What feels better than a day in which all of your to-dos are crossed off the list?
The rare experience of “getting it all done” is empowering, thrilling, and deeply satisfying on all levels. But for every day that we master time, we undoubtedly log twice as many days in which we feel the pressure of deadlines, standing commitments, confused priorities, and constant distractions that leave us overwhelmed and ineffective.
So what can be done about it?
First, you must understand: how you spend your time depends entirely on how you relate to it on a personal and philosophical level.
You may not know it yet, but the theories and misconceptions you have about time show up in your days like booby traps, clamping you down and keeping you stuck, frustrated, and unproductive. Here are some common time management misconceptions; see if you can’t spot your own version:
Booby Trap #1: “This will only take a minute.”
We sit down to write an email, or pay a bill, or sort through the mail, and suddenly an hour and a half has gone by. Why do we persist in misjudging how long something will take? Maybe because we wish it were different. Regardless, wishing it does not make it so; it only prolongs the acceptance of reality.
Try This Instead: Set a timer for everything you plan to do, and stop when the timer goes off (think “pencils down” in an exam). Get used to working within the truth about what can get done in, say, a 30 minute increment. If you stick to this, very quickly you will learn how to plan and set expectations realistically. As a bonus, you will become more efficient and focused, because deadlines just have a way of making that happen, no matter what! As an added bonus, your confidence will increase because you will impress yourself by how quickly you can actually work and how much you can get done when you set your mind to it.
Booby Trap # 2: “I have to say yes.”
Another big mistake we make with time is thinking we have to say “yes” to others. We even think we know what will happen if we don’t: I’ll get fired, my husband will hold it against me, my kids will feel unloved. Take a minute and think of all the interruptions you had today. Other people asked you to do something and you replaced what you thought was important in order to “please them.”
Here’s a fact: these sacrifices eventually catch up to you in one way or another. An overworked employee eventually makes a big mistake. A stressed out parent finally succumbs to a breakdown in front of the kids. Or, most sadly, a health crisis shows up at the door of the “do-gooder” who constantly neglects their own self-care to accommodate the needs of others. Saying “yes” to everything is insincere, unsustainable, and unhealthy, and does more than just waste your time.
Try This Instead: Schedule your day purposefully, before your day begins, starting with all the most important things: sleep, meals, exercise, critical work or family objectives, and then you fill in the rest, making sure everything that is important to you is somewhere in your daily plan and with a time slot in your calendar. Is there time left over? If so, you can then say yes to OTHER people’s requests, but only if time is available or you are making a (rare) conscious decision to forgo something in honor of something else you consciously believe to be more important, like an unexpected surprise guest or a golden opportunity.
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Booby Trap # 3: “If I structure too much, I’ll lose my spontaneity.”
You might be thinking that such precise planning sounds tedious, limiting, and intimidating. That’s NOT TRUE, but you won’t know this until you try. I have found that in 99% of my clients, resistance to structure and planning is just your inner “chicken” and/or “brat” talking, NOT actual truth or good thinking. The truth is this: when you have a plan, you feel relaxed. When you don’t have a plan, you feel overwhelmed.
The best part is that even with a daily, structured plan, you can plan for spontaneity too. That way, you’ll feel a lot freer and happier when it’s “go with the flow” time because you know you’re not checking out, avoiding or jeopardizing something important. My personal day plan often includes “1 hour for putzing around the house doing random activities”. Since it’s on the schedule, I know I won’t be doing it during a time when I should be working, exercising, or spending time with my kids.
There isn’t a cookie cutter answer for how much pre-planning you need, or how much sleep, or how much time with your spouse or your kid so that you feel connected. That’s the artistic and creative part of dealing with your relationship to time: you get to experiment and see.
Try This Instead: Fear of structure allows you to blow off the things you say you want to do. Try this for just two weeks: schedule your day entirely, hour by hour, and include “unplanned time” in your schedule. After each day, debrief what worked and didn’t work and what structures you want to keep. Tip: You’ll have to schedule the assessment time. Tip: You have to TRY this before you vote on it. You simply cannot know what structures help until you’ve tested them for two weeks.
Time is everything. All the choices you make about how to spend your time add up to the kind of life you have and how you feel about it, every day. Your relationship to time is one of your most important relationships and should therefore be nurtured, respected, and cherished like any other important relationship in your life.