Taking Charge of Your Time with Five Essential Steps
By Neha Mistri
January 7, 2022
I came across a quote by a motivational speaker, Michael Altshuler, while listening to a podcast, and it said – “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” Such simple words have a more significant impact on our everyday life. Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to steer our lives in the right direction by taking charge as the pilot and making the most out of the 24 hours we get daily? It would certainly be.
We all want to live an extraordinary life that is stress-free: we want to learn new skills, eat good food, have great jobs, go on trips and so forth. However, we could barely make time for everything. And guess what? We are now at the beginning of the year 2022! We were wondering where all our time went; we were just recovering from the chaos caused by the pandemic, and now it’s already the start of one more year! Apart from where the world is going, when we ponder about ourselves and our growth, we often doubt ourselves knowing that maybe ‘I didn’t achieve much last year, just like every passing year’.
Personally, as an international graduate student pursuing my M.Eng., keeping track of time has been the most crucial thing I need to do to achieve my goals. Juggling among part-time jobs to take care of my finances, babysitting my nephew from 7 am till noon and studying dedicatedly for my courses, I have been left with little to no time for self-care and self-improvement. It’s not just me, as my classmates have also been sailing in the same boat. It has been challenging to focus on studies during a short interval of four months and work alongside. Besides, travelling from India to Canada during the pandemic has made everything more complex and stressful. There were days when I felt like not doing anything at all. Nonetheless, time is non-refundable, and every minute counts. I want to make the most out of it. And that is when I tried a few time-management tips and tricks to figure out how to get things done before deadlines approach. To be honest, managing time is a skill that can be done by applying just a few tricks.
I would love to share what changes I brought in my day-to-day life to accomplish my goals and feel less stressed out while juggling numerous tasks and performing well as an international graduate student.
Prepare a Calendar
Although it might seem cliché, preparing a calendar instead of hopping directly to a daily task list (to-do list) is always a lifesaver in the long run. Imagine spending hours and hours on a few tasks, and you realize an assignment is due within two days that you were unaware of! A calendar makes you aware of everything you aim to do or is to be done by you. I prefer making calendars for two months in advance. For example, in December 2021, I would prepare a calendar for January and February 2022. I start by including highly important and technical, such as course assignment due dates, fire-side chats, lectures, followed by part-time job schedules. It is generally good to put everything you can on the calendar to know how busy your days are and where you need to shift dates for activities. Additionally, essential deadlines such as final paper submissions, final exams, etc., can be included in the calendar well in advance as we can find this information in the course curriculum. Tentative dates work too! I like creating hand-written calendars so that I can personalize them. However, there is no harm in using technology for this. Google Calendar, MS Outlook Calendar, or even your handset’s calendar app can serve the same purpose. One must make sure to set reminders and make a habit of checking the calendar every alternate day, if not daily.
One bite at a time – break down projects, events into smaller tasks
After preparing the calendar, I break down larger projects or activities into smaller tasks. This helps me begin with my task before time, and it gives a satisfactory feeling because you are working towards your tasks every day or well in advance and not just before the deadline. For example, if I am supposed to submit a term paper in March 2022, I would break this activity into tasks like understanding the topic, searching relevant papers, reading papers, preparing concept maps, writing term paper, proofreading & fine-tune, submit the paper. Thus, I would begin with the very first task from the mid of January. This also helps me prepare a progress map. I have often encountered that this is the most effective way of reaching your end task without many hurdles or delays.
Now that I have a daily task list, I prioritize those tasks. Distinguish the urgent from important ones. Urgent ones have an approaching deadline, whereas the important ones contribute to my personal growth. I highlight every single task with a priority number. Prioritization increases productivity and helps maintain my work-life balance. However, we often encounter a task list in which everything seems essential. In such situations, follow the Ivy Lee Method. That is, at the end of each night, jot down the six most important tasks you need to complete the following day. Next day, begin with these first and if time persists, finish anything else that is on priority.
Just preparing a planner and a task list doesn’t mean we will accomplish everything on the task list. I often would prepare an unrealistic task list and be able to complete only one or two things throughout the day because I did not anticipate the time those activities might consume. Therefore, assigning time blocks to every task you enlist is essential. The time duration can be an estimate too. For example, researching for conference papers would take 20min; reading one article might take 15-20min daily. These time blocks do not include break time. I initially started using an app called Time blocking App by Timely for free. However, we can also construct a similar time blocker using any other Calendar app.
Single-tasking & Focusing
Even our computers slow down if multiple tabs and programs are all open at once. Similarly, multi-tasking splits our focus and energy, and we do not achieve much at the end of the day yet feel drained out. It is indeed useful to work on one task at a time. It is as simple as that. With time-blocking tasks, we made sure that a particular task takes a certain amount of time, and it is ideal to only work on that single task to complete it within the estimated time. “Do not put each foot in a different boat.” as the Chinese proverb says. Using the Pomodoro technique, I can focus on my tasks and increase productivity.
This is essentially everything I do to keep my daily activities and goals under check. However, as easy it all seems, it sometimes becomes tedious to even start with this. I was a great procrastinator some years before because of the fear of not having enough knowledge or skills. The urge to always do things perfectly also made me never start with anything. We must always remember that starting from somewhere is better than not doing things at all. Start with planning for two weeks; execute the above steps and see how magical it seems to be organized.
Also, do not forget to enlist self-care activities in your calendar. We all deserve some time, such as a day or two, to take a break from our routines. Read a good book, go for a movie night, grab a cup of coffee with your friends, or do whatever makes you feel happy and free from stress to get back to work with full energy.
I hope my techniques help you to accomplish your goals and de-stress you from the burden of multiple tasks. I am therefore sharing a Daily Time Blocker template that I use from an online source called Making Lemonade for my daily time blocking.
About the Author:
Neha Mistri (she/her) is an M.Eng. student in Electrical & Computer Engineering. She is preparing for specialization in Sustainable Energy and is a Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) enthusiast. She is a member of Impact Alliance, Women in Engineering and mentors undergrad and new graduate students in the engineering domain. She wants to bring more awareness in the world about sustainable energy. Check out her LinkedIn here!