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YFCS December Blog: How to Manage Your Time More Effectively

The Youth, Family, and Community Sciences graduate program publishes a monthly blog written by students, alumni and faculty sharing important topics and helpful resources in family science. In the December 2021 blog post, professor Carolyn Bird highlights the importance of time management to have quality work and life experiences.

When I was asked to write a blog on time management, my first thoughts were, “time – we could all use more of it!” However, as we all know, there are only 24 hours in a day – and a portion of this time must be devoted to rest; that is, if the other 16 hours or so are to result in quality work and quality of life experiences.

When we speak of “time management,” we hide from ourselves what is truly required – self-management. To say time management suggests that we can somehow shape, shift, or otherwise change how time behaves. We cannot. Therefore, we must shape, shift, or otherwise alter our behavior toward using time and how we allocate time across the many demands before us.

John Trosko of OrganizingLA observes that “organized people are not born, they’re built (7 Habits of Organized People).” And, you are the person to do the building. The following tips are inspired by various readings and the rhythm of academic life.

Use tools. The goal is to make the most of each day. Find or develop tools that help you keep your priorities foremost in mind, organize your day, and keep track of accomplishments. These tools might include lists, calendaring tools, pop-up reminder apps, file (electronic) organization procedures, etc.  
Set priorities. There is no end to the list of things that could be done. The question is, what is the most important thing that needs to get done this month, this week, or today? Setting priorities and internally-driven deadlines will help you set priorities and focus on what needs to get done first.

Create simple systems. Part of using time efficiently depends on not wasting time looking for things you know you have. Think of the kitchen drawer; there is a space for knives, forks, and spoons and utensils are always placed in their proper place. Expand this concept to your file organization. Create a master electronic folder for each class at the beginning of the semester. Sub-folders might be a syllabus, assignment submissions, literature for papers, etc. Each paper topic might have a folder with subfolders for literature pertaining specifically to that paper, drafts of the paper, and the final paper as submitted. This organization method prevents the search through the download folder for the literature and the documents folder to identify the most recent draft of the paper. And speaking of paper drafts, identifying versions by v0 for the baseline, then v1 for the first revision, and so on can assist in quickly returning to the most recent version of your paper.

Purge no longer needed items, which can be a challenge since it takes time to implement. At the end of a semester, look for drafts of papers sitting around, paper copies of journal articles used in writing papers, etc. If these items have served their purpose, purge them. After all, the article’s full citation is in the final paper you submitted, and you can always retrieve another copy. Or, an electronic copy might be in your literature folder. Some items, however, may have a potential future use, such as articles on methods or theories. Save these into folders labeled “methods” and “theories” for easy future retrieval.

Leave unplanned space in your calendar. This becomes more challenging as you enter your profession and become part of a community that will place demands on your calendar. Leaving unplanned space in your calendar will allow you the flexibility to respond to unforeseen challenges and opportunities. For example, an electronic device is malfunctioning. This unplanned space allows you time to develop a solution, whether borrowing a laptop or seeking technical assistance to resolve the problem. Unplanned time can position you to take advantage of opportunities, such as when a colleague invites you to be a co-presenter on a conference proposal. Or, you become aware of a conference opportunity and decide to submit a proposal. 

Be prepared for “dead time” and “found time.” Keep a list of items that you can do in moments when you are waiting, such as at a conference before the presenter starts. This might mean having journal articles on hand to read or writing a few paragraphs for your paper. The same concept applies to “found time.” Found time occurs when a meeting or other obligation clears from your calendar. You can now repurpose this time for other productive use. Having a ready “to-do” list will help you make the most of these moments.

Assist a colleague. However, this may be counterintuitive. How can helping a colleague make you more organized and better at time management? Collaborative relationships with colleagues benefit those involved by sharing ideas, a friendly (but forthright) review of a planned conference submission, and so on. Getting a critique before submitting a conference proposal is likely to improve the proposal’s clarity, thereby increasing the prospect of success. Having unplanned time on your calendar will allow you to be a good colleague and return the favor.

There is a massive amount of material written on time management. These are just a few tips to get you started thinking about how to allocate your time to meet your goals.