On the master list of life’s unavoidable stressors, time pressures don’t spark the same dread as, say, death and taxes. Then again, time-related stress is a lot more frequent than mortality and government levies. A lucky few among us seem to be gifted with a fully formed time management gene. Many others can feel snowed under by bulging to-do lists. And it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed when the exigencies of daily life surpass our ability to get everything done.
The natural impulse is to try to shave moments from everyday tasks in hopes of stitching together longer blocks for more-useful purposes. But that’s usually more energy-depleting than productivity-enhancing, says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Over the years, people have suggested any number of questionable time-saving methods to her, ranging from the merely pointless — microwave food for the shortest possible period recommended on the package — to the downright head-scratching — make only right-hand turns to avoid waiting at traffic lights.
“One of my favorites is, ‘When answering emails, instead of writing OK, just type K,’” says Vanderkam. “I love the sheer ridiculousness of this.”
Instead, experts recommend strategically allocating time in ways that prioritize big-picture life goals. This boils down to a few basic concepts: Be conscious of how you spend your days; be judicious in your commitments; and minimize exposure to the intoxicant known as the smartphone. These strategies all make intuitive sense, but they’re easy to deviate from and require steady vigilance. Above all, keep in mind that your ultimate objective is to clear space for tasks with high potential payoffs, both professional and personal.
“Time management is probably either the biggest limiting factor or the biggest driver of your happiness and success in life,” says Elizabeth Grace Saunders, founder of a time coaching and training company. “It’s absolutely critical. Your time is your life.”
A first step toward better time management is realizing that it is possible to achieve a well-balanced schedule — and that people often have more control over their daily existence than they think. There’s an understandable urge to blame a hectic schedule on forces beyond your control, but “you can’t just blame the world for the fact that there are a lot of things coming at you,” Saunders says. Time management requires active decision-making and a willingness to say no, which can be uncomfortable but is ultimately preferable to acquiescing to every meeting request.
“If you’re not strategic with your time, everyone is happy to spend your time for you,” says Saunders, who has published several books, including The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress.
Start by determining which portions of your day you can control. To put it less delicately, which work-related meetings and personal obligations can you skip? Saunders partitions tasks into three mental folders: worthwhile investments of time, such as career-boosting work projects; routine obligations that must be completed but hold no payoff; and lesser chores that should chew up as little time as possible.
Next, let go of perfectionism. Squelch the instinct to pore over every email or fine-tune every piece of paperwork. In these instances, good enough really is good enough. Also, set up automatic time investments. If making it to the gym is important, carve out a regular block of time, perhaps in the morning before the onslaught of the day sets in. It’s helpful to think through and plan your schedule in advance, preferably a few days ahead. Vanderkam devotes part of Friday afternoon to mulling over the coming week, focusing on what she wants to accomplish and how she’ll pull it off.
She also recommends the time management equivalent of an annual work review. A year from now, what big-picture goals would you like to have achieved personally and professionally? Set those as lodestars, and arrange your schedule accordingly. If getting a new job or regularly making it home for dinner is important, make peace with imperfections in areas that have no long-term relevance. Adhere to a similar principle for family time, she advises. Getting the car washed is important, but probably not at the expense of time with children.
“Leisure time is too precious to be totally leisurely about,” Vanderkam says.
Of course, maximizing your waking hours doesn’t mean overscheduling or being unyieldingly rigid. In fact, it’s important to build in a cushion to provide leeway when the unexpected inevitably happens. And don’t chastise yourself for wasting time. Some amount of downtime is natural and probably healthy.
“I’ve wasted plenty of time,” Vanderkam says. “We all do. We’re human. It’s not about figuring out how much time we waste. It’s about making sure we are making progress on the things that matter to us.”
The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.