Work Smarter, Not Harder: Effective Time Management Strategies

In a recent blog post, I discussed why time management is important. Today, I will go over exactly what goes into effective time management and how to plan your time effectively.

Setting Goals

It can be difficult to know exactly what you want to accomplish. Many of us grapple with goal setting, as, at times, our goals can seem somewhat abstract and broad. In these situations, it is important to reflect on our end goals and consider the intermittent goals that will contribute to achieving them.

Identifying intermittent goals allows you to plan your time effectively by moving you closer to your end goals. Ultimately, goal setting is a vehicle by which you can live your life with purpose.

Let’s consider a hypothetical example. Let’s say your end goal is to be accepted into a top computer science program and you’d like to attend an institution such as MIT or Carnegie Mellon. This is a reasonable goal, but may feel too daunting to take on without breaking it down into smaller, actionable items.

You may want to ask yourself questions such as:

What are the requirements to get in and what can I do to ensure I am surpassing those expectations?

How can I improve my application to increase my likelihood of acceptance?

Answer these questions with complete honesty and consider the things that you can do (aka “actionable items”) to move yourself closer to your goal.

For example, if you decided that you would like to boost your grades, you may benefit from revising your schedule to ensure that you’re allocating enough time each week to get whatever assignments you have done. This provides the additional benefit of necessitating prior planning of the amount of time each day or week that you will spend focusing on you various assignments.

One method I have found particularly helpful to keeping on top of school work is prioritization. Sometimes, we can find ourselves with long to-do lists. But such lists most often include tasks that vary in their importance and urgency.

Start by evaluating your to-do tasks and classifying them based on both importance and urgency. The tasks that are important and urgent should be handled first, while tasks that are not urgent and unimportant should be done last or rescheduled for another day.

You can try identifying your top three tasks for the day. Ask yourself:

If I could only accomplish three tasks today, what tasks could I accomplish and be satisfied with?

Prioritizing will help you focus on those tasks that will move your closer towards completing your goals.

Set Time Limits

C. Northcote Parkinson coined the saying:  “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Set realistic time parameters for yourself. If you attempt to tackle tasks without a time limit, you will likely find yourself working for hours while making little meaningful progress.

If you have ever set out to study for a test without a clear game plan, you have likely fallen victim to this pitfall. Does the following sound familiar? You start off strong, but quickly find that studying even a few chapters worth of material can take several hours. At the end of the day, you likely accomplished less than if you had set aside specific blocks of time to work.

As I mentioned in my previous post, when we begin managing our time, we often do so when we are playing catch up.

As a result, we can often find ourselves crafting overly idealistic schedules that are born of perfectionism. Such plans are unsustainable, and holding yourself to unrealistic expectations can lead to feelings of frustration and anxiety, both of which could be easily avoided.

Setting time limits is a skill that takes some trial and error to get right. When faced with an unfamiliar task, you may want to allocate a bit more time to it than you think is necessary to get a feel for how long completing it takes.

Instead of saying, “Today, I want to study six chapters in two hours,” budget your time and do as much as you can in the time you have set aside.

Use a Planner or Online Calendar

By writing things down and blocking time off in a planner or online calendar, not only are you less likely to forget things, but you are also providing yourself with a visual guide for the day (or week or month, depending on your calendar of choice).

Visualizing your day allows you to plan ahead, but perhaps even more importantly, it allows you to see if your schedule needs to be revised.

I can tell you from experience that setting aside an eight hour block of continuous study is no way to live. Make sure that you are freeing up time in your schedule to engage in healthy habits like eating, sleeping, relaxing, and wellness activities such as walking, exercising, or meditating.

When you get your syllabus for the term, identify the important deadlines. Then, mark those dates on your calendar and plan your schedule around them. As the semester goes on and your assignment deadlines approach, use the strategies listed above to break down assignments into smaller, more manageable tasks and budget your time accordingly.

Note: What makes a task “important” can be subjective. For example, while I would try and complete all of my assignments (whether they were worth 2% or 20%), I had friends who would skip over assignments worth less than 5% in order to prioritize bigger assignments.

Ultimately, the choice is up to you. Prioritizing assignments that are weighted more may get you a better final grade (and save you time), but one small assignment can also mean the difference between a B+ and an A- or an A and an A+. Identify your own goals and prioritize tasks and assignments accordingly.

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