Time Management – Easy!(?)
The new semester has begun, and you already have the course syllabus for every week. This is it, you say … this time, you won’t put anything off, you will rush to complete all the tasks months ahead of the deadline, and you will most definitely study every day as soon as you come back from class. It’s all about your time management skills. Nothing to it, right?
Indeed, procrastination is pain. We’ve all been there: there are books to read, coursework to complete, and even classes to prepare (teachers are just as liable to procrastination, aren’t they?). And yet, we can’t seem to shake the whole thing off – no matter how bad it is.
Luckily for you, we’re tackling the biggest problem of the modern world today: time management.
The Science of Procrastination – Leaving Everything to the Last Minute
It’s a lazy throwaway comment to blame procrastination on … well, laziness. Not only is it wrong, but it fundamentally misunderstands human nature. Procrastination is not a result of not feeling like it. Instead, it results from a complex dialogue (in other words, a juicy fight with creative curses) between your prefrontal cortex and limbic system.
And just when you thought you wouldn’t have to deal with biology anymore?
The limbic system is the part of your brain responsible for meeting immediate needs. It prefers what feels good now. To mitigate it, humans developed the prefrontal cortex, which is more concerned with logic, self-expression, and decision-making. So when it’s time to do a task you’re not entirely keen on, like studying, the prefrontal cortex has to fight really hard to get you there. After all, the lizard part of the brain (let’s call it for what it is) has had a bit of an advantage (a few millennia here and there), and it puts up a good fight.
What this tells us in more relevant terms is that the brain has the impression that doing a certain task is going to be unpleasant. Why we think studying is unpleasant is beyond me, but it’s a result of social conditioning, increasing refusal to put intellectual efforts into something, and the diminishing attention span – the banes of modernity and social media.
Time Management Despite Procrastination: The Laws
It’s not like procrastination is a new thing. People have tried to define and counter it by developing multiple time management laws, scientific explanations, seminars, and, of course, motivational speeches and quotes. We’ve dealt with science, but let’s check out some of those laws.
Parkinson’s Law of Time Management
‘The work is spread out so as to occupy the time available for its completion.’
This is the best-case scenario: You want to complete a task in a timely manner and decide to put maximum effort into it right from the start. Parkinson’s law states that you should divide your tasks into smaller chunks to fill the time until the deadline. That way, you won’t be overworked, you’ll have time for your hobbies, and you’ll be relatively stress-free (as opposed to the usual drama of last-day cramming and promising you will never do this again).
The issue with this is motivation. People can find it challenging to commit to a single task for such a long time. Instead of trying to stretch out the work in unreasonable ways, divide it into sizeable but meaningful units that you will tackle on specified days. Given that the university workload can be massive, some of that planning will go on for a few months (especially if you have a big exam or a research paper to write), but others will be doable in a week or so.
Time Management Is Hard: Hofstadter’s Law
‘Things take longer than expected.’
That’s right – that tiny sentence is the gist of it. It is difficult to estimate how much time a task will take, and we are more likely to underestimate than overestimate it, which is why we procrastinate. In addition to the task you have to do, life will inevitably happen and eat away at your time. When we plan, we plan for an ideal situation, but it may be wiser to consider less-than-ideal scenarios.
Here’s a simple example: I was going down the laundry list of small things I had to finish in the office yesterday, and, as my lunch break was approaching, I thought to myself: ‘Oh, just these two things, and this one email; I’ll be done in 15 minutes, and then I’ll grab a bite.’ What happened? Well, I finished these two things, but as I sat down to write the email, a colleague I don’t see often walked in from another office – BOOM, 40 minutes gone on chatting, email unwritten, stomach complaining loudly.
‘Oh, I have time, that’s easy’ – said every student at some point. Until you realise it’s not that easy and it’s too late to fix.
In practical terms, it’s better to plan for possible distractions, delays, difficulties, and other discontents of time management because you cannot always predict them. For example, the colleague from above and I work on opposite days and in different departments, so the chances of meeting are extremely low … and yet!
Don’t just plan against procrastinating; plan with the uncertainties of life in mind.
Laborit’s Law Knows What’s Up
The law of least effort, or Laborit’s law, brings us back to the lizard brain – we just don’t like doing things that we don’t like doing. To avoid the pitfalls of this issue, it’s best to prioritise your tasks and do the difficult ones first. If you’re not looking forward to your chemistry homework, that’s a sign that there are some unanswered questions and pent-up anxiety around it. But it’s also a sign that you should do it first. Then you don’t have to think about it.
Think of it as inverse procrastination: you’re doing the task now so that you don’t have to do it later 😉.
Actual Time Management Tips: 10 of the Best
It’s easy to theorise – I should know, it’s my job – but theory doesn’t get you far when life hits. You can know about Laborit and his crew all you want, but will that make you manage your time? Doubtful. Try some of these tips instead:
- Evaluate your current timetable. In order to manage your time, you need to take a good hard look at how you’re spending it at the moment. Locate the problematic practices, think about what could be shifted, and consider why you put things off. Hint: most of the time, it’s social media.
- Make a plan of action. Once you know what’s eating at your time, put a solid effort into countering it. If you catch yourself scrolling after breakfast when you should be studying, put your phone away before you sit down to eat. Instead of spending two hours a day grocery shopping and cooking individual meals, consider meal-prepping in advance.
- Write a to-do list. When you’ve removed distractions, you need to know what needs to be done. Make daily and weekly to-do lists and cross tasks off as you complete them. You can try bullet journaling for a comprehensive, well-structured overview of your obligations.
- Prioritise wisely. While it’s easier to do small tasks and chores (you know how it is, we’re all a bit of a Cinderella when it’s exam time), do the hardest tasks as early in your day as possible. There is quite a bit of testimonial evidence that a good morning routine and exercise are great ways to boost your productivity. Ride on that wave and tackle the most (de)pressing tasks.
- Always plan for delays. If you think you can do it in five days, plan for seven, in case life happens. And life always happens.
- Swiss cheese your tasks. The Swiss Cheese principle is simple enough – you divide tasks into smaller chunks or by time, say 20 minutes. Then you hack off tiny bites of a massive block of cheese until it’s completely gone.
- Take regular breaks. There’s no use in trying to work for hours on end in the hope you will finish a task. In fact, it’s more likely to slow you down. Work with full gusto for an hour or so before taking a quick break.
- Plan for one day early. Don’t plan to work on things until the deadline – give yourself some extra breathing room by aiming to be done some time before it.
- Just do it. The worst thing you can do is wait for motivation or inspiration to get started on your assignments. Remember, the lizard brain is feeling happy by not working, and it will not give you the shining ray of enlightenment all of a sudden (much less the mandatory Ave Maria musical accompaniment). Don’t give it a chance to argue; just get started.
- Assess and examine. As you put new practices into place, you should always look back on them and gauge how successful they’ve been. Tweak your schedule, shift activities around, and improve your strategies.
In the meantime, you should also work on your learning skills and make the most out of your time. Don’t forget to give yourself enough time to relax and work on your hobbies. All work and no play … you know how it goes.
Managing Time Management
To recap, time management is one of those surreptitious and elusive skills everyone needs these days. Elusive as it is, it is not unattainable. In order to better manage your time and put paid to procrastination, always remember these tips:
- Fix what’s not working in your schedule.
- Make a to-do list.
- Prioritise your tasks – most challenging and most urgent first!
- Divide tasks into smaller units.
- Plan for more time than you initially think you’ll need.
And always, always stay aware of what needs improvement and in which way.