I’m one of those people who needs to be busy. Well, sometimes I think I want to lie around on a beach, reading a book, and sunning myself but I know from experience that anything more than two days and I start to get fidgety. Too much unstructured time has a strange effect on me. I start to become nocturnal, unsociable and unmotivated. I’d like to say I’m like a majestic shark that needs to keep moving to live but in reality I think I’m just a large child that needs a rigid routine or I’m liable to get over excited, eat too many sweets, stay up too late and fall asleep on the couch.
However, I’m also childlike in my enthusiasm! There are so many things I want to do. My full time job, some freelancing, volunteering, classes, and personal projects: I tend to have a lot going on. And the fact that these are all things I genuinely want to do sometimes makes it hard for me to be realistic with my time. I get tempted to squeeze in one more thing and can end up overwhelmed.
I’ll start with a short disclaimer: I am not a time management expert. Similar to my blog on core values, what I will cover here are some tips that I have personally found helpful after lots of trial and error. Take from it what you will but, at the very least, I hope it inspires you to think about where you are investing your time and whether it is working for you. It can be good, every now and then, to step back, and reflect on our habits and question if they are really serving us.
This is the best place to start from when you are making plans for your personal or professional life. I’ve written about my own clumsy approach to this before so I won’t reiterate it here but, suffice to say, knowing what matters, what really matters to you, is integral to deciding how best to allocate your time.
I mentioned I have a chronic tendency to overcommit so this one is especially important for me. To help me avoid overstretching myself, I have had to be very ruthless about my time. One thing that has been really helpful is actually sitting down and planning out the hours of my day. This may seem like a time consuming activity in and of itself but, in reality, setting it up was the most time consuming part. Now that I have a system, it’s easy and it actually saves me time. It means I can look at my day, week, or month and, before taking on a new task, ask myself: “Is there a block of time I can dedicate to this?” And if there’s not, I have to just say no, whether that’s to myself or to someone asking me a favour. So, if I get a notion to sign up for a new class or my aunt wants me to proofread my cousin’s 20,000 word thesis in 3 days, I can simply look at the week and know that I either don’t have time or, if it’s something I really want or have to do, I will have to move something else to make it work. This saves me from overcommitting under the illusion that I will “figure out how to make time for it later”. I no longer have that option. I can see how much time I have and that it is a finite resource. I also have a separate work calendar where I break down the hours of my working day. It has proved very useful in demonstrating, both to myself and my supervisors, how there’s only so many hours in the working day and a limit to how much I can possibly get done.
A pretty typical snapshot of my Google calendar.
I think everyone is familiar with this one but I thought I would share my method anyway. If, like me, you are usually juggling multiple projects and deadlines at once, you can end up with a very long list of things that feel like they are extremely urgent. Rather than trying to police this impulse, I take a blank piece of paper every morning and write absolutely everything that I feel must be done. I find this mental purge to be a good way to alleviate any stress I might be carrying and anxiety about forgetting something important. I review my list from the previous day and I’ve carried over any outstanding tasks. And then I make a cup of tea. My M-Powered colleagues will attest that I am a tea fiend and I find the ritual of making it and the break away from my desk to be a good way to unwind. Returning to my desk feeling more clear-headed, I go through my list highlighting what I actually have to do today. And then I review the highlighted items and imagine, if I could only get two of these things done today, which would I chose? This becomes my to-do list for the day and I allocate my calendar time accordingly. If I manage to get round to one or two of my other highlighted items, great! If not, I don’t feel like I’ve failed.
Another great way to organise daily or weekly tasks is to use the Eisenhower Matrix which my colleague, Kasia, wrote about in this blog post.
The idea of managing expectations harks back to my previous points about only including perhaps two absolutely essential items from your to-do list on any given day. Expecting yourself to be enormously productive every single day, and to never be subject to interruptions or distractions is unreasonable. Expecting your work to always be of exceptional quality even for very tight deadlines or with lots of other competing priorities is also unreasonable. You can only do your best with the time you have. Learn to go easy on yourself and to be flexible with your expectations. Yes, it’s good to aim high, but there will inevitably be times when you simply won’t have time to prepare an amazing presentation with all kinds of fancy graphs or an incredibly detailed application that will wow the funders. Sometimes you have to work with what you have. Give yourself permission to simply do your best and judge your own work based on that, not on what would have been perfect.
This may seem like a cop-out but it actually demonstrates reason, flexibility and resilience. It means you can react quickly to the circumstances and adapt your work style accordingly. Most employers would prefer to have someone with those qualities than someone whose standards are impressively high, but who falls apart under the pressure when they can’t get something perfect.
Scheduling Time to Relax
You will notice a good amount of orange in the screenshot of my calendar. This is my relaxing time. I know what you’re thinking: Someone who schedules time to relax into a colour coded calendar must be so fun and spontaneous. I bet you want me at your next party to liven things up. Well, I’ll have you know, I’m great fun! (As long as it falls within the designated time period.)
Kidding aside, I promise that I do relax and enjoy myself outside of these scheduled times! I might not have the most glittering social life but I’m happy to let my hair down whenever the opportunity arises. The purpose of designating these periods for relaxing is simply to protect them. My other free time at the weekend is flexible (there’s not much midweek, as you can see). If I have to run some errands, work a little overtime, do someone a favour etc., I can do it during those times. The orange times, however, are non negotiable. Unless I absolutely have to, I will not allow anything else to fill up that time. It means I get to have a weekly meet up with a friend, my Friday evenings with my partner and an hour before bed every day completely free to relax. I don’t do chores or check emails or make phone calls. I just completely unplug. Before I designated this time for relaxing, I used to feel guilty doing this. I would be sitting there, tense, feeling like I had so much stuff that I could or should be doing. This system allows me to feel more in control of my time and therefore really unwind and enjoy these periods of relaxation and, consequently, avoid stress and burnout, both of which would hinder my productivity.
What about you? What kinds of things do you do to manage your time better? Join us on Instagram or Facebook to leave your comments. And don’t forget we also run a number of courses on work-life balance that can help you manage your priorities more effectively, check out our website for more info!