Whether you’re starting or returning to university, welcoming in a new academic year can be as daunting as it is exciting. Managing your time effectively is an important factor for success, particularly when studying demanding subjects like medicine and dentistry.
In this blog, fifth-year dental student, Connie Yan, looks at how challenging the way we think about time can help us better master it. Connie also shares some easy-to-follow hints, tips and theories to help you become more effective at juggling and prioritising tasks.
Being a dental student
No university experience quite compares to that of a dental student. As part of your experience, you will be expected to:
- Look after a diverse range of patients and their oral health
- Navigate the dental hospital environment
- Work with members of the wider dental team (including nurses, radiographers and lab technicians)
- Hone your skills in clinical judgment
- Tackle the hands-on nature of the course
- Learn what it takes to transform into a health professional
As dental students, we aren’t just met with assignments, lectures and exams. We also juggle patient care, administration, labs, practical work and more.
And like any other student, we may also have a desire to get involved with extra-curricular activities – whether that be dog walking, joining Acapella or living our 'Dance Moms' dream.
With this potentially chaotic lifestyle, many students with poor time management may face stress and burnout. Time management is a skill that is rarely taught and strategies will vary between individuals – some techniques may be great for some, but not for others.
The first question to consider is, what is your definition of time?
Explore your cultural preference of time
Scarce or plentiful?
Do you view time as scarce? That is, you view time as a limited and highly valuable resource?
Or do you view time as plentiful? That is, you view time as abundant and overflowing?
Robert Levine, an American psychologist, analysed different cultures and their attitudes towards time. He found that more economically developed nations, such as the USA, Germany and Japan, are "fast-paced" – that is, they see time as a valuable and scarce resource. They also agreed with the statement "time is money".
Other cultures, such as the Middle East and Latin America, take a more laidback approach and tend to be more family and socially oriented. However, it may not be that clear-cut. For example, despite Japanese culture placing value on time and punctuality, it is also one that prioritises social relationships.
Monochronic or polychronic?
Do you view time as monochronic or polychronic?
People who take a monochronic approach prefer to concentrate on one task and/or relationship at a time. People who take a polychronic approach prefer to multi-task, as they find simultaneous stimuli desirable.
Monochrons appreciate making plans, sticking to schedules and hitting deadlines. Polychrons have a more flexible attitude to plans, and adjust tasks based on their needs.
Past, present, or future?
A past-oriented perspective views the present as an extension of the past. This approach values reflection and learning from past experiences. Past-oriented cultures tend to focus on tradition and may avoid the risk of introducing changes.
A present-oriented approach focuses on the here-and-now, and places emphasis on short-term rewards.
On the other hand, a future-oriented perspective prefers to delay gratification and sees time as moving towards a desirable vision with long-term benefits.
It can be difficult to figure out which of these perspectives represents your personal cultural preference. You may be on one side of the spectrum for some time, and closer to the other at different times.
If you find yourself reacting negatively to one end of the spectrum, this might provide you with an idea of your predominant viewpoint. For example, someone who adopts a scarce approach may judge a plentiful viewpoint as wasteful or inefficient.
If time is money, how do you spend it?
To answer this question, we need to identify what ‘eats’ away at our time throughout the day. Let’s take a look at decision-making first.
Decision-making: Stuck in the mud
When it comes to decision-making, even the simplest choices can end up wasting a considerable amount of time – for example, which outfit to wear, what to eat for lunch or where to book your next holiday.
There are three stages of decision-making:
- Data gathering
If decisions are taking a long time to make, the chances are you’re spending too long in one of these stages.
You might, for instance, feel like you need all of the information possible before making a decision (data gathering). Although data gathering can help us make an informed decision, it can be quite a time-consuming process.
Perhaps you have all of the information, but you get stuck in the analysis loop. This means you’re unable to effectively weigh up different options.
Or finally, you may have gathered all of the information and analysed the data to a tee, but you fail to make that final jump (conclusion).
In a busy environment – such as a dental practice – it’s important that we don’t rush our decisions. But at the same time, choice paralysis can cost us time, money, and resources.
Procrastination: Is it all bad?
Procrastination is probably a familiar concept for most of us. Sometimes we’re aware of it and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes it makes us feel guilty and sometimes it doesn’t.
Let us consider the other side of the spectrum: motivation. There are three factors that must be satisfied for a person to be motivated:
- The outcome has value
- The action will result in the intended outcome
- You believe in your ability to successfully accomplish the action
If any of the above aren’t satisfied, the chances are you’ll be met with the reason for your procrastination. This theory of motivation is known as the 'expectancy theory'.
