Written by Aakanksha Gupta (Weloquent)
“Time is a shapeless blob!” remarked my best friend a few months ago. Her hilarious and relatable sentiment prompted countless discussions about our struggles to keep track of time. With each day blurring together, it seemed that despite our best efforts, our piles of stresses and to-dos just weren’t getting anywhere. My brain felt like an Internet browser with ten tabs open at once, leaving me unsure of which one to focus on first and too afraid to face them all. With practice, I adopted a principle to make each day easier: take one step at a time. This same idea is at the heart of single-tasking, my primary time management strategy.
Many people believe that multitasking is the best way to manage their stress and keep up with the demands of their schedules. But when we switch our focus between tasks that require conscious thought, it actually takes our brains time to adjust, leaving us to deal with the additional task of re-focusing. In fact, research says that we lose 20% of our overall productivity for each task we try to do at once!
To quote the poet Henry David Thoreau, “It's not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” The first step towards effective time management is figuring out everything we have to do. Next, we must focus on a single activity with minimal distractions and interruptions so as to minimise stress and produce more meaningful and creative work.
The following ten strategies will help you manage your time, one task at a time:-
Say No to Perfectionism
According to Psychology Today, “perfectionists often get hung up on meaningless details and spend more time on projects than is necessary.” In our efforts to be perfect, we tend to slow ourselves down by creating mental roadblocks to our own productivity. Pick a task, get started, and keep going! It’s normal to take time to focus, to take breaks, and to switch tracks if we need to.
Get Enough Sleep
This shows up on so many lists for good reason: we must get at least 8-9 hours of sleep in order to maximise our brain function. When we compromise on our sleep to get work done, our bodies experience lower levels of melatonin (a hormone that maintains the circadian rhythm, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle) and higher cortisol levels (which disrupt the melatonin’s job of slowing our bodies down). Sleeping less means that we’re more likely to struggle with efficiency and hence be more stressed.
Know Where To Go
Identify your go-to environment for deep concentration and keep your workspace neat and organised. If you’re someone who likes to alternate between places, start at the location that calls to you the most and go from there.
Try the 1-3-5 Rule
If you're someone who likes to see the bigger picture, plan to stick to one big task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks. Organise your priorities (studies and otherwise) accordingly and be open to making changes to the small and medium tasks if need be.
Break Tasks Down
If you prefer focusing on one big task a day, be sure to divide it into smaller parts. Ask yourself: what are the things I need to do in order to accomplish this task? For e.g. “To study for this test, I have to read the first two chapters of the textbook. I will start with the first chapter and highlight the most important parts. Next, I can divide these important topics into sections…” and so on.
Get the Ball Rolling
If you find yourself stuck at the very first step, forget identifying each subsequent smaller step, here’s a question that has helped me: “What's the very first thing I can do to start engaging with this task?” Once you crack this, you can hit the ground running.
Use the Pomodoro Technique
This tried-and-tested method encourages us to work on one task for a 25-minute increment followed by a five-minute break, thus allowing our minds to stay fresh. You can customize the time period to fit your work style — the goal is to focus for as long as your brain allows you to and then rest before getting back to work. You can use a simple timer or alarm on your phone, or choose one from this list of free Pomodoro apps (I recommend Forest, where you can grow a virtual plant or tree for every focus session.)
Name all the things that might draw you away from the task at hand and remind yourself that they can wait. If it’s physical items (like a book or your phone), place them at the opposite end of the room (or outside it!) If your mind is racing, try writing about your thoughts or sharing them with a friend before you start focusing on your chosen task.
Take A Break
Use periodic breaks to reset your attention span and recharge yourself with enjoyable activities. Try to stretch or move your body, and spend some time in nature if you can!
Create a “Done” List:
A “done” list (also known as an “anti-to-do list”) is a crucial part of taking a moment to recognize everything you’ve already achieved. Celebrate every single victory! Plus, maintaining a done list will help you to be realistic about your goals as you look at the larger scheme of things.
Time management is an art, not a science. There is no such thing as a perfect approach — but you can certainly tailor one to your current circumstances and learning style. This approach will become second nature to you with practice and, of course, time. Good luck!