“Time is the one thing we all have in common, but it is also the one thing that we all use differently.”- Catherine Pulsifer
Demanding work and personal lives often present us with complex challenges. When we have too many things to do, we resort to multitasking and once we are done with one task, we tend to quickly move on to the next without giving ourselves a break. Some may like to be constantly on their toes, but having too much to handle and not enough time to do it all, even the best can feel stressful. Research shows that even planned efforts during such times, like breaking a habit or sticking to a new resolution or anything that requires willpower also can increase your fatigue and the feelings of overwhelm.
Such constant feelings of overwhelm lead you to poor self-management, chronic stress, anxiety and also can impact your physical endurance. Also, not having enough time to do what you want to at the level of quality to which you desire or committed, affects your productivity especially, when you are focusing on the demands of the present moment like present challenges, requests, or events. The only effective way to deal with feelings of overwhelm or stress is to learn to manage your time and to give yourself some space and time to recharge and break free.
Considering we spend significant amount of our time pursuing personal or professional goals, it is important to become aware of what is impacting our optimal time usage in the first place in order to mange it effectively.
Here are some reasons that hinder effective time-management.
- Cognitive fatigue. This happens when you have number of demands on your thinking over an extended period of time and are not left with enough time to relax or unwind. The number of tasks and the difficulty of tasks impacts how quickly we become fatigued as it affects our limited mental trait known as executive function. Focused attention gets fatigued much like an overworked muscle. When you use your mental muscle for prolonged periods of time, it leads to drop in effectiveness. Taxing tasks that involve exertion of self-control, attention regulation or constant decision-making can lead to cognitive fatigue. We tend to ignore the mental effort required for the non-work parts and end up overworking and risk mental exhaustion.
- Lack of required resources. When you have to complete a task but lack adequate resources like required skill set, people, or budget, you feel time pressured because the challenge of the task overwhelm the resources you have. For instance, you can finish a project within a time frame provided you have appropriate people involved with right equipment or tools or budget in place. You might even finish the project early if your resources are more than the challenge of the task you are working on. If the task does not involve group of peopler budge, then your personal attributes like concentration, previous work experience, attention, expertise from other people or ideas based on your knowledge can become your resources.
- Feelings of stuck. Time is a mental construct that is completely relative and our experience of it is always the result of our mental focus. Our emotions also get impacted by the time frame in which we operate at the moment. For instance, when faced with a certain project, if you think of future in disempowering ways or focus too much on your past poor performance, both such actions can keep you stuck emotionally in future and past time frames and affect your ability to manage your time in the present moment.
- Digital distractions like smart phones, social media, instant messaging or other electronic gadgets might keep us connected, but sabotage most of your productive time if left unchecked. The instant urge to answer your mails, calls, messages or constant browsing for entertainment makes you procrastinate on your important tasks. Constant distraction not only makes you lose your focus and concentration but also wastes lot of your time in gaining back the momentum you had before the distraction.
- Procrastination. The continuous avoidance of your work or responsibilities makes you experience time-robbing emotions like stress, fear and overwhelm. As a result, you get into a chronic cycle of putting off important tasks, avoiding, and doing unimportant tasks. Delaying also leads to clutter of physical space, digital space and your headspace. Coming up with excuses to avoid, or planning too much or taking extended breaks are all signals that you are procrastinating.
- Perfectionist attitude. Perfection needs time and we often delay our tasks in search of that required time to perfect them. In desire to perfect things, we procrastinate and don’t even want to get started on certain tasks. And sometimes, lot of time goes waste in perfecting unimportant tasks and left with less time in completing the important ones.
- Cluttered spaces like work or personal spaces waste lot of your time simply looking for things. Even when it comes to digital spaces, we end up browsing the icons, folders, or files trying to look for something that is easy to find when there is too much of workload. Similar is your mental clutter that delays your decision-making, planning and execution.
- Over-estimation of your focused time. Many times, we fail to acknowledge the limited time we have for our focused work in a day. Different tasks involve different chunks of our attention. Certain long-term projects, planning or sill-building require large chunks of attention. We plan our priorities by assuming that we have got all day for such tasks and lose time in routine tasks like emails, phone calls, or meetings. The result is that you end up having limited time for your bike-picture goals that need more of your focused attention and time.
So, How to cultivate a habit of effective time-management?
It is important to expand your awareness of where your time leaks are happening to manage your time effectively. Becoming realistic of your abilities, skills, and resources helps you use your time optimally. Here are some do’s and don’t s of an effective time management.
Avoid prolonged cognitive activity.
If you are involved in high pressure jobs which involve constant decision making or tasks that involve mental effort or that need your focused attention for a sustained period of time, avoid scheduling too many taxing tasks in short amount of time and leave time for yourself to relax and unwind. Take frequent intermittent breaks and increase your time frame in which you aim to get such things done. Don’t try for perfection except for important tasks. Planning, scheduling and delegating can help reduce stress and excess decision-making.
