How to Manage Time Effectively and Concentrate Better

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There is always so much more to do than one has time for. Time management is a skill that no one teaches you at school (and if parents do, we don’t listen to them) but we are expected to be good at it. Effective time management requires that we know our short term and long term goals, be organized and overcome procrastination, a tall task indeed!

You will never find time for everything. If you want time, you must make it. The famous 20:80 rule states that 80 percent of our outcomes come from only 20 percent of our inputs. Most of the other time is spent procrastinating or working inefficiently doing activities that provide very little benefit. That calls us that most of us need to distinguish between hard work and smart work. Effective time management strategies can make us smart workers and help us find a balance between study and other activities we want to do.

In creating, the hardest part is to begin. So where can we start? It is always good to try and break our tasks into smaller chunks so that we don’t get overwhelmed. To begin with, you can start with monitoring your daily activities for two-three days to get an idea of your typical day. You can make a chart in your notebook and note down your activities every half an hour. Refrain from noting ‘nothing’ in case you feel you did not anything of consequence. Note whatever it was, whether be it chatting, napping or day dreaming. You can start by noting things that have specific start times, like if you know you eat breakfast at 7:00, then fill in that square with “breakfast’. Similarly go ahead and fill in your sleep timings, bus rides, play or TV timings. In the next step, try and answer some of the questions about how you currently spend your time.

I feel like I spend too much time on ……………

I feel like I don’t have enough time for…………….

I feel I spend too much time on homework. How can I better spend time on homework………….

How do I like to spend my free time……….

Whenever we are doing out time scheduling, we know that there are certain Have-To's and there is no escaping them. These may include family responsibilities like household chores, keeping your room clean or helping a younger sibling. Sleeping, eating, maintaining personal hygiene and doing schoolwork and homework are also essentials of a student’s life. Then there are the Want-To's. "Want-To's" make our lives a little more fulfilling, like following a hobby and being with people we enjoy ourselves. It is important that we learn to set goals for ourselves if we want to make time for our haves and wants. Short-term goals are things we want or need to do that can be accomplished in a few hours or days, like finishing home work for the day. Long-term goals are part of the "bigger picture" of our lives - our dreams and aspirations like learning a language or taking that final exam. Although they may take months or years to accomplish, they still take up time on a regular basis. Goals like these can't be achieved by setting aside one big block of time but rather, smaller blocks of time over a period of days, months, or even years. Working on our short term and long term goals are often interconnected.

Once we have defined our goals, we need start with making an effective time schedule for the week. This time schedule should reflect our goals and accommodate our haves and wants. It should be realistic and one that you are most likely to follow successfully. Remember what gets rewarded gets done. So decide on how you want to reward yourself once you have followed your schedule for a week successfully. Be flexible about it and make changes with things that don’t work in the schedule. In case you do not finish a given task, try to make time for it somewhere else rather than just leaving it.

Time cheaters and how to beat them

The questions that you answered earlier would have helped you identify some of the time cheaters like, spending time on the phone with friends who won’t go away. The first thing you should say to a friend who calls is ‘I’m in the middle of studying now. I’ll call you back’. Or start by saying, ‘I have only five minutes right now and I’ll call you later.’ You may realize once you get down to work you get panicky and try to do everything together. We need to keep our anxiety at bay, prioritize our work and attack them one by one. That’s the only way you will get anything done. It may not seem like you have achieved all that you want to in a given day but if you keep at it you will soon find your pile of work disappearing! 

Writing and rewriting notes or arranging notes over and over again does not give anything in return but waste our time. So does working aimlessly without objectives, priorities or deadlines. Many times we spend so much time in doing preparations that we have little left for the actual task! It is not enough that we are busy, so are ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

Time management strategies are ineffective if we are chronic procrastinators. Procrastination is the thief of time. If you are forever postponing tasks, you may never get down to making that time log that we discussed above. Often there are hidden doubts and fears which make us procrastinate. Try to ask yourself, “Why am I reluctant to do this”. You are most likely to find some things that are unpleasant to you in the task which leads to the delays. Say to yourself, “I will do the unpleasant task first”. Keep TV watching and talking to friends as rewards after you have finished with your studying. Be firm with yourself for some time and you will find that you enjoy your free times without guilt once you have finished your tasks.

