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Time management

Making and taking time

München, 10/21/2014

Planning for the long term, scheduling breaks, setting limits: Dr. Silke Weisweiler of LMU’s Center for Leadership and People Management explains how to optimally organize learning and work.

Foto: Westend61 / Fotolia.com

‘I have no time just now,’ ‘I’m pressed for time’ – why are such complaints so common today?
Silke Weisweiler: The term ‘time management’ was first used in the US in the 1960s, and appeared in Germany some 20 years later – when tasks were structured in such a way that they could be tackled one after another. In virtually all spheres, and certainly not in universities, that is no longer the case. These days, we all have to do different things in parallel, and this can cause one to feel that nothing is ever finished. This impression of not getting things done is responsible for the sense of not having enough time, and the resulting stress.

And by learning how to manage one’s time, one can cope with such stress?
I prefer to speak of ‘time competence’, employing one’s time in such a way that one is pleased with how it has been spent. It is not a matter of simply performing the tasks assigned to one, but of learning to structure one’s schedule so that one experiences a sense of contentment at the end of the day. It has been shown that the impression of being in control of one’s time is associated with better performance, and a higher level of satisfaction, both as a student and in one’s later career.

But it’s not easy to remain in control when new demands keep turning up.
The quality of the working environment and the leadership provided both play a crucial role. At university we have the freedom to pursue our own research, which itself provides opportunities for self-fulfillment. Indeed, that is why many people choose an academic career. But one also has the sort of challenges that are part of any career in any sector, rules and the constraints imposed by tight schedules and the institutional structure of the university. Young academics in particular find it difficult to say no. The organizational context dictates that tasks assigned to one must be accepted and carried out.

And then there are the e-mails that keep popping up on monitor or smartphone, distracting one from the task in hand.
Whenever we are interrupted while performing a task, we cannot immediately recapture our previous cognitive state. That takes a few seconds. We call it the ‘saw-blade effect’. The more often I’m disturbed, the more time I lose getting back to work. Performance level rises slowly after an interruption only to plunge steeply at the next, so the curve looks like a saw blade. Taking regular breaks, on the other hand, is very important. After 45 minutes of concentrated work, one should certainly pause for a short break.

Should breaks be used for reflection, for which there is otherwise little time available?
That is a paradoxical feature of modern universities: Creativity in research is at odds with tight organizational schedules. Output is measured in terms of publications. But good ideas come only if one’s mind is free to roam, and the work-day is so packed with things to do that people lack the time for reflection. In that case, a change of scenery can be helpful, even moving to a different office may be enough. Many research teams go on hikes or take trips to the mountains. Others try to schedule a half-day each week for creative thinking.

How can I learn to make better use of my own time?
There are lots of tips in the literature. But I believe that each individual should decide for herself what best fits her situation. There is no point in pinning a list of ten tips on the wall. It’s better to choose a method that one finds appropriate and appealing.

For instance?
Some people at LMU have a regular ‘Stille Stunde’ (“holy hour”) during which they may not be disturbed. They sit alone in their offices and use the time as they see fit, but don’t respond to e-mails or pick up the telephone.

An hour is not that long, is it?
An hour may not seem like much, but it is quite a long time to devote to thinking a problem or a project through. A recent study has shown that the Stille Stunde measurably enhances efficiency. And, of course students can use it too. They can go to the library to learn, or look for a quiet place where they are unlikely to be disturbed or distracted. Noise makes it more difficult to concentrate.

What are the typical stumbling-blocks on the way to good time management?
First of all, there is the planning problem. We tend to begin planning far too late, and we focus on planning for the immediate instead of the more remote tasks, which then drop out of sight. In the case of first-year students, these are often end-of-term assessments or seminar assignments. The second problem is prioritizing, defining what is urgent or important and deciding what to focus on.

And what is the best way to go about making plans for the longer term?
A relatively distant target must be attractive or important enough to stimulate one to begin preparing to achieve it in good time. In the case of an assessment, the objective is to do well in it. The next step is to divide the assignment into sensible blocks, into coherent single units. Exercises designed to deepen one’s understanding of a topic, for example, are now an integral part of many courses. – And for beginners, learning to learn plays a vital role: learning how to structure the material, and how to read texts so that one can grasp the structure of the overall argument.

Should I build in a buffer, a reserve to cope with unexpected?
In the literature on time management, the usual recommendation is to schedule 40% more time than one believes to be necessary. The usual reaction to that is: ‘Impossible! I have far too much to do.’ But then one must ask what one’s goals and priorities are.

And still one ends up bringing work home.
Many people at university view their career as a vocation. Studies have shown that refusing to draw a clear distinction between one’s work and one’s private life is not necessarily a bad thing. The work-life balance means more to some individuals than to others. The questions one has to ask are: What is it that motivates me? What is important to me, not just in my career, but in my life? Am I in danger of being overwhelmed by the tasks that keep piling up? How can I win back control over the use of my time? What is the first thing I would like to change for the better? – And then begin to change that.

Interview: nh

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PD Dr. Silke Weisweiler heads the Center for Leadership and People Management at LMU and gives seminars on time- and self-management, leadership and hiring staff.