A Simple Time Management System
The key to a productive, stress-free life is time management.
Now, for many people, this term is associated with productivity gurus who optimize their day down to the very last minute, cramming in as much work as humanly possible into their every waking hour.
Fortunately, that’s not what we’re trying to do here.
Instead, we want to use time management to open up free time and reduce our stress levels. Haphazardly trying to keep track of assignments and deadlines with no clear system or plan is a recipe for disaster. You’ll miss assignments, procrastinate, and be forced to work unproductive hours late into the night. But, when you take the time to figure out exactly what work needs to be done and when you’ll feel this weight lifted off your shoulders. Not only will you get more done in less time, but when you relax you can do so without the anxiety of looming deadlines and unfinished work.
In this article, I will describe the system I recommend, but feel free to experiment and adjust based on what works best for you. All credit for the general idea goes to Cal Newport, author of How to Be a High School Superstar and How to Be a Straight-A Student.
The first step is to simply take a sheet of paper and create “buckets” and “sub-buckets” for every single area of your life (ex: Academics, Sports, Social Life, Hobbies, Work, etc.). Then write down every activity, deadline, and goal that you have within those buckets. Break down larger projects into smaller, more sizable tasks and assign due dates for everything. This step alone should significantly reduce stress levels as you’ll have everything you need to do in one place.
The next step is to get a calendar. Personally, I suggest using google sheets because it allows you to customize your design based on your personal needs, but you can use any other paper planner or software that you like. Your calendar should have enough space for 10–12 tasks daily and you should be able to easily move tasks around (this is especially difficult on a paper calendar).
Once you have a calendar, take your original sheet of paper and transfer each task over to a specific day. This allows you to spread work over the course of several days instead of cramming it all into a single, stressful night. How far you plan ahead depends on the projects you are involved in and you will constantly update the calendar based on what comes along.
*PRO Tip — Besides each task on your calendar write down the approximate time it will take to complete in order to prevent overscheduling*
This step is also useful in determining whether you have too much on your plate. If you find that you don’t have enough time to finish all your work on time while having a decent amount of free time (you should be able to spend several hours a week hanging out with friends and family, pursue your hobbies, and catch a couple of episodes of your favorite show) AND getting at least 7–8 hours of sleep, it’s probably time to consider quitting. Getting into a good college or getting a promotion or a raise is NOT worth sacrificing your happiness or mental health.
After the calendar is set up the final part of the system is a handy-dandy sheet of paper.
Every night (or morning, whatever you prefer) check your calendar to see what you need to get done the next day. Then, take a sheet of paper, divide it down the middle and label the left side “Schedule” and the right side “Notes”.
On the “Schedule” half of the paper, make a rough outline of the next day’s schedule, blocking out time for all the tasks you have to complete. However, make sure you remember that this schedule is not set in stone. If something comes up, a friend invites you to a birthday dinner, feel free to move and rearrange blocks to account for this change of plans.
The “Notes” section is reserved for tasks or thoughts you may have throughout the day. For example, your English teacher might assign a paper, a friend might suggest a book to read, or you might need to print out pictures for a project. You would write all of this down and then use it to update your “master calendar” at the end of the day. This way you can be confident that nothing will slip through the cracks.
And, that’s it.
For just a calendar, a sheet of paper, and five minutes a day you can significantly increase your productivity while decreasing stress at the same time. Personally, after trying several different productivity systems this one has proven to be the most effective, however, feel free to add or remove features to create a system that works.
Newport, Cal. How to Be a High School Superstar: a Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing out (without Burning out). Broadway Books, 2010.
Newport, Cal. How to Become a Straight-A Student: the Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Broadway Books, 2007.