Things they didn’t teach me at school: time management
As the saying goes, ‘Time flies’, but it’s OK you are flying the plane!’
We all face the challenge of how we can best use the 168 hours we have to spend each week. Those in work are juggling work priorities with attempts to carve out leisure time. Those who run homes find that juggling their lives alongside children, spouse and other commitments brings its challenges. Those who are retired are often so busy they wonder how they ever found time for work! But you really are ‘flying the plane’. No one has more or less time than you. Maybe it’s time to reflect on how you spend yours?
- Know where you are heading
Modern life and other people will decide your time for you if you let them. You can learn how to do things faster, more efficiently and on time, but the bigger question concerns whether you are engaged in the right things in the first place. You are wise to spend some significant time to reflect on what matters to you, and what you wish to spend time on. What are your dreams for the future? Who do you want to spend time with? What do you need to make time for?
The late Stephen Covey led conferences based on his book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’. He would ask an audience member to join him and fill a one gallon wide-mouthed mason jar with a dozen fist-sized rocks. The jar looked full but he would then ask them to add smaller rocks, gravel and sand to demonstrate that only when the large rocks are in place, will the smaller materials fit in. The start to any time management is to figure out what your big rocks are and make sure they are in place in your life. Those with a religious concern will want to make sure their faith is not short changed amidst the myriad of demands that come their way.
- Stick to the schedule
Having decided what matters you then arrange your life. You don’t need to be obsessive, planning every single minute, but some kind of device, such as a diary, planner or mobile app can help you work out what needs to happen when. On any given day there will be the bigger rocks that must happen. Using lists helps many, especially if you value the motivation of ticking things off. It can help to prioritise the priorities. You want to supping your late evening cocoa confident that if some things didn’t happen, the main things did.
- Know yourself
Time management advice often assumes that there is just one way to live, perhaps because it’s given by structured, logical types who want to squeeze every second out of the day. You may be aware that you can split the world into those who prefer to live life in a structured way and those who prefer spontaneity. A good friend of mine, who prefers to be flexible, uses his planning as a way of making sure he gets the right things in place so he can be more spontaneous in his social life. Knowing your preferred lifestyle can allow you to make time management work for you, and not wind you up!
- Overcome procrastination
Sticking to a schedule is harder than it seems, especially when you don’t want to do what you know you need to do. If you have ideas you haven’t acted on, or jobs left undone, you will know what I mean. So don’t wait for the right mood or right time. Make sure you know exactly what you need to do and don’t fear failure or success. It doesn’t have to be done perfectly, but it does have to be done. ‘Just do it’!
On such occasions I find it useful to make a list of all things I have to do and set myself a timer for 5 minutes on each one. In most cases five minutes isn’t nearly enough time, but the five minutes deadline gives me a focus and a freshness to the activity because I know I can move on to something else.
- Take regular breaks
Work study experts have found that if you measure the output of someone who worked from 9 til 12 nonstop, you would find they accomplish less than someone who worked the same hours but took a break every hour, and so works 15 minute less! Breaks can include a change of activity (walk, if you are desk bound, sit , if you are on your feet), stretching – especially if working on a computer, eating a light nutritious snack, drinking a glass of water.
- Check whether it needs to be done now?
This last point brings us full circle, but here we are not focusing on the big rocks but the tyranny of the urgent that can force us into doing things that could be left. As a general rule, if you can do it in one minute, do it immediately. But many things can be usefully left. The internet and its sister, email are big thieves of time. A brief check of emails can lose you 20 minutes before you realise it. So schedule tasks when it makes more sense to do them.
- What’s next?
David Allen has made a whole industry into helping people manage their time and activities, in particular by asking ‘what’s the next action?’ He urges us to break any project down into those mini tasks that need to be completed. If you are serious about getting your life into better balance, what is your next action?
Is it to schedule some reflection time, purchase a diary, or mobile app to keep you on track? Is it about planning some ‘me time’ to recharge the batteries? Many hide behind excuses, ‘I’m too busy,’ ‘not enough hours in the day’ ‘I’m swamped!’
But thankfully you are not totally at the mercy of events or circumstances. You’re in the cockpit. Where are you going?