Do more with the time you have: 13 time management tips for harried residents

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By Bethannee, Schlosser, MD, PhD

Dr. Schlosser leads a busy life. She is an assistant professor and director of women’s skin health program in the department of dermatology at Northwestern University. She’s an active member of AAD committees and a noted lecturer at AAD meetings. She is all these things, plus … she can recall a time not so long ago when she was a dermatology resident herself. She completed her residency at Emory in 2007. 

“Make no mistake about it,” she said, “time management is work. It’s also learned behavior, which means that anyone can acquire the necessary skills to maximize their time and productivity.” Dr. Schlosser also has found time in her busy schedule to write articles for AAD publications like this one. Clearly, she must know something about managing her time well. Directions in Residency picked her brain for her best time management tips.

 “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t busy, but things certainly started to snowball during my residency, especially after having my first daughter — and the pace has only sped up since then. I still don’t consider myself an expert in the realm of time management, but I’ve continually worked to improve my efficiency and productivity, trying to get all the ‘must do’s’ out of the way — at home and at work — in order to spend time doing the things I love with the people that I love. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way to try to be my work’s master and not its slave,” Dr. Schlosser added. 


At the end of each year, we all inevitably think: Where did the time go? It seems as though there will never be enough time to get everything done — and this is probably true. The key to success is knowing which tasks must and should be done. The following tips will help you better manage your time so that you have more to show for the time you spend.

1. Give yourself 90 days

You need to be motivated to change, otherwise failure is inevitable. Give yourself 60 to 90 days to solidify changes in your habits. If you fall off the wagon after 30 days, jump up and get right back on without beating yourself up. Time management is hard work and requires both energy and time.

2. Don’t confuse productivity with activity

Simply being busy isn’t enough. Productivity depends on identifying and doing the most important tasks to move your goals forward. It’s possible to be active but have very little to show for it at the end of the day. How many minutes or hours did you spend on social networking today? Every day, your most crucial decision is deciding what is most important to achieving your goals at that moment.

3. Get your priorities straight

Formulating goals requires that you know what you expect of yourself and what others expect of you. You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what you want or where you want to be heading. Take the time to identify your goals for today, this week, this month, your career. Review all of your projects and deadlines once a week. This will keep you focused, on track, and will hopefully eliminate those “Oh no, I forgot” moments.

4. Eat your “frogs”

Mark Twain once advised that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing it’s probably the worst thing that will happen to you all day. In his popular book on overcoming procrastination, author Brian Tracy uses “eating your frogs” as a metaphor for addressing your biggest, most important tasks of the day — those tasks that can have the greatest positive impact on your life at that moment.

Unfortunately, all too often, these are the tasks you are likely to procrastinate on if you don’t “eat them” right away. 

5. Know when you are at your best

There are early risers and night owls. It is essential that you identify when you are at your best. Don’t struggle against your natural energy current. If you study best at 5 a.m., then consciously plan to shut down early at night so that you will have all cylinders firing when you wake early the next morning.

6. Proper planning prevents poor performance

Plan ahead and have everything that you will need for a given task on hand. Stopping to find necessary materials is a bump in the road that can thwart your productivity efforts. You must literally and figuratively remove all distractions. Clear your study space or desk of all unrelated materials. Make a conscious decision to focus intently and solely on the task at hand. Leave the last 30 minutes of each day unscheduled; use this time to clean up your work space and make your next day’s to-do list.

7. Just do it!

The most successful people are those that take action. Once you have singled out your most important and highest yield task, launch right in. Starting a task is often the most ominous part because it requires overcoming inertia. Avoid this time-suck and get started.

8. Be a finisher

Once you have initiated a project or task, discipline yourself to work in a steady and focused manner until that task is complete. Mind games work; make a deal with yourself and allow yourself a small reward after you have met a certain benchmark. Being productive is the runner’s high of both the work and resident world, and productivity perpetuates itself.

9. Purge your mental inbox

Every unfinished task is retained in your brain somewhere. These “open loops” clog your short-term memory and are a source of distraction. When an unfinished task comes to mind, immediately purge it by adding it to a running list. Regularly review the list to remove completed tasks and to reorganize or redistribute. It may be useful to have multiple organized lists: “at home,” “at the computer,” “in the clinic,” etc. Purging your mental inbox will allow you to focus fully on your most important tasks.

10. The two-minute rule

If you can delete, do, or delegate a task in a period of two minutes or less, then just do it. Performing the task removes it from your mental to-do list and allows you to focus on other more important tasks at hand.

11. Touch it once and only once

Ideally, you should handle each task once and only once. The more times you handle an item, the more time and mental energy you are wasting. Completing a task (i.e., finishing charts, sending an important email) when it is freshest in your mind is most efficient.

12. Unsubscribe from the unused, unessential, unhelpful

Sort your mail, and trash all junk mail immediately. Discontinue journals that you don’t read. Unsubscribe from automated email newsletters and notifications. Taking the extra moment now will save you multiple times over in the future.

13. “Done is better than perfect 90 percent of the time” – Matt Kanzler, MD

We have all been schooled to always do our best. It is imperative to recognize though, that sometimes good enough is good enough. Identifying which tasks can be completed in a “good enough” fashion and getting these off your plate will get you to what must be done in a perfectionist manner more quickly and with more energy in tow.

Recommended reading:

1. Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy
2. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen