At the IATEFL Birmingham 2016 conference my presentation was designed to answer a question I’m asked all the time:
How do you find the time to do everything you do?
At the risk of bragging, here are some of the reasons why I’m asked that question. I’m:
- the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz, leading a team of 20 teachers.
- a CELTA trainer, including doing part-time courses.
- a fledgling materials writer, including an ebook for the round.
- a curator of ELTpics.
- a blogger.
- a tweeter.
- a conference attendee and presenter.
- a contributor to various journals and websites.
- a regular blog reader and sharer.
- a member of the IATEFL Membership Committee.
- a language learner.
- a traveller.
- a regular cinema goer.
- a listener to podcasts.
- and probably some other things too…
You’ll probably notice that some things aren’t on that list. I don’t have a partner or a family, which obviously frees up a lot of time for other things. I often joke that the reason I can manage to do so many things is that I have no life, but that’s not strictly true. While a lot of my life does revolve around this career which I love, I also recognise the importance of a work-life balance and endeavour to maintain this. I’ve therefore adopted many strategies to organise my time, which I shared in my presentation at IATEFL. Here is a recording of it which was made by Hanna Zieba for me (thanks Hanna!):
This handout summarises all of the strategies and you can download it via Slideshare.
Alternatively, read on for a fuller account of the strategies and why I use them.
The device in the picture is a Time Turner, used by Hermione Grainger in the Harry Potter films to give herself five extra hours a day. It may feel like we need something similar!
Tip number one: Outsource your memory. What I mean by this is that you should write down everything you need to remember as soon as possible. I do this in a variety of places. At work we have an annual year-to-view wall planner with post-it notes which can be moved around if things change. Just before the school year starts we copy over the main events from the previous year. It’s on the wall in my office for teachers to see at any time. Also at work I have a weekly planner, which I will describe in more detail later.
The most organised I have ever been at home was last year. I was given two diaries for Christmas, and decided to use one as a normal dates/appointments diary, for example with flight times, and the other as a to-do list diary. Whenever I thought of something I needed to do I would put it in my diary on or just before the appropriate date, meaning I could then forget about things until I needed to do them. I used to use scraps of paper and discovered this system was much more efficient, so much so that I bought a to-do list diary for work too!
Tip number two: Refresh every week. I have a weekly planner at work which I write out every Friday before I leave, or on a Monday as soon as I get in. I find it much more motivating than having a single ever-expanding list.
Another benefit is that you can see the shape of your whole week in one place at a glance. If you use a diary or annual planner too, don’t forget to copy things over each week, as well as transferring anything you didn’t finish the previous week. If you copy something more than three times, you either need to stop procrastinating and prioritise it, or drop it from your list because it’s probably not that important. If you drop it, you could put it in your diary for a quieter period of the year, if that’s ever likely to happen for you!
I have just finished this notebook and now have an A4 sheet I print off which already has recurring events and tasks typed onto it.
Tip number three: Leave Gaps. If you have any kind of daily to-do list, whether it be in a weekly planner like the one above or a diary, make sure you leave gaps to add extra things as they come up. They always will.
Another tip is to use small boxes on your planner as it is then harder to overfill them. It helps you to be more realistic about what you can achieve in a given time. I divide my planner into morning and afternoon, highlighting appointments and classes in blue, and highlighting anything which needs to be done urgently in yellow. This makes it faster for me to see when I’m available when people ask “Can you…?”
It took me a while to work out what I can realistically achieve in a morning or afternoon. This has improved with practice, but I still get it very wrong sometimes!
One of the teachers at IH Bydgoszcz started to use this system a few weeks ago and said:
It’s proven invaluable in helping me organise my hours a bit more effectively, and reduces the stress of ‘I have too much to do!’
Despite us both being quite techy people, we prefer to do all of this the old-fashioned way. There’s nothing quite like crossing things off a big piece of paper!
