The art of managing your time

  • Made in Time (double page spread) by Sarah Gottlieb and Georgina Wu (CA&D, 2008)

Why is that so many of us are up until dawn the night before deadlines we have known about for months? And how can two years at college slip by before we realise that we never made use of those free drawing classes, cheap printing workshops and the laser cutter down the hall?

There is so much to do in a lifetime, it may feel as if there are not enough hours in a day. This situation, combined with the usual mix of distraction and procrastination, can lead to ‘headless chicken’ syndrome. This is the moment to start thinking about the art of time management.

Defining your goals is, without doubt, the most important aspect of time management. If they are too massive, each day will seem threatening. ‘Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task’, writes Neil Fiore in The Now Habit. Uncompleted tasks breed a vicious cycle of procrastination. To tackle this, break your larger goals into smaller and varied tasks, and prioritise them so they fit into the time you have.

Hard work is often the easy work you did not do at the proper time.

Bernard Meltzer

It is all too easy to feel you could be at your desk as many hours as the day is long. But, as the writer Toni Morrison said, ‘one of the most important things [students] need to know is when they are at their best, creatively.’ Waiting for the perfect mood to strike is not a great tactic. The more we feel that endless work deprives us of the pleasure of leisure time, the more difficult we find it to start working. If you are not clear about when your best times are, you could try doing a ‘time audit’ (as suggested in The Now Habit). This entails tracking everything you do during your day in half-hour increments. Everything. Not wanting to inflict this dubious task on you needlessly, I tested it out for myself. I found it eye-opening. As the book correctly guessed, even on a satisfyingly full day of work, I actually did more like four to five effective hours. Armed with this knowledge, you can maximise your productive work time without compromising personal time.

Once you know which hours and in what place you work best, guard them zealously. During these golden hours, switch off your phone and avoid emails (according to one study, it takes, on average, nearly 17 minutes for someone interrupted by an email to get back to what they were doing). A simple routine should start to emerge. To an interviewer who commented, ‘There’s a lot to be said for having a routine you can’t run away from’, John Updike replied, ‘Right. It saves you from giving up.’