Time is money, time flies, time is a thief, time is a doctor, time is relative; whatever you associate time with, we can all agree that we could use more of it. The truth is, we only have 168 hours each week and nobody, no matter their gender, race or socio-economic background, can have more or less, right? I have the same time as you every week and you have the same time as your high-achieving colleague, who gets the promotions you aim for. But you wonder how they do it if you all have the same amount of time available.
Work, family, projects, hobbies, meetings, dates, movies, podcasts, books, workouts, how can we fit it all in? Gallup’s annual Lifestyle poll finds Americans about equally likely to say they do not have enough time to do what they want these days, as to say they do. Which basically translates to half of us saying that we don’t have enough time, and the other half to state they have. But what are we missing here? Because clearly, the other half who said they have enough time to do what they want, know something that we don’t.
In this article, I am going to show not only how to fit it all in and create 5 extra (or more) hours off your workweek, but also how to better manage your time to achieve a healthy work-life balance.
I recently read a book called “On the shortness of life” by Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, and a quote made quite an impression on me: “Everyone complains about not having enough time” he said. “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” And he added: “Life is long if you know how to use it.” It got me thinking that we’ve been dealing with the same issues on time management, since the time when Seneca was around. Which by the way, dates back to two thousand years ago! The problem seems to be, as Seneca suggested, that people are frugal in guarding their personal property, but they are wasteful with how they manage their time.
“But I am busy! I barely have time for myself” I hear you say. And I believe you, I am with you one hundred percent. Happy you mentioned that. Indeed, it’s very common to choose to let go of activities related to our wellbeing, once we feel time pressure. But the thing is that people are like cellphones, we need to recharge every single day in order to work. So, here is a crazy idea: what if you make your wellbeing, aka your recharging, a priority? Eat, move, reflect. Meaning, eat nutritious meals, move your body daily, adopt a practice of self-reflection: journaling, meditating, etc. I am not suggesting quitting going to meetings in order to work out or eat well. All I am saying is that you can make a conscious effort to take care of yourself.
To better manage your time, you have to better take care of yourself.
Yes, I know taking care of yourself requires time and you don’t have any. Newsflash! You might be true but let me paint the picture here for you: if you’re thinking like that you are heading towards a burnout soon if you’re not feeling burned out already.
Findings based on data from Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey for 2013 and 2014 including 1,271 adults, age 18 and older, who are employed full time, suggests that we are overworked. The report shows professionals working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails. And to top that up we’re always connected through our mobile devices, answering emails at night and weekends (Saad 2014). Yes, I get it you want to catch up on work or stay ahead but this is costing you a lot more than your time.
It’s costing you your health and wellbeing
Because of the amount of time we spend working, we are not sleeping enough, we’re fast-forwarding our meals for efficiency but not eating properly, and we are not moving our bodies, which by the way weren’t made for desk life. This lifestyle is wearing us out and we end up sick, stressed and in many cases, depressed.
How on earth an overworked, physically and emotionally unhealthy human being can think clearly, make the right calls, be creative and productive at work? Not taking care of yourself is ultimately costing you your career because if you keep burning yourself out, it will eventually have a negative impact in the quality of your work.
It’s costing you your family, friends and your legacy
We’re not born in this world to work, retire and die. Although that is inevitable, there is more to life than that. Not spending quality time with your friends, and family will have its toll on your health. Loneliness is turning out to be a common feeling among high achievers. According to a feature in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), loneliness — “defined as a distressing discrepancy between desired and actual levels of social contact” — appears to be a serious health risk for issues like cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer disease, stroke, and insomnia (Rubin 2017).
Not taking care of yourself by spending quality time with friends and family will ultimately cause you to die younger. Have you thought of the legacy you’re leaving behind? You will likely be remembered as somebody who was always stressed, constantly tired, an emotional shipwreck. Is that what you want your legacy to be? Take care of yourself by making time for friends and family.
Don’t wait for the wakeup call
I know because I was like that. Overworked, overstressed and sick. It took a strong wake up call for me to realize that things had to change. That wakeup call came from a therapist’s diagnosis. I was clinically depressed, and he prescribed antidepressant medication. Although I have nothing against prescription drugs and I believe some people really benefit from them, I refused to take it. I began eating healthier meals, walking every day as a form of exercise, adopted a daily meditation practice and spend less time working and more time with family and friends. The results were mind-blowing. Soon, there were no signs of depression and my productivity at work skyrocketed.
And it wasn’t just me. Many high-performing professionals who received similar wakeup calls and came to me for coaching, experienced the same success. Maybe this article will be your wakeup call to motivate you to take control of your time and inevitably, your life. Now that you know what is costing you to not make time to take care of yourself, let’s dive into how you are going to create that time.
We’re talking about saving 5 extra hours off your workweek. Imagine that! That means 20 extra hours every month, 10 full days per year. What could you do with this extra time? Think of all the positive impacts that will have on the quality of your work and on the quality of your personal relationships, your health, and your well-being.
Plan your day the night before
It’s easy to get stuck deciding which of your countless tasks to focus on without a plan, and it’s even easier to lose time making the plan, the day of. One look at your inbox in the morning and boom! There goes a big chunk of your morning time and productivity. The way I tackle this is by making my plan the night before.
At the end of my work each day, I take a notepad (paper or digital notebook works equally as well) and pick five to seven tasks I want to accomplish the next day. I am a recovering over-committer and I know this tendency to be common among high achievers, that’s why I recommend choosing only five to seven tasks for the following day. It’s possible if you are too ambitious and you fail to tackle the long list of your tasks to add to your stress. So, pick a number of tasks that make sense to you. If you manage to finish them all and you still have time, then, by all means, add more.
How to choose which tasks to tackle?
