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Taming the Beast: Three Key Time Management Strategies           

time management

Time is the answer. If we were playing Jeopardy with a group of educators, the question would be: “What do teachers want more than anything else?”           

In settings ranging from union bargaining to the staff lounge, bemoaning a lack of time is a frequent conversation. If given the choice, a lot of teachers would prefer more time in the day than a pay raise, which says a lot about both workload and stress. As much as we might want to give up money for time, that option does not usually exist. Instead, developing some key strategies for time management is the next best thing. Here are three methods that work, particularly on those days when we feel the weight of the world on our shoulders.

Rethink Importance and Urgency           

For some reason, the “ding” of my email inbox triggers an almost visceral desire to check my messages and respond right away. Maybe that age-old excitement at getting mail never really goes away, or maybe it’s the dread of knowing there is something I must handle along with the accompanying desire to get it over with already. Either way, emails are rarely urgent; they just feel that way. With our daily tasks, we can divide everything into four quadrants: important and urgent, important and not urgent, not important and urgent, and neither important nor urgent. An example of an important, urgent task is to give a struggling student quick feedback on an assignment so that they can make progress. An equally important but less urgent task might be to give all the students in the class feedback. A task that is not important but urgent might be filling out a timesheet (though getting paid is a different kind of important), while a task that is neither important nor urgent could be reading a new book in the curriculum that may become available at some future date. No matter how we make decisions about what goes into which category, we will save some time if we identify where tasks fall in those four quadrants to prioritize what we do first.

Prioritize: A, B and C Lists           

Figuring out what is important or urgent is just the first step to saving time. Not all of us are avid list-makers, but they are an efficient, simple tool. Every morning, I make a scary-looking list of everything that I think needs to happen that day. Then, I start putting a letter next to each item. Anything on the “A” list has importance and/or urgency. The “B” list items are slightly less pressing but need to be done soon (i.e., maybe not that day, but within a day or two). Finally, whatever goes on the “C” list might become an “A” item at some foreseeable time, but not right away by any means. Once my list is organized, I start going through the “A” list, and if that gets done, I move on to “B.” Some days all three letters are magically completed. Other days, I barely make it through “A.” No matter how things shift from day to day, an effective list can help ensure that whatever might wake us up in the middle of the night to worry about has been taken care of, and that we haven’t held over tasks from one day to the next.

15 Minutes a Day           

When I was in my second year of an administration internship on top of my day job and my after-hours life with three young kids, the prospect of finishing the program seemed completely impossible. Then, I remembered a trick I used to use when starting a workout in the early morning before it became habitual. In those cold, dark hours, I would promise myself that if I just exercised for 15 minutes, I could stop after that. More often than not, I would be pumped enough after those 15 minutes to complete a longer workout. The same strategy can be applied to any large-scale undertaking we dread. Overwhelming tasks are often the norm in education, and we can get bogged down just thinking about what needs to be done. If we make ourselves the promise to just spend 15 minutes a day on whatever mountain we happen to be climbing, the work becomes far more manageable in smaller chunks. We might spend more than 15 minutes a day on whatever we’re doing just because we hit a rhythm, but setting a timer for that small portion of the day helps us make incremental but significant progress over time. With this strategy, I not only finished my internship work over a month before the due date; I also made time for other, more enjoyable activities. Since then, I make sure to give any large project that 15-minute daily rule, and it works.            

To quote the ever-wise Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Why mismanage our time and live in endless frustration when we could make better decisions on a day-to-day basis? Many life truths exist, and here is one of them: there will never be enough time for everything we need to do. However, we can work smarter, and that involves being strategic with where we put our energy and our focus. If we organize our tasks, prioritize them, and spend just 15 minutes a day on the ones that scare us the most, we will have the kind of time we most enjoy doing what we love…whatever that may be! 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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