I hate the phrase “time management,” as though time is something that just won’t behave or needs to be offered an end-of-year bonus for high performance.
That’s right – time is the fossil fuel that keeps the SUV of your life moving forward day after day. (I know, “fossil fuel” is kind of a dirty word, but you get the point – once it’s gone, it’s gone!) But, I guess just like fossil fuel, you feel guilty about using it, no matter what you are doing! Whether you’re finishing a manuscript while the kids sit in front of yet another episode of Peppa Pig or you’re neglecting all those student emails to play outside, you feel like there’s never enough time for your job or your family. You just can’t win.
I was raised hearing the old adage, “time is money.” But when I learned as an adult that time is not, in fact, money (which there is always more of!), I had to rethink the way I was spending it. Sure, we all scroll social media for more minutes of the day than we “know we should” and we spend a lot of time “getting ready to work” – tidying up the desk, making another cup of coffee, checking email one more time just in case “something important” has appeared in the last 4 minutes since the last time we checked. I remember back in the day when collaborating on grant writing was a (small) part of my job…I would spend so much time “getting organized” and “making sure nobody needed anything” before I sat down to write, it would be 4 pm by the time I was ready to get started! I felt rushed, scattered, and “busy,” but had nothing to show for myself by the end of the workday.
Writing a dissertation while parenting 3 children does not allow much time for that kind of nonsense. And, more importantly, I do not want to feel like a scatterbrained busybody who never manages to click “submit” on anything!! And when I power down the laptop at the end of the workday, I want to be fully present with my kids. (I know! It sounds super cliché! And super impossible when you’re in academia when the brain is always on and the demands are always looming.)
Sound crazy? Well, I have figured out an airtight approach to being a good steward of my most valuable nonrenewable resource (time, remember?) This technique is working so well for me that I work most days from 10 am-3 pm, pick up my kids from school at 3:20 and almost never fire up the laptop “after hours” (‘cause let’s be honest…I’ve got nothing left after 9 pm!)
Ready for it?
I call it Being Awesome with Your Time (‘cause, honestly, I couldn’t think of anything catchier and I hate the term “time management”), A.K.A. time blocking.
Here’s how it works:
You are going to write down everything – EVERYTHING – you have to do this week on a piece of actual paper (seriously, writing it down on paper is better than typing it out on your laptop or phone). Then you are going to decide which things are most important, which things to delegate to someone else, and which things can wait till next week or next month or next decade. There will be things on this list that do not make the cut. Yep, that’s right! Some things will not get done. While this creates a sucky feeling that a perfectionist like me did not at first care for very much, trust me, it can ultimately be very liberating to let some sh*t go.
I will break it down for you because this approach is super easy and will make you awesome with your time. Your future self will THANK YOU for setting her up for success!
Step 1: Write down EVERYTHING you have to do. All of it. (Take a breath.)
When I say “all of it,” I mean everything from “check email,” to “pick kids up from school” to “finish grant proposal.” Your list will likely include things like “make dinner,” “do 17 loads of laundry” (don’t panic! Remember…delegating comes into play soon!!), “update PowerPoint,” “revise article,” “resubmit article”…and so on. Put it all on the page.
The first time you do this, the list will be very, very long. You might feel like you’re going to vomit. The first time I did this, I think my list was 3 double-sided sheets of notebook paper. It took me about an hour to get it all down. I had to take a lot of deep breaths. I had to trust that this process was about to make my life BETTER not HARDER.
Step 2: Write down the obstacles
Look at your list and write down the obstacles to accomplishing that task. Obstacles could be mental blocks like “not sure which journal to submit this paper to” or practical things like “I need to make dinner but we are out of spaghetti sauce.” These obstacles will illuminate not only what is getting in the way of getting stuff done (you might not have even realized you were procrastinating on that article because of uncertainty about the journal…) but will also help you formulate a step-by-step plan.
Step 3: Put a star next to the MOST important things. (These are not necessarily the most urgent things.) Prioritize.
It’s really important to realize that not every task has equal weight when it comes to how you spend your time. Submitting a grant proposal that might determine the next 2 years of your career is more important than updating your credit card information in your Netflix account. Taking your daughter to her soccer game is more important than posting a picture of your new shoes on Insta (though we will schedule some social media time, too!)
So, put a star next to the things that really matter. This is not the same as the things that are urgent or matter to someone else’s timeline. Star the things that matter to YOU. Star the things that would really screw up your day if you didn’t do them (you know, like feeding your children).
Now put another cute symbol next to the things you can delegate. (I like to use a heart because I really, really love it when people help me!) Think about who could do the laundry or cook one night this week or walk the dog or edit your manuscript…people want to help! Seriously, my neighbor OFFERED to cook a meal and pick my children up from school when I was writing my dissertation proposal! There are all KINDS of research (if you’re into that kind of thing ;) ) on how helping others/being of service makes the person who helped feel good. It’s a win-win.
(Here’s a little bonus homework for you: make a list of people you could call on for help, either once in a while or on the regular.)
Step 4***: PLAN YOUR FREE TIME***
I will admit, this one was hard for me. After 3 kids and (almost) 2 graduate degrees, I have kind of forgotten what free time IS or how to use it to do things I enjoy (what do I enjoy doing?)
