3 Tips for “Getting Things Done” in Your Financial Aid Office

Melissa Maichle .

This time of year can be completely overwhelming for college administrators. All at once you’re likely to be working with internal auditors, supporting summer registration, processing loans and late aid applications for fall, and on top of that fall invoices have been sent, which means the phones are ringing off the hook and the emails are stacking up in your inbox. These are the times when although we feel like we’ve been running at full speed all day, it seems like nothing got done. And chances are nothing has – we have a mountain of half-completed tasks, but nothing to check off our to-do list. With his Getting Things Done methodology, David Allen offers suggestions to fit any work style in order to become a more productive and far less stressed person.

We are constantly bombarded by inputs:  emails and IMs, phone calls, paper documents. Some things need to be acted on immediately while others can be delayed or even just filed away for future reference. The challenge is acting on the input at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. As each new input arrives, it stays at the forefront of our minds…until the next one is received. So, when you were watching TV last night and a car commercial came on, you remembered that you need an oil change – but the garage is closed this late. By the time the next morning rolls around, there’s been so many new inputs that the oil change falls off your plate until something else sparks your memory of it. Allen recommends a process of evaluating all the various inputs as they are received, deciding what to do with each (do it, schedule it or file it for future reference), and then scheduling a time to do the things deferred to the future when you can devote sufficient time and focus to completing them.

The ‘do it’ and ‘file it’ options are pretty easy to manage, but the ‘schedule it’ can be a challenge. Leaving work in your email inbox is not an effective way of ‘scheduling’ deferred work because there’s no useful way to prioritize it and inputs from other sources need to be stored somewhere else. If you’re a to-do list person, you may feel more comfortable writing things down – and as long as you have a way to prioritize and remind you this will work well. Or you can make use of the calendar/task functionality of your email client. The point is, once you schedule it, you have something to remind you to do it when the time comes. Using our oil change example, instead of trying to remember to call the garage tomorrow morning, pull out your phone and put a reminder in your calendar for a time the shop is open. Then forget about it until you get that reminder.

Now that we’ve met the ‘scheduling’ challenge, we need to face the ‘doing’ challenge. Your boss asked for a report by the end of the day on Friday that in your evaluation will need about two hours to prepare. You look at your calendar and see you have that chunk of time available on Wednesday afternoon – so you create your reminder and move on to other work. It’s Wednesday afternoon and you have a new meeting scheduled – okay, no problem, you’ll work on the report after. You get back to your desk and see your voice mail light flashing; you’re picking up your messages when you get an IM from the front desk that a student is asking for you. In no time, it’s 5:00 p.m. and you still haven’t started that report! This is because you selected a time to do it rather than scheduling the time to do it. A more effective way is to block off the time on your calendar so no one can take over the time you’ve set aside and then turn off all the other inputs that might distract you. Then you can truly focus on the task at hand. In fact, it works well to ‘schedule’ all work in some way so you can focus on one thing at a time. This includes time to return phone calls, time to respond to email and most importantly, time to evaluate and re-prioritize upcoming tasks as needed. 

Although many job postings request applicants who have the ability to multi-task, what employers really want is people who effectively prioritize assignments in order to deliver high quality and timely work. In our Wednesday afternoon report example, let’s say the meeting is a conference call. You could probably get away with working on your report while participating on the call, but you are not really giving either your full attention. Knowing how to prioritize is critical so that you don’t over-promise and knowing when you can negotiate deadlines will also help you when these situations arise – after all, there’s only so many hours in a day. After losing your Wednesday afternoon window to complete the report your boss requested, you consult your calendar and find it is full. Just when you’re about to start bowing out of meetings, you realize your boss won’t be doing anything with the report between the end of the day on Friday and the beginning of the day on Monday, so you can negotiate the deadline to be Monday by 10:00 a.m., which gives you the extra time you need and your boss will still have the report when she needs it. An important point to stress here is people often don’t tell us when they need the requested work done, we just assume ASAP – so, it is up to you to create a realistic expectation based on your schedule and your workload.

Finally, this is not a ‘once a day’ activity. Once you’ve completed a task, review your to-do list and re-prioritize as necessary. The additional time you invest in organizing your tasks will pay huge dividends when you are always able to deliver high quality, timely work.

How We Can Help

While knowing how to prioritize and “get things done” will go a long way towards keeping you on track and meeting deadlines, sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day or week to do it all. The Higher Education Assistance Group is here to assist you through the busiest times in your financial aid office. Whether you need a temporary staff member or someone with expertise in Title IV compliance, file review and verification, or office evaluations, procedures and training, we can help. Please contact us at info@heag.us. We will assist with analyzing your needs and can arrange for knowledgeable and experienced consultants to help address your specific situation. 

Reference:  https://gettingthingsdone.com/what-is-gtd/ and real life