As the days become longer and the air becomes warmer, one thing is obvious – the spring semester will soon be ending. Professional and student staff members alike feel the stress and pressure of trying to manage a mountainous magnitude of multiple demands and deadlines that swiftly arrive towards the end of the semester. Long since past is the calm and easy pace of mid-September and early October when all seemed more calmed and balanced.
Getting a handle on your schedule and tasks list this time of year may first appear to be impossible. The lure of the great outdoors and balmy sunshine alone after several months of hibernation sometimes leaves little desire to do all the things you may have grudgingly completed in the months prior. However, using a few strategies can make all of the difference between ending the semester race with the winner’s ribbon or falling to the sidelines with injuries.
Set Aside 90 Minutes First
The most important beginning step of more effectively managing your time is learning how to manage yourself. You must schedule 90 minutes to sit down and create a plan of action for the rest of the semester as soon as possible. Find a time where you can be alone and uninterrupted. Even if it means beginning this task before anyone else is awake or after everyone else is asleep, you must take the time to complete this crucial step. While you may not need a full ninety 90 minutes, take it anyway. What follows are suggestions for using this ninety-minutes.
What You Will Need
Be sure to have your planning system, any important reminders of what your tasks are (e.g. course syllabus, calendar, etc). Your supplies should include two good working pencils, your favorite pen and an 8 1/2 x 11 fresh pad of paper. If your style dictates, you may also consider using multiple colored pens or markers. Find a space and sitting arrangements that are comfortable for you, but also allow you to write and spread out your notes.
Where To Begin – Do Nothing
Now that you have your supplies and have set aside some of your valuable time for planning and strategizing, the first step is to do absolutely nothing for ten minutes. Hopefully you are working in a space that you find comforting to your body and senses. If you are not, find that space and once you do simply do nothing. This step is so critical that failure to do so will utterly sabotage the steps that follow and all of your other efforts. So what do you do when you are doing nothing?
Clearing The Mental Clutter
The primary reason our schedules, tasks and responsibilities seem so overwhelming this time of year is because our minds are literally full of mental clutter. There are thousands of incomplete thoughts and irrational fears floating in our heads that often compete for the very same space you need to create the focus and clarity you need to complete tasks.
In this first ten minutes, which can easily be longer if necessary, simply relax and imagine emptying your mind. Now do not worry that you will forget everything you need to know. Actually, all the thoughts you need to access will easily come to the surface once you begin letting go of all the other mental debris taking up space. This debris may look or sound like thoughts of being overwhelmed, fears of what you may forget or the insurmountable list of items you must complete. Oftentimes, mental debris can appear as voices, songs and your own internal mental dialogue all contained in your head and may seem as though it will not go away.
The reality is that you have had demands placed on you for years and this is really no different. However, your mind in all of its efforts to protect you from possible failure does not want you to realize that in order to work most effectively, it must be empty. One effective strategy for emptying your mind is to close your eyes and imagine standing near a very peaceful pond with five pebbles in your hand. Gentle toss the first pebble and imagine being the pebble slowly finding its way to the bottom of the pound. As you fall, imagine all the mental debris floating to the top. Once the first pebble has reached the bottom, feel the lightened mental load and then toss the second pebble. Keep doing this until you begin to feel mentally lighter.
Focus On What Really Matters
Now that your mind is clear, you can begin the important work of figuring out what you really need to do. If you had attempted to complete this step before the previous one, many of the items you would have written down would have been mental debris and not truly important stuff. Using your newly cleared mind, begin thinking about the different responsibilities that need your attention. Think about the different things that require your action, not your worry, but your direct action. Consider those items that people are relying on you to complete.
Make a list of those items that you thought about requiring your direct action. Get them out of your head and onto paper. There is no need to go into detail, just make the list of items that require your attention regardless of what they are. Follow the stream of consciousness and list everything that comes to mind. There will be an opportunity later for refining your list.
Once you have a complete list, consider the various categories each item can fall under. Is it a meeting, project, course assignment, a specific work related category? Using a fresh piece of paper, create columns and head each column with category names. Now, using your previous list, place the items under the categories you created. If you notice overlap, now is the time to delete repeating and unnecessary items.
Prioritize Prioritize, Prioritize!
Your list of items and tasks are complete. Even though you may be wondering what you will need to do to complete them, at least you know what they are. Figuring out what you need to complete first and what order to follow in accomplishing the tasks can seem pretty daunting. Here’s an easy question you should ask yourself each day to give your self clarity around setting your priorities: “What are the most important six things I must complete today?” Find those six items, and it may be only three that must be completed today. Follow the same logic in organizing your week, asking what is most important.
Looking at your categorized task list, begin numbering them 1 – 6 and assign a day of the week to them and use this to begin structuring your week.
Using Your Planning System…
You are doing great! You have managed to clear your mind, list all that you need to accomplish, assigned those items into categories and have even prioritized them. However, given all you have done so far, you still need to determine when you will accomplish these items and how much time you will need to do so.
The items on your prioritized list now must find there way to your planning system. Consider three important questions: “What do I need to do to accomplish this item?” and “How much time do I need to accomplish this item” and “When is it best to work on this?” If you have to attend classes or meetings that are pre-determined and if you feel it is utmost necessary for you to be in attendance, schedule these items first. Be sure to include other absolutes such as eating and sleeping.
Begin scheduling time for the projects and other tasks you prioritized keeping in mind the amount of time and effort you will need for each tasks. This step requires discipline, as you may be tempted to put everything on your calendar the very first week. Understand that all of your tasks are not urgent and do not require your utmost attention the first week of your new planning strategy. In fact, truly effective people plan out months in advance, but remain totally flexible to any pressing demands.
A New Habit
The overall goal of managing your time is the establishment of a new habit, a new way of approaching life. Keeping your mind clear, identifying what needs your attention, prioritizing those needs and then scheduling them based on priority takes continuing effort and daily attention.
Feeling overwhelmed, while natural, does not have to be a normal state of being. Instead, realize that the feeling is just a result of your thinking, mental debris, that once approached and dealt with can easily be swept away. Several times a day take the time to clear the mental debris that gets in the way. This debris sometime shows up as procrastination, and you will need to clear this away as well when it shows up. Any deviation from your scheduled tasks that is not the result of an emergency or someone else’s need, is also a result of mental debris.
The finals finish line is fast approaching. Monitor your pace, maintain your stride and focus on just taking one step at a time. With persistence, you will have a beautiful finish!
Submitted by Tom Segar, Educational Consultant