Time management is an essential skill for any MBA programme. Alliance Manchester Business School’s Nia Watkin Jones offers some advice on planning and using your time effectively
Time management simply refers to how you use your time. It’s the process of planning and organising your time, and prioritising your tasks successfully, to achieve your goals.
Good time management at work and during your studies helps increase effectiveness, efficiency and productivity. It also involves ensuring that you carve out time for essential life components too, such as nurturing relationships, looking after your physical and mental health and enjoying your hobbies.
Oliver Burkman’s book Four Thousand Weeks explains that you may never be a master of your own time and you will never get everything done so you must say “no” and focus on less in order to enjoy your life. So, think about how you currently plan and use your time. Do you start by looking at your overall personal and professional goals? Do you use lists, calendars and reminders to keep track of your goals? Do you take time to reflect on what you’ve achieved?
Time management is an essential study skill for any MBA programme. The MBA is a demanding yet rewarding degree which will require you to plan and use your time effectively.
Here are some useful skills and techniques that you can use to help direct your time and workload effectively. These have been grouped into three themes – planning your time, using your time and avoiding wasting time.
1. Planning your time
What are your goals?: Plan with the end in mind. Identify your aims, objectives and targets. Read through your programme handbook and understand what you will need to do to complete your MBA successfully. Make a note of all the assessments that you will be required to complete, any deadlines which have been released, and work back from here. Plan your weeks in advance.
Prioritising tasks: What small steps do you need to take to reach your goal? Brainstorm and identify what the most important tasks are to complete a project or assignment. Ensure that you get as much clarity as possible about an assessment, so that you can define your tasks accurately. Read through your lists of tasks and reorder them based on what needs to be tackled first and their importance.
Dedicating time to tasks: Allocate time in your diary to work on tasks. Most people feel at their cognitive best in the morning when it is also quieter and there are fewer distractions. Alternatively, you may find that your best work happens in the evenings. Work out what’s best for you but allocate time in your diary to work on your most important tasks when you feel most energised.
Then batch your work into themes, so that you can focus on one subject at a time. In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport advises carving out time in your diary for ‘deep work’ or ‘focus work’. The book argues that focused work is an essential skill for success in a distracted world. You may be aware of the Pareto principle developed from the works of the economist Vilfredo Pareto too – the idea that 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. Your goal is therefore to identify which of your MBA tasks is the 20% that is going to get you 80% of the results.
Iterations of tasks and assignments: Commencing work on an assignment can sometimes feel overwhelming. You may find it easier to set yourself iteration deadlines, for example, a deadline for your first draft, second draft and a final proofread. Looking at your work with a fresh pair of eyes can often provide you with further clarity and lead to better quality work.
2. Using your time effectively
Focusing on your tasks: Create the right work environment to help you focus on your tasks – a clear desk in a quiet area, for example. Hide yourself away and make yourself unavailable to distractions. Where possible, always work in the same space, as this will help focus your mind and foster good study habits. Alternatively, you may prefer to mix it up and work on different tasks in different places depending on what kind of environment you need, for example, a quiet space or a creative space.
Dealing with competing demands: Be realistic about how much you can achieve in a day. Managing your time effectively means being able to manage urgent and important tasks daily. Work out what’s best for you. This may mean spending a short amount of time in the morning dealing with urgent tasks before working on your most important tasks without distractions. Consider whether any urgent tasks can be delegated. Don’t feel guilty about saying “no” to activities or invites which are not a priority for you and your goals.
Working with others: An MBA programme contains lots of group work, which can sometimes be quite challenging. Don’t underestimate the time it might take for others to deliver on work for group projects. Everyone has competing demands and when you are planning your work; factor this in. Ensure that you provide colleagues with deadlines well in advance, prompt when necessary, and think of an appropriate course of action if colleagues are not delivering work on time.
Meetings: Before planning a meeting, think realistically about how long the meeting needs to last for. Does it need to be an hour, 30 minutes, or would a five-minute phone call work? Try and schedule meetings with your colleagues during the afternoons, once your important and urgent tasks have been completed. Meetings or social interactions in the afternoon may also help give you a much-needed energy boost.
Multitasking: Multitasking can sometimes be counter-productive to time management due to context switching, ie the brain having to restart and refocus. Try and focus on one task solidly before moving on to the next.
Emails: According to Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog! Get More of the Important Things Done – Today, checking emails can be addictive and you may feel the urge to constantly check your inbox throughout the day, which can be time-consuming. Be ‘intentional’ about when you log on, whether it’s three times a day or during specific periods of time. When reading an email, act on it immediately – respond, delete, delegate, or save.
Your mobile phone: Mobile phones have helped us become more time-efficient, as we are able to email, text, phone, do our banking, shop and much more from a single device. However, mobile phones can also be addictive and distracting. Switch your phone off when working on important tasks to avoid distractions. Set screen time for checking social media. It’s better to have a quick stretch or walk when you need a break from your assignment, rather than reaching for the phone as this can result in wasted time.
3. Avoiding wasting time and procrastination
When struggling to find the motivation, energy or focus to start working on a task, we may find ourselves doing things which are counterproductive to our time.
Some form of procrastination can be ok, as it allows thinking or brainstorming. However, you must take note if you find yourself spending too much time surfing the internet, scrolling your social media, mindlessly watching TV etc.
Also, be careful about spending a lot of time ‘planning’ activities (planning your diary, overthinking your essay, spending too much time researching) as you may be doing this to avoid getting on with your task.
Atomic Habits by James Clear is an excellent book which provides advice on how to build good habits, in this case – good MBA study habits. The book argues that real change and results come from the compound effect of hundreds of small habits. Automatic habits also take the energy and thinking out of beginning and performing the task too, so the task becomes less stressful as a result.
Nia Watkin Jones is MBA assistant director at Alliance Manchester Business School