When I was about five years old my mother told me that only stupid people get bored, and I’ve never been bored since. There is just way too much to do in life. There is all the technical stuff that keeps us alive, like sleep and food, and the stuff that keeps us comfortable, like cleaning ourselves and our home. Then there’s the stuff we do to earn money, as well as the administrative chores of managing that money, such as paying bills. Toss in some much-needed leisure time with friends and family, squeeze in a few hobbies, and it’s no wonder lots of us don’t have enough time to exercise or organize our photographs.
Unless you are one of those bizarre people who suffer from boredom (a.k.a. blindness to the million opportunities that each moment presents us) you probably wish you had more time to get things done. Time to bust out the time-management skills!
If you want to have more time in your day, improving your time management skills is an excellent place to start. Time is a valuable resource, and managing time wisely will help you get things done in less time.
The funny thing about time management is that time doesn’t like to be managed. Any attempts at changing time’s behavior will surely fail. Time just keeps plodding along, just as it always has. So a more accurate way to describe time-management is really self-management. You get a certain amount of time, and you get to decide what you do during the time you have. You can choose to engage in behavior that wastes time, or you can use some of the following methods to get more done in a day.
1. Combine Activities
Take a look at what you need to get done each day, and notice that you may be able to combine some of the tasks. If you wish you had time to exercise, and you often have errands to run, then perhaps you can walk or bike to your errands? Could you and a family member take turns cooking dinner on different nights while the other went out for run? Some shopping errands, like the plant nursery and other stores, are good family outings if you want to have family time and still get things done.
Audio books and recorded lectures are great to combine with other activities. Listening to a book is an excellent way to enrich a daily commute or an exercise session. Why not spend that time learning something as well? Check out the collection of free lectures online at Dharma Seed.
Combining activities is not only an effective time management skill—it is also one of the key ways to live a balanced life.
2. Plan tasks and activities for when you have the energy to do them.
That statement may seem obvious but lots of folks plan things for a time of day when chances are they wont have the energy to do them. If you are exhausted in the evenings after a long day at work then you aren’t likely to succeed at creating an evening running habit. Working with your own rhythms is a powerful time management skill. Take note of when you have more energy during the day. Are you a night owl or an early bird? Do you have more mental energy in the morning, or are you the kind of person that can’t get their mind to slow down late into the night?
Pay attention to how your physical and mental energy fluctuate during a typical day, and make an effort to schedule your tasks and activities for the optimal time of day based on your own personal rhythms. If you are sluggish in the mornings or evenings, you can choose activities that don’t require lots of mental energy, such as cleaning up your desk or kitchen or other small chores. On the other hand, if you tend to be at your sharpest during a certain time of the day, use that mental peak to work on tasks that require your focus and intellect.
The idea of doing things at an optimal time turns time-management into energy-management. Energy is a resource, and we only have so much of it before we need to refuel by taking a break, eating, sleeping, and so forth. By scheduling tasks for when you have more energy during the day, you’ll get the most out of the hours you have in each day, and you’ll avoid wasting time by trying to do things when they don’t really work and when you can’t find any flow.
3. Create a Daily Routine
You can take the optimal time idea a step further and make a daily routine for yourself based on how much energy you have at different times of the day and other factors, such as your work schedule or even the climate you live in. For example, mornings may be a good time for exercise if you are an early bird, and because it gets hot later on a summer day. Evenings may be a good time to prep some food for the next day, or to relax with a good book.
Daily routines are a powerful way of managing time. For instance, having a routine makes you less likely to waste time. You aren’t likely to spend two hours pointlessly surfing the web if you didn’t intentionally schedule that activity. Having a routine keeps us focused on what we’re meant to be doing.
Daily routines also help us live a balanced life. Planning out how we want to spend our days reminds us to include all the different activities that create a balanced life. Combining the principles of balancing life with optimal times creates powerful daily routines that are productive, healthy, and easy to follow.
Daily routines don’t actually have to be exactly the same every single day. I use a few different versions depending on which routine is a good fit for the day ahead. If I have some appointments or special errands to run, I’ll adjust a routine slightly to work with my schedule.
