Self-management: managing priorities

Making time to get work done and meet deadlines

We are now in the middle of the term and you are probably noticing that the work is accumulating.  You may be wondering how to keep on top of it and how to produce good work by the deadline.

When doing academic work at university you will often hear academics and tutors encouraging you to develop your skills to become an independent learner. They are referring to developing the ability to take responsibility for your learning.

It is about structuring your time so that it enables you to get your work done in time to meet deadlines. It is also about looking after yourself so that you can maintain your energy level to study effectively; this includes identifying problems and seeking support promptly to prevent minor issues developing into major problems.

Sometimes, prioritising which tasks or commitments you need to focus on may be challenging, particularly when you have several assignments due by the same date.

One way of managing these is to make explicit the criteria you use to decide the importance of each task in relation to each other.
For example, we tend to prioritise by the deadline, by the degree of difficulty and by how much time we estimate it will require. Usually we underestimate how long a task can take, so it is a good idea to allow more time than we think it will take.

You may have some strategies that you are using that work for you. However, if you are feeling under pressure and your strategies are not easing the tension, here are some tips you may find useful.

Visualise the tasks: identify the steps
When we think about the big items (eg. essay, dissertation, report) we perceive the volume of work as much larger and more difficult to do. This is because we cannot see the steps that we need to take to complete the task. Therefore, we are more likely to procrastinate and delay getting started.

Breaking down the task into smaller steps helps to identify what is required, what resources we need, and what questions we need to ask.

So, for example, if you have two essay questions and a report due in three weeks, start by looking at each question and ask yourself: “what is required for each one of these assignments?”.

Then, make a note of what you think is required, identify if there are things you don’t know and decide who you can consult to clarify the task. You may find that by doing some research on the topic you can find some answers to your questions.

By focusing on one step at a time, you can make progress with the task. This approach will increase your ability to get started and prevent procrastinating and an accumulation of unfinished tasks .

Create a flexible schedule
A flexible timetable allows you to be better prepared to deal with unexpected events and still have enough time to complete your tasks by the deadline.

This way you are in control of your time because you know what is required, and you know you have allocated enough time to focus on your priorities (Bandura, 1997).

A flexible plan is better than make a strict plan for every hour of the day, as this can become very stressful. In addition, it is unlikely to be helpful because there are often unexpected events to deal with. Instead, allow for the possibility of moving the slot during the day or across the week.

It will also make it more manageable to deal with several deadlines and a variety of commitments. For example, one of the assignments may take longer, or you may not feel well one day.

Making a written plan will give you a clear picture of what you need to do. Sometimes it may be obvious what you need to do so it is likely that you carry the information in your head.  This can have the unwanted effect of creating a feeling that you have so much to do and no time to do it in.

Make a plan  and keep a written record of tasks.  This will free up space in your working memory, reduce tension, and it will allow you to keep track of your progress.

Also, insert breaks in between your study periods and make these a manageable time. For example, plan for half-hour or 50 minutes study slots, with a 5 to 10-minute break. Taking short breaks will restore your energy. Particularly if you feel the task is difficult, it will be more likely for you to focus for half an hour, particularly if you are feeling tired.  

Another benefit of having a clear view of the deadlines in a calendar is that you can then work backwards to identify how much time you will need for your assignment.

So, when you are working on your assignments you can focus better as you know that you have allowed time to cover all your work.  When you feel there is not enough time you can review your list of priorities, and adjust what you do based on how things are unfolding. Being able to view your notes will also allow you to monitor your progress, and it will boost your motivation as you notice you are getting closer to the end.

Preparing and planning is an effective strategy that can help to manage the pressure when you have a lot to do (Cottrell, 2015). It allows you to work on a task without being distracted about all the work you still have to do.  

Adopt an optimistic attitude
You can develop an optimistic attitude by focusing on the possibility that things can work out.

By adopting a flexible mindset you can increase your capacity to learn (Dweck, 2017). In addition, by focusing on the fact that through deliberate practice you can develop your skills. 

This means viewing mistakes as part of the learning process and, by reflecting on them, you can identify what you need to do differently in order to improve your work. 

 Another technique is to change the language you use when you want to make progress with your assignments. For example, when we say “I have to write the essay” or “I have to write the report” or “I have to work on my dissertation” it can feel as if I am not in control and being told to do so.

Instead, reframe this and say: “I am choosing to write my essay/report or dissertation”. This then puts you back in control, as you are making the decision to make progress because your studies are important to you (Bandura, 1997).

If you find it difficult to get started with your writing, imagine you are telling a story to a kind reader who is interested in what you have to say. Imagine you are writing a draft, and therefore you can make several mistakes; this is good practise because writing facilitates the thinking progress.

The writing process takes time and, rather than expecting the text to be well written at the first attempt, think about it as most writers do – a draft that improves through several revisions, each time making adjustments to improve it.  

“Follow effective actions with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”  (Peter Drucker)

“The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.” (Mozart)

References:

Bandura, A/ (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Cottrell, S. (2015) Skills for success. Personal development and employability. (3rd Ed.) London: Palgrave, Macmillan Education.

Dweck, C. (2017) Mindset. Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Updated edition. New York: Ballantine Books.