With this post, we are continuing our series on executive functioning (EF) skills. This article focuses on the EF skills of organization and time management.
What do “organization” and “time management” mean?
When many people think of someone with executive functioning skills, they picture someone who is well organized and on top of everything. While EF has many other aspects, organization and time management are both essential underlying skills that have a significant and lasting impact on success.
Many people believe organization refers to everything being in its place, but organization is actually the ability to use time, energy, and resources (your things) effectively to achieve goals. While the whole definition is much broader, the colloquial concept works too; when your materials are easy to locate, it saves you time and prevents certain setbacks, like lost or misplaced belongings.
Time management is the process of consciously planning and controlling the amount of time you spend on certain activities. Using time management effectively also encompasses the ability to allot more time to more important tasks while deciding to spend less time on others.
Why are organization and time management important?
Organization and time management work together closely. Strong organizational skills will lead to better time management. As mentioned above, these are both underlying skills, meaning that they are important to just about every facet of your life (school, home, social, etc.). Being strong in these areas can lead to many positive outcomes. For one, a reduction in stress! When everything is where you expect it to be and you know what you need to spend time doing, your life will run smoothly. Whether it’s finding your homework for class or your shoes for practice, the faster you can retrieve them, the less stressed you will feel.
These skills also make you much more efficient and productive. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with the amount of time you have to spend on different tasks, you might have poor time management (or you may have taken on way too much!). If you take a step back to organize your schedule and plan your day, it will run flow better and you will accomplish a lot more.
Being organized can also save you money and resources. Think about it. If you are constantly misplacing things, you will have to spend money to replace them or take extra time to find or redo them. People who are well organized, then, can save both time and money by being able to access materials when they are needed.
Possessing organizational and time management skills will lead to you be seen as more reliable. People who “have it all together” are viewed as dependable and responsible, both of which are important in educational and professional settings. Students who are never late with an assignment tend to be viewed more favorably by their teachers than those who are constantly making excuses. Employees who can quickly provide accurate information to their bosses are held in high regard.
These skills also increase your brain function and your ability to think logically about abstract concepts. Your brain is always looking for patterns, and the better organized you are, the easier it is for your brain to identify patterns and use them to store or retrieve information.
How can I improve these skills?
Make a schedule. Schedules help you organize your tasks and your time. Whether you prefer a large calendar, a daily planner, or your phone, having a way to make a plan and keep track of your day is important. Consider organizing your schedule by color coding different types of tasks. You might choose red for school or work tasks, blue for chores or responsibilities at home, and green for social activities. This acts as a visual cue for how much time you are spending on each of the different types of activities in your life, and can alert you to any imbalances. For example, if you see a lot of blue, you may want to spend more time on red activities. If you prefer to use an app instead of drawing out your schedule by hand, try downloading Cal or aCalendar.
- Make a checklist of daily tasks. Using your schedule, try making a daily checklist of everything you need to complete. From there, prioritize the order in which you should complete the tasks and note how much time you will spend on each task. Remember, scheduling time for yourself is necessary! If you struggle when making a to-do list, give Trello a try.
- Analyze how you use your time. When you understand how you spend your time, you’re better able to make decisions to improve your time management. Do you fully focus on a task, or are you distracted by outside things like social media or surfing the web? If it’s hard for you to tell how much time you spend on different tasks, try an app like RescueTime to help you keep track—it will give you a detailed report! If you find that you are constantly being distracted, apps like SelfControl can help you avoid certain websites while you work.
- Prioritize your work. Even if you don’t make an actual checklist, you still need to prioritize your tasks. A good way to prioritize is to label your tasks as “must do,” “may do,” or “want to do.” “Must do” items are those that need to be completed that day and include things like homework or going to a club meeting. “May do” items are things that need to be done, but can be put off if you are out of time. They include things like writing a term paper that’s due at the end of the month and doing your laundry. Remember, though, eventually your “may do” items will turn into “must dos,” so don’t push them off for too long. “Want to do” items are those that are desirable, but you don’t have to do them at all. Think watching a Netflix show or going out to dinner. Again, it’s important to note that you need a balance. If you organize your schedule and use your time wisely, you should have enough time to complete everything!
- Break down large tasks into small, manageable pieces. This will help you organize your tasks by forcing you to plan out each step. Once you do that, you can manage your time by accomplishing a few pieces each day. A warning, though. If you procrastinate, this strategy will not work.
- Set time limits and take breaks. Did you know that the average attention span for adults is 20 minutes and dropping? While you should be able to focus on tasks, this statistic shows that setting a time limit for each of your tasks could be necessary. You’re not a machine, so it’s not realistic to expect yourself to focus for four straight hours. Instead, try working for 30 minutes and then give yourself a five or ten minute break (to check Facebook or eat a snack). This will keep your mind fresh and prevent you from burning out when you get back to work.
- Set deadlines. In addition to time limits, it’s important to have deadlines. The pressure of an upcoming deadline will help you use your time more efficiently. Don’t just rely on external deadlines from your teachers or your boss. Rather, set your own personal deadlines for each of the smaller tasks you have created.
- Reward yourself. When you accomplish a task, celebrate!! You deserve it! Making time to give yourself a little reward for accomplishing a goal is extremely important. Maybe you take yourself out for a treat or spend an evening with friends. Knowing a reward is coming is more motivation to get organized and use your time well.
- Declutter your workspace. Every three to six months, schedule some time to declutter. Get rid of anything you don’t use or need, and follow up on your current organizational system for files, papers, and whatever else fills your space. Take the time to analyze the way you have been keeping organized. Is it working? If not, adapt it so it will. It might take some time to find a system that’s simple and works for you, but it’s worth it. To declutter your work area, you might try creating categories for different items: desk, homework, projects, personal, etc. Once they’re sorted, decide on a way to group each category together using drawers, bins, or file folders. Consider color coding each group for easy identification.
- Ask for help. We’ve all got that one friend or family member who is super organized and always seems to have things together. Talk to them! Ask for ideas, advice, or even assistance if you’re struggling. Outside help is valuable and can give you new ways to stay organized that you might not have thought of on your own.
Some of these strategies might seem familiar, and they should! Lots of the same strategies can help improve a variety of executive functioning skills simultaneously, since so many EF skills work closely together. When used correctly, these strategies will help your executive functioning skills improve as a whole.
Join us again on Wednesday, November 1, when we will be talking about the executive functioning skills of focus and self-control.