Part of me can’t believe that someone’s asked me, of all people, to write an article about time management. It seems like too great a responsibility for someone whose mind initially responded by replaying a montage of all the mental breakdowns I’ve had trying (and failing) to do exactly that.
But the more I think about it, the more I realise I have to give myself some credit. I’ve learnt from the worst of those meltdowns and come a long way from them. I worked hard on my time management purely because I am too passionate about too many things to give any of them up. Of these, my ability to travel is the most important.
I think time management is a skill you have to learn especially if you want to throw travel into the mix, because travel takes up time greater than itself. By that I mean: the planning stages of travel are a massive commitment of time, energy, and money alone — and that’s before you even get to the traveling part.
For me, being involved in both work and education as well as a number of hobbies, much of my time is dictated by deadlines and I have to work my travel around that. The balancing act is no easy feat — it’s something I work at constantly — but the good thing about time management is that it continues with momentum, meaning that if you’re already in the swing of it, it’s easier to keep going. (Like running: if your rest stop is too long, it’s harder to get back into it than if you’d just kept up pace. You can – and should – slow down sometimes, but don’t drop good habits completely.)
The ‘busy schedule’ used to work against me. Now, I make it work for me. My methods aren’t fool-proof and I do get stressed, but I’ve never managed my time more successfully than I do right now. I’m reluctant to give advice because I’m no guru, everyone’s situation is different and people are receptive to different things. The following pointers aren’t necessarily what I think everyone should do, but what I follow. Hopefully through experience you’ll form your own steps to successful time management. Remember: don’t let your tasks bully you — you’re the boss of them.
1. Ruthless prioritising
I rank my tasks in order of priority and complete them in that order. I tend to tackle harder or more important tasks first, when my focus is most ‘fresh’, and that way I can also stay motivated by the fact that they get progressively ‘easier’ as I go along.
I am ruthless about what I need to prioritise. When I have important jobs to do, social events go to the bottom of the list. But that doesn’t mean I don’t let myself enjoy them at all. Time management means knowing how to balance commitments instead of eliminating them completely. I won’t cut back on socialising altogether, but I’ll limit myself to just one quick catch up with a friend every week. This is not revolutionary — most people know how to prioritise — but don’t be afraid to be ruthless about it if you need to be.
Don’t be afraid to tell people you’re too busy to meet up, or go to ‘that thing’. I used to be nervous about prolonging meetings with friends, but real friends will understand that you’re busy doing important work and will be happy to wait till you’re freer. Make smart decisions about what will aid your focus. Going out clubbing isn’t just the 5 hours at the club — it’s the hour you spent getting ready beforehand, it’s the late wake-up the next day, it’s the hours spent nursing a potential hangover.
2. Start early, allot time, be specific.
Starting a task early reduces stress and allows me to produce higher quality work that I actually have the time to revise and re-edit. When I start work early, I can do smaller chunks every day over a longer period of time instead of going into one huge panic-driven lockdown a week before the work is due.
I don’t use any apps to plan my time, but I’m sure you can find good organisational tools on the app store. The reason I don’t use apps is because it requires me looking at my phone — and with my phone in my hand I run the risk of taking a quick peek at another app and getting distracted.
I organise my time according to a calendar, and I get very specific about what I’m doing each day. Most of the work I do is writing — I write essays for university, I write travel & lifestyle articles professionally — so I tend to pencil in my target word count for each day. This gives me clarity. When you have a clear idea of what you should be doing and where you’re going, you feel calmer. If you feel like you’re going in blind, it’s just going to stress you out.
For example, I wanted to go to Norway in December 2018 and I had to work around that. I carved out a week for myself to travel and relax completely, but that meant I had to work double-time around that week. I started as soon as I could to make sure I could hit the various word counts I set for myself each day.
3. Understand your best working hours
I wish I was someone who woke up at dawn with iron focus, but I’m just not. I’ve discovered that I’m a night owl, so I prepare myself to work through the evenings until 3am. People will often tell you that waking up earlier is better, or the ‘key’ of successful people. I don’t believe that’s true for everyone. Don’t deny yourself your optimal concentration time — it doesn’t matter when it is, it just matters that you take advantage of it. When you have a lot of work to do, working effectively at a bizarre time of day is far more valuable than forcing yourself to drip-feed subpar work into a schedule that doesn’t work for you.
4. Find motivation
I’m a fan of having some kind of positive reward system in place. We all need something to aspire to, be it an idea (a better version of yourself?), an object (that new camera lens you’ve wanted for ages?), or a job position! Having travels in place actually makes my ability to manage time that much better, because I’m motivated to work hard and plan properly. When I don’t have travel to look forward to, I’ll work towards all the things that “free(r) time” represents: that could be anything from a movie I’ve wanted to watch for ages, or a friend I haven’t seen in a while. I also work towards ‘the bigger picture’: I visualise where I want to be in a few years so that I can properly appreciate how whatever I’m currently working on is part of the path to getting there.
So, give yourself something to work towards and really, really visualise it. It makes the work feel worthwhile. Mood boards are helpful for some people, i.e. pinning up pictures of what you’re aspiring to. For me, just writing the word on a piece of paper — aka, “NORWAY TRIP” — and sticking it to the wall above my desk is enough.
5. Keep active for discipline
I don’t exercise for weight loss or any other particular physique goal. I exercise for enjoyment and discipline. Physical activity doesn’t just train your body, it trains your mind to arrive at a decision and follow it with perseverance until its successful accomplishment. When you get up and go to the gym (or whatever sports you’re involved in), you defeat the inclination to procrastinate. The habit of self-discipline is crucial to success in all areas of life. If you take the time to strengthen your body, you also strengthen your willpower.
You don’t need to go every single day, and you don’t need to stay active for hours. Half an hour here and there is enough. Plus, exercise releases endorphins — and that’s going to be needed in stressful times!
6. Importance of social relationships
I can say with complete certainty that I am motivated by the company I keep. My only social relationships are with people who add value to my life, intellectually and emotionally. My friends are uplifting and empathetic people who give me the space to work and make life easier, not more difficult. I am inspired by their work ethic and goodwill. Their good vibes are contagious.
Invest in a support system that genuinely cares about you and will help navigate you towards success. Don’t underestimate the huge impact people can have on your life. It’s crazy how much people can affect you without you even being aware of it — shitty people are like parasites who suck out your energy and hamper your productivity. I’ve had toxic relationships before, both romantic and platonic, that have made it really difficult for me to produce quality work because I couldn’t manage my time properly due to lack of space, the distractions of drama and my own bad mood.
People who practice positivity don’t have the time or energy for drama. If you want to avoid negative incidents and remain highly productive, then it’s best you surround yourself with these type of people. Think about how you interact with the people in your life and how they affect you. Do they make you feel like you have what it takes to accomplish your goals? Do they support you? Do you feel happy after spending time with them?
It’s clear to me that reducing stress is most conducive to time management. When I feel stressed, I feel paralysed — unable do anything, unmotivated, stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of doing ‘nothing’ because I feel so stressed about all that I have to do. I give myself the gift of clarity, I plan ahead, and that way managing my time becomes much easier.