Work on your available resources
By taking the time to identify the resources that will be helpful, you can improve your time-management. Keeping the needed materials handy and your next action defined for each of your project have your next action defined and ready to go, you remove certain obstacles to getting started and can see to it that they won’t eat into your focused time. Do not overlook easy and proven-to work methods in order to be just different. This makes your work complex and more time-consuming. Apply simple ideas and proven sustainable methods even if they seem boring in order to manage your time well.
Check your time-leaks.
Determine those activities that help you achieve or take you closer to your goals. That’s your meaningful work. The rest of the activities steal your time. Small time leaks can have a bigger negative impact than we perceive it to be. Many of the inconsequential time leaks can disrupt your flow and lower your motivation. Streamlining your simple tasks by batching, automating, delegating or outsourcing can save time for your bigger goals. Batch your tasks and do repetitive tasks in bulk so you don’t have to do them often.
Organise your work or digital spaces by sorting or rearranging your files, folders, and emails in ways that will make things easy to find. Putting things back in their place or storing things in their respective files or folders immediately when you receive them can save your time. Structure your to-do lists. Instead of writing zillions of things to do and feeling like a failure at the end of the day, focus on what’s most important for you to accomplish. Prioritise and keep them simple, realistic, measurable and manageable. This will keep you from overcommitting and give you a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Set strict deadlines.
More time you give to a particular task, the longer it takes to complete it. For instance, if you have to submit a report in a weeks time, odds are you will take full week to do it. The best way to beat the odds is to set strict deadlines with yourself as you work on your tasks and personal projects. Follow the Pomodoro Technique. Break down all your tasks into 25-minute focused blocks of time and give a five-minute break between each time block. And after completing say about four or three Pomodoro’s depending on the difficulty of the task, you can take a longer break of 15- 30 minutes.
Do not make breaks as optional, use them to relax and get energised. You can break the tasks at your own discretion like easy tasks can have smaller blocks of time. If you get interrupted, record your time and add it to the next block of time. This technique helps you manage your tasks effectively with a completely focused mindset and reduces your urge to check mail, answer text messages or do any other distracting activity. This improves your personal productivity, eliminates multitasking habit and helps you get more things done.
Gain mental clarity
Our minds which are overfed with new information makes our thoughts buzz around like swarm of bees and lose our inner clarity. Get yourself organised by starting with your thoughts, routines and in planning your tasks. If you think your headspace is cluttered, make a habit of journaling your thoughts or ideas or plans out on paper. This helps you gain mental clarity and clears your mind of any clutter that is weighing you down and helps in setting realistic personal and professional goals. Mindfulness is an effective solution to reduce mental clutter.
Set boundaries to your time and work load by saying ‘no’ to low-value tasks, activities or social obligations that tie you down. Instead of assuming that you need something done immediately, gain clarity on when it needs to be done. Having a clear picture of other’s expectations of you or on what’s actually needed, you can save hours of time when it comes to fulfilling your daily goals. Check your assumptions about other people’s expectations and be assertive in letting others know what you expect out of them in given time frames.
Identify your triggers of procrastination. Some of the common triggers for putting things off are confusion, boredom, frustration, difficulty, not structured, not intrinsically motivating, or because they lack meaning or purpose. Being aware of your triggers frees you up to behave and think differently. Figure out what is stopping you from doing that task, is it challenging? Unnecessary? or is it because you don’t have required resources or knowledge or awareness? Or is it that your perfectionist attitude or not having a deadline or accountability is the reason. Addressing the reason behind your procrastinating habit helps you to come up with the time-management solution.
Let go of perfectionist attitude.
‘Done’ is better than ‘perfect’ when it comes to certain tasks. Instead of always aiming for perfection at the beginning of a difficult task, just start working on it. You eventually can come up with something to improve on what you have already started doing. By checking whether it is going to make a significant difference to the outcome by spending that extra time on the task can give you a better perspective of the required time .
So, How effective are you in managing your time? Do you often pack too many tasks in short amounts of time? Are you happy about the things you accomplish during your daily work hours? Or are you pressurised by lack of time to complete your tasks? Do you have a habit of stretching your work beyond deadlines? Do you often run late for your work or to your meetings or in keeping your personal appointments? Are you time pressured often by your workload? What do you think is the best use of your time on a daily basis? Are you stuck in any of your unproductive behaviour or habits? Do you have difficulty managing your to-do lists, routines or your important tasks? Do you often overestimate your focused time?
Reflect on the above questions to gain a better perspective of your time-management strategies. Stop randomly working on your tasks or projects. Instead prioritise, plan and work with a focused mindset. Use and apply the above strategies to cultivate more effective time-management mindset. Making these techniques part of your mindset makes your personal or professional goal-striving more manageable.