As school-based occupational therapists, we face days that seem out of our control. Many times, I have felt my time was not my own. So, here are ten tips for busy school-based OTs who, like me, want to take back control of their time and get the most out of each school day.
1. Prioritize your time
Establishing your priorities each day is probably the top tip I can give you. There will always be “fires” that pop up during the school day; however, prioritizing your day will help you to get more accomplished.
I try to set time on Friday afternoons to set my priorities for the upcoming week. I tend to prioritize IEP meetings (these tend to be non-negotiable) and schedule around those meetings. Going through this list of meetings on Friday and then again briefly Monday morning helps to keep me on track.
I also prefer to prioritize the most difficult phone calls and tasks for early in the morning and earlier in the week. This leads to less worry later and helps me feel accomplished. Feeling accomplished early in the day can build momentum for a better day or week. If you find that you are a worrier, try to get all difficult conversations and tasks completed early in the day/week versus procrastinating. It'll make the rest of the week so much better.
2. Learn to Say “No”
This is a difficult one for me. I tend to say “yes” to everything. As OTs we want help with everything and everyone. However, there are times it may be better to say "No". I tend to think that if the quality of my work is going to suffer from saying "yes", then I should say "No" or "not yet".
Your boss comes into the office and asks you to prepare an inservice or training for teachers on short notice. Do you automatically say “yes” and disregard the growing stack of assessments on your desk? Do you stop and talk to every teacher, parent, or principal who wants your opinion? I have been guilty of this and my time with students and evaluations has suffered because of it at times.
If you're having difficulty with saying "No" that might be where your time is going. If someone stops you for a chat next time let them know you don't have time to talk, but that they can send you a quick email. Doing this often enough will help others value your time too and people will start emailing you versus stopping you whenever they see you. Others will not respect your time if you don't respect your own time.
3. Write a Daily To Do List
Although the daily list of "To Dos" seems ongoing, write one anyway. Write one each day. Make sure that the things that are on your list are easily actionable and can be taken care of in as few steps as possible.
If the task is too big to complete within a short time frame you may need to break it down into increments to be completed over multiple days so that your weekly priorities and monthly priorities can be completed. Think of your students who have difficulty with planning skills. When there is too much to complete in one short span of attention you will shut down and be more likely to not get it done. If you have that same item show up everyday or week to week, then it is time to break that down into short simple actionable steps you can complete in a day.
Instead of adding "Assess Johnny" to your Monday's to do list, list out the steps that you can get done today in the time you have. This will help you see how much work you are really doing.
Call Johnny's parents for student background
Review student file
Give questionnaire to teacher
The formal assessments and write up can hopefully wait until tuesday or another day when you've planned out your time.
4. Declutter your Workspace
This is a never ending battle for me. The clutter builds and then I feel overwhelmed. Taking the time each week to “DeClutter” helps to keep my mind and desk clear to focus on the work that needs done first. Working in a cluttered environment can be time consuming as it is distracting and difficult to find the things you need.
I also have noticed that when my time seems unmanageable, my workspace also begins to look unmanaged. Getting organized helps with the clarity I need for prioritizing, relieves anxiety, and increases my focus to get things done more quickly.
5. Keep a Daily Planner
I like to keep a planner to write things down in. A simple planner helps me to keep track of all the little things that occur in one day. I write down quick notes such as teachers or parents I have talked to, students have worked with, meetings held, any missed visits, and priorities I have completed or need to complete. This way at the end of the day I can go back and look to see where my time has gone, what I’ve accomplished, and where and why I feel like I ran out of time.
6. Celebrate Wins Every Day
I think this is key to reinforcing great time management! Keeping track of the little wins, as well as those things you are grateful for each day helps to keep your motivation going. When you see the hard work you’ve put in, you can get up and do it again the next day.
And it doesn't always have to be your win. It could be a win your student had or a win a teacher had because of something you shared with them.
Keeping track of your student wins or those things your grateful for at work will help you to keep a positive outlook and look for solutions particularly on days that are difficult.
7. Schedule Time for Paperwork
Schedule time in the office for paperwork! Try to schedule this time on non-IEP meeting days if possible, and for a time of day you’re most productive. I am a morning person. So my paperwork time needs to be completed in the mornings because by the afternoon I am not as motivated or focused. Recognize what time of day you are most productive and do some paperwork during that time. Try hard to protect this time because record keeping is very important for school-based OTs.
8. Schedule Email Check/Response Times
This is very important! It is a simple strategy to help you protect your time and helps with planning. I recommend checking email only two times a day during your work day. One time close to lunch and one time at the very end of your day.
Check your email only after you have completed the most difficult tasks on your "To Do" list. This will help you to cut down on your distractions and keep you focused on the essential functions of your job.
This is a difficult habit to get into if you’re anxious like I am. The worry I felt trying this technique initially was extremely uncomfortable; however the worry will subside the longer you practice this habit. Likewise, others will begin to change their expectations of you so that you can control your time.
9. Leave Your Phone in Your Bag
Do this! Leave your phone in your bag during treatment and during meetings. I find this to be extremely difficult; however, checking your phone can become a distraction from the time you need to be spending with students, staff or completing documentation. Cultivating the awareness of the amount of times you check your phone during the day can be jaring when you look at how time consuming your phone can be.
10. Document as You Go, if Possible
As much as you can, try to complete your notes as you work with the students/groups. I have begun taking my laptop into meetings in order to update treatment plans and update my COTA during the IEP meeting via email with what happened right in the moment. Documenting when things are fresh will lead you to more accurate record keeping and not allow notes to pile up for the end of the week.
Hopefully these tips can help you feel more in control of your time. Do you do something different that helps you? Let me know what it is you do in order to keep your time yours during the school day and any tips or tricks you’ve found beneficial to your time management skills please include them in the comments below!
Until next time!