Time and I have always had a rather difficult relationship.
I know I am not alone. In fact, most of us are time impoverished instead of time affluent. Our world believes that time is money, and teaches us to choose money over time at every turn. The irony is, the additional money we either save or earn rarely matches the true value of our time, leaving us feeling stressed, overwhelmed and unhappy. Time management techniques can’t solve that rather large problem, no matter how effective they are.
Like many of you, I’ve tried just about everything to manage my time, from the Pomodoro Technique, to Time Blocking, the Eisenhower Matrix, and countless other approaches. They all have real merit, and if you have never tried any of them, I am not here to dissuade you. Some worked okay. Just don’t ever mention Getting Things Done to me (or my poor team that had to witness the manic behaviors it created in me!)
What I have come to believe about time management is this: there’s really no such thing. It’s a pipe dream based on the idea that at some point we will eventually “get ahead of it all.” New tasks and priorities are always coming at us. No time management approach can change that. We envision that by managing our time better we will create more work/life balance, and spend free time doing what we really love to do. Unfortunately, the research doesn’t support this fantasy. It clearly shows that we ultimately fill any time we actually do manage to create with even more unending activities, as well as distractions.
I suggest that we take a very different approach. Instead of trying to “manage it” to our misguided expectations, I have found we can work with it, for greater productivity and a deeper satisfaction than any mere time management technique could ever provide. Here are the top 10 ways I have found to work with time, and build the relationship with it I craved:
1. Find, Fund or Reframe. The biggest challenge we have with time management is we believe our issue is we are missing the “magic solution” which will make us more efficient and productive. While all the approaches available can make incremental impact on our time efficiencies, they do nothing to help us create more time for ourselves.
There are three places more time exists. One is finding it where it is hiding (in our commute, where we could think strategically, or listen to favorite music, for instance, or the time we are spending scrolling on our phones, instead of enjoying a meal with friends.)
Another place time can be created is to fund more time by delegating or automating activities we dread, or take time away from activities that actually improve our lives.
The last place to create time is by reframing our perspective on the time we spend already. Being fully present in your daily exercise, or time with family, rather than measuring the minutes or multitasking on our phones, etc. actually opens us up to feeling less stressed and more effective. The rest of this list are some of the ways I have found to reframe time, creating more time for myself in the process.
2. Set Intentions For The Day. We have been taught to focus on what we will do during any given 24-hour period. I found focusing instead on how I will be, and the energy I will embody has a greater impact on my productivity than any other motivating factor. I limit it to three intentions, which are things such as: Create meaningful conversations, learn something new, be a voice of reason. Then at the end of the day, I review how well I embodies the intentions throughout the day, and whether I chose well.
3. Create an Infinite To-Do List. My to-do lists are designed to work with how our brains are wired. They are always written, never typed, or digitally notated. And as much as possible, I write them at the end of each day, as a mental ritual to clear out residual information and ensure nothing is left hanging.
If I make progress on, or complete, an item during the day, I put that endorphin-inducing check mark next to it. Whoo-hoo! However, if I don’t, I either put an “X” next to it, because I have decided it really doesn’t need to get done, or an arrow, indicating add to the next day’s list. I still get the endorphin hit from making those marks, and making a decision about the action always counts as progress.
4. Review Daily Priorities. There are life priorities, and then there are day-to-day priorities, which can vary. If I don’t know what my priorities are, it is far too easy to get sidetracked by any number of competing agendas and opportunities. I decide what is a non-negotiable for each day. Is it income-generation? Self-care? Strategy, visioning and planning? Whatever priority must be met for the day, I let non-priorities sit idle. I am free to set a new priority the next day. Usually I find it is true that what seems so dire in my inbox is actually that important, or that what is truly important ever becomes dire, when run through this priorities filter daily.
5. Say No. If you are like me, you love to “do all the things.” FOMO isn’t just real—it’s a lifestyle. What I find, however, if something is really worth pursuing, it will show up at the right time, when it isn’t cannibalizing something else equally important. Otherwise, chasing something just because it seems to have potential is a distraction, and undermines whatever I have already committed to. I have grudgingly learned to set default responses to certain kinds of requests that cause stress or I don’t think I comfortably have time for.
