Time Management: Dealing with Time
It's a question we are constantly asking ourselves: How can we manage our time more effectively? For many people, dealing with time or “time management” is simply about trying to figure out how to get more done in the day. Unfortunately, while that approach may bring some short-term results, it does not address the issue of our time consciousness in general, or that focusing on quantity is often at the expense of quality.
How We Look at Time
Time consciousness, beyond just how we divide our days or focus on our tasks, is about how we perceive the nature of time itself. Our perception of time can have a far-reaching impact on how we approach our personal productivity—which is why it makes sense to evaluate our own level of time consciousness.
How we perceive time is influenced by many factors and no two people will have the same perception, regardless of us all having a 24-hour-day. The amount of work we have, the demands of our job, the demands of our home and social life, our own personalities, and even where we live all contribute to how we view time. If we feel constantly hassled, that our tasks at work need longer hours—if we can feel our blood pressure rise as we wait in line at the grocery store—this points to a perception of time as the enemy—or as a precious and valuable commodity that is constantly being stolen from us by our environment, circumstances, or even our own procrastination. If that mindset sounds familiar, you may want to take an objective view on how you are dealing with time.
The Time Log
The problem with evaluating how we use our own time is with the blinkers and spin we put on each passing minute. When we are doing something that is potentially trivial, we have a tendency to diminish it in hindsight. An hour spent surfing on the Internet, when recalled at the end of the day, can quickly take on the dimensions of ten innocent minutes. Conversely, our brain tends to trick us into thinking we have spent much more time than we actually did on the tasks we should have been doing. Say we had an important report to go over—an actual hour spent may later be remembered as an entire afternoon, inflated by the action’s importance.
What this means is that it’s not enough to do a quick head-scan on how we spend our days, if we want to improve and maintain our time consciousness. We need to regularly keep a time log at three to six months intervals. A time log is where we track our usage of time every 15 minutes for about a week. With the help of a portable timer and a notebook, if we honestly write down what we were doing at each fifteen minute interval; at the end of the week, we will have a very good idea of where, when and how we are being productive—or not.
A time log is a great way to catch all the traps that take our time during the day. It’s a tool we can use to train ourselves to perceive time more realistically—which can be counterintuitive. Perhaps we are spending too much time surfing the Internet? Maybe we are dropping too many minutes in meaningless meetings, pouring over email, or chatting with co-workers who frequently interrupt us. If we work from home, a time log can show us when and where we are getting off task—again, this can be from interruptions, too-frequent Internet/coffee breaks, or procrastination that we later diminish.
Dealing with Time: A Minute Spent
All minutes are not created equal—this is another lesson a time log may teach us. Examining their time log after a week, most people will notice definite trends of productivity and dips of inertia. Are you a morning person or do you function best in the afternoon? It pays to organise your to-do list and commitments so that you face the hardest tasks when your energy levels and motivation are at their peak.
Another concept to keep in mind is Pareto’s Principle, or the 80/20 rule. This rule states that 80 percent of our effects come from 20 percent of our causes—and we will see this when we give our time log a close look. The tasks that are really significant and important to achieve often take up only a small slice of our day. Instead of spreading your focus too wide, it might help to think about a few significant tasks you want to achieve on a given day (like Leo Babauta’s daily MIT’s or “Most Important Tasks,” featured in his book “The Power of Less”). Rather than setting yourself a list of ten tasks and achieving two, it’s better to make a list of three and achieve all three—you will feel less pressured and more accomplished at the end of your day, and if you get in the habit, your perception of time will change as well. Time won’t seem so limited and you will feel less stressed.
Don’t Do It
The 80/20 Principle is really about focus—but too often, we are so focused on what we want to do, that we forget that we may also need to occasionally focus on what we don’t want to do. Probably everyone can relate to having one or two long term goals that won’t realistically ever be achieved—yet we return to them again and again, wasting precious time and energy. We’ve grown up hearing that “winners never quit,” but there is something very liberating about being honest with ourselves and saying “I will not achieve this, so I will just let it go.” This frees up more time and energy for the tasks we will realistically accomplish. We can also free up some time by examining the tasks that are in our job description, but have low effectiveness. Can the task be eliminated altogether? Can it possibly be delegated to someone else so that our energy can be focused on the tasks that we are most effective at, or that only we can perform? Better time awareness also means focusing on the things we shouldn’t be doing, or that could be better performed by someone else.
Why do we procrastinate? Because a task is unpleasant, boring, or daunting. At the end of the day though, procrastination again affects our time consciousness. We don’t say we didn’t get something done because it’s boring, but because there wasn’t enough time. Often that just isn’t true, but while procrastination can never be fully eradicated, it can be controlled.
Unpleasant or boring tasks: Need to be done, but we can avoid them. First, ask yourself if you need to do this task, or if it can be delegated. Another good question to ask yourself is why you have to do it. If you find yourself frequently doing things you don’t want to do because you simply didn’t want to refuse the asker, you may want to look at changing your assertion levels. If the task has to be done by you, then try to get it done first thing in the day, or when your energy levels are at their peak. Force yourself to do the task for five minutes at first and once you start, there’s a high chance that your resistance to it will break down and you can finish it, or at least complete a significant portion.
Daunting tasks: Big projects need to be broken down, or we will keep slipping by with excuses on why we don’t have enough time to do them. This goes back to our time perception, because technically, when we look at a big task holistically, we don’t have the time to complete it. Which is why it needs to be broken into manageable chunks.
Rip a page from David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” and think in terms of “next actions” and “outcomes.” Say your daunting project is to go back to grad school and expand your current degree. That is an enormous step that could take many months from beginning to end: The very next action however, which would take an hour or so, may be to research schools directly in your area; write a list of schools that interest you; contact x, y, z admissions offices; download admission forms; or request transcripts. Setting milestones and personal deadlines will also greatly improve your success with long-term or big projects.
Dealing with Time: Good Habits
Forming good habits is not easy, but using time effectively is all about sound habits. If you’ve done a time log and have found some of the pits sucking away your time, try tackling them one by one. You can’t change your view of time all of the sudden, but you can improve it step by step and seemingly stretch the amount you have available in little increments. Adopting some of the following good habits can help regain your time:
- Limiting your email/Internet to one/two sessions a day.
Turning off alerts to emails or messages, to avoid their constant distraction.
Blocking off a certain amount of time, either at home or at work, when you are not to be bothered.
Chunking like activities together (phone-calls, emails, shopping).
Focusing your to-do list for higher effectiveness.
Using the 80/20 rule to focus your energy to get the most important tasks done.
Limiting the amount of time spent with chatty co-workers and pointless meetings.
Time management books abound with tips like these, and we can identify the ones that apply to us and try to slowly adopt them, one by one.
The difference between a stressed individual and a non-stressed one is that the non-stressed individual is more at ease with time: Time for all of us is finite. However, with some focus and discipline, we can honestly evaluate how we are dealing with time and make better use of our hours and days—which will also give us the perception that we have more time to achieve the things that are important to us.
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