Scheduling your time
If you control your time, you control your life, says Alan Lakein (1973). Time is a precious commodity; everyone gets an equal share but we use it very differently. We also look at time very differently. About 57% of us are present and future oriented, 33% are mainly future oriented, 9% are present oriented and only 1% focus on the past. Societies have different attitudes toward time, some are rushed and punctual, others are relaxed and disregard the clock. Successful managers, professionals, and students are future or goal oriented. Productive people have set their priorities and scheduled their time accordingly. Unsuccessful, unskilled workers and procrastinating students are present oriented and unorganized, fatalistic, and hedonistic. When current needs demand your attention, whether that is because the family must be fed or you "must" have a good time with friends, it becomes harder to carefully plan for the future. Our situation and needs influence our time orientation, but our time orientation (and needs) can be changed, leading to more success in life.
Actually, once a time-utilization problem is admitted, scheduling your time may not be as difficult as you might think since several hours are already "filled" with sleeping, eating, showering, working or classes, and other essentials. You only have to schedule the "unfilled," available hours (for college students that's about 10 hours per day). If you don't plan how to use those hours, it is easy to be lulled into watching TV, talking with friends, etc.
The idea is to decide "what is the best use of my time?" Make a list of what you need to do each week and then, based on the time available, make a daily "to-be-done list" for working on your high priority tasks.
- To make better use of your time, both in terms of devoting time to high priority activities and avoiding wasting time or spending your time on less important things.
- To be time effective, not necessarily time efficient, by selecting the best thing to do at this moment from among the infinite possibilities.
STEP ONE: Set your priorities. List your major goals for the next few months. Rate each goal. Ask, "What are the most important things for me to do?"
At least every month or so, reconsider your philosophy of life, your purposes in life (see chapter 3), and/or your organization's mission. In this context, it will also be helpful to think of the important roles you play, such as son, boyfriend, student, part-time worker, fraternity member, and Big Brother volunteer. Or, perhaps you are a husband, father, department head, Bill's best friend, church member, and PTA membership chairperson. Make a list of major goals you consider really important to accomplish in each of your roles--at work or school, in relationships, in organizations, and, of course, in personal growth. Now, go through the list and rate each goal as being "top" priority, "second" priority or "low" priority. We can't do everything we'd like to do. However, we can guard against spending too much time on second or low priority activities. And we can avoid spending all our time in one area, e.g. working desperately to be successful in our career while neglecting our family.
STEP TWO: List what needs to be done this week in order to reach your top priority goals. Rate each activity.
It is very beneficial to review your situation each week, giving a few minutes of serious thought to what actually needs to be done to achieve your goals. Examples: What would be especially appreciated by loved ones? What would improve my physical or emotional health? What can I learn that would help me do my work better or improve my relationships with others? What future problems can I avoid or prevent? What school or work assignments are due and most important (see step 5)? What kinds of things could I do that would really thrill me or inspire me or turn me on... or would leave a legacy to others? What tasks must be done to successfully achieve my major goals? You are now translating your major purposes in life--your aspirations--into concrete actions. You can't do a goal, only actions that are likely to get you to a goal.
Based on your rather wide-ranging thoughts and feelings, make a realistic list of the learning and work that seems to be required to reach your "top" priority goals. Be creative. Be realistic. Don't confuse goals (step 1) with activities. Getting into graduate school is a goal; activities leading to that goal are studying 4 to 6 hours every day, doing well in a math course every semester, preparing for the Graduate Record Exams for 5 hours every week for 3 or 4 months, and so on. You will surely list many more activities than can possibly be done, so again rank the importance of each activity as "top," "second," and "low." This helps you decide what most needs to be done to reach your most important goals. If you don't know how to reach your goals, i.e. get to where you want to go, talk to people who have made it (or read their histories and advice). It is vitally important that your actions actually lead you to your goals. This knowledge of what leads to what comes from science, experience, and wisdom.
STEP THREE: Observe how you spend your time.
It could be an eye-opening experience to simply record how you spend your 168 hours per week. Note how you waste time, spend time on low priority tasks, have trouble getting started, or tend to be inefficient. Also notice when you have the most energy for exercising or hard work, when you are most alert mentally, when you get tired or irritable, and what distracts you from high priority activities. This information may be useful in setting up a daily schedule so you will stay on task.
STEP FOUR: Make a master schedule of fixed activities for the week.
A master schedule for the week tells you what time is "committed," i.e. time periods that you have already scheduled. It includes sleeping, dressing, eating, travel time, meetings or classes, housekeeping chores, time with loved ones, friends or children, and some leisure-relaxation-exercise time. This is your fixed schedule. It includes the things you must do. Your master schedule is pretty stable week after week. You need to write it down only once, then make occasional changes as needed. The master schedule identifies the hours that are "free," that you have control over.
STEP FIVE: Keep a running list of assignments--things you need to get done this week.
You have to keep track of what needs to be done soon, e.g. get a report written, go to the grocery, make arrangements for going out Friday night, etc. It will be helpful to note any due dates, the time required (remember many things take twice as much time as we expected), and the importance of the task.
STEP SIX: Make a "To-Be-Done List" for every day.
Considering your list of major long-range goals, your list of important goal-directed activities, your inefficient use of time, your already scheduled time, and your assignments due this week, you need to decide on your priorities for each day of the week. Then start scheduling activities in your "free" time, giving priority to the most important. Some activities most be done at a specific time, e.g. an appointment to talk to an advisor. Other activities need to be done but can be done at any available time; they are simply listed to be done (which means you have to leave some "free" time).
