delegate tasks
The perfectionist in us never wants to let go of things when we know we could do them better. A great rule to follow is if someone else can do the job to 80% of the same standard, it’s within an acceptable margin. Delegate.
13. Don’t lose your ideas — but don’t let them lose your train of thought
Too often we have a bright idea right in the middle of working on another project, but switching between tasks slows us down.
If you find yourself getting distracted by things you need to google, people you forgot to email, or just a moment of genius, write them down. Don’t let those thought loops stop you from being productive.
14. Monitor your social media use
Facebook and Instagram are soon to be implementing new ways for you to track how much you use their platforms. Once launched, you’ll be able to go to your settings and click “Your time on Facebook” or “Your Activity” for Instagram and see a review of the time you’ve spent on the apps. In the meantime, you can use an app like rescuetime to track how you’re using the hours in the day.
For iPhone users, you can also go to your battery settings and see which apps are consuming the most power. This is a good, quick indicator of where you’re spending your time!
15. Eisenhower Box
We’ve established that our brains will always focus work that seems the most urgent. But how do we make sure we prioritize the right work? Well, here’s a technique you can use called the “Eisenhower Box.”
The key is to identify whether your task is urgent (time sensitive and usually associated with someone else’s goals) and/or important (jobs that are tied to our own professional goals). Once you’ve listed your tasks you can prioritize them in the following order:
- Urgent and important (Do it now)
- Non-urgent and important (Plan it)
- Urgent but not important (Delegate it)
- Non-urgent and not important (Drop it)
Let us know on Twitter @HelloPresence which techniques you’ve found the most useful, or perhaps one that we’ve missed and you think we should add.