Time Management Strategies for When You’re Out of Ideas

Lead image credit: Pixabay via Pexels.

This isn’t turning into a self-help blog: I just had some thoughts on my mind that I wanted to get out.

I’ve always considered myself a diligent person, and I’ve always attributed that diligence to my Taekwondo training, which spanned most of my formative years (5 – 9 and 13 – 18) and 47% of my life. Lots of self-paced learning and “you reap what you sow”s and all whatnot.

But I’ve noticed over the years that my time management strategies have evolved; that evolution is highly dependent on my mood and work load. Today I felt the need to change strategies, and consulted the Internet, which gave me exactly 0 useful ideas. So for the benefit of anyone reading this, here are some time management strategies, spelled out and specifying the ripe times to use them. But bear in mind: strategies will be different for everyone, this is just designed to spur on more specifically-detailed ideas for you.

1) When you’re in negative time, give yourself finite goals.

I was always good at doing my homework the moment I got home. That way, I could get done quickly and spend the rest of my day playing and relaxing, completely guilt-free.

But when my workload is so high that I realize, “I’m going to be working all day and still not be done,” the incentive for guilt-free play goes away because, well, there won’t be any play. Ever. This has become especially relevant for me lately: at college, there are so many things to do that, even if you find yourself finishing all your homework, there’s still that personal project you should be working on, or parents to call, or exercise to squeeze in, or summer internships to apply to. In this scenario, it’s easy to stop exercising, get behind on sleep, shirk personal hygiene, miss out on “living a little,” and overall become exhausted. You don’t work as hard because you know that, no matter what, you will never earn yourself a guilt-free break. Even worse: you’ll think to yourself, “I can watch this YouTube video now. After all, I won’t get a break anytime later, will I?”

Step 1: Realize that having a promise of “being finished” will allow you to keep up with personal health and actually motivate you to work harder and faster.

Step 2: Give yourself a finite list of goals to complete for the day. If you finish them all early, you’re done. Doesn’t matter if you underestimated and now have 3 hours left: you are not obligated to do anything more. You can, but do not feel guilty if you don’t.

Example: Tomorrow, I estimated that I will be working from 10:30 to 10:30, which gives me about an estimated hour in the morning and evening for play/hygiene. That’s 12 hours. I set aside 2.5 of those hours for a meeting and volleyball practice I need to attend, and then 1 more hour for eating lunch and dinner. That’s 8.5 hours left.  To fill those 8.5 hours, I assigned myself this list: pitch story ideas (1 hour), practice my presentation (1.5 hours), write and edit (1 hour), study for my stats exam (2 hours), practice my presentation again (0.5 – 1 hour), and go over my Ochem notes (2 hours). That fills up the 8.5 work hours.

If my editor gives me a pitch, that’s an hour of “playtime” I’ve bought myself. In that hour, I should not feel “lazy” for not filling the space with something else. If I memorize my presentation instantly, that’s 2 extra hours I bought myself. And if after watching an episode of Game of Thrones I feel relaxed, I can, by all means, write some more or do some practice problems for chemistry. But the key here is that I don’t have to.

And if you underestimated how long that essay would take? Well, I have that extra hour at the end of the day to serve as my buffer. Otherwise, it’s playtime.

2) When you’re distracted or juggling many thoughts/holding conversations, give yourself short, regular breaks.

College came with an unexpected time-sapper: sending and replying to messages. Emails, phone calls, texts from my realtor… For each and every one of them, you think, “This will only take a moment.”

But then you also read your emails about the latest CRISPR development or a survey you can fill out for money. Or, while texting back your realtor, you notice that your crush tagged you in a new meme. Distractions that you could avoid if you turned off your wifi are a lot harder to ignore if your work (emailing interviewees and house hunting) takes place in those very same media channels. But you can’t just ignore a phone call from your boss or wait until after 5 pm to get back to someone, or you may be in for more trouble.

So what do you do? You give yourself a 5-minute break at the end of each half hour. From 1:00 to 1:25, you are all over your calculus problems. But at 1:25 on the dot, you get to respond to emails or check out that cool video your roommate sent you. But you stop at 1:30.

This also helps if you remember that you need to do something: call someone, write down an idea, etc. Things that might escape your mind if you waited a few more hours. Just jot yourself a little note and then wait for the end of the half hour. Distraction postponed.

3) When your schedule has lots of holes, fill each hole individually.

Another difference between college and high school: in high school, you go to all your classes in the morning, come home, finish your homework, and then party. In college? My Wednesday classes are at 11, 1, and 3:30 respectively. I have a club meeting at 6:30, and such-and-such lecture is at 8. On Wednesdays, most of my work has to be done in 1-hour blocks.

Not only that, but the calls have to be made between 9 am and 5 pm; the studying for that statistics exam needs to happen before 3:30, and the writing needs to get done before I exhaust myself. Oh, and then you need to remember to feed yourself.

When this happens, I found that it really helps to write out your entire day’s schedule. Not just a to-do list, and not just your fixed classes and meetings. I mean the entire day. Map out what you are doing in every half-hour block.

It sounds sad. It sounds like what neurotic people would do. But I am a teenage college student and by god when else am I going to have an excuse to be a little neurotic? Even though it sounds bad, this really helped my first two semesters of college. Because every single day, you’re going somewhere different and needing to adapt to a new time schedule.

As a bonus, this will also allow you to keep track of just what you’ll be able to accomplish today. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given myself three hours of Ochem homework only to find that I finished with all my other work at 10:30.

Note: It may be useful to compare and contrast strategy #1 and strategy #3. They both rely on a to-do list, but they approach it in different ways: In strategy #3, everything needs to be accomplished within the amount of time you designate to yourself. Also in strategy #3, you can get the same effect as in #1 by saying something like, “From 1 to 2 I’ll work on my essay. If I finish at 1:30, then I have a half hour of free time.”

 

I hope that some of these strategies help you guys, or at least give you useful ideas as to how to wrangle in a chaotic life. The key to getting work done, in my opinion, is realizing that work is important, but you are more important. You can’t just spend your college years “toughing it out,” because these are the self-care habits you’ll be forming for the rest of your life. When you’re out of college, you’ll be telling yourself to tough it out until you reach some other milestone, but it seems to me that the break you’ve been waiting for will never come. You will always be “too busy.” The trick is to make time for yourself, to say that you are not going to miss out on life, and to reassure yourself that, sometimes, taking a break is the hardest thing you’ll ever accomplish.


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