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#46: Four Key Strategies to Improve Time Management in Online Teaching

Time management must be a top priority for online teachers. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares four tips to help online educators be productive and effective in the virtual classroom. Learn strategies to assess and track how you’re currently spending your time, ways to prioritize your time so the most important tasks get done, how to minimize disruptions, and how to plan out your future time to ensure you’re fulfilling your current teaching responsibilities while also spending time on your long-term career goals.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Thanks for joining me today in the Online Teaching Lounge. We’re going to talk about four key strategies that will help you in time management for your online teaching. It’s, of course, pretty well-known that we’re expected to do more with less in today’s world and in business and, of course, in teaching and learning.

It’s very easy to feel that distractions are just coming from every direction when you’re working online, in particular. We might have emails coming at us, new ways of working in the classroom, perhaps we have a different learning management system or LMS in our school or institution. We might also be trying new strategies or using new pieces of subject matter, something that we’re unfamiliar with.

Whether it’s finding a new way of engaging with our students or just trying to survive all those daily distractions that normally happen in the online world, or even maybe it’s just living and working at home at the same time, whatever those things are that are coming at you, time management is a top priority.

Tip 1: Assess Where Your Time Goes Now

So where can we start? The first tip is just like anything in life, we need to know where we are right now. If you were to plan a financial strategy, you would first want to know: where does your money go? What are you spending it on? What is your current budget?

So the first step is to know where your time actually goes. Most of us think we know how we spend the time, and we think we’re accounting for all of that time grading, teaching, and being in the classroom.

Chances are there’s a lot more we’re doing when we’re in our work mode than just teaching our courses. Some statistics say that online workers spend up to 40% of their time managing email. That could be two and a half to three hours a day just checking emails, reading emails, and responding.

You might have interruptions throughout your work day. There’s this idea that people cannot really multitask, but if you change tasks in the middle of what you’re doing, you’re actually doing something called task switching. If you’re task switching, you’re spending a great deal of time just trying to get back on task and you spend time refocusing. Most people would call that time waste or time sink. It just disappears.

As you start looking at where your time actually goes, how do you keep track of this? One way to keep track of where your time is going and how you actually spend it is to use something called a time tracker. This could be as easy as an Excel spreadsheet or just a document you write down by hand. You can write down every 15 or 20 minutes or even every half hour what you did during that time.

After the first day of doing this, you’ll be able to look back over the day and see how much of your time was spent actually working, teaching, and doing those things that you think you’re doing online or on the computer, and how many minutes were actually spent doing something else.

You can do it, as I mentioned, electronically or on paper, but whatever you do, you’re going to want to be excruciatingly honest about where that time is going, and then you can start to sort it. You can put it in categories like:

  • Meetings or email reading
  • Different kinds of grading or accountability strategies you have in your classroom with your students
  • Time spent responding to instant messaging, if there is such a thing in your classroom
  • If you post in online discussions or teach live lectures, you could also write down all the time spent there
  • Time spent looking at data, analyzing how to improve student success
  • Time spent connecting with your colleagues, your managers, your team, building relationships. Time spent talking to students individually
  • Time spent posting and discussions and managing the announcements within a course
  • Even time spent writing a course. Some of you are definitely developers and spend a lot of time there too.

Outside of those immediate professional tasks, you might also have time spent interrupting to go downstairs or down the hall and take care of a little bit of your home duties. Some people punctuate their online work with breaks, and rightly so. This helps to re-energize you. Take a short walk down the hall and you can start fresh.

But some of that can really grow into a lot of time spent doing the laundry, doing the dishes, taking the dog for a walk, and writing down exactly how much time is really spent doing those things will help you be more accountable.

As you look over this tracker, look for trends. What are you seeing in the way your time is being spent? Where are you giving the most time? Where is the time just disappearing on either interrupted tasks or household chores or things that really are not part of the work day? And what is the impact? What are your results in the way you’re managing your time?

If it’s really true that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts, where is the effort really coming from? What kind of focus are we giving that 80% of the results we’re getting? In essence, we’re looking at how things are right now to determine what you want to do more of and what you’d like to do less of.

Once you identify how you’re really spending your time, you have the power to change it. You can be more productive by moving things around, scheduling your work around when you have the most energy and also trying various types of productivity strategies.

Tip 2: How to Prioritize Your Time  

The second key strategy to managing your time more effectively when you’re working online is to prioritize things. Many things seem urgent and important. It can be at times very difficult to know the difference when everything seems due all at once or when there’s a short timeline. When everything seems important, stop and take stock, considering what really is important.

What things are most important to you short-term, long-term and overall throughout your career? What is the most important thing to your students? What matters most to your institution, your university or school where you’re teaching? What are you doing that lines up with your mission or your values as a human being, as an educator, and what really is your biggest priority in the long run and in the big picture?

