Does Background Music Help you Focus?

time management background music“Turn that music down! I can’t focus!” “Well then put some ear plugs in because I can’t focus without it!” Does background music help you focus? That question has been the root of many family, roommate, and coworker quarrels. This week, I had an interesting realization about how music affects my thinking, and I’m curious if you’ve had the same experience.

My Neighbors

Over the weekend, my neighbors threw a loud, late, outdoor party. (One that sounded like a college frat house, but these guys are in their 40s. Life choices people, life choices. But I digress….) Anyway, in order to sleep, my husband suggested that we turn on some music. I never sleep with music, but I was desperate to drown out the noise, so I agreed.

He turned on some classical music and was asleep within minutes, but I was wide awake. Now, it wasn’t the party keeping me up, it was the music! It was so distracting! I found myself listening to the melodies, becoming startled at a sudden volume change, and becoming more awake instead of more tired.

Background Music and Time Management

I thought a lot about how this applies to time management. When I do workshops for college students and their parents, I’m usually asked to weigh in on the whole “should they or shouldn’t they listen to music when the study” debate. My experience this weekend just reinforces how I always answer that questions:

…it depends.

It depends on whether or not the music is distracting to you. Some people enjoy music as a focus tool. Others don’t. It depends on the person. So remember, there is no right or wrong answer to this question and we all need to be open to other people’s working style.

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Burnout and Time Management

time management burnoutHave you felt burned out recently? It happens to the best of us. We often think it’s a time management problem, but a blog I read recently made me think differently and gave me some good ideas on how to address this persistent problem.

One of my college friends is a science writer and she recently published a blog about burnout called “Battling the Burnout Monster” that really got me thinking. Does burnout happen because we are doing too much? Or because we’re doing too much of a stressful thing? Or because we need a change? Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above.

Either way, we too often address burnout as though it’s a time management problem, and I don’t believe that’s entirely accurate. Burnout may be the result of a time management problem, but burnout itself ends up being more of a motivation management problem. I know when I’m feeling burned out it’s not because I’m suffering from a lack of time management strategies, it’s because I’ve lost the motivation to figure out how to apply them.

If I try to address the time problem before the motivation problem, I find my burnout only gets worse. A new calendar, to-do list, or email process won’t magically solve your burnout woes before you take a step back and reassess your big picture goals and priorities. Katie’s blog offered numerous good ways to do that including: unplugging, organizing, exercising, and journaling.

What do you do to take a step back? How do you address burnout?

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Mindfulness for Obsessive Planners

time management mindefulnessEveryone seems to be talking about mindfulness lately. “Be in the moment,” “live in the now,” I’ve seen these phrases grace the covers of so many magazines and self help books that I’ve started to feel a bit inadequate that I’m so BAD at being “present.” If you, like me, are constantly thinking three steps ahead, I figured out how we can be crazy planners and “mindful” at the same time.

Being too “present”

I realized good time management is a balance of being intensely focused in the moment and thinking ahead and predicting the future. If you’re always living in the present, waiting until tomorrow’s problems become today’s problems to solve them, you’ll end up procrastinating. You risk being late, missing deadlines, and being derailed by stressful periods of the year you haven’t planned for.

Too much planning

If you’re too much of a planner, you can’t focus on what you’re doing because you’re constantly thinking “what am I doing next?” You’ll end up with a beautiful calendar and to-list, but a heap of half-completed tasks because you never see things through to completion without getting distracted. This is especially detrimental when it’s time to relax and you simply can’t because you’re thinking of all the work you have to get done tomorrow.

The right balance

No, to have good time management you need to have a balance of living in the present and living in the future. You plan your tomorrow carefully so you can enjoy today when it gets here. Don’t worry planners of the world. We can still be “mindful…” we’ll just have it scheduled a week in advance.

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3 Ways to Quickly Shift Your Focus

time management focusWe think of good time managers as being able to multitask well. Actually, the best time managers don’t do multiple things at the same time, they are just really good at quickly shifting their focus from task A to task B with minimal distraction and transition time. You too can learn to be a professional focus-shifter. Try these tips.

 1. Put the other stuff away

When you’re switching from task to task, put the old task away before beginning the new one. You’ll be far less likely to get distracted if you can’t see any of the materials you were using for your old task. You’ll get a bonus benefit of having a cleaner desk too!

 2. Cleanse your palate

When you’re sampling new foods, you likely take a swish of water in between bites of new flavors so the tastes don’t all run together. We call this “cleansing your palate” and it works for rapid task changes too. Cleanse your productivity pallet in between tasks by briefly standing up and stretching your legs before changing your focus to a new task. You might even say out loud to yourself, “I’m focusing on something different now.” These strategies help you add mental separation between two very different tasks.