But this step is the whole point of Being Awesome with Your Time. Truly. You want to make the most of your most valuable nonrenewable resource so that you can spend more of it doing the things that light you up! Time with your kids, date night with your partner, a walk in the woods by yourself…these are not things that should wait until all the work is done. Because there is no done. There’s always more writing to do, more emails to wade through, more papers to grade. But there is not more time with your people unless you schedule it.
Now get out your planner. Paper calendar, outlook, google calendar, ical, cozi…whatever you use to keep your life organized – get that. Select times during the week when you are going to take time for yourself and/or your family. For me, it’s an hour of yoga, meditation, and journaling first thing in the morning, picking up my kids after school each day, and something fun on the weekend.
I also recommend that you schedule 15-20 minutes of “social media time” each day, if this is something you find yourself doing mindlessly and feel like you are wasting time (but doing it anyway!) Just decide when you’re going to let yourself indulge in a little scrolling and plan for it. This will help you scratch the itch to see what everyone else is up to without it eating up your whole morning.
Step 5: Put the to-do items on your calendar.
Now look at your to-do list again and start plugging in the items that you put a start next to. This should include time to check and respond to emails, time to respond to phone calls or texts, and, of course, any classes or meetings you absolutely must attend. If there are meetings you could go to but that does not move the needle on any of your most important tasks, don’t go! Send a research assistant to take notes for you. Or, if you have something to contribute to the meeting, see if you can do your part first and leave after 15 minutes.
Once I attended a training on campus about how to apply for a certain type of grant. About 20 or 30 minutes into the presentation, it dawned on me that I was never going to apply for this grant – and therefore, I was wasting my most valuable nonrenewable resource if I chose to continue sitting there. I quietly got up and left the meeting – and it felt SO good to reclaim the next 60 minutes of my life doing something to forward my own agenda, rather than being chained to someone else’s priorities.
I struggled with this question at first. Especially in grad school when everything you’re doing is something you’re learning for the first time. But here’s the thing: just decide how long you’re going to spend on the task and get it done in that amount of time. This technique is the antidote to perfectionism! Since we already know that there is no “done,” just decide in advance when you’re going to stop and call it “good enough” when your time is up. Because if you’ve scheduled an hour for something and you take two hours to finish it, you will have to use some of your free time to make up the difference. And since you’ve already scheduled your free time and your time with your kids, you know exactly where you will have to compromise on things that are important to you. The tradeoff becomes very clear.
So. Many. Emails. Just as you have a limited number of office hours in the week, so should you only have a certain amount of email time each day. It is very important that you train yourself to have exceptionally good boundaries around email. If you are one of those people who feels compelled to answer every email as soon as you see it, you will train your colleagues and students to think you are someone who responds quickly. You are setting yourself up! Almost no one needs an immediate response from you (and if they do, they can pick up the phone and – gasp! – call you.) Your time belongs to you, so you must protect it with your life if you expect to get any of your own work done in the day.
I do not check email first thing in the morning because my to-do list does not live in my inbox. I repeat:
What lives in your inbox? Other people’s priorities. Questions, requests, meeting invitations…these are all other people’s work.
Step 6: Throw away your to-do list!!!
This is the scariest – and the most liberating! – part of the whole process. This is the part I have struggled with the most. I have been so attached to having a long, long list of To-Dos that I worry about what will happen if I throw it away.
But here’s the thing: everything on that list has been taken care of! You have either delegated or scheduled the things that really need to be done and you have let go of things that do not really need to be done. You have done the mental and emotional work of letting go, readjusting priorities, refocusing your attention.
When you wake up at 3 am and think, “Ohmygosh! I need to prepare a lecture for my class next week!” you will then breathe a sigh of relief and drift gently back to sleep when you remember that you have scheduled time on Thursday at 10 am to prepare your lecture. You have done your future self a solid by pre-thinking about when it is going to get done.
Step 7: When it’s time to work, look at your calendar, and do what it says to do.
This is where you have to take your toddler brain by the hand and exercise some tough love. When you sit down to work, you are not going to want to do what your calendar says. You are going to want to check Facebook, check email (it’s work email, so it’s fine, right?!), text your mom back, update the grocery list…it all feel like you’re getting something done, but be honest, you’re just procrastinating. Train yourself to sit down, look at the calendar, and do exactly what it says. If it says “work on manuscript,” then get typing! If it says “15 minute break,” stop what you are doing, take a drink of water, and get up from your chair. Go outside. Take a walk up and down the hall. If it says “check email,” get in and out of that inbox as quickly as you can.
I have gotten back hours of my week by implementing this method. Planning my time and sticking to it allows me to be more present with my family because I am not constantly worried that I “should be doing something else.” And when I skip this process on a Sunday afternoon, I get into my workday and have no idea how I should be spending my time! I spend time mentally flailing around, checking Facebook and email, and trying to reign in my scattered brain. When I look at my calendar and realize there’s nothing on it – I panic!
Will you give time blocking a try?
Try it for a week and let me know how it goes. Shoot me an email or leave a comment.