Most of us at some point or another have struggled with time management. Whether it is finding more time to spend with your children, or just finding the time to exercise, time management can be a major challenge. But the benefits are potentially huge. When I first started graduate school I had trouble scheduling classes, work, research, exercise, and social activities. Fortunately, I was introduced to some effective techniques, derived from the principles of applied behavior analysis, designed to help people systematically manage their own behavior, known as self-management (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). The self-management process at its core is about taking data on your own behavior and setting up systems to manage your own performance. Individuals have used self-management to address a wide variety of challenges, from reducing smoking and managing spending, to better utilizing their billable hours and managing medication use. Additionally, self-management techniques have been used by individuals with a wide range of developmental and cognitive abilities (Cooper et al., 2007), and have been shown to be effective in increasing an array of positive behavioral skills in individuals with autism (Lee, Simpson, & Shogren, 2007).
While I find a specific tool like the Self Management Planner useful in coordinating my own efforts at self-management, the components of a good self-management program can be incorporated into many different types of tools or systems. These components are very similar to those that you may see in effective applied behavior analysis or performance management programs (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968; Daniels & Bailey, 2014). At its most basic level this process involves specifically identifying important goals and related behaviors, measuring progress, determining how to affect those behaviors and reach your goals, and evaluating and modifying your program as necessary (Cooper et al., 2007). While Cooper et al. (2007) present a wide range of self-management tactics, here are a few specific suggestions for making your self-management program more effective:
- Define your goals and the related behaviors. Creating a goal is a very important part of this process, as specific goals have been repeatedly shown to be more effective than vague goals (Locke & Latham, 2013). By identifying what you ultimately want to accomplish in the future it becomes much easier to identify things you can do today to get you there. Here are some specific tips for setting your goals:
- Set a long term goal in terms of an accomplishment, not an activity (e.g. “save $5,000 for a vacation” rather than “spend less money”).
- Make these long-term goal challenging yet attainable.
- Set many short term goals, and direct these towards behaviors and results.
- Make these short-term goals realistic – err on the side of making them too easy.
- Make both short-term and long-term goals as specific as you possibly can.
- Use your short-term and long-term goals to identify day to day behaviors that will allow you to reach your goal.
- When you are selecting the goals that you want to focus on, pick only a few at any given time. It is reasonable to focus on around 4-6 goals at a time, too many and it becomes easy to lose focus – if everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority.
- Identify measures. Tracking and measuring your progress is critical, and a large part of that involves clearly defining how you will measure the goals and behaviors you identified. For example, if you want to reach a set of parent training goals will you measure it in time spent working on that goal, milestones accomplished, appraisal from a clinical supervisor, or some other means? The more objective and countable, the better.
- Change the behavior of interest. There are a number of ways to try and change your behavior. Often times, simply measuring behavior can produce change. If that is not enough, enlist the help of a friend to help you set and track your goals, keep you accountable, and deliver consequences. You can use Facebook or some other social media tool to make a public commitment and regularly post on how you are progressing. Paid programs such as Stickk can help you to track and measure your progress towards a goal. It is also possible to rearrange your environment in a way that makes the desired behavior more likely, B.F. Skinner wrote extensively on this in this in Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self-Management (Skinner & Vaughan, 1983).
- Track and measure. Record data on your progress every day, or at least several times per week. Frequently tracking your performance will also serve as a regular source of feedback, which can by itself change behavior.
- Evaluate and modify your program. Taking frequent data will also allow you to make much more informed decisions about the effectiveness of your program. When recording your data spend some time evaluating your self-management program. Determine whether the goals you have set are realistic, you have enough time in your week to accomplish what you want, your environment is set up to help or hinder your progress, etc. This step is a lot easier to do if you are frequently taking data. If you are not making the progress you want (or aren’t even able to track your progress!) that means something needs to change. Reflect on what has been done thus far and consider other changes you could make that will lead to greater success.
Here are a few other points that are not specifically part of the self-management process, but may help you in your efforts:
- Before you go to bed, make a list of the things you need to do tomorrow. Keep that list next to your bed, so you can jot down a task you think of in bed, rather than fixating on it.
- Consider whether there are tasks that you do better at different times in the day. For example, I find that I do my heavy mental activities best in the morning, and try not to schedule anything too mentally demanding during the post-lunch lull.
- Honestly appraise how well you respond to prompts and lists. For some, having a to-do list can control a lot of behavior, for others it is not nearly so effective. If you find that you don’t respond well to to-do lists, no amount of listing and planning is going to change your behavior. You may find that you need to recruit a friend to help in your program.
- Schedule in some breaks. Most of us cannot tackle tasks back to back to back all day at the energy level needed. Even if it is 10 or 15 minutes, plan in some time during the day to take a quick break. You may find that this has the effect of making your time on task much more effective.
- Avoid multi-tasking with important activities at all costs. The act of shifting your focus from one activity to another can take up more time than you expect, and eliminate any perceived efficiency from doing two things at once.
Self-management is no easy task, but the benefits can make the effort well worth it, not just for you, but for those you work with as well.
WRITTEN BY DANIEL SUNDBERG
Daniel Sundberg is the founder of Self Management Solutions, an organization that operates on the idea of helping people better manage their time. Towards this end, he created the Self Management Planner, which is based on an earlier edition created by Mark Sundberg in the 1970s. Daniel is currently a PhD candidate and continues his work helping individuals and organizations better themselves.