You have to set your priorities straight. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower developed the “Eisenhower Matrix”. It’s a tool for figuring out what’s important versus urgent. The tool was featured in Stephen Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People“. It has helped many busy professionals over the years to spend time on tasks that are important and not urgent so that they can maximize their productivity.
It consists of four quadrants where each one is characterized as: Urgent, Not urgent, Important, Not important (Covey 2004).
Important tasks oriented towards the achievement of your goals. Urgent tasks that require your immediate attention. Not dealing with these will cause immediate consequences, but they are often related to the accomplishment of someone else’s goal.
Quadrant n.1 – important
The first quadrant contains tasks that need immediate attention.
- Pressing problems
- Projects deadlines
- Last-minute preparations
Quadrant n.2 – long-term development and strategizing
The second quadrant is for tasks that are important without requiring immediate action.
- Exercise, health, and recreation
Quadrant n.3 – tasks with high urgency
The third quadrant is reserved for tasks that are urgent, without being important. We recommend minimizing or even eliminating these tasks as they do not contribute to your goals. Delegation is also an option here.
Quadrant n.4 – tasks with little to no value
The fourth and last quadrant focuses on tasks that are unimportant and not urgent. We suggest minimizing or eliminating those.
- Surfing the Internet without purpose
- Watching TV for hours
Here’s a test for you: when applying this matrix and you notice that quadrant 2 is kind of empty, you need to re-evaluate your priorities. That is because quadrant 2 is where you plan and create a strategy for your professional and personal development. If you postpone or worse, if you don’t make time to see where you’re headed and where you want to go in your life and your career, then chances are someone else will. Especially those pressing tasks in quadrant n.3.
Take it one step further
If you can plan your day with the Eisenhower Matrix, you can definitely plan your week, your month, even your year if you are up for it. But to take it one step further, I like to take the tasks I have on my list and add them to my calendar. The technique is simple: I schedule everything that matters, with an eye on my goals, specifically, what I need to do in terms of preparation, which keeps me ahead of things.
From meal planning to alone-time to important work meetings, to reserve time for brainstorming and reflection, I make sure they have a time slot on my calendar. What’s important to know here, is that what you schedule on your calendar, you are more likely to get it done. And remember, if you don’t take control of your calendar, someone else will. This is why my calendar shows the time as “busy” when I want to work on the projects on my n.1 and n.2 quadrants when others are checking my availability.
Stop acting like a squirrel
I was struggling to find the focus I needed to write another chapter of my book when a friend suggested something rather radical. She said that I went on a sabbatical somewhere up on a mountain in Greece so that I could eliminate all distractions and focus on writing. While this would be ideal, it’s not really practical. We all live in this modern society with texts, social media, instant messages, phone calls, emails, red-dotted app notifications, and much more information than we can actually digest. Some of us practice multitasking to manage all of our daily tasks, but multitasking is killing our focus. Think of squirrels.
They have a really short attention span and they are constantly chasing another thing. Now think of a regular day at work: how many times do you interrupt your focus on a task to check the email that you just got, or reply to that text on your cellphone? This is you acting like a squirrel, with your focus being pulled left and right with every blink or notification.
Science confirms that. Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology proved it with the following experiment. He scanned volunteers’ heads while they performed different tasks and found that when there is a group of visual stimulants in front of you, only one or two things tend to activate your brain, indicating we’re really only focusing on one or two items.
But the real problem occurs when we try to concentrate on the two tasks we are dealing with, because this then causes an overload of the brain’s processing capacity. This is particularly true when we try to perform similar tasks at the same time – such as writing an email and talking on the phone – as they compete to use the same part of the brain. As a result, your brain simply slows down (Seger & Miller 2010).
The tricky part is that multitasking makes us feel that we are fast, it makes us feel that we are moving forward. But are we really? In fact, according to Clay Shirky, a theory and practice of social media Professor at NYU, “multitasking provides emotional gratification because it moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.” We think that we are moving things forward, when in fact we are just moving in circles of procrastination.
While taking a sabbatical in order to focus on the task at hand isn’t practical, being mindful in the process of tackling tasks, is. That’s right, I am talking about mindfulness as a tool to help you focus and get more things done. Far more than what you can achieve with multitasking. Here are some strategies to help you achieve a greater focus with mindfulness and save more time during your week.
Disconnect to get things done
I’m guilty of not doing this but I know a big chunk of my time goes to surfing the web. I can say I do it for research, but the thing is that I spend far more time than I should, because I mindlessly search the web. Now be honest with yourself. You’re reading a blog post that has a link and then you click on this link only to find yourself 45 minutes later still the following link after link while your productivity has left the room. Remember the priority matrix from above? This is what quadrant n.4 is made of. The key here is to be mindful of the time you spend online. Here are a couple of practical steps to help you achieve that.
- Turn off all notifications, this way you won’t lose your focus every time you hear the sound or see the round red dot above the app on your phone.
- Use music as a trigger to maintain focus. There are a ton of productivity and focus playlists on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes, or wherever you listen to music from.
- Avoid checking social media during your focused work time and allow yourself to be connected online with a timer, if you must.
Time is not tangible but that doesn’t mean that we can’t treat our calendars as concrete as a brick wall. We all know that our levels of energy can vary, but the amount of time we have, is all the same for everyone. And as Seneca said: we have plenty of time. We just need to use it wisely.
We often blame the noisy, full of stimuli environment we live in, but the truth is, we are the ones who have the power to allow for distraction or focus. All we have to do is mindfully choose our behavior. The question isn’t if these strategies work. They do if you apply them. The critical question here is how much time you really want to reclaim in your life? Answer this and then go ahead, use the tools mentioned here to achieve it.
- The Negative Effects of Spending Too Much Online
- How Does Productivity Suffer in the Face of Multitasking