Much of the “stress” and “work / family” issues people experience comes down to feeling you have no control of how your time is spent; you are unable to spend your life-energy in alignment with your life priorities. There is so much important urgent stuff to do that you just have no time left for things which are important to you. Some of us tell ourselves we can put off until we have time, like learning French or taking up golf or eating better...
And then there are other things which are only here now, like a baby’s first steps, holiday celebrations, graduations, spending time with older relatives… Not being able to participate in these things because of being too busy with other “priorities” which take away your time and attention results in stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and a whole bunch of bad outcomes.
People spend a lot of time figuring out how to budget money and manage calories, but figuring out how time should be spent is even more important. It is possible to make more money or lose weight, but no one can acquire more time no matter what they do. We all have a set amount of time on this earth, and that’s it. With every day that passes, we have 86,400 fewer seconds left. Doesn’t it make a lot of sense to value this time and make the very best use of what we have?
There are systems and resources on time management, but the fact is that you cannot manage or control time. Time moves on regardless of what you do, so it is pointless to fight the passing of time. What is within your control is how you manage yourself with the time you have. And this is where you have the power to reduce stress and achieve the balance you are seeking.
1) You must decide very clearly on what your priorities in life are. These will be different for everyone. It might be family, or religion or community or the environment or a career or a creative outlet. These are your big ticket items in life and you must always be aware of these. Whatever they are, you must be very clear on your priorities in life; what they are and why they are important, otherwise you will never find the time to make meaningful progress on these.
2) Make sure you spend some time, whatever time you have - even if you can only find a few minutes, each and every day on those items you have identified as top life priorities. If your top priority is to spend time with your child, or keep in touch with your parents, or take better care of yourself by doing exercise, or learn a new language or an instrument… Commit to spending some time each and every day on these priorities. These are your must-do no matter what priorities, things that you will really regret not having done later on in your life. Even if you only have 20 minutes a day to spend on each of these, it adds up. Twenty minutes per day is over 2 hours per week. Just start with this and it will become an automatic part of what you do and you will find you can spend more time in these areas without losing out in the other have-to-do items.
3) For the have-to-do items that always seem to get in the way and drain your time and energy, break them down into the tiniest bits you can. Do you really need to sit down for 3 hours and put together that sales report all at once? Or can you spend 10 minutes now locating a key data table, then 15 minutes later setting up the presentation template….. Then, recognize the little bits of free time all around you and use these to the max to make progress on getting the small tasks out of the way, which will add up to getting the big tasks out of the way if you keep at it. If you are riding on the train to work or sitting in a waiting room, can you use this time to catch up on reading? Can you make some notes for a talk or a report you will be presenting? Can you jot down some ideas for soccer plays or scout activities or put together a birthday party list for your child? The fact is that even if you have some tasks which you think will require several hours of focused attention, it is often possible to break these down into much smaller incremental tasks which can be fit into any idle time which all of us have (think about waiting in lines, being on hold for customer service, sitting in traffic, waiting for the bus, being stuck at the airport……). Recognize these pieces of valuable time you have and use them to the max.
4) Do not get obsessed with perfection. You can typically save a significant amount of time if you focus on the important points of what is actually need and stop before you spend any more time on nice-to-have improvements. Spend enough time on the must-do items to give your customer what they need, and that’s good enough. Your customer may be a boss who needs some financial figures to be accurate (but does not need the color scheme of the slides to be perfect) or your child who needs a costume for Halloween (but does not need the stitching to be perfect).
5) Limit electronic distractions. Mobile devices, email, texts and apps are great for staying in touch and sharing information easily, but they can easily go beyond the point of being value added and quickly drain your effectiveness in getting important things done. Quickly prioritize truly important emails and texts (you can usually figure this out by skimming through the first line) and you will find these are a small percentage of all the “stuff” that comes in. Let the rest wait until you are ready to focus on it; do not let it instantly pull you away from something more important you are focusing on. If you always instantly respond to anyone who sends you a text or email, you are setting up an expectation that this is how you always work. When you have multiple people sending you things all the time, it quickly takes over your life and attention. Instead, take your time in responding and focus on a quality response. This sets the expectation that you are valuing the person asking the question and spending your time to get them the best information you can. If you provide value added responses, people will appreciate this above the quick one-line responses. Lawyers are a good example of this. Try getting a quick answer from a lawyer. I can send them email and not get any response for several days. But when the answer does come back, it is a quality answer, well thought out and clearly organized.
Each of these five techniques will help you to stay focused on the big ticket items in your life and find ways to get the small stuff done and out of the way so you can spend more of your valuable life energy on doing what really matters to you; what you will want to have accomplished when you reach the end of your time allotment on this earth.