There are a lot of tools out there you can look at to help you prioritize things, and also to help you develop a strategy for this. There’s a Stephen Covey tool, that’s the urgent and important matrix, pretty well known. It’s basically got four squares on it and these quadrants are places where you’re going to list things that are urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent and not urgent and not important. Once you sort things into these kinds of categories, you can determine what needs to happen first, second, and third throughout the day.

You might also consider various mapping tools and other prioritization strategies. A lot of these tools help you think about what really matters to you long-term, versus what you think you might need to just do today. And then you can have a strategy about the way you approach your time management teaching online and the way you manage your priorities throughout your academic career or your educational career. Some things will fall off your list altogether once you do these tasks.

Tip 3: Executing Tasks in a Focused Manner without Disruption

The third key strategy to managing your time when you’re working and teaching online is to simply get things done and limit your interruptions. We call this, in the business world, executing. Executing means we’re not in planning mode anymore. We’re not thinking about it. We’re not prepping for the class. We’re doing the things. This means we’re getting things done productively.

Execution itself is a state of being focused, checking things off the list, doing them quickly in a focused manner. This might mean that you might do your grading all at once or in a set period of time during which you allow no interruptions to come in, and you simply focus on grading students’ assignments.

You want to think about what time of day you’re at your best. When you really have challenging things to complete, for example, if you need to do we do some curriculum design and that’s not really your strongest suit, start with an energetic activity, something you’re really great at. Then, put a period of curriculum design in there, and then get back to something else more energetic.

Find ways to put the things that really need to get done in between periods of time that are really energizing for you so you can stay focused throughout the day and do the deeper work that you also need to do in your professional field.

The more you’re interrupted, the less you’re going to get done. You’re not going to be able to execute things. Those interruptions will cause you a lot of stress and lengthen your work day. There was some research that noted that there was about 25 minutes lost with major interruptions, just to get refocused again.

You might not be able to totally get rid of your interruptions, but you can definitely reduce them and find some strategies that help you manage interruptions in ways that are more effective. You might note what kinds of interruptions frequently occur. Write them down. Just like you did a budget for the way you spend your time, you can actually keep a checklist of interruption types, or you can just keep a record of what kinds of interruptions happened and when they occurred throughout the day.

If you start looking for patterns and trends, you might be able to anticipate where you actually just need to take breaks and spend time with your family, or spend time on those other things that tend to keep interrupting you.

You can also create some focused time that’s supercharged. Close your door, turn off your phone or leave it in the other room, close all of your apps and different types of things that would send you notifications, and work most intensely during one or two hours.

Also, give yourself time to relax outside of those more focused times. When your subconscious brain knows it’s going to get a chance to not have to be hyper-focused, chances are you’re going to allow yourself to be more focused when you need to be.

And, of course, set up some special times when you’re going to look through the emails and answer the phone calls and reach out to the people that might otherwise have reached out to you in a way that was interrupting.

Think about what focus really looks like for you. What kind of time do you already have in your day to get work done and what kind of time do you have to just do the planning or follow up things? What kinds of interruptions do you normally have in your work day and what approaches might you use to reduce those interruptions?

Tip 4: Track Your Time in the Future for Long-Term Changes

Lastly, the fourth key, the strategy is to track your time in the future. Rather than just tracking it, to see where you’re at and creating a budget for the future, now we’re looking at time to get data about how to keep improving.

As you track your time, you’re going to be able to see what your career is really made of. What your job as an online instructor is most centered on. Does it really reflect what you think it is? And where do you want to start making long-term changes? You might plan really well, but when you need to get a lot done and execute tasks, you also need to be able to count on the time that you have set aside so that it is valuable and spent the best it can possibly be spent.

Track the time you spend talking to students, following up with students and actually interacting with your students. If you used to teach live courses and now you’re just teaching online in an asynchronous manner, notice how much time you spend one-on-one and in large-group interactions with your students compared to how you did that in the face-to-face setting. Chances are you’re going to find it actually takes more time online than it did in the face-to-face.

You might also want to keep track of the way you spend time around your most important goals. For example, if you also do research and you want to spend time writing research papers, presenting at conferences, and doing that sort of thing in the academic world, you’ll  want to track all the time you spend on that every day to see that you do spend some time.

Also, consider how much of your time across a given week is actually spent on meetings. Meetings with your department, your team, your manager, your students, any kind of meetings at all. And start looking at how these align with your values and with where you think you want things to go. What kinds of tasks and activities are part of your work day that you actually want to track? What results are you aiming for that you need to see in your own work?

When you have scheduled your time to review these things, and you’ve found some patterns that work for you, you’ll be able to maximize these four key time management strategies, and you will be on top of your online work, getting things done.

In closing, consider which one of these four key strategies is a priority for you right now. If you find online resources or manual resources, like making lists, writing things down that really work for you, stop by the website and share a comment. Tell us what’s working. We love to see what works and we love to share it with other online educators to help us all be the best we possibly can be. Thanks for being here with me today to talk about these four key strategies. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

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