Not all procrastination behaviours are negative. In fact, active procrastination has been linked to better, more purposeful use of time and perception of control over time held by the individual.
It may be an intentional decision that procrastination is the most effective use of your time. Perhaps you are a person who has a preference for pressure. This means you are energised by the pressure of the deadline, so you leave an assignment until a few days before its due.
While delaying may be considered a disorganised behaviour by some, it may just be that you have accurately predicted the amount of time a project will take – that is, you have the ability to meet deadlines.
Or perhaps you feel stressed and tense with the time pressure. In this case, completing a project in your own time, well ahead of the deadline, would be a more appropriate action.
Multi-tasking: Talent or time wasting?
When we break down what multi-tasking is, it’s actually just rapid task-switching. This means you rapidly switch your attention from one task to another. The cost of task-switching is small each time, but the cost of repeated task-switching can add up.
In the clinical environment, our attention could be needed from all directions. Examples include the anxious patient who requires reassurance, the nurse who is asking us to fill in a lab ticket or the next patient who is angrily waiting 'too long'.
For many people, the biggest blocker for effective time management is confidence. We may second-guess our decisions or delay submitting a task that has already been completed due to a lack of confidence.
This includes assuming the worst-case scenario when making a decision (catastrophising), drawing certain conclusions without sufficient evidence (jumping to conclusions), or dismissing anything positive.
If the root cause of your anxiety-related checking behaviours is due to this type of thinking, it may be that the strategies to help you work more effectively are quite different to that of other root causes.
Now that you’ve explored the root causes of your challenges with time management, let us consider some strategies for becoming more organised with your time.
Avoid the 'urgency trap'
What is the urgency trap? And why should you avoid it? Surely that which is most urgent deserves our attention first?
This is where Eisenhower’s Urgency-Important Matrix (IUM) comes in handy.
If you’re hyper-independent, it may seem natural to want to do everything yourself. Why entrust someone with a task if you can do it best?
However, this approach will inevitably lead to a buildup of stress. There are few who can complete every task by themselves to a high standard and in good time.
Part of being a leader is learning how to prioritise – in other words, to differentiate between a high-importance task and a low-importance task. It’s also about learning to trust someone else with an urgent task.
Delegation involves identifying, and playing to, peoples’ strengths. As a future dentist, delegation may come in the form of trusting your receptionist to manage a difficult patient in the waiting room, or delegating oral health instructions to a trained nurse.
It’s worth noting that delegation is set to become even more important, especially with the expansion of 'Direct Access' in the NHS.
It is also important to explore any perfectionist tendencies you have. This may be part of the reason you feel unable to delegate tasks. It’s often the case that aiming for 'good enough' rather than 'perfection' takes substantially less effort.
Who is the stakeholder?
If we consider decisions as 'investments', we might see that behind each investment is an enthusiastic stakeholder backing it.
In dentistry, stakeholders include patients, the public, dentists, practice managers, commissioners and policy makers. For example, dentists may be more concerned about professional standards and the technical nuts-and-bolts of procedures. On the other hand, patients may be more concerned about good communication and a pleasant experience.
This is not to say that one perspective is more important than the other, but it does demonstrate the complexity of decision-making. If you find yourself being easily swayed by those around you, it might be useful to consider the validity of those influences and decide which are most important.
The Pomodoro technique is widely used for focused working. First employed by Cirillo in the late 1980s, it uses a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to break up work into 25-minute intervals.
The idea is to avoid working for extended amounts of time to maintain your 'flow'. It has been shown that taking short breaks of 3-5 minutes has been associated with greater room for creativity and forming neural connections between ideas.
The tomato timer has since been superseded by a range of apps and websites.
Do not disturb
In a technology-oriented society, it can be incredibly difficult to switch off. If time is money, human attention is a scarce commodity that is constantly bought and sold.
Sometimes, task-switching in the clinical environment is inevitable. However, it can be reduced by simple techniques, such as knowing when it is appropriate to defer certain tasks or turning off distractions.
Fortunately, phones now show a detailed analysis of our screentime. We might consider turning on 'do not disturb' when we need periods of concentration, or setting daily app limits. Or perhaps we might set our screen to 'grayscale'.
These restrictions won’t work for everyone, but they can be useful to explore.
Daily affirmations have become somewhat of a laughable concept in recent times. However, behind every negative automatic thought is a complex mix of past experience and incorrect assumption about the future.
If you find that confidence is a time-consumer, it may be useful to explore your basic beliefs to figure out why you have so much self-doubt. If every false belief is a study, perhaps the evidence you have gathered is weak or your analysis of that evidence is poor. Or, maybe you’ve simply jumped to the wrong conclusion.