6. Ask For More Time. It blows my mind how simple asking for more time can be. This isn’t always true, but if you don’t ask, the answer will assuredly be no. If you notice, many tasks do not have hard deadlines, besides the one in our head. Also, sometimes clients and bosses ask us to do things that compete with one another. A variation on this tip is asking, “Which one would you like me to tackle first?” An interesting side effect of this is that often, the time extension provides benefit to everyone involved, new insights have a chance to be brought forth, and the end result is better.
7. Master the Art of the Tradeoff. It might seem obvious, but for everything I choose to spend time on there are infinitely more things I am choosing not to do in that moment. We are constantly choosing, and for the most part, unconsciously, or at least only semi-consciously. When I learned to pause in between each activity, note my intentions, priorities, and scan my to-do list, I then could choose consciously the next right thing without any regret for the tradeoff I made and the things undone.
8. Pause. There are times when any of us can get overstimulated. From deadlines, to endless meetings, travel, digital distractions, and all of life’s challenges—we are all susceptible to losing our focus and intentionality at any time. There are definite physical sensations and behaviors that come with this—from shallow breathing, to inability to focus, restlessness, obsessiveness, as well as anxiety and irritability.
With practice I have learned to recognize that shallow breathing and restlessness are two of my early warning signals. I stop whatever I am doing at the earliest possible moment, and step away. All it takes is a few seconds (10 to be precise) of breathing deeply and grounding in my body to be able to return to what I was doing with inner calm and reserves.
9. Check Your Self Care. If I am having a hard time managing time, then odds are fairly good that I have let my self-care slip. I might be getting less than my 7-8 hours of sleep, or a big one for me is not remembering to drink enough water. I check my diet and exercise, and then I look at whether I am allowing myself social, spiritual, creative, and play time. Lastly, and not insignificantly, I have found I simply must allow myself more time and grace if I am dealing with big life changes, illness, grief or trauma. There’s a lot of that going around right now, and to fool ourselves into thinking we can just “power through it” at the same levels of productivity as otherwise, is a set up for disaster.
10. Get Motivated (Sort of). I write about our unconscious biases and hidden assumptions all the time. That’s because they can be one of the biggest obstacles to effective time management. If we are doing something, day after day, that we truly don’t care about, or we are taking on work out of fear that the person whose job it actually is will drop the ball, then the issue really isn’t one of time management. It is an issue of motive.
Time management—or, rather, getting done what we set about to accomplish in a reasonably timely and satisfying way—only comes into play if the activities we are performing have some relevance, meaning and importance to us in the pursuit of our goals and desires.
Acting out of fear, shame, guilt, sheer willpower or under duress, only work for a short time, if they work at all. Do you like your work? Are expectations reasonable and is recognition given for a job well done? Can you see growth? Are you headed in the direction you want to be? These are motive questions, and studies show when the answers are positive, productivity soars.
11. Start Early. Start Right. I have had a morning routine for years that I will not shortchange regardless of what is happening in the coming day. I recently discovered it is almost identical to Hal Elrod’s morning routine in The Miracle Morning. Here are the components of my morning, and you can spend as little as 2-5 minutes doing these and still reap the massive benefits in your productivity and mental/emotional wellbeing:
· Silence. This can be meditation, prayer, reflection, deep breathing or expressions of gratitude; done individually or in combination with other steps.
· Affirmation: Repeating positive statements about oneself in order to create a positive, self-confident attitude.
· Visualization: Using your imagination to create mental pictures of specific outcomes and behaviors that you are hoping to achieve.
· Exercise. Even just a few minutes to get your blood pumping and heart rate elevated. It has so many positive benefits on stress, focus and more.
· Reading. At least 10 pages a day on a topic focused on personal development or inspiration.
· Journaling. Writing each day, whether in a journal, pages of a book or just stream of consciousness..
All ten of these ideas can stand alone to enhance your ability to befriend the time you have. The more you are able to integrate, the more you will be able to approach what is often referred to as being in a “state of flow”.
When I find myself in flow (which is sometimes, and always fleeting) I have almost super-human abilities for accomplishing my day’s activities. A 24-hour day seems to contain twice that amount. I encourage you to try some of these, and share what your experience is like.