28 January 2014

Meeting the challenge of time management

A brand-new year is upon us—525,949 glorious minutes of infinite possibility. With so much time on our hands, why do we often feel overwhelmed, challenged to complete projects, and wonder how on earth we’re going to get it all done?

Sometimes, we find ourselves stuck in reactive mode, playing catch-up, becoming easily distracted, or worse, procrastinating to meet a looming deadline, only to worry that we have bitten off far more than we can chew. Besieged with text, email, instant messages, phone calls, and other communications that frequently leave us exhausted and overwhelmed, we send, receive, exchange, and process a vast amount of information every day.

You cannot save time, but you CAN spend it wisely!
It's OK to relax!
These “time-saving” devices seem to do just the opposite; instead of saving time, they devour it. Fulfilling family, work, school, and other important responsibilities dominates our daily lives. We feel a constant need to be “productive,” or we’re not OK. We feel we need to be doing something, because doing nothing is unacceptable and a serious waste of time. My students often report feeling guilty when they take time to relax. They believe they should be doing homework, studying for exams, and being more productive.

Caught up in a frenzy of busyness, we seek to fill every one of our precious 525,949 minutes with “something,” then wonder why we’re exhausted, overextended, and woefully behind schedule.

So, let’s take a minute or two out of our busy day to review a few time-management strategies. Progressing from the macro to the micro level, let’s begin by crafting a personal, professional vision of the future, including action steps to achieve it.

One of the biggest time wasters is doing work that doesn’t inspire us or isn’t right for us. If you are unhappy in your position, the work may seem tedious and exhausting. On the other hand, if you enjoy your work and find it fulfilling, you are likely to be more efficient and productive. Finding a position that brings you joy involves self-reflection.

Imagine this.
Imagine yourself three, five, or 10 years from now, and answer this question: If you could create the career or life of your dreams, what would it look like? Then, picture yourself a year before retirement. As you look back on your career, what do you wish you had done or accomplished? What legacy do you wish you were leaving? Answer these questions, then start identifying and implementing action steps needed to accomplish your personal, professional vision of your future. To strengthen your resolve, share your vision with a mentor or trusted colleague. As time-management expert Peter Turla states, “Living your life without a plan is like watching television with someone else holding the remote control.”

Next, it’s important to get organized. Whether you use an electronic calendar or an old-fashioned paper version, start each day by reviewing scheduled events and activities. Prepare for your day by making a “to-do” list. Keeping your list brief and concise, prioritize items from high priority to low, and consider dropping low-priority tasks altogether—or reschedule them for completion sometime in the future. Placing important and urgent items at the top of your list helps you stay focused and on task.

Remember "me."
Be sure to schedule “me time” into your calendar, and keep it as sacred as you do other appointments and activities. Years ago, when our children were younger, my husband and I were so busy juggling and managing their activities that I found little time for myself. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to enter my workouts and me time into my calendar and treat them as important as any other work requirement or children’s activity. At first, it was challenging to put time for me into my schedule, but I found it so effective that I still use this method today. By taking care of myself, I can better attend to the needs of others.

When you absolutely have to get work done, place a “Do not disturb” sign on your door, together with information advising when you will be available. (Consider providing a small whiteboard so others can leave messages for you to respond to when time permits.) When working on a project, turn off your cell phone and quiet your office phone as much as you reasonably can. Return phone messages and answer email later.

A variation on the above is to put up a “NO” sign, or download an app on your smartphone that reads “NO.” Craft a short script to recite when someone asks you to take on a project or initiative. You may not always be able to say no, especially if the request is work- or family-related, but be careful not to say yes just because you think you ought to or because the project interests you.

One task at a time.
Realize that multitasking is a time-waster. Trying to complete projects, prepare courses, and respond to email—all at the same time—decreases productivity and, in some cases, creates high anxiety. Schedule time for each activity, and organize email in folders. You don’t have to respond immediately to every email message you receive; it’s perfectly acceptable to respond later, as long as you do so in a timely and expedient way. To avoid forgetting about responses you need to send, save the message in a to-do folder, to take care of in the next day or two.

Schedule and complete as many responsibilities as possible during your most productive time. Are you most productive in the morning, afternoon, or evening? Do your best to do your most important work during your peak time of productivity. Also, it helps to divide bigger jobs into smaller ones or collaborate with a colleague on a project. Breaking jobs into smaller chunks helps us feel more productive and less overwhelmed. Organizing and removing clutter from your workspace also helps decrease stress and increase efficiency.

Perhaps most importantly, reward yourself for time and energy well spent. When you accomplish a challenging task or reach a goal, give yourself a pat on the back, treat yourself to a massage, or take a trip to Kauai! You deserve it!

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.