Leap Day: Time to Think About “Unscheduled” Time

January 26, 2016 BY Kira Wright, CCC-SLP

clockIt’s a leap year. We take a whole extra day in February to put our calendar back in synch with planetary motion. Now, technically, most of us will go on with our schedule and February 29 will be a Monday with the same agenda and requirements as other Mondays. But it does give us a chance to think about time and how we use it.

School-based speech/language folks have all kinds of demands on their time. Tasks are added to our to-do lists by teachers, administrators, and parents, not to mention our more routine tasks like planning therapy and making materials!  Looking at a typical weekly schedule, much of my time is usually scheduled out, like the times I see students or attend meetings.  The more interesting times – the times I really have to guard and cherish – are the unscheduled, “discretionary” time blocks. At some worksites, they have been labeled on my schedule as “testing” or “paperwork”. At other sites, especially if I am supervising SLPAs, I might have chunks of time for “consult” or “lessonScreen Shot 2016-01-30 at 4.22.12 PM planning”. If I haven’t put some effort into planning and priming my task list, those chunks of time are easy to waste — not really churning through any productive tasks, that sinking feeling afterwards of being unsure of what I actually did.

Here are some tips I keep in mind to be efficient with my time and not feel overwhelmed by all the demands. As a bonus, these skills work just as well for planning out that long weekend, or figuring out how to fit in daily exercise!

1. Set Priorities. On my most poorly planned and inefficient days, I simply do whatever is in front of me. That is whatever email comes in, whichever phone call I answer, or whatever paper is on the top of my desk. But this, inevitably, leaves me feeling disappointed with what I’ve accomplished at the end of the day, and frustrated with a to-do list that hasn’t shrunk. If I know before I start the day what is most important to accomplish, I have already greatly improved my odds of completing it. This works for daily, weekly, or even monthly work-plans. Knowing at the beginning of the week that I have a list of teachers to check in with allows me to pick a day/time when staff is most likely to be available, and minimize the time I spend leaving notes in empty classrooms when teachers have already left. If I know I have 4 evaluations to complete this month, I may choose to spread them evenly over the month, or pick the week when I have more flexibility.

The hardest part about setting priorities is acknowledging that some tasks are, in fact, more urgent than others, that there is a possibility that some things won’t get done today. As much as I want to laminate the new activity I made or research the software a parent told me about, I may have to wait on those tasks because other deadlines are less flexible. I find it comforting to remind myself that by considering and setting my priorities in advance, I am in control and aware of the tasks that may not get done. If those things don’t get done this week, at least they are on my list, and I might prioritize them differently next week. And, of course, I am more able to take the necessary steps to manage any negative consequences (e.g. delegate? let someone know I’m going to need more time? simplify what I expect of myself?).

2. Commit the Time. Make Appointments with Myself. Once I have an idea of what is most important to accomplish, I make an estimate of how much time each task will take, and schedule appointments with myself in whatever available slots I have during the day. I feel empowered by actually making the estimate that a phone call will take me 10 minutes.   Even though I may have been putting it off, needing to find only a 10-minute slot in my day makes it feel much more manageable. For this part of my scheduling routine, I learned a lot from Marydee Sklar‘s Seeing My Time training, and I use digital to-do lists like OmniFocus and Taasky.

2a. Adjust. I don’t know about you, but I am often not so accurate when I am estimating how long a given task will take me. It could go either way, but usually I underestimate larger projects, like completing paperwork, transcribing and analyzing language samples, and writing reports. This means that I have to make adjustments throughout my day, actually moving and shifting my appointments with myself as I finish (or don’t finish) my tasks in the allotted time. (P.S. This is a great skill to model for kids, because not everything goes the way you think it will, even if you’re a grown-up SLP!)

3. Plan My Next Steps. I struggle to maintain this routine, but I do best when I set aside time to plan for the next day/week/month. Some people like to use the last 10 minutes of the day to plan for the next day, leaving themselves notes and stacks on their desks for their future self. Others like to make sure they have 10 minutes before their day really starts to prep their list and make arrangements for their time. Personally, I like doing it at the end of my day, so I can move forward the things I didn’t get to, readjust my time estimates to be more accurate, and celebrate my accomplishments.

This was a therapeutic post for me to write. It helped me review my process and remember the things that work well for me. But now I need to shift my tasks around, because I severely underestimated how long it would take! How do you manage the craziness? Do you have tips to share?