Getting an MBA (Master of Business Administration) is a tough and grueling process. Whether you choose a 1-year or 2-year program, your plate is guaranteed to be full year-round, including evenings and weekends. If you want to keep your sanity, spend time with friends and loved ones, and avail yourself of amazing opportunities as they arise, you’ll need to manage your time well.
Time management, while a serious buzzword in our culture these days, isn’t a well-understood concept. Some people think it means making and keeping a really rigorous schedule, which can certainly help, while others believe it means prioritizing certain tasks and forgetting about others.
True time management, however, involves long-term goal setting, recognition of which tasks move you toward those goals and which don’t, the ability to say no firmly and politely, and more. Let’s talk about 15 of the best strategies for using your time as effectively as possible.
Understand the Whole Program
MBA programs are long and challenging. You have to learn many different skills in a short amount of time, ranging from product development to accounting to cultural sensitivity and communication. With so much going on, it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. Make a plan at the outset of your program – if needed, with a guidance counselor’s help – for how you will accomplish it all. Then stick to that plan as closely as possible.
Look Ahead Constantly
One of the biggest time-killers is being caught unawares. When you’re scrambling, you lose the ability to plan ahead and use your time to best effect. Instead, you’re forced to prioritize an assignment, a project, a coffee date – when you already had plans for that time, and can’t really give them up. The solution? Always be looking ahead, so that you know what’s coming down the pipeline day by day, and can make the best possible plan to accommodate it.
Set Professional Goals
Your MBA program doesn’t inherently take your professional goals into account. You need to set them on your own to get the most out of your program. Most MBA students have previous work experience in the business world, and this should inform your goals. Widen your network? Land a certain job? Form a relationship with a certain professor? It’s up to you, but be clear.
…And Personal Ones
Personal goals still matter. Whether you want to prioritize your family while in school, maintain physical fitness or take that cooking class one weekend, affirm the importance of these goals ahead of time and you’re likelier to stick to them.
Break Larger Goals Down into Smaller Ones
Big goals have a way of freaking us out, so don’t let them stay big. Instead, break each large goal down into as many smaller tasks as you can. The smaller the better. Then all you have to do is get to work.
Take Syllabi Seriously
Want to use your time well? Don’t file those syllabi. Instead, keep them on hand all the time. That way, if you find yourself with some extra time, you can whip them out and get a jumpstart on reading or other assignments.
Use a Simple Calendar Systems
Many people get lost because they’re using iCal on their phones, Google calendar on their computers, a paper planner in the front pocket of their book bag and the reminders app for those pesky extra details. You might as well use your hand and a sharpie for all the good this does you. Instead, take a few hours to figure out what system actually works for you. It should be streamlined and elegant, and ideally comprise only one platform.
Select ONE Alternative Platform
If you can’t access your calendar from some places (say, you don’t have wi-fi, or don’t have room in your pockets for your planner), then select one other system, and make the effort to transfer all notes to your main calendar as soon as possible.
When trying to make better use of your time, it can help to have a buddy to make sure you don’t veer off course. Whether you want to stay on track in a certain class or make sure exercise time happens every day, it can help to enlist a friend.
Prioritize Daily Tasks
Each day, prioritize your tasks. That means writing out everything you hope to accomplish, then listing out tasks in their order of importance. Avoid the temptation to jump around, which is a horrible time-waster, and be methodical.
Create Rituals to Up Productivity
When your brain goes on autopilot, you get lots more done. Rituals can really help with that. For instance, a gym ritual should ideally take place at the same time every day: morning, lunch, evening. A 50-minute span of work becomes easier when you never miss that 10-minute break. Set your own rituals and watch good results unfold.
Learn to Spot Unnecessary Tasks
Unnecessary tasks are very good at posing as crucial tasks, so you have to be just as good at spotting them. One of the best techniques is to recognize the difference between “important” and “urgent.” Urgent tasks are not necessarily important, nor do important tasks necessarily need to be done right away. Learn to dismiss urgency as a deciding factor, and judge the task on its own merit: Does it ever need to be done? If so, when? Then, if it’s worthy, make a plan to complete it.
Say No Politely
When you spot a task that is really just filler or could be better accomplished by someone else, it’s time to say no. Be polite but firm, saying something such as: “I’m sorry, but I can’t really take that on right now.” Make a good faith effort to help the person find another solution, but don’t take it on as your problem.
… And Say No Again
What? Saying no is so important it gets two slots all to itself?? Well, yes. Saying no is crucial, but there are two levels of doing so. Ideally one “no” is enough, but many people don’t like hearing it and will resist. In that case, you have to say no again, more firmly and with greater consequences for those who don’t respect you.
If you’re in a position of authority, those consequences are easier to administer. In the case of friends and family, however, you’ll need a more nuanced approach. For instance: “I understand you want me there this weekend, friend, but I can’t come to every barbecue. If you can’t choose which events matter most, I’ll just end up picking and may choose wrong.”
Just Show Up
Once you know how to prioritize and use your time well, it’s time to knuckle down. Some tasks seem to take forever not because they’re actually lifelong Herculean endeavors, but because we put them off so many times it seems as though they’ve always been there. Procrastination is such a productivity killer, though, because even if you’re doing other “useful” things with your time, you’re not completing the real tasks on your plate.
So whether you need to get that headlight fixed or prepare for your giant presentation, stop putting it off. Look at your calendar, choose a time to make it happen, write it down and then just show up.
Time management, you see, isn’t really a magic recipe. It’s simply a strategic approach to using the minutes, hours, days and weeks you’re given to maximum effect. While it’s crucial you be a good time manager while in business school, this need will remain even after you leave and start your new career. So take the time to practice your skills now, and you’ll reap the benefits for the rest of your life.