Schedules change, projects come up, life throws surprises at us all the time which can completely dismantle our carefully balanced schedules. Sometimes we can anticipate these interruptions and distractions. Often we can’t.
An effective time management strategy, then, needs to be adaptable. You’re going to have to roll with the punches every now and again. Don’t fight it.
Let’s look at three effective time management strategies to help you tackle the unexpected, the stressful, and the unavoidable.
If you’ve ever updated your calendar with a 2-hour block of time titled “Unexpected interruption that will utterly destroy my focus for the remainder of the week,” then this article is for you. And if you haven’t, well, you should.
First, a word on procrastination.
While researching this article, I’ve noticed a lot of time management and productivity experts advising their readers to “stop procrastinating.” Let’s talk about that.
According to psychologists, procrastination is often an anxiety response. If we’re anxious about a big presentation or an important project, our anxious brain thinks “well, if I don’t have it in me to do this, maybe I shouldn’t even try. I’ll put this off until I feel more confident in my abilities.” This sounds familiar because, in fact, everybody procrastinates, and it’s entirely unrelated to laziness or lack of motivation.
The more meaningful the task is to us, the more likely we are to feel that we’re unable to accomplish it. And this effect is even more pronounced in people who suffer from chronic anxiety disorder.
Telling someone to “stop procrastinating” is akin to telling someone who suffers from anxiety to “stop being anxious.” It’s just not productive advice. Not only that, it’s at least a little bit insulting because, for most of us, procrastination can’t just be turned off with a switch. Research suggests it may even be a fundamental part of who we are.
OK so, what can we do about procrastination if we can’t stop it?
You can make a concerted effort to understand and control it. Knowing when and why you tend to procrastinate is crucial information for combatting it, or at least reining it in somewhat. Predicting your behavior before you approach a task can help regulate how you manage your time.
For example, if you have to deliver a speech and you know you’re very much afraid of public speaking, you might make an educated guess that you’ll procrastinate at some point when you’re preparing your speech. Great. Now you can factor your procrastination into your prep time.
Another way to combat anxiety-based procrastination is to accept that it’s better to do something imperfectly than nothing perfectly. You’re probably way more talented than you think you are. Getting those words on the page, taking a risk on a bad joke in your speech, or making a vague outline will all go a long way towards the finished product. Throw up something, anything, see what sticks, and then return to it later to make improvements.
Deadlines are your friend
Contrary to popular belief, the word deadline has nothing to do with death or dying. The word comes from an early-20th century publishing term, meaning the guideline on the bed of a printing press. Any words printed after that final guideline weren’t going to be printed. So maybe we should be thinking of deadlines as guidelines instead?
Knowing this fact is an important step towards accepting that deadlines are actually your friend, if you treat them well. Let me explain.
Effective time management usually means successfully wrangling multiple project deadlines and then prioritizing tasks to ensure those deadlines are met. These smaller tasks often don’t come with an official deadline attached, so completing all of them on time can become a tricky balancing act. If one task slows you down too much, it can have a ripple effect that can mean disaster for your whole schedule. Which causes those far-off, manageable deadlines to transform into anxiety-inducing fast-approaching deadlines—the worst kind.
The trick is to make your own deadlines. Self-imposed deadlines give you some limits and parameters around how much time and effort you devote to each task. And since these are your deadlines and they factor in aspects of your personality and work style that official deadlines don’t, in a lot of ways they’re more useful.
You can create deadlines that are malleable or fixed, deadlines that take into account interruptions or distractions, and deadlines that are ambitious—it all depends on your work style and habits. Unlike official deadlines made by someone who isn’t you, like your supervisor, you’re the one most qualified to create your mini-deadlines because you know how much time and effort it takes you to complete your tasks.
For me personally, every Monday I like to look at what I’ve got scheduled for the week, including upcoming deadlines, and break down each project into small, manageable tasks, then set deadlines for each one. I know that writing an article takes a certain amount of time, as does researching it, so I create hard deadlines for each, which are to ensure I make my official deadline: publication.
For those of you who wonder how to stick to your own deadlines, I’ve found this article pretty helpful. If you’re tempted to break your own deadlines, only do it for a good reason.
Make time for distractions
It’s the modern world and distractions are ubiquitous. Phones are a-beeping, notifications are a-blinking, your computer is constantly suggesting you purchase or read or watch this or that, and it’s all very, very overwhelming. Everyday you’re basically walking a tightrope across a cavernous abyss of unproductivity while people throw rocks at you.
Some articles that offer “effective time management strategies” will tell you to limit your internet use at work. A lot of employers still restrict and monitor internet use to ensure that their employees don’t give in to the temptation of distractions. And sure, there are programs that you can install to limit your time spent on distracting sites, but what if you need to access those sites for your work?
Because we’re all facing a constant onslaught of distractions, maybe attempting to avoid them isn’t the right approach. A more realistic time management strategy would need to acknowledge that they’re inevitable and provide options for preparing for them.
You can prepare for distractions by managing your workload in a way that factors them in. Giving yourself more time than you need to complete a task (with a self-imposed deadline) is one way to do that. Another is to give yourself time in which to be distracted. Open yourself up to distractions when you’re doing the easier, more straightforward tasks. Or, get to work early and power through any potential internet-based distractions before you get to your important work.
The way in which you manage your time is going to vary depending on a lot of factors, including your personality and what you had for breakfast that morning. The key is to remain adaptable and flexible, whether you’re dealing with procrastination, deadlines, or distractions. Set up time constraints but also be willing to adapt when, inevitably, those constraints are blown apart. Expect it and try to relax and take a deep breath when it happens.
Remember: time management is a learned skill, but it’s a skill we’ve been practicing for most of our adult lives. And if you’re reading this, you’re still alive. So you must be doing something right.