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Here we explore five key practical approaches to effective time management in a medical setting.
A wealth of time management advice and guidance is available in the form of self help books and online material, each comprising a mind boggling array of models and methods.
Effective time management has as much to do with psychology as it has with tangible methods. Only when you have set your goals, and your motivation is running high, will you be able to start to organise yourself, and the most efficient way of doing this is to work on a week by week basis.
Alternatively, is it a task that can be done only by you, is very important, but does not have to be done today? Some items on your list will be urgent but are not all that important to you in the context of your work. Finally, there may be tasks on your to do list which are not important in the context of your objectives and neither are they urgent.
Medical professionals who spend every day reacting to unexpected events and generally fire fighting one crisis after another lead highly stressed lives and do not necessarily have a healthy work-life balance.
Once you have identified the priority number 1 items on your list, you must look at your diary for the coming week (if you don’t use a diary, get one). When you are new to effective time management, estimate how long you think a task will take and then schedule double the time.
If you cultivate this habit of scheduling sufficient time in your diary for tasks on a weekly basis, you will soon eliminate priority number 1 tasks, as you will no longer be putting things off until the last minute. Regardless of what you are doing, you will always be interrupted, and you will always have to deal with unexpected events. If you prefer to leave things to the last minute, because the task is overwhelming, break it down into bite size chunks that can be scheduled over a period of time.
To manage your activities efficiently and consistently, you must delegate any priority number 3 tasks and temporarily ignore priority number 4 activities altogether. Your time is precious, and effective use of it will improve your work-life balance immensely. When people understand that you are being truthful, they will value your help all the more when you can give it and they will respect your honesty when sometimes you have to say no to helping them out.

Competing interests: SC is author of Effective Time Management Skills for Doctors, published by BPP Learning Media, of which MG is medical publishing director.
In simple terms, you must be highly motivated to maintain an organised approach to your work, when faced with endless pressures, time constraints, information overload from emails and telephone calls, interruptions, and unexpected crises. They won’t help you achieve your work or personal objectives, and yet somehow you have ended up agreeing to take them on. These “priority number 4” activities usually help individuals unwind and relax, providing a welcome break from the crisis fuelled existence of priority number 1 tasks.
By following the steps above to order your priorities and ensure that you plan activities to unwind, you will begin to move towards a more balanced work-life relationship. A good habit to get into is to set aside half an hour each week (preferably a Sunday evening) to schedule time in your diary to complete these tasks and in doing so plan effectively for the week ahead. Now you can start to focus on your priority number 2 tasks, which should be the largest number of tasks on your list. When the time comes to get on with your task, ignore the ringing telephone (except if you are on call, of course), set your email inbox to offline, and politely tell those who knock on your door to discuss something that is not an emergency that you are busy and arrange a time that is convenient for you to speak. That way you are making consistent progress each week and will avoid missing an important deadline. Most people who struggle to manage their time in the first place will not wish to spare the time to read advice. They may be long term and ambitious, such as becoming the medical director of a trust by the end of 2013, or they may be short term for immediate focus, such as scheduling in enough revision time to pass your approaching exams.
To begin this process, you must have a visual representation of what is spinning around in your head. If it does, then it must be marked as a “number 1 priority” task; you may have a few of these. All items that are important but do not require immediate attention can be scheduled as “number 2 priorities” for completion later in the week or even the month. Usually these “favours” are the result of them being urgent for someone else who has managed their time badly and has come running to you to help them out.
It is also important to note that priority number 4 tasks are the first to be sacrificed in times of poor time management, which can have a negative effect on your wellbeing.

Using an electronic diary that can be synchronised with the diaries of your partner and other family members is a good way to provide a clear picture of your commitments. Do this until you have a more accurate idea of your speed and the complexity of the task (if it is a recurring one). As these are important tasks but do not require immediate action (such as staff appraisals or a presentation for a conference next month), you can schedule them, one at a time, throughout your week. Do not allow your politeness to burden you again with other people’s work, even if it is your senior colleague who is asking. Whatever your goal, make sure it is one that gets you excited and energised and remotivated every time you think about it.
If you have agreed to do the task, then you must honour that, but mark these tasks as “number 3 priorities.” If they are not important to you, then they can wait. Ensure that all of your regular commitments are in the diary: ward rounds, clinics, meetings, and appointments. If you complete the task in less time than you allocated, congratulations—you have more time than you thought. You need that psychological push to maintain the discipline of scheduling and planning that effective time management requires. Now schedule in your priority number 1 tasks and at least initially forget the other less urgent tasks. Not only do you need the breathing space, but if something unexpected should happen you will have time to deal with it. Most of you will find, perhaps to your surprise, that there are not as many priority number 1 tasks as you had imagined. This leaves you able to manage without feeling stressed and resentful and knowing that you can still complete your own tasks.
This is good news, and you must schedule them in, as they are tasks that are close to their deadline or already late.

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