"It's already mid-January," she said; "You mean, it's only mid-January," he replied.
Two employees of the same company with very different perspectives on the passing of time. For her, days pass quickly & she already feels behind. For him, we've barely started and it's a long year ahead.
How do you think about time? If you think of it only as passing minutes or days on a calendar, you are missing out. Time has two dimensions: hours & energy. When we focus on one, we lose sight of the other. Time is the one resource that can never be retrieved; once the hours are gone, they can never be brought back. That's why time management gurus tell us to develop formal plans for our time. We resist, of course, for fear of feeling locked in by too much structure. But nothing could be further from the truth. Planning according to your priorities and purpose enables you to do 'first things first' (as per Franklin Covey). Unforeseen circumstances and emergencies can then be handled in a relaxed frame of mind.
We all have 24 hours in every day. You may not have the power to stretch a day into 25 hours, but you can make it seem that way. How?
- Leverage existing time use habits or routines.
- Plan ahead.
- "Book end" tasks & projects.
You already have some time management habits. Perhaps you set an alarm to wake you in the morning, use a calendar to manage your schedule, and write a to-do list for daily tasks. Or you have a morning routine, eat at regular mealtimes, and head to bed after watching the weather report. I have a diabetic cat, so one of my habits is getting her insulin shots twice a day, 12 hours apart.
Your regular habits can offer the structure for getting other tasks done. For example, after giving Lucy (my cat) her evening shot, I clean the litter box. Most nights I also set up the coffee pot for the next day. Setting it up at night frees up time in the morning -- as does pulling out my workout clothes and laying out my outfit for the next day. These small actions have become routine; I rest easy knowing I'm set up to hit the ground running.
You'd be surprised what you can plan ahead. Since I started working out 6 days a week, I plan my workout schedule for the week ahead of time. Most days I'm at the gym for the 6 am class, but sometimes I have to get up for the 5 am class. It's only an hour difference, but for me that one hour is significant. It changes the whole day, from mealtimes to my evening routine.
The 'structure' of a regular workout time gives me something to plan for and around each day. Other examples of structure include getting the kids on the bus in the morning, attending morning church service, and being out of the house and on the road by 7 am. What structure could you use as an anchor for your time management strategy? What could you do each night to make the best use of your time in the morning? Are there tasks you could take care of in the morning that would set you up for a great night?
This year I started meal planning. I haven't always been a fan of meal planning. I saw it as rigid and boring. When my coach suggested it, I felt a lot of resistance to doing it. Resistance is a sign. Resistance alerts you to gaps in your character, conflicts in your values, and holes in your plans. Think of it as an inner flashlight, shining the light on to some aspect of yourself that isn't aligned with your goals. And I have big goals. I started meal planning, in spite of my feelings, and to my surprise, I find it freeing, not rigid. Planning ahead allows more variety, not less. Food lists make shopping easy, too. No more staring into the refrigerator wondering what to make for dinner, digging through cupboards hoping to find the ingredients I need, or running up to the neighborhood store at the last minute.
I'm not trying to sell you on meal planning specifically, but look for whatever your 'meal planning' thing is -- the thing you know you are resisting. What is your resistance trying to show you about you?
After that, it's all about bookends. Back when I carried a paper based planner, I learned to "book end" projects & tasks on the calendar -- essentially, to block out or dedicate a section of time on the calendar. The secret, though, was to write in what you would complete (the end state), not just the name of the project. For example, I have two hours blocked out today for writing. If those two hours were for writing anything, with no output in mind, then I would put "writing time" in my calendar and not worry about whether I completed anything specific. Today's time is for writing a blog post, though. (This one.) So in my calendar it says "writing time: It's About Time blog post." The goal is to be complete in two hours. Done. Written, edited, posted. Why do I bookend? Because I know that if I give myself all day then it will take all day. Tasks seem to fit into the time allotted.
Bookends are a powerful time use mechanism when you use them well. You have to go that extra step and define your planned outcome. If you achieve that outcome in less time than you've allotted, you can always add another outcome and keep going until the end of your allotted time. If you find a task takes longer than predicted, consider what got in your way, and adjust your plan for next time.
For me, bookends help me push through any vulnerability & fear that pop up when I'm working on a project -- especially when that project requires creating something. Those projects attract my inner demons -- the ones that try to distract me with negativity. Bookends help me push past the demons and through to completion. They help me stay in integrity with myself -- to do what I committed to, even if that commitment was to myself and no one else.
What about interruptions, you say? This is where we come full circle.
Planning according to your priorities and purpose enables you to do 'first things first'; unforeseen circumstances and emergencies can then be handled in a relaxed frame of mind.
Having a plan helps you deal with interruptions more effectively. A plan helps you prioritize. Not every interruption is more important than what you are working on. When you have a plan, you can commit to a time when you can handle the topic of the interruption, or you can handle the interruption at the moment & reschedule your prior appointment with yourself. Without a plan, how do you decide?
If you have constant interruptions, planning is even more important. And you have to plan smaller. Two hours of time for focused work may sound impossible, but 15 minutes can be a lot of time if you make your "planned outcomes" smaller -- could be as small as the next right action. For projects where you need long spans of uninterrupted time, find ways to negotiate with those who rely on you. Let them know you won't be available for some book-ended time frame, but they will have your complete attention afterwards. Track interruptions and look for a pattern -- a time of day that is busiest or a day of the week that is least chaotic. Get creative and purposeful about your time use & schedule.
Time use, like any other skill, improves with practice. Managing your time is not a single event; it's a process requiring constant effort on your part -- and a responsibility that lies solely with you.
Begin by deciding how you want to spend your time. With your priorities set, anchors emerge. Use those anchors to plan ahead, building new habits around set routines. Use bookends when you schedule time for projects, being specific about what you'll get done during that set time.
Expect to learn something about yourself along the way. Adding structure has a way of bringing out both our best and our worst. You're not just improving your time use, you're building & reinforcing character traits of resilience, discipline, and integrity, among others.
(And you thought this was just about time).