Tip number four: Notice your Achievements. By noticing what you’ve achieved each week, you will hopefully feel less like you’re drowning under the weight of things you ‘need’ to do. I always take a second to admire my weekly planner at the end of the week, and to notice how little needs to be transferred to next week’s plan, even though I know that in seven days my ‘new’ one will look pretty similar!
At home, I make a note of what I’ve done each day on my calendar. I hate seeing crosses on there, and since the beginning of February I’ve put a tick if I’ve managed to do everything – more on exactly what those things are later. I’ve noticed that I’ve completed all six things I want to do much more often since using ticks. This makes me feel a real sense of achievement. 🙂
Tip number five: Not a huge thing. If a task is huge, you’re much more likely to find reasons to procrastinate and avoid starting it. By breaking them down, you can work out how to fit it into your busy timetable, and you will probably find it more manageable. Here are examples of two huge tasks with possible ways that they could be broken down or the workload could be spread. Consider delegating if you’re a manager, but make sure you don’t overload your staff too much. By breaking large tasks into smaller chunks, it’s also easier to find ways to fit them into the gaps mentioned before.
Tip number six: I am important too. Don’t forget to take time for yourself. If you can choose your working hours, aim to keep them as regular as possible (for me it’s 09:30 to about 18:30) and make sure that there are times when you are not available, with your phone switched off if possible. For example, Thursday evenings are my flamenco classes, so I try to avoid scheduling things for that time and staff know that. Make these times sacred so you have time to recharge your batteries.
I have a programme called TimeOut (Mac – I don’t know the Windows equivalent) to remind me to take little breaks to stand up and stretch from the computer. I try to go outside as much as possible, for example, by taking my laptop outside if I really need to complete a project and it’s warm enough, walking to work and paying conscious attention to the parks and people I see. Having the ’50 ways to take a break’ poster on my desktop helps me to think of different things to do, or I can just do a bit of housework, like the washing up. I can also work towards the personal goals I have each day, as described below.
I also try to factor in time for spending time with family and friends, having times in my diary with nothing specific scheduled so I can do what I feel like that day (though these are rare!) and having a holiday to look forward to whenever I can.
Tip number seven: Start small. Don’t try and add every new habit you want to do at the same time, especially in your personal life. Add one new thing, make it a habit, then add the next thing if you can manage it. Too many things at once will probably overwhelm you, and you’ll end up not doing anything.
I started by using a pedometer to aim for 10,000 steps a day because I realised I wasn’t doing enough exercise – at one point during Delta I was doing as little as 1,500 steps a day. When this worked, I realised I was more likely to do my physio exercises if I wrote it down every day. When I was frustrated with my language learning, I started to add Russian practice, and saw a massive increase in my progress. I follow a lot of blogs and started to feel overwhelmed by the amount of blogposts in my reader, so I broke it down and aimed to read three to five posts each day. Now I rarely feel overwhelmed, and blitz it whenever I can. Despite being an ELTpics curator, I wasn’t uploading many ELTpics, so I added that. The final thing I put on there was cross stitch when I had projects to complete. Uploading just one ELTpic or doing just one strand a day of cross stitch is enough to get me my tick, and more is a bonus. I’d really like to learn to play the recorder that’s been sitting on my shelf for about two years now, but I think that’s one habit too many so I haven’t added that. I’m aiming for a sense of achievement, not depression!
Tip number eight: Experiment. These are my techniques, but they might not work for you. Keep trying different things until you find something which does. As Nick Tims said at the IATEFL MaWSIG pre-conference event last year, you may have to kiss a few frogs. These techniques have taken me at least five years of development. I started with scraps of paper with to-do lists on them, and these tips are the evolution of that.
In summary, if you ORGANISE your time using some or all of the eight techniques listed above, you will hopefully be much less likely to need a time turner! I hope you find these techniques useful, and if you have any others, why not share them in the comments below?
Finally, thank you to LAM SIG (Leadership and Management Special Interest Group), who chose to feature my presentation as part of their day.