How to manage your time effectively

To help our Tar Heels begin the year on the right foot, operations expert and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School professor Brad Staats shared his tips for effective time management, starting with re-thinking that to-do list.

A cartoon of a man balancing on a unicycle and juggling tasks.

As an operations expert, Brad Staats helps companies reach their business goals by combining behavioral science and operations management to find ways to overcome the barriers to learning and pave a path to success.

One of those barriers blocking success is often something that we can all struggle with: time management.

“When we think about our short- or long-term success, it means we have to get work done. Time management is a critical part of that process,” said Staats, a professor of operations at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, the associate dean of MBA programs and the faculty director of the Center for the Business of Health.

To help our Tar Heels begin the year on the right foot, Staats shared his tips for effective time management, starting with re-thinking that to-do list.

Prioritize your to-dos.

Instead of just going straight down your to-do list, prioritize it by determining what can wait and what is essential. Select the tasks that will lead you toward your goals and get working on them.

Not prioritizing can lead us to fall victim to what Staats calls “competition bias,” or our desire to cross things off our list even if we’re leaving high-priority tasks undone. Prioritizing our tasks can keep us focused on what’s essential and not just what’s easiest.

“We really like to be able to finish activities,” he said. “Think about your email inbox. You have 20 emails there. There are several that are critically important but will take you quite a while to wrestle with, and then there are others that are not urgent. They’re not important, but you can just do them and be able to click delete and have them disappear. We get immense satisfaction from that.”

If that sounds like a common misdirection, you’re not alone. In a study with emergency room doctors, Staats saw that the busier an emergency room became, the more likely doctors were to gravitate toward easy tasks.

Prioritize, and you’ll have a better chance to get what needs to be done, done.

Ask questions early.

Using your time effectively means not wasting it by going down the wrong path. We can make the most out of time by getting all the information we need before setting off to do a task.

If you know exactly what you’re doing, by all means, get going, Staats said, but starting right to work without all the proper information can set you back as much as procrastinating in the first place.

“We set right to work and end up wasting time, and then later on, we have to backtrack and start over,” he said. “I encourage folks to pause and ask, ‘Do I really understand what needs to be done here?’ If not, then think about who is qualified to help you understand it. Pulling yourself back and asking yourself questions will set you up for success.”

Reflect on how you’re doing.

Good learning is a continuous cycle of active and reflective actions, Staats said. But we tend not to do the reflective part.

Staats said that research has shown that when given the option of actively doing something or thinking about something, people want to do, even if they don’t know what to do.

“At the start of the school year, we put our heads down, and we start working like crazy, and we never pop our head up to look around and say, ‘Am I doing what I should be doing?'” he said.

Staats recommends building check-ins into your schedule — whether that’s just with yourself or with a mentor or advisor — to take a step back and see if what you’re doing is working. If it’s not, adjust.

“That thinking afterward is really valuable for us to take away the key lessons, but also to reorient and point us in a new direction,” he said. “After the fact, it’s a lot easier to make sense of things.”

Time is not always a-wasting. Give yourself some flexibility.

Efficient time management doesn’t necessarily mean always getting work done as fast as possible. Not all things are completed effectively fast. Accepting that and making room for it in your schedule is key to managing your time effectively.

“If you’re really going to do new and interesting things, you’re going to waste time sometimes,” Staats said. “You can’t say ‘Brilliant idea: 30 minutes on the calendar. I will be done at the end of that.’ Giving yourself time to stew on things and ponder is important. It may look like you’re wasting time, but you’re not, necessarily.”

It’s about respecting the whole process of a task, even if it feels mundane or unimportant to the larger goal. Finding the right prioritization of all your tasks sets yourself up to have the extra time to step back when it’s most needed.

“Good time management is so important because you need to take those things that are easy and do them in a minimum amount of time. You don’t need to churn through all your spare hours there,” he said. “On the harder things in the more creative areas, you have time to think, to fail, to adjust as you move on.”