3 steps to improving your time management with digital tools

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flickr photo by hang_in_there shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Everyone is busy and sometimes it seems we are too busy to find ways to organise our time better. This post will take you through three steps to improving the way you manage that most precious resource – your time. 

Step 1: Identifying what you need

Before looking for digital tools it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about what you are doing and how well that is working. Here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • How do I keep track of the things I need to do?
  • How do I prioritise tasks and make sure I meet deadlines?
  • What tools and devices do I use? (A diary, notebook, smartphone, tablet, PC?).
  • What sort of tasks do I have? (Do I work alone? In teams? Short tasks or big projects?)
  • What are the issues I have with my current way of managing my time?

Step 2: Choosing tools for organizing time and tasks

Now you have an idea of what you need in terms of tools it is time to consider some options. First, let’s look at a couple of apps made specifically for students.

  • MyStudyLife is a free app that was created to help students organise their study tasks. It keeps track of classes to attend and assignments due as well as helping to plan revision and sending reminders. MyStudyLife can be accessed from any web-enabled device and there are apps for iOS, Android, Windows and Chrome – you can even access your information offline.  
  • SussexMobile is the University of Sussex’s own app for students (and staff) which brings together timetables, details of assessments, access to Sussex Direct, Study Direct (VLE), email, the library, careers, housing, Skills Hub and much more. There are also alerts for problems with e-submissions, university closures due to weather etc. Whilst this isn’t strictly a time management tool, it has many features to allow students to keep track of their commitments and access useful information on the go.

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Although these tools for students are great, they only address the study aspects of life and there is usually much more that has to be juggled. We all have domestic and social lives that also take a bit of organizing so you may want a task management app that will accommodate all aspects of your life. Here are a couple of popular ones that approach the job in slightly different ways:

  • Trello is rather different in the way it looks, displaying tasks as ‘cards’ arranged into ‘lists’ on ‘boards’. I wrote about Trello recently in the post on Working together online because it is a useful tool for organizing collaborative projects (see Sheila MacNeill’s blog post on Using Trello for learning design). Many people prefer its layout to the lists in Wunderlist and other apps. I like it because I can see all of my tasks at a glance and rearrange them as priorities change. The ability to add checklists, comments, images and attach files makes it a great tool for keeping track of progress and the ability to forward emails into a Trello board makes it easy to keep my ‘to-dos’ where they belong rather than cluttering up my email inbox.

3. Finding tools to help you focus

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flickr photo by toolstop shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Once you have organised your tasks and you are clear what you need to be doing next you may want some digital help in keeping focused on the job in hand. Here are a few options:

  • Productivity techniques. Many productivity systems and techniques have been invented and each has its adherents and critics but it is really about finding one that works for you. Pomodoro is a simple technique that involves tackling work in 25-minute bursts with breaks between. If you like the idea then the Tomatoid website can help you put it into practice. As well as doing the timing for you it will let you name your task, set different work periods and breaks, keep track of tasks not yet completed and add notes as you go. The ability to add notes means that if something pops into your mind while you are working on your task you can jot it down to come back to later instead of getting distracted.
  • Managing your online time. The internet is a marvellous resource but also a potential distraction. Fortunately there are tools like RescueTime (the Lite version is free) that will show you where you are spending your time online. You can install a browser plugin in Chrome or Firefox and install it on your Mac, Windows, Linux or Android devices. Unfortunately the free version won’t let you block those distracting sites, but once you have identified the sites that are your timewasters you can block them using other apps such as:
  • Getting the atmosphere right. You may not be able to choose where you are working, but there are digital tools for creating an atmosphere conducive to getting your work done. There is a lot of research on using music and sounds for work and concentration and increasingly people are using ambient sounds to help them focus. You may find you can focus better with birdsong in your headphones or even the gentle sounds of a coffee shop. See this piece on 8 Ambient Sound Websites to Help Students Focus for some options.

Where can I get more help with time management?

The Skills Hub has online resources for students on time management; the Researcher Development Programme includes resources and training on a wide range of topics including time management; and teaching staff can contact the learning technologist for their school.

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