Teachers are incredibly busy people. We have demands placed on us constantly – both in and out of the classroom – and there never seem to be enough hours in the day. The Internet is full of ideas for how we can better manage our time, but those ideas are often designed for people who have complete control over their schedules – something teachers only dream of. Instead of giving up hope, we can take some of the best tips for time management and adjust them so that they work for our unique lives as well.
It may be tempting to search for quick fixes and easy hacks to change your time use, but this will only treat the symptoms. In order to experience lasting change, it’s important to address the root of the problem – the beliefs you hold about time. If you haven’t already, start with part one of this post, where I share tips on reframing the way you view time, identifying how you currently spend your time, how to take control of your schedule, and how to ensure your priorities are met first.
Use Calendar Blocking
If something can get done whenever, it tends to get done never. If we really want to get something done, it has to get a place on the calendar. One effective way to make that happen is through calendar blocking, the process of blocking off time on your calendar for tasks you need to complete in your day.
Maybe you know that you have to input grades by 5:00 every Friday. Instead of just putting it on the to-do list and forgetting about it until you’re ready to leave on Friday (only to realize you still have one more thing to do) block it off on your calendar. Pick a time that works for you – like every Wednesday before school – and put grade input on your calendar for however long you think it will take, just like you would an appointment.
Calendar blocking is powerful because it is all about scheduling based on your priorities. Start by blocking off the things you have to do (e.g., sleep, work, eat), then add the rest of your life items in order of importance. You can use your calendar blocking to make appointments for yourself to do things like go for a walk, spend time with a loved one, or engage in self-care. This is a proactive way to make sure you accomplish everything you want to do, and you’ll be amazed at how much really fits on the calendar when you schedule it in advance.
(For more on calendar blocking, check out Amy Landino on YouTube.)
Time Batch Similar Tasks
While you are blocking your calendar, schedule similar tasks together in order to time batch your tasks. We are more productive when we stay entrenched in a single task for a prolonged amount of time than we are when we jump from one task to another. By taking similar tasks and grouping them together, we increase our efficiency and reduce the amount of time we have to spend to complete that task.
Instead of making copies for each day during the minutes before school, maybe you could make copies for the entire week on Monday morning. Rather than inputting a few grades every day, block off time to complete a week’s worth of grades at once. There are so many other tasks in our personal and professional life that we can time batch, like lesson planning, meal preparation, laundry, and more.
Spending a longer chunk of time on a single task allows us to increase our efficiency and speed and reduces the transition times in and out of tasks. If it’s a boring task or one that you just don’t like, try batching it and pairing it with something you enjoy, like watching a favorite show on Netflix while you work.
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Schedule Things for the Right Time of Day
Have you ever experienced that moment in the day when your to-do list is still a mile long, but you just can’t muster the energy to do a single item on it? That’s the trough, and it’s a dangerous place to schedule important tasks.
Every day, we go through a cycle of energy and attentiveness. Most of us begin our day in a peak mode where we are at our best for cognitive tasks and end it in recovery where we are at our best for creative tasks. Some of us may be the opposite for peak and recovery, but we all experience a trough in the middle of our day. During this trough, we may become tired, irritable, lethargic, and feel our mental capacities reduce.
The best way to deal with the trough is to do something different, to try to do something active, or to use it for tasks that take very little cognitive attention. The worst way to deal with the trough is to try to force yourself through that to-do list item that you can’t bear to face. As much as is possible, try to schedule your highly cognitive tasks for when you are in peak, your creative tasks for when you are in recovery, and things like errands or exercise for when you are in the trough.
(For more on the power of timing in our productivity, check out the book When by Daniel Pink.)
Reduce Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue is a big concern for teachers, who make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions throughout our days. Decision making is mentally taxing, and all those tiny decisions can add up and really wear you down. Find ways to reduce the number of decisions you have to make in a day. Maybe that means planning all your outfits on Sunday night, packing the same thing for lunch every day, or having predetermined meal plans so you don’t have to decide what’s for supper.
In the classroom, it might mean having lists of activities you can pull out when your students need a brain break or when there are five extra minutes at the end of class, so you don’t have to use your mental energy to think up a game on the spot. Another powerful way to reduce decisions is to automate as much of your day as you can through the use of habits.
Harness the Power of Habit
The best way to allow your brain some time to rest from decisions is to turn as much of your day into a habit as you can. The most effective way to build a habit is to link a new habit to one you already have.
For example, if you want to exercise in the mornings but struggle to get started, take the decision component out of it and link it to something you already do every morning. You might say, “After I drink my coffee, I put on my exercise clothes,” or “After I brush my teeth, I put on my running shoes.” Say this sentence to yourself every morning until it becomes automatic. Then build multiple habits into automated routines.
I highly recommend developing a habitual routine for morning, night, leaving the house, arriving at school, leaving school, and arriving home. Give your thinking mind a rest!
(Want to know more about building habits? Check out Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin and/or The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.)
Speaking of rest, it is of the utmost importance that restoration and self-care are high on your priority list. What you do is so important to so many people. You change lives every day in your classroom! You can’t keep helping all the wonderful people in your life if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
Figure out what it is that restores you and schedule it. Put it on your calendar, block it off, and build a habit to keep you doing it.
Learn About Time Management
I’ve gained so much over the years from just setting aside time to learn about time! Check out the YouTube channels or books I’ve listed throughout this post and seek out additional resources, such as Angela Watson’s book Fewer Things Better, designed especially for teachers.
Don’t be discouraged when you read something and think, “But that would never work for me.” Find ways to adjust it to fit your life. Take what works and leave what doesn’t. Keep learning and experimenting and share what works for you with others who need it!