Do this scheduling early in the day (or the night before) and at the same time every day, so it becomes a habit. This is the crux of wise time management. Do first things first. If possible, don't let yourself get inundated with "urgent matters" that may not actually be as important as having time to think, to learn new skills, to plan better ways of doing the job, etc. Don't try to do a lot of little tasks first ("clear your desk") so you will be free to do important work later. That wastes prime time. It is important to avoid, whenever possible, doing low priority tasks, which can often be put off, perhaps forever. However, it is wise to include time in your schedule, say half an hour, for handling unexpected chores and another half an hour for "catching up." Don't feel guilty if you don't get everything done; you can do it tomorrow, if it's important. Make your daily schedule (To-Be-Done List) fairly specific, indicating when during your "free" time you will do certain tasks, such as when you will read an article, when you will make reservations for Friday night and so on. Work on your more difficult or important tasks when you are most alert. Don't use your peak performance time for easy assignments or for socializing and playing.
STEP SEVEN: Follow your daily To-Be-Done List. Reward yourself.
Learn to make your daily schedule realistic, which means you schedule what can and needs to be done and you actually do those things. You have to be flexible; new things will come up each day that require attention. But the basic point is simple: work on your highest priority activities during most of your "free" time each day. However, as Lakein (1973) points out, many of us procrastinate when faced with long and difficult or unpleasant tasks, even though they are quite important to us. What are the solutions?
The best is to recognize the tendency to "put it off" and, instead, do it now! Another approach to finishing the overwhelming job is called the "Swiss cheese method." You poke holes in a big project by finding short tasks to do whenever you have a few minutes that will contribute to the completion of the lengthy project. Maybe you can get some needed information or a book. Maybe you can set up an organizational meeting. Maybe you can at least write the first paragraph.
If you are avoiding an unpleasant task, perhaps you can get started by telling yourself "I'll quit in 5 minutes if it is really terrible." It might not be as bad as you imagined. Recognize that putting off an inevitable chore just generates more stress and embarrassment. If nothing else works, take 15 to 20 minutes to do nothing! Don't fudge, do absolutely nothing. By the end of 20 minutes, you will be so bored and so anxious to "get on with it" that you will start working on the difficult task immediately.
Being organized and productive in the areas that are important to you will be rewarding, but you need more rewards. Consider these suggestions: build into your daily schedule rest breaks or friendly interaction, give yourself 15 minutes for exercise or relaxing or light reading, mix pleasure with work, at the end of the day take time to review with pride what you have done, and so on.
Chapters 4 and 11 give many more suggestions for changing behavior and procrastination; chapters 5 and 7 offer help with fears and anger that may be involved in avoiding certain situations.
Making the master schedule should only take a few minutes. Changes can be added quickly. It takes a few minutes to keep a continuously updated list of assignments and chores to be done. Making the To-Be-Done List for each day requires careful thought and may take 10 to 15 minutes. It is time well spent.
Since a lot of people waste time, there must be a lot of problems managing time. First of all, many people have little experience organizing their lives, because parents, teachers, bosses, and friends have done it for them. They don't see the need for a schedule. Also, many people resent any barrier that interferes with their doing whatever they feel like doing at the moment. Thus, a schedule is seen as stifling by some and resisted. Planning their time is too time consuming for others.
Secondly, as discussed in chapter 4, some of us are pushed by pressing needs--a need for love and attention, a need to avoid responsibility and work, a need to believe the future will take care of itself (so, I can do whatever I want to right now), a need to escape real life by listening to music, watching TV, or reading a novel, and so on. In some cases, a new determination to schedule your time will get you going. In other cases, greater self-awareness (psychotherapy or honestly looking at how you really waste your time) is needed. In still other cases, it seems to be almost impossible to become more controlled until some of the above mentioned basic psychological needs have been satisfied or, more likely, until we realize we are headed for failure, i.e. that our life isn't working out as we had hoped. Many college students don't get motivated until they flunk out and have to work in a miserable job for a year or two.
Thirdly, as Covey, Merrill & Merrill (1994) point out, many of us spend our days handling what appears to be "urgent" problems, such as answering the phone or mail, beating deadlines for never read reports, attending meetings, impressing the boss, etc. which are not in a broader sense very important or useful. If your schedule is filled with unimportant urgencies, you won't have time to learn new things, to do long-range planning, to be creative and original, to do research, to exchange ideas with others, to re-think your major objectives, to invent new opportunities, to try to prevent future problems, to help others, and so on. These latter activities result in greater productivity and more benefits to everyone; they are the essence of a thoughtful life. It is said, "the person who concentrates entirely on sawing wood, is likely to forget to sharpen the saw." Our goals should be selected with care, as in step 1, and Covey, Merrill & Merrill help us do that.
Fourthly, some people make their daily schedules too rigid and overly demanding. Your schedule should make you feel as if you've "got it together," not like a failure or an incompetent. It would be foolish to plan every minute of every day. An opportunity--a chance to talk with the boss, a chance to become involved in a project, a chance to meet someone--may appear at any moment. You must be ready to explore any good opportunity; otherwise, life can become a drag. Priorities and assignments and deadlines change every day; thus, the use of your "free" time every day must change a little, too.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
It seems logical that a planned, organized day is more fruitful than one lived whimsically without any carefully considered goals. To my knowledge this has never been researched, however. Maybe the benefits are obvious. If you can avoid getting trapped into doing unimportant, unnecessary chores, the dangers of living an intelligently planned life are minimal compared to the risks of wasting time if you don't use To-Be-Done Lists. There is some danger, of course, that you might make a bad decision, e.g. you could decide to study hard in premed only to gradually realize two years later that you can't make the grades necessary to get into medical school. Then, you might regret having lost that time. The advantage is that you have at least given your brain (and your values) a chance to influence your life.
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Pauk, W. (1974). How to study in college. Boston, Mass.: Haughton Mifflin Co.