A Crucial Time Management Mistake You May Not Know You’re Making
There’s a time management mistake that many make. It’s a costly one because it can perpetuate the feeling of being overwhelmed—the sense that you will never be done with all you have to do—and can prevent you from finding peace and feeling satisfied with life.
The mistake: believing that the aim of time management is to be able to do more and get everything accomplished. Many women keep track of events, deadlines, and tasks on calendars and in to-do lists to be as efficient as possible and fit more into each day. They try to use these tools to maximize their output.
The goal of being able to do more assumes that you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you’ve completed your tasks. And while it does feel good to get things done, that feeling is often fleeting, because there are always other things left to do. You can never finish it all.
What actually works
To feel true satisfaction, you need to view your time management system through a different lens. Your tools, no matter what they are, must allow you to forget momentarily about the things you should do so you can fully immerse yourself in what you want to do.
More specifically, you need to be able to clear space in your schedule for two kinds of activities, which research has shown tend to make people happier:
- Doing things you find both mentally challenging and uniquely gratifying. They’re what make you lose track of time, give you energy, and cause you to feel strong. This is what author Cal Newport calls “deep work” and what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Of course, these activities differ for different people. (Read more about deep work in my book note, and here is a TED Talk about flow.)
- Connecting deeply with people you admire or love, without distraction. Researchers have found that people don’t need just more time off—they need “shared free time” with friends and family.
So how do you correct this time management mistake?
Make the following practical tweaks to your approach to how you manage your time:
- Determine which activities bring about a state of flow in you. For the next couple of weeks, note professional and everyday activities that challenge you and compel you to stick with them because you tend to get lost in them. Note what you are doing when you are energized rather than when you feel depleted. These must be activities in which you are the agent, the performer, the doer. Though everyone likes to be praised for a job done well, receiving praise will not give you flow; activities you perform that give you intrinsic gratification will.
- Identify your deep work. Regardless of whether you’re employed, you likely have to respond to emails and attend meetings. But such correspondence and interaction—what Cal Newport calls “shallow work”—is rarely essential to making you a better version of yourself. You need to identify the core activities that will make you a better manager, employee, parent, hobbyist or volunteer. For example, someone who wants to become a better parent may decide to read more parenting books and articles. People who want to be better cooks may choose to practice their knife skills. If you want to expand your photography business, you may opt to learn how to set up a website. Not only are these activities important, they usually require concentration.
- Think about the people who engage and inspire you, and who make you laugh and feel whole. Then take one small step by reaching out to them. Email, text, or call them, send them a note, or make plans to meet with them.
- Make your time management system as consistent and reliable as possible. If you don’t record your key tasks and events and keep them in a place where you can remember to retrieve them, your brain will continue to remind you about them. That eats up unnecessary energy and can distract you when you need to focus on deep work or on other people.
- Learn to say no to things that you dread, that make you feel weak, and that drain you of energy. Though you can’t say no to everything of this nature, you can decline things more often than you may think. (For helpful hints about this, click here.)
- Speak with those who have control over your time, suggesting ways you could do less by presenting them with the trade-offs. (Read more about trade-offs here.) For example, talk with your boss about how she could prioritize your responsibilities given your time constraints. Or be candid with your children about how much of your time their activities require. (For more help with identifying what’s essential, check out this book note.)
- Build in time to rest. Focus and willpower require it.
- To be less reactive and more proactive regarding your time, find time to think.
With a bit of planning, you can begin to change how you see your calendar and to-do list, and use them to better serve you.
Stacy S. Kim, Ph.D. is the author of The Lighthouse Method: How Busy, Overloaded Moms Can get Unstuck and Figure Out What To Do With Their Lives. She is a certified life and career coach helping high-achieving, deeply caring women and parents balance their ambitions, passions, and energy for the people they love. You can find her at LifeJunctions.com and follow her on Twitter: @stacyskim