The best time to create a routine is when you are feeling clear and focused. Chances are you might feel less clear and focused at some other point in time, but that’s ok because you’ll have a nice plan for yourself that you can then follow mindlessly, thanks to the “clear and focused you” that made the plan. If you don’t have a routine to follow when you feel unfocused or less motivated, you’re more likely to whittle away time when feeling off-kilter. While there is no guarantee that on a bad day you won’t suddenly decide your routine is stupid and you could care less, following a daily routine for a while makes it a habit and thus increases the chances that you’ll stay on track.
4. Prioritize: Master the Art of the To-Do List
Keeping a to-do list is the best way to stay organized every day. Seeing what needs to get done clearly written in front of you makes it easier to prioritize which tasks are more urgent. It also helps you remember the little things. It’s easy to remember that you need to buy shampoo when you are in the shower adding some water to the empty bottle and dumping it on your head, but it’s easy to forget such details when you are out running a few errands on a busy day.
For a useful tip on how to write a to-do list is to categorize your to-do list items using the time management matrix popularized by Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Create a to-do list that has four quadrants, or save time and Download the Things To Do List Template. Put each to-do item into the appropriate box based on how urgent/not urgent and important/not important each task is. Then tackle your to-do list by working on the boxes in the “appropriate” order. Box 1 is highest priority. Box 2 is when you nip things in the bud before they sneak their way into box 1. Boxes 3 and 4 contain items that you should work on minimizing and possibly eliminating altogether. For more details on this system and other ways to manage time, watch Carnegie Mellon Professor Randy Pausch’s excellent lecture on time management.
Identifying how each task on your to-do list ranks is a vital time-management skill. It’s all too easy to keep busy doing lots of things and then realize that you still haven’t gotten to some important work that you need to get done. Doing things in order of priority is the secret to getting more done and achieving your goals and objectives.
5. Shop Online
I realize this tip might seem like an ad for online shopping, but I am not talking about buying 15 pairs of shoes from Zappos. I’m referring to websites that sell normal, day to day things, and often for less than they cost in the store. And you don’t have to drive anywhere or stand in line to pay. I am so impressed with these few sites that I feel compelled to spread the word. It just doesn’t seem fair that there are folks out there who are still wasting valuable time, gas, and money by driving to the store to buy certain necessities.
Soap.com (and sister sites wag.com and diapers.com) deliver everyday necessities to my doorstep the very next day. And who doesn’t need necessities? Gone are the days of using a flat object to see if there is one more dollop of toothpaste in that very flat and empty toothpaste tube! We never run out of anything around here anymore. It’s like living in some futuristic society overflowing with necessity-abundance. Mouthwash, dish detergent, dryer sheets (even cat food and cat litter!) delivered to my door the very next day, all for less money than I would pay if I drove to the nearest store to buy the exact same brands. These sites have a minimum purchase amount to get the free shipping, but they all share a shopping cart so it’s fairly easy to meet the minimum. Shop at Soap.com and Enjoy Free 2 Day Shipping on $25
Vitacost.com sells natural food and other healthy living products for great prices. I use this site to buy pantry items, such as Eden beans (they have BPA-free cans!) to have on hand for a fast batch of black bean burgers or Frontier vanilla and almond extracts for smoothies. Vitacost.com is also an excellent source for natural beauty products like shampoos, soaps, and lotions.
In an ideal world, I’m all about supporting my local merchants. If a veggie doesn’t grow in my own garden, I’ll buy it at the farmer’s market or the local co-op. But if the products I’m buying have to get shipped to my local store in the first place, and then I end up having to pay more for the same thing, then I have no qualms about using the internet to my shopping advantage.
6. Eliminate what doesn’t support your goals and objectives.
While daily routines support what you want to achieve in a day, setting goals and objectives is about knowing what you want to achieve in your life. You can then choose to spend your time doing what supports your goals and objectives. For example, if your goal is excellent health, you could plan to exercise several days per week, and create a daily routine to support that objective based on your most optimal time for exercise.
As our habits, goals and objectives tend to change over time, it’s important to reevaluate how we spend the hours in our day. For example, over the last few years I’ve gotten really into cooking. I’ve read piles of cookbooks and several books on nutrition. It’s not unusual for me to order exotic ingredients online, like when on the hunt for the best black peppercorn on earth. However, I must admit that my interest in eating healthy, home-cooked whole foods has grown out of balance—some days I caught myself spending six hours in the kitchen! As much as I love to cook, cooking doesn’t pay my bills. Auditing my time helped me admit that I need to substantially cut back on the time I spend cooking and preparing meals.
Try keeping a notebook handy for a week to jot down where your time goes. Take note of where and when you might be able to improve the way you manage time, and cut back on activities that are not supporting what you want to achieve in your life.
7. Break Bad Habits (a.k.a. Stop Wasting Time)
Breaking bad habits is a daunting version of eliminating activities that do not support you and your goals in life. Most of the time breaking bad habits isn’t a simple little quickie tip that you can just implement with a snap of your fingers and bam! Tada! Instant extra time every day! But I felt that I had to include breaking bad habits because bad habits waste insane amounts of time. So if you break a bad habit, you will most likely free up lots of time because you were previously wasting time doing something bad.
We “waste” time when we do things that do not ultimately support our goals and objectives. Taking some time to relax or spending some leisure time with friends and family is not wasting time, as a fulfilling and balanced life certainly includes those things. But there is a difference between watching a film one evening with a loved one and watching 20 hours of reality TV every week. Reading the news over a cup of coffee is different from spending a few hours a day staring at your laptop clicking on any sensationalist headline that catches your attention.
When we think about reasons to break bad habits, like quitting smoking or quitting drinking, we don’t always consider saving time as one of the benefits. But in addition to consuming many hours of our day, bad habits are often unhealthy so they also shorten our life span. That’s pretty obvious with regard to a drinking or smoking habit, but the sedentary lifestyle that results from too much screen time is also unhealthy. Research has shown that humans burn fewer calories when watching TV than if they just sit there doing nothing!
If you smoke, drink, watch TV, or are addicted to Facebook, I dare you to spend one week keeping a log of how much time you spend doing these activities. You’ll probably be surprised at how fast the hours add up. What else could you do with those hours? Take a few evening classes? Get a second job? Renovate your home? Imagine the possibilities!
Breaking bad habits and creating good habits is a vital part of living your best life. Check out some of my other articles on habits to explore more about how habits form and how to change them.
8. Learn to distinguish between “Busi-ness” and Busy
Mark Lesser explores the difference between busy and busi-ness in his book Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less. Being able to distinguish between the two is an important time management skill. At first glance, busy and busi-ness look very similar – no matter which one you’re up to, you’ll look quite busy. The difference is that while busy you are getting things done, but while engaging in busi-ness you are most likely wasting time.
Busy is when you are doing something and don’t want to be interrupted. Busy is when you are focused on the thing you are doing and are actually getting something done. You are making good progress and doing quality work. There is a flow to what you are doing.
Busi-ness, on the other hand, is when you are doing something, or perhaps many things, but not that effectively. You might be easily distracted, and you aren’t in any zone, so you probably aren’t achieving much. You might be doing one thing and thinking about the next thing you need to do, instead of staying in the present moment and giving your attention to the thing you are actually doing.
A good indicator that you are just spinning your wheels with busi-ness is when you get the feeling that what you are doing isn’t really working and will either not turn out well or will need to be re-done at some other point in time. If you notice that feeling, you should stop what you are doing immediately, because the odds are you are wasting time. You can come back to the task another time, and by then you might find you are focused and have even better ideas on how to approach it. It may even turn out that the task is no longer necessary! Observing your efforts closely and stopping when you are trying to swim upstream is an excellent way to save time and energy.
9. Never underestimate what you can do in one minute.
While writing this article, I took a break to make a cup of tea. While I waited for the kettle to boil, I washed a few dishes and cleaned the countertops. While my tea brewed, I put away some clutter. Make it a habit to notice when you have a spare minute or two, and you’ll discover that there are lots of little clusters of time tucked into your busy day. It’s easy to just daydream for a moment while we are waiting for something, but consciously noticing these individual minutes is the key to using them wisely. And sometimes the best use might be to take a break, close your eyes, and just breathe.
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