 3. Group similar tasks together

It takes a lot more energy to shift your focus between two tasks when those tasks are radically different from each other. The more you keep similar tasks together in your day, the easier it will be to shift your focus without losing any time.

We can’t more time in the day, but if we learn to transition between tasks faster, we certainly can use more of it!

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Is Work First Play Second Always Best?

time management funNow that I have a kid, I’m constantly Googling for parent advice. (How people survived before Google, I do not know.) I stumbled across the article  “How I Limited Screen Time” about a parent who lets her kids watch as much TV as they want as long as they do their work first.

First Impression

My first thought was, “Yes! This! A thousand times this!” because that’s how I was raised. I’ve played the oboe since I was in 5th grade and I had to practice before I did anything else during the day. 8:00am trip to Disneyland? I guess you’re getting up early because you have to practice first.

Then I thought about it some more. I wonder if that only worked for me because I’m a morning person. I don’t love getting up early to get my work done, but I also DO my best work in the morning because I’m alert and focused. What about people who aren’t alert and focused until the evening? Would they get their work done faster and better if they did it later on when they are more focused?

 Are You a Night Owl?

I know I’m supposed to provide answers in this blog, but I suppose this one is more of a question. I will continue to abide by my “work first, play second” mentality because it has worked so well for me, but if my daughter grows up to be a night owl, I’m not quite sure what I’ll do!

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Life Lessons From a Spider

time management spiderThis morning I destroyed a spider web…for about the 27th time. A spider has decided it really wants to make a home in the corner of our patio and I keep thwarting his efforts. My first thought this morning was, “My goodness, that’s a persistent spider!” At first I decided to write this week’s blog about the power of persistence and diligently applying your time to a task without giving up. Then I had a different idea.

The Real Message

After I thought a little bit more, I realized something: that spider will never successfully build his web on my patio. Ever. Every time he builds, I will continue to knock it down. However, there are numerous places in my yard that I would allow him to stay. In fact, if he were even a few feet higher up on the wall I’d probably let him stay because I’d need a step stool to reach him and ain’t nobody got time for that.

So what are you saying Emily? That being persistent is a waste of time? That we should all just give up on our dreams because they are never going to happen?

Changing Your Strategy

No. I’m saying that knowing when to change your strategy is just as important to your time management as knowing when to stick with it. If you’re throwing a lot of time at something and getting nowhere, maybe you need to rethink your plan. It’s not giving up, it’s called adapting.

So thanks for the life lesson, spider. Sorry for destroying your house, but seriously, give it up already.

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Why Every Weekend Should Be A 3-Day Weekend

time management 3 day weekendI don’t know which government agency decided weekends should only be two days long, but this weekend made me realize we need a change. Please tell me where to send my strongly worded letter of support for the 3-day weekend because I’m ready to write it. Here’s why…

Two-day weekends are too short. You have a huge buildup of excitement on Friday afternoon, then Saturday hits and you want to go places! You have errands to run, friends to see, places to visit, etc. Then Sunday comes and you stay around the house. Maybe you’re cleaning, finishing a house project, or doing laundry. Then as Sunday evening hits, you start to feel the sun setting on your weekend just as it was barely getting started!

This weekend was different. I did all of the things mentioned above, but then I had Monday to do nothing but spend time with my family. No work, no errands, no plans, just enjoying the company of my husband and daughter in our backyard and being thankful for every moment. It was glorious.

On normal two day weekends, there is plenty of family time, but it’s interspersed with work and obligations. There is something very special about having nothing on your schedule and seeing where the day takes you.

I’m going to try to harness that “nothingness” more often, even when I don’t have the extra day to do it. We all need a little more nothing in our lives so we can fill it with the somethings that really matter.

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Stop Being a Reactive Time Manager by Next Week

reactive time managerAre you busy all day long, but find you haven’t actually done anything at the end of the day? You may be really good at eliminating time killers in your day, such as Facebook, Google, etc, but what do you do when work is the thing distracting you from…well…more work? You may have fallen into the trap of reactive time management. Read on…

Reactive and Proactive

There are two types of time managers: reactive and proactive. Reactive time managers spend their days reacting to situations. They are constantly putting out fires, answering last minute requests, and fielding questions from colleagues. Proactive time managers on the other hand, spend portions of their day getting out in front of these problems and shaping their priorities.

Here are three small things you can do this week to help be more of a proactive time manager

1. Define your role

What are your job responsibilities and, more importantly, what AREN’T your job responsibilities? Just because you’re able to solve a problem doesn’t mean it should take up a prime spot on your to-do list. Proactive time managers are really good at identifying which problems are theirs to solve, and which ones should be delegated to others.

