I get that question a lot. And now that I'm working with new college students, I see a lot of them struggling with time management too. So, I thought I'd address that here, so that I can share it with them in the future, and maybe help some of my readers while I'm at it.
But first, I need to state a caveat: I don't have children. If you are a mother or father, feel free to ignore my advice completely. Your world is filled with completely different circumstances not in your control. (One can only wake up so early to squeeze in some quiet time.) I'll leave the "How to Manage Your Time When You Have Kids" for one of you to write. That said, these are things that work for me:
1) Figure out how your energy levels fluctuate on average during a day and match your tasks to the levels of energy you have at certain times. For instance, I have always had really good focus just as the work day is coming to an end, between 4 and 6. As such, I save that time for things that need my full attention and sharp mind. The first hour of the day, however, I'm typically groggy, so that's when I read the news and slowly wind into my day, answering emails that don't require a lot of brainage (I save the hard ones that require more thinking for later in the morning). In the evenings, if it hasn't been too strenuous a day, I draw while watching television with my husband.That's it, that's how I get so much done.
2) Invest in an iPad. This device has changed my life. Being able to draw in my lap on the couch in the evenings has changed my game. And these aren't just sketches. Because it's in a digital environment, I'm creating finished, deliverable work for my online stores, my blog's coloring pages, even books. It has made me productive even while I play. (Drawing relaxes me.)
3) Use your calendar as a to-do list. I use ical to get my to-do list out of my head. It allows me to block out windows of time visually. Of course, I block out my classes, but I also block out times to work on tasks that I need to to complete. I also literally keep a "To Do" item on my calendar where I list what I need to get done that day. I knock things off it as the day goes along (quick stuff first), and if it's not empty by the end of the day (it rarely is), I move it to the next morning. I would be a mess without my calendar. It keeps me from having to track everything in my head, and keeps me from feeling overwhelmed by letting me live in the moment - "What do I need to do next?"
4) Knock the little items off your list. We all have them, the items that will take 5 to 20 minutes to complete. Get them done as quickly as possible. It keeps the hamsters from having their time with that wheel they run around on inside your head.
5) Allow yourself the time to live. When I was beginning my PhD at the University of Glasgow, I attended a time-management course that provided me with the most amazing revelation—even the most brilliant minds in all of human history had to eat, brush their teeth, walk the dog, etc. All those brilliant discoveries they made happened in between the bits of LIFE that we all live. We can put so much pressure on ourselves, thinking that if we're not working, we're wasting time, but it's not a fair accusation. Life happens - life must happen. Let it, and don't feel bad about it.
6) Finally, save time to play/relax. Playing off this idea that if we're not working we're wasting time, my students often complain about being so anxious that they should be working non-stop. Yes, they have a lot to do, but if they don't take time to refill their coffers, they will eventually run out of the energy/steam to do what needs to be done, or to do it well. We have to rejuvenate. We do ourselves no favors when we run ourselves into the ground. This includes sleep. We can't function without it.
BONUS: when you see a big window of time available in your schedule (i.e. a weekend or afternoon with several hours, or maybe even a week) block it out for the big projects. This is how I've gotten most of my PhD completed, by blocking out vacations and weekends. Knowing that I was going to use winter break (for instance) to knock out the first draft of my thesis (called a dissertation in the US) made my mind prepare for it. (It also relieved me of the stress of trying to squeeze my writing into every available crack of time in my other busy days.) For the weeks prior, I told myself (and everyone around me), "that's when I'm going to do this." I circled into the idea like a dog circling its bed, trying to find the right spot to lie down. It prepared my brain so that when the time came, I was already invested and ready to dive in. It's been in these saved chunks of time that I've written my PhD thesis.
Now, I'd be remiss to not remark on the elephant in the room. US culture cultivates a mentality that we should be working all the time, available on email or via our phones, etc. It's not healthy and it's not sustainable. Want proof? China and Japan are even more obsessed with non-stop work than the US and their suicide rates are much higher as a result. Having lived in the UK for four years, where holidays are taken very seriously (and not resented by the coworkers who have to pick up the slack for their vacationing colleagues), I've seen first-hand that we do not have to work non-stop to be effective. As such, I have to walk the walk and provide a good example with my own behavior.
I recently downloaded the mail app, Spark, because it provides a feature to put timers on your emails. (I think google mail does this too.) It has made it possible for me to never send work emails on the weekends. I resent it when they are sent to me (heck, it's illegal in France to send work emails on the weekends), so I don't want to do it to others. (It was a hard rule to follow during the early days of the pandemic when we were all panicking to move online, but I'm now back to enforcing this.) We must compartmentalize our work within reasonable parameters and preserve our down times - if anything, to work on our own creative projects that feed our souls.
I would argue that in many cases, it's our personal creative work that moves society forward. The rest of our work just keeps us up and running. It's all important, but one type of work can't supersede the other. Our creative work/play is what makes us good at our jobs and gives us the energy to have good ideas. Truly, what could be more important than that?
So, examine your days. See where you can be more efficient with matching tasks to energy level, and scheduling those tasks so that the hamsters won't take over. It works for me. I hope it's helpful for you too.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash