Getting Your Inbox to “0” – A Guide on Time Management for New Professionals

As new professionals, managing our time is probably one of the biggest challenges we face. Our inbox is constantly flooded with emails from panicking students and meeting requests from our colleagues. Our calendar is jam packed with colored blocks indicating our upcoming events, appointments and meetings and looks more like a sick and twisted version of tetris. Every time I look at it, I lament the lack of empty white spaces that represent a reprieve from my neverending to do list. I realized early on that the only way I was going to save myself from burnout was to get a handle on my schedule asap! Now, after a few years working in higher education, first as a graduate assistant and now as a full-time academic advisor, I do feel like I have found my groove. Here are 7 hard and fast rules I live by in order to retain my sanity.

1) Start every day with a to-do list

Ever tried to juggle your tasks and prioritize them all in your head? How many things did you forget to do? Ya, I figured. Start each day with a to-do list. I like to write out all the tasks I have tumbling around in my head and then sort out what needs to be done today. Once it’s all written out, whether it’s in your agenda or on your computer, your mind will immediately begin to feel clearer and you’ll feel more confident about tackling the day.

2) Answer emails and then put. them. away.

I, like most people, go through my inbox first thing in the morning. Then, I try to answer my emails as they come in during the day. On some days, this is more realistic than on other days. But I’m usually able to find a few minutes between meetings to send out some quick replies. Now, once you have sent the reply and thereby completed the conversation (regardless if you are expecting a reply or not), file the email into a folder. Don’t just leave it sitting in your inbox like the one-week old turkey chili in your fridge that you know is too gross to eat now. By putting them in folders (such as “student emails”, “event reminder”, “useful information”, etc), you’ll be better able to see what emails are done with for now and no longer need your attention. Linda’s email from HR regarding your latest paycheck will no longer get lost in the sea of answered but lingering conversations. Treat your emails like your laundry and neatly fold them away into their respective drawer for when you need them later.

3) Make use of the “snooze” button

Gmail has this handy little icon at the top of each email that looks like a tiny clock. Do yourself a favor and click on it. It will prompt you to select a later time (later that day, that week or custom). Because you know there are just some emails that don’t require your attention right now. Perhaps your boss sent you a reminder about the location of next week’s meeting. Snooze it until the morning of the meeting. Maybe there’s a question you need to ask your colleague who is on vacation until Friday before you can answer the email. Snooze it until they return. The email will go away (into a, you guessed it, snoozed folder) and will pop back up when you need it like freakin’ Mary Poppins.

4) 30 minutes is all it takes

Don’t leave your calendar wide open for people to book you with back-to-back meetings. Give yourself one 30 minute block in the mid morning and mid afternoon. Students can book appointments with me starting at 9am until 12pm and then 1pm until 4pm. I put in a 30 minute block at 10.30am and 2pm to avoid more than 3 back-to-back meetings. This way, I can play catch up if needed (say, if a student meeting runs over) and I’m not burned out before I can eat my butternut squash soup for lunch.

5) Block off time for bigger projects

There are various points in the semester when we advisors have bigger or more time consuming projects we need to work on. For example, now is the time to reach out to students who have not registered for classes as part of our retention efforts. This means phone calls and a lot of them. To avoid having to take work home (which, never do that!), block off an additional hour in your week to complete these bigger tasks. If you get easily distracted, close your office door while you do it. You’re not a department store window during the holidays and as such don’t need to be on display 24/7.

6) Don’t wait to take notes

Don’t wait until the end of the day, or worse, until the next day, to put in meeting notes from your student appointments. Not only will you just be adding more to your to-do list for the next day, your notes will be incomplete because guaranteed you’ll forget at least some of what you talked about. Put your notes in immediately following the meeting. And I can already hear the “Buts”! But what if I have back-to-back meetings and I’m already running behind? Great question! That’s where that 30 minute block of admin time can come in handy. Take 2 minutes (your next appointment can stand to wait those 2 additional minutes), finish your notes and then use the 30 minute admin block to catch up. Alternatively, put in your notes during that admin block.

7) Leave 1 hour at the end of each day

If you allow meetings and appointments to run up until the minute before you leave for the day, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Yes, I understand that sometimes that will not be avoidable. However, for the majority of the time, the last hour of your work day should be blocked off. This is prime decompressing and reflecting time before you begin your commute home. Answer any left-over emails. Assess your to-do list from the morning – check off what you accomplished and relegate anything you didn’t to the next day. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done and go home!

Um, hey you! Yes, you with the work laptop in your bag. Put it back in your office. Leave your office. Lock your office door. And walk away slowly. It’s a work laptop for a reason. Because you only use it at work and not at home!

At this point in my professional career, I don’t often get flustered or feel stressed at work. This is because I have set boundaries and rules for myself that I follow strictly. Not only are they a part of my self-care routine, they are also a part of my professional development because I thereby grant myself the opportunities to produce high quality work. What do you think of my 7 rules? What are your time management strategies? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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