Life hacks: time management

Written on March 1st, 2017

While I’m by no means a whiz at using all of my time effectively — I watch just as many cute dog videos as the next college student — I do think that I’ve done a pretty solid job balancing 16+ credit semesters with two jobs and at least a semblance of a social life this past year.

Here are my go-to ways to get everything done… and then some.

Productive Procrastination
I’m not immune to the empty feeling that is a complete and utter lack of motivation. Have you ever been in the middle of a task only to feel that you physically can’t continue anymore? This happens frequently in college, especially in the middle of my oh-so-fascinating finance readings.

My strategy in these situations is to stop the task that’s exhausted me, but make sure I keep doing something productive. That something could be working ahead in another class, writing articles like the one you’re reading right now, re-organizing my resume, refactoring some of my old code, responding to emails, connecting with my roommates, etc., etc.

The idea is that I’m letting myself take a break, but I’m forcing that break to still be productive in its own right.

Now it’s true that working a week ahead in one class doesn’t make up for falling behind in another – but productive procrastination works well in short bursts. It keeps your work ethic going strong even when you have to step away from a particular task for a little while.

I find that my motivation is actually longer-lived if I don’t let myself completely slow down; the key is to keep accomplishing tasks of varying difficulties and interest levels so that your time is balanced.

Dedicated Downtime
Similar to the previous strategy, dedicated downtime is the idea that even my breaks help me move toward my goals in some way. I think it’s important to give yourself time to relax — but that relaxation can serve a practical purpose beyond simply being refreshing.

When I have short breaks between classes or am waiting for a meal to cook, I watch web development videos like the ones from Treehouse, instead of pulling up my Netflix account. In the half hour it would take me to watch an episode of Parks and Rec I’m able to increase my familiarity with different programming languages while still having my hands free to eat. It’s interesting and relevant to my career aspirations – sounds like a non-zero sum game to me!

Something else I frequently spend my downtime doing is writing (surprise, surprise). Putting words on paper or a screen relaxes me, lulls my brain into a more creative state, and is extremely satisfying when I get to publish the finished product. It feels like a fun release from the stress of school – and it is – but it’s also a way to hone a very applicable skill.

In general, I try to focus on the things that I like to do that are also beneficial to my development in some way. Before you think that I don’t spend any time actually relaxing, I want to point out two things: 1) I mostly only dedicate my downtime on weekdays, and 2) the activities I consider to be a good use of my free time are diverse.

For example, reading a book for fun is productive downtime in my mind because it benefits not only my literacy but also my state of mind. Drawing or doodling is productive because it relates to the growth of my design eye. Listening to meaningful music is productive because it broadens my worldview, often for much longer than the length of a song.

Just about anything can be considered good, dedicated downtime to me – it’s all about making the connection in my mind to some larger long-term goal.

An added perk of spending my relaxation in this way is that I don’t feel guilty about giving myself breaks. We’re all familiar with the dissonance you feel when you know you need to be productive but just don’t have the energy – and dedicating your downtime to things that are both enjoyable and beneficial is the perfect balance.

Priority Planning
I’m a huge scheduling geek. My planner is full to bursting with to-do items, meeting reminders, and just about anything else that I find to be relevant to my day to day life. I’ve found that writing tasks down is one way to make sure I get them done; the satisfaction of crossing an item off my to-do list is usually motivation enough to get my butt working.

But it isn’t just making a list of action items that facilitates my effective time management, although that’s definitely the first step – it’s being intentional in the way I order those items to create a plan for success.

Every semester I sit down with all of my course syllabi and make one master “grade” sheet. This paper lists all of the components of my grade in each class and ranks them by the percentage of my final score they comprise. It may sound a little over-the-top, but it’s extremely helpful when I have 10+ things to do and don’t even know where to start; I simply find the item on my grade list that is worth the largest percentage and prioritize it. When I finish that task, I move to the next one, and so on (sporadically incorporating some productive procrastination all the while, of course).

Making to-do lists that rank my tasks from most important to least important allows me to put my workload into perspective. Some nights, if I’m especially exhausted, I’ll make it a goal to simply get everything done that’s due the next day. Other times I’ll work to get as far ahead as possible. I try to listen to my body’s cues about how much I can effectively do, and I make action plans that let me get all the necessities done even on the days where I’m gone from my apartment for twelve hours straight.

Finally, I make sure to prioritize non-school related things as well – I set an alarm that tells me to get ready for bed every night at 11:00 pm, and I wake up at 7:00 each morning to fit a few hours of web development in before class. Scheduling these activities like sleep and career development that might normally fall by the wayside helps me stay on a consistent schedule, and it reminds me of an important truth I seek to internalize every day: school is important, but it does not define everything I am.

Respond to Reflection
Finally, the biggest way I stay on track with effective time management is by evaluating how my schedule is working and then responding to that reflection with action. If I’m feeling burnt out I’ll make it a point to prioritize more downtime. If I’m stressed because I keep cutting it close to deadlines I’ll prioritize working ahead. I try to adjust as much as possible to the indicators of my body and environment.

A prime example of this was just a few weeks ago when I switched from exercising in the morning before class to doing it in the evenings. Waking up has always been hard for me, and I realized that I was much more likely to stay in bed procrastinating (and doing nothing but scrolling through my phone) if I knew that once I got up I’d have to exercise.

On the other hand, if I knew I could wake up and do something sedentary to gradually get myself ready for the day, I’d spend a lot less time laying in bed and a lot more time actually working. This realization led me to plan a few hours of web development each morning directly after waking up and to spend my heightened evening energy on a good workout later in the day. (Added perk: a hot shower before bed does wonders for my sleep).

This simple schedule change has drastically improved my productivity – I used to waste so much time in the mornings, but now I find that I’m using every minute more effectively. All it took was listening to my body and being willing to adjust to its response.

All in all, I’m still trying to “hack” my life to be more productive in every way that I can – and boy, do I still fall short sometimes! These strategies have done wonders over the past months, but I know I have a long ways to go before I really feel like a time management professional. My life is a work in progress, and I can only hope I’ll be better at it tomorrow than I am today.