2. Protect your time

Try scheduling 30 minutes into your day this week to get ahead on future projects that fit into the role you defined in Step 1. Schedule this time into your calendar, just like you would any other appointment, and fiercely protect it. If someone asks you to attend a meeting during that time, decline. If your phone rings, don’t answer it. If you have email notifications, turn them off. 30 minutes is long enough to get something done, but short enough that you can reasonably expect to protect the time.

3. Keep a slow day list

Pull out a pad of paper and label it “slow day list.” When you’re in the middle of a busy time, and catch yourself doing something that could have been done weeks prior, pull out your slow day list and write it down. Then, months later, when you’re having a less-busy day, pull out the list and see what you can tackle. We always think we’ll remember these slow day tasks, but as soon as our busy time is over, we tend to get selective amnesia.

You won’t change your time management habits overnight, but by making a habit out of small deliberate changes, you’ll be well on your way!

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The Secret to Time Management in the Evening

Time management evening napThere is a cliché in time management that goes something like this: During the week, we spend 8 hours working, 8 hours sleeping, and what happens to the other 8 hours is one of life’s great mysteries. If you feel like your evenings are slipping away, try these tips:

1. Make dinner easy

Dinner can take up an enormous amount of your evening time, and more importantly, energy. The eating is the enjoyable part. The cooking and the cleaning up is the energy drain. Cooking and preparing your dinners over the weekend can easily add an hour of time into your weekday evenings.

2. Analyze your “morning person” status

Are you a morning person or a night owl? Night owls have an easier time with evening productivity. If you’re a morning person, can you move any of your evening to-dos to the morning when you have more energy? Remember, everything you do is either a Meat (difficult), Vegetable (easy) or Dessert (fun.) Whenever possible, try to fit your Meats into the part of the day where you personally find it easier to focus. A morning person will have an easier time getting up 20 minutes earlier to finish something, than struggling to find the energy in the evening.

3. Add some structure

If it feels like you’re trying to be productive in the evening, but you have nothing to show for it, you may be frittering away your time trying to split your attention between multiple things. We’re distracted in the evening, “I want to relax! But I should pay some bills. But I’m going to do that while I watch TV. But I should really want some family time.” Stop multitasking. If you want to relax, then focus on relaxing! If you want to work, focus on working, and THEN relax.

4. Delay to the weekend

As you’re analyzing your evenings, do you really NEED to do the things you’re trying to do? Or are you better off delaying them to the weekend when you feel more re-charged. Doing something when you’re tired in the evening will take longer than when you’re energized on the weekend.

5. Ride the productivity wave for 30 more minutes

If a task simply can’t wait until the weekend, try doing it right when you get home from work. We tell ourselves that we just want to relax for a moment and then get back to work, but that’s difficult. Once we’ve removed ourselves from “work mode” it’s hard to get back. Instead, finish up a few quick tasks when you get home and THEN enjoy the relaxing feeling of being done for the day.

Remember, The Time Diet is all about balance and that means you can’t work all the time. Helping balance out your evenings is a great start to a healthy Time Diet!

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How To Survive Finals Week (For Teachers AND Students)

time management teacher weekIt’s teacher appreciation week. It’s also “National Watch Your Procrastination Finally Catch Up With You Week: (um…I mean finals week) for many college students out there. In honor of both of those occasions, I offer this blog to the teachers and students out there. Yes, teachers feel the end-of-semester crunch just like the students do.

1. Don’t check out. Not yet.

The end is so close, you can almost taste summer, but don’t let yourself lose focus yet. Time management is just as much about mental focus as it is about dates on a calendar. Keep yourself in “school mode” just a little bit longer.

2. Keep Calm

When everyone around you is stressed, it’s easy to get swept up in the frenzy and FIND things to stress about. Remember- half the stress of getting it all done comes from worrying about getting it all done. Keep calm, make a plan of attack, and methodically work through it.

3. Write yourself a note

If you let procrastination get the best of you this semester, capture the panic you feel right now in a letter to yourself for next year. In the beginning of the school year it’s easy to procrastinate because you quickly forget how awful the end of the semester was. Write down specific things you want to do next semester to make it better while the experience is fresh in your mind.

For example, here is mine: (I teach a few college classes. Didn’t I say teachers can be procrastinators too?)

Dear Emily,

Remember how annoyed you were at the end of last semester? You saved all that grading until the last minute. Sure, you had a ton of students, and a ton of final projects, but you knew that going in and could have planned accordingly. The online grade book will probably go down, and students will have questions about their grades. Remember? Remember how that always happens? Next semester, take care of all grades in your inbox before finals week, so you’ll only be dealing with final projects, instead of a smattering of work from the whole semester also.

Sincerely, Emily

P.S. Step 4-

Read The Time Diet: Time Management for College Survival before next semester. It’ll change your (academic) life! Available in print and e-book on

Time Management Book for Students

Time Management Book for Students

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