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Careers Café

Time management is not primarily a technical problem


Everyone struggles with time management. Everyone.

If it were just a matter of accurately estimating how long things would take and then allocating time to do those tasks, it wouldn’t be such a big problem.

Perhaps we would be able to make a rational argument that we have objectively more work to do than hours to do it in, and someone would reduce our workload. And sometimes that is the case.

However, more often the problem is in the seeming simplicity of that calculation.

How much time does it take to grade an essay? Prepare a lecture? Read an article? Write 1000 words?

Poke at those questions and you begin to reveal all kinds of difficult issues:

  • How carefully do you need to read this article?
  • How much feedback do you need to provide to this student?
  • How well do you know the subject of your lecture?

You quickly get into ideas about standards.

Which can lead to disagreements about what is a reasonable standard for this particular task.

Sometimes those disagreements take place in your head. You argue with yourself about whether you can afford to spend the time to do this task (whatever it is) to a particular standard. You wonder if you can live with the consequences of lowering your standards. You aren’t even sure what those consequences are. Maybe you recognize that no one else would mind but that you have standards, dammit and …

In addition to standards, you’ll also find yourself arguing about priorities. In academia the big one here is the relative priority of teaching and research. Priorities will show up at other levels, too.

Priorities and standards are connected. You probably have higher standards for things that are a higher priority.

All this emotional processing is perfectly normal.

And it takes time and energy.

No matter how good you are at estimating time and putting appointments with yourself in the calendar, you never put that time for emotional processing in there.

The key to time management is recognizing that there is an emotional element. Just noticing is a huge step.

You can’t wish that element away. We have different standards. We have different priorities. We disagree with our colleagues, our employers (and sometimes even ourselves) about those standards and priorities.

A starting point:

Notice what you are spending time on and how much time you are spending on it.

Does this line up with what you say your priorities are?

If something you say is a priority is not getting time allocated to it, is it really a priority?

What standards are you setting yourself?

What standards do others expect of you?

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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  1. back2basic / February 13, 2013 at 22:32

    Dearest Dr. and Coach Jo VanEvery:

    I really enjoy reading your article re: “time management” about priority, standard and emotion.

    Could we add two more dimensions in sickness and family besides our career?

    This is the reason that I always praise the virtue of patience in learning and that I must believe in karma. For this sole belief, I just take my time to do the best of me, my own standard so that I could enjoy my calmness and keep smiling with confidence. Yes, in some other next life, I will finally achieve the ultimate balance in body, mind and spirit. There is no rush, no frustration, no stress because people need to progress within each pace and path of their own karma.

    Thank you for this wonderful article. Yours truly,
    May King.

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