University of Southern Indiana

Five tips for better productivity and time management

Five tips for better productivity and time management

9/18/2017 | University Communications
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These tips come from Dr. Rich Bennett, associate professor of biology

For some, the concept of time-management seems to be a vague one that sounds good, but comes with little substance or actionable suggestions. We likely heard it coming up as students and we espouse it to our own students today. However, did/do we, and do they, really know what it means to manage time? Below are five executable tips that can help you better define time management and increase your productivity along the way.

  1. Realize that you only have 1,440 minutes in your day: Time is the great equalizer. The difference between those who are successful and those who are not, among other things, is how they use this precious resource. Kevin Kruse, author of various time management and success books, suggests paying yourself first with time. Exercising and sleeping are two activities that should never be compromised. Additionally, losing the open door policies that many executives and professionals have has a cognitive switching cost. If you are working on a project and someone knocks on your door, you have to mentally detach from the project, engage with the person at the door, and then reengage with your project. Now imagine that this happens five, 10, or 30 times per day and it’s a wonder you can get anything done. Kruse and other authors suggest that open door policies should be scheduled to prevent the cognitive switching costs of these interruptions.
  1. Break projects down into actionable and measurable tasks: As educators and administrators, we have various, and sometimes disparate, projects and activities that we need to complete and/or maintain. In his seminal book, Getting Things Done, David Allen suggests that projects, large or small, be broken down to specific and actionable tasks with corresponding measurable outcomes. For example, teach biology, is certainly actionable, but it’s not necessarily specific, nor is an outcome well-defined. However, breaking this project down to specific tasks like develop a schedule, prepare learning objectives for chapter or write exam, are actionable and they produce a tangible product.
  1. Put everything on your calendar: Remember, we only get 1,440 minutes each day. And if you choose to do one thing with your time, then you choose not to do something else with it. It’s the economic principle of opportunity cost at work. So, put everything that requires your time on your calendar. This forces you to consider what you are giving up when you choose to spend your time on an event or activity. Events and activities that you are already committed to go in your calendar first – class times, recurring meetings, etc., as well as exercise and sleep. Once those are on your calendar, tasks associated with project are listed next. First, though, determine how much time you think each task will take, or how much time you have, to complete the task. Then, whether it be five minutes or five hours, put it on your calendar. However, remember that we humans are horrible at predicting how long it will take to do something. So, allow some unscheduled time in each day for when a task takes a little longer than you expected. Lastly, don’t be tempted to sacrifice your health and sleep to “get everything in.” You can prevent this work overload by being careful about what you say yes to.
  1. Theme your days: Kevin Kruse and Daniel Levitin suggest theming each day’s work. For example, someone may commit Mondays for committee work. Another may set aside Fridays for consulting work or tending to emails and cleaning their office. For business executives and other professionals this is a little easier. However, for faculty, this can be difficult since most of us have class each day that breaks up our day. So, instead of theming an entire day, consider theming large chunks of time within your day. For example, Monday mornings might be dedicated to writing or planning research experiments. Then, that afternoon can be used to grade and prepare for classes the next day. However you plan it, make sure that you have large chunks of time to dedicate to a specific task and/or project to avoid those sneaky cognitive switching costs.
  1. Brain dump: Brain dumping has been a life-saver for me. One of the main complaints with people that have trouble with time management, including me, is that they feel busy, but yet they have nothing to show for their busyness at the end of the day. The problem is that they carry around everything they need to do in their heads and they constantly switch from one “fire” to the next. Are cognitive switching costs coming to mind with this scenario? One way to combat this is to write everything down in a notebook. Even if you can’t do anything about something when it comes to mind, you can rest easy knowing that you will not forget it and that you can tend to it later – like when you have it scheduled on your calendar! The key to this principle is that you review your notebook at least once per day. Anything that is actionable must be done immediately or put on your calendar. Anything that is reference must go in some sort of reference system. I personally use the Bullet Journal system for my notebook/brain dumping mechanism but also as a way to journal my thoughts and ideas for later reflection.

Regardless of how we feel about our productivity, we can always get better and more efficient at it. Planning is key to being productive – not only planning, but planning well and being decisive about what we commit to. Although these are only five tips to start you on your way to being more productive, there are many other techniques, like delegating, avoiding (unnecessary) meetings, addressing procrastination, and being ritualistic in some aspects of your daily life. Below are some books and resources that I have read and/or use in my own personal journey to increase my productivity on a daily basis.

Reading suggestions

  • Kevin Kruse, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management
  • David Allen, Getting Things Done
  • Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind
  • Jocelyn Glei, Manage Your Day-to-Day
  • Timo Kiander, Work Smarter Not Harder
  • Gary Keller, The ONE Thing
  • Lencioni, Death by Meeting
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Photo Credit: USI Photography and Multimedia

Dr. Rich Bennett

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