Time wasted is existence, time used is life.

Giving structure to your day and following a study technique is a great way to be focussed on the task at hand and be efficient. However, we can still find ourselves struggling with our concentration form time to time. There are some techniques we can follow to directly improve our concentration.

Keep a notepad: Any time a thought comes which seems distracting or urgent and is unrelated to the work at hand, write it down. The truth is, every other though that flits our mind seems important when we are studying! Recording worrisome obligations means you don't have to use your brain as a "reminder" bulletin board, which means you can give your undivided attention to your top priority task.

Take breaks: It is prudent to divide your study schedule into small chunks of half an hour each especially when you are struggling to concentrate! Take a break after every half an hour of studying and don’t forget to pat yourself on your back for staying focused for this long. However, don’t leave the place, but sit back in your chair, relax, deep breathe and keep your focus. Take longer breaks every hour when you can get up from your seat and stretch your legs.

Worry time: For those of us who tend to worry about things incessantly, set aside a worry time. Whenever your mind slips into worrying remind yourself that you have a special time devoted to worrying and you can worry then!

The ‘five more’ mantra: This is something I came across and I felt it’s a great way to build sustained attention and build frustration tolerance. If you're in the middle of a task and tempted to give up- just do FIVE MORE. Read FIVE MORE pages. Finish FIVE MORE math problems. Work FIVE MORE minutes". By implementing this strategy, you are building mental stamina and exercising your brain muscles and endurance just like athletes built their muscles and stamina.

Mind and Body exercises: Keep aside all tasks, select a thought and keep it in your mind for as long as you can. It can be thought like, how to keep fit. Now stay focused on this idea and develop it for as long as you can. Be aware of times when your mind wavers off and then bring it back to the topic.

Sit in a comfortable chair and see how still you can keep. This is not as easy as it seems. Watch and see that you are not making any involuntary muscular movements. The first time I tried this, I moved five times in the first minute! With some practice you will find you are able to sit still without a movement of the muscles for longer and longer and it is a great way to develop concentration. In many ways the practice of asanas in Yoga which requires holding postures does exactly this!

Similarly, you can sit in a chair and place a clock with a second hand on the table. Follow the second hand with your eyes as it goes around. Keep this up for five minutes, thinking of nothing else but the second hand. As there is little that is particularly interesting about the second hand, it is hard to do this, but in the extra effort of will power required to make it successful lies its value. Always try to keep as still as possible during these exercises.

Reading requires that we first concentrate our thoughts on the subject on hand. An excellent exercise is to read an article in a newspaper (like this one!) and see in how few words you can express it. Reading an article to get only the essentials requires the closest concentration. In order to focus on every statement that’s written, you have to keep all other thoughts out. If you are unable to write out what you read, you will know you are weak in concentration. Instead of writing it out you can express it orally if you wish. You will also find yourself developing your ability to think creatively and critically!

Visualisation is an extremely effective technique to prepare the mind to concentrate. Before starting your studies, close your eyes and imagine yourself in a situation when you experienced deep concentration. It could have been playing a sport, a musical instrument or gazing at a bird sitting in a pond. Try to picture this state of total concentration in your mind’s eye and stay with it for about five minutes. Then open your eyes, take a few deep breaths and start studying.

If you will utilize your spare time in practicing exercises like those suggested you can gain more control over your mind and become more efficient. Of course, success in all of the above depends largely upon cultivating your concentration which is hard work.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you have always got.

Recommended reading:

The One Minute Manager, Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, Berkeley Books, 1981.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey, Simon & Schuster, 1989.


Mrigaya Sinha is a Clinical Psychologist with a PhD in Clinical Psychology from NIMHANS, Bangalore. She is from Patna and has done her graduation from Patna Women's College. She is one of the very few psychologists from Patna with training from a premier national institute and experience of working in several big institutes apart from NIMHANS including KMC, Manipal; VIMHANS, New Delhi; and Mahavir Cancer Santhan, Patna over a period of eight years, to name a few. She is currently setting up her private practice in the US.

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