Managing Time And Focus During Quarantine

Luke Hanson, Academic Advisor and postbac at University of Alabama at Birmingham, Capsule Contributor

In the midst of our current and constantly-changing landscape, it can feel both difficult and even meaningless to focus on planning and scheduling our futures, from days to weeks to months. However, despite and in fact directly due to these current circumstances and daily uncertainties it’s more important than ever to focus on how we manage our time to maximize our daily and more long-term personal, academic and professional achievements.

Trying to plan around this volatile landscape is exhausting. It forces us to consider our time, values and capabilities. Whereas most days, weeks and months have a natural flow to which we’ve grown accustomed, whether in the form of semesters or quarters (and associated goals within those strict time frames), the amount of current baked-in uncertainty rivals that of any point in recent memory.

Time management is my favorite topic to cover with students, and per feedback alternately the most applicable and derided. Once it becomes second nature, it's still not the easiest concept on the planet, but it does help us maximize our time and keep from depleting our tanks. If you're not sure how to do it, the thought of learning and practicing it can be daunting. If you have a handle on it and are asked about tweaking and/or reflecting on your approach, it's understandable to get irritated and annoyed at the implication.

Time management is built on a foundation of prioritization of needs and values. Capsule's Mission 4 focuses on maximizing time by focusing on this prioritization utilizing a matrix introduced in Steven Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. You can use Covey’s four-square matrix to classify all items currently or that you know need to be on your proverbial plate as 1) urgent/important, 2) not urgent/important, 3) urgent/not important and 4) not urgent/not important.

Capsule helps users create and evolve self-development skills, which fall into the "not urgent/important" category and is accordingly marked as an area on which to focus. We don't inherently have to focus on self-development, but it's incredibly important to do so.

Things that are pressing fall into the "urgent/important" category and, when such items are truly on our plate should take priority. Professional deadlines exist for a reason. Exams test knowledge and occur on fixed dates known well in advance. Certain appointments have to be kept for the sake of our health and well-being. When these items are on our lists, they should take priority.

Sometimes, tedium is necessary to keep the gears turning. I have reporting days/blocks of time at work. I don't love logging notes and contacts with students, but I certainly appreciate the value of having a record and reference in place if called on to discuss it for any number of reasons, from helping a student to determining how to reallocate and restructure elements of curricula, programs and resources. Avoid making this your key focus, but also acknowledge the importance of strategically blocking off chunks of time to get it done.

Finally, there are times when we simply need to take a break. Scroll Instagram. Watch an episode of trash TV. Beat a level. Take a walk. Heck, just take 20 minutes to eat lunch somewhere other than your desk. Breaks keep us grounded and provide numerous benefits to us at work and school; when we feel depleted and burned out it's ok and even necessary to prioritize these at the top.

At any given point in time each of your wants and needs will fall into one of the quadrants. The matrix then becomes an excellent chart on which to place all of those items, which can then be assessed and ranked based on your personal and professional needs. Once you’ve ranked all of your action items, you can develop a plan to achieve them, then allocate time accordingly.

There are several ways to distribute your time in relation to these action times. Based on deadlines, do an audit of your available time. If you’ve just started a new three-year grant cycle, broadly set targets for every few months, then determine how much time and effort it will take to get there. If you’ve just started a new quarter or semester and have several items to knock out in the next three or four months, map them out and do the same.

Consider what you’ll have accomplished at this point. You’ve considered and physically manifested your needs and wants for a period of time. You’ve ranked them based on what’s most important for you as an individual, employee, student, etc. You’ve created a timeline over the course of which these items must be accomplished, and established goals/checkpoints within. Now it’s simply a matter of apportioning your time and finding the best method for that.

Some folks are list makers. That may mean writing out 30 items, from the most mundane to the most important, and enjoying the dopamine release of crossing off the smallest ones as you chip away and work up to the biggest.

Or it may mean following the excellent Ivy Lee Method, in which you prioritize the next day the night before by writing out no more than six must-do items the next day and prioritizing them. That next day, you’ll simply work through each item one at a time, with no distraction, ensuring what you’ve deemed most important gets done and eliminating the inefficiency that is multitasking

Either method and anything in between gives you the option of something to work through. Anything that doesn’t get completed can also be factored into the next round of prioritization to be re-evaluated, organized and deconstructed, giving you a leg up based on experience and new and differing needs in terms of how to structure your time towards tasks.

Another approach might be to use the Pomodoro Technique, first developed in the 1980s, which simplifies time purely by the minutes. In a nutshell, you’ll block off 25 minutes to work followed by five minutes to take a break. While that’s the approach in its strictest sense, feel free to play around with the numbers and figure out what works for you. A 2014 study found that 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break led to peak performance. Ultimately, your exact numbers may vary, but the principle can be sound. You just need to figure out your peak productivity settings.

As you’re considering what method or combination of methods of time management work best for you, factor in your individual traits and capabilities. What are your responsibilities as a person, partner, employee, student, etc.? What blocks in days and days of the week are available? When do you function at your peak capacity (older research points to the block between 8am and 2pm, but your individual peak time(s) may vary -- learn and use them)?

Consider using your phone or some other method to provide alerts, notifications and reminders to help you stay on track. Identify and eliminate empty time wasters, such as social media apps on your phone. Or, during your peak and/or most available productivity times, put your phone on airplane mode or simply out of reach to avoid the distraction of a chime or vibration.

Ultimately, time management is exceedingly doable. On paper, it looks incredibly easy, if a bit tedious. It’s on us to put in the work up front to determine how to use our time, then commit to doing so once we’ve outlined a plan. Continuing to do this while evaluating and evolving our methods will continue to enhance and maximize how we make due with the time and effort we have.

How are you managing your time right now? Has your system continued to work, or are you struggling in this constantly-evolving landscape? Let's talk about what is and isn't working. I'm always up for learning new methods and sharing mine in hopes narratives crossing can benefit both storytellers. Need some motivation next time you’re trying to stick to your plan but would rather reach for your phone? Think about your “why” and use that to get you back on track and through to the end.

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