Effective Time Management: Tools to Prevent Your Schedule from Running You

In my high school and undergrad days, I excelled at procrastinating. In some instances, it was nearly an art form. When I enrolled in law school with a full-time job, I got a crash course in time management that dramatically changed how I manage my schedule. Now, as a mom to two young children and a small business owner, effective time management has never been more critical. With so many demands on your time, it is really easy for your obligations to dictate your schedule and overwhelm your day-to-day activities. Below I share some of my most effective time management techniques that help me to efficiently manage my time, accomplish more, and keep me focused on what is important.

Big Picture. Take some time to write down everything that you have to do, from your job, to hobbies, to your social life. Everything that you do takes time. You need to look at the big picture and create a realistic plan; exactly how detailed and whether it is daily, weekly, or monthly is a personal preference (see below). Also taking your long-term goals into consideration when creating a schedule will help you achieve them. It is very easy to get sucked into the details and minutia, but by keeping an eye on the big picture you will progress toward your overall goals.

Scheduling. Organize your activities in order of importance. Use categories such as essential, fun, time permitting, and whatever others make sense in your life to help you prioritize. Just make sure that you allow yourself some fun activities as well. By taking a step back and looking at your time commitments written down, it will be easier to arrange your schedule and allot an appropriate amount of time to each. Organizing can be made easier if you include why you have a specific activity in your schedule. Is it something you need to do, something you want to do, or something you are expected or guilted into doing?

Cut Back Where You Can. Is one specific activity dominating your time? Are you getting pulled into doing things that you don’t really want to? Consider how the activity impacts your life. Is it essential? Do you enjoy it? Is it preventing you from doing something more valuable? Limit your participation in any time draining activity. You want to be active in the PTA, but you don’t have to be an officer or chair every committee. Choose to keep those commitments that are most important to you and don’t be afraid to streamline or scale back others where you can.

Engage/Be Present. When you place an activity on your final schedule, it is important to fully commit. Be there mentally and don’t get distracted by other commitments in your schedule. It is really easy to get lost in thought over what you need to accomplish later, tomorrow, or next week, but doing so will take away from the task at hand. By remaining focused, not only will you enjoy what you are doing more, but you will be more productive at it.

Know Yourself. Ask yourself when it is you work best and spend a few days or a week writing down the times of the day you felt most productive. You should start to see a pattern develop. From there you can determine when it is you are the most focused and plan your day around that time. Select the tasks you need to concentrate on completely, with no distractions, and schedule them at your optimum times. Keep this in mind when creating your schedule and don’t be afraid to modify something that isn’t working for you. Experiment with different kinds of schedules; some people work best with days structured down to the minute, while others can simply have an unordered to do list for the day. Understanding how you work and making that work to your advantage is the most critical part of effective time management.

Make Time for Yourself. With all that you have to do, you need time to decompress and unwind. Even if you need to schedule yourself some free time to make sure that you get it, then do so. Find something fun and/or relaxing and regularly incorporate it into your schedule. If you take the time to take care of yourself, despite how many other things you could be doing, you will return with a fresh perspective and actually may increase your productivity. Give yourself permission, and chill out.

Be Honest with Yourself. It is easy to over commit yourself by saying “yes, I can do that” to every last-minute rush job project for work, impromptu fundraiser, spur of the moment play date for your kids, or weekend plans with friends. However, when evaluating a new commitment you need to be honest with yourself and the time you actually have available. Take a look at your schedule for that time and think about whether you actually need or want to do the activity. Are you already at the breaking point? Which brings me to…

It’s OK to Say No. There are only 24 hours in a day and sometimes you have to say no. Whether it is for your own sanity or you are stressed out, learn to recognize the warning signs of burnout. Don’t get pressured into taking on more than you can handle. If you are overextended then the tasks you do will suffer and they will be less fulfilling. Try to pick and choose what you want to do and then enjoy them. Resist the impulse to add last-minute activities to your already busy schedule.

Finding time to do the things you need and want to do can be difficult and sometimes overwhelming, but by taking this framework into consideration when planning your schedule you should be able to make more effective use of your time and prevent your schedule from running you. The great thing is, these are pretty universal and have applications with your professional and personal activities. The above time management techniques have served me very well in organizing my hectic schedule. Good luck and feel free to share some of your own time management tips in the comments section below.

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