I was recently asked about my approach to time management. I suspected that this was a softball question from the asker, a professional in the early stages of her career. I think she expected the usual advice: Give yourself deadlines, be ruthless about prioritization, and wake up an hour earlier. What I gave her was something quite different. But, the advice is the product of many years of experience trying to cram many things into a day (including writing a book).
So, allow me to share these nuggets of wisdom with you. Thanks in advance for choosing to spend your time reading it.
- Give yourself grace. If you are reading this article, it is probably because you’re a high-achieving person. [Pat self on the back here.] Be warned I am about to give you advice you are going to find terribly disappointing: You can not do everything. There are times in our lives where needs must take priority. You may be pregnant or have children. You may have an ill family member. Your physical or mental health might not be in the best of shape. There may or may not also be a global pandemic. These are not the times to say, “Let me have 75 people over my house for Thanksgiving” or “I’m going to learn to speak fluent Spanish.” I’m not saying stop setting aspirational goals. What I am saying is: Be realistic. Don’t lock yourself into deadlines and commitments you may not be able to meet — for very good reasons. Don’t sign on to help with something and then repeatedly beat yourself up for not delivering on expectations. Sometimes you need to focus inward and homeward. Give yourself the grace to do so.
- Stop wasting time comparing yourself to others. A childhood friend of mine is a successful film and television director, has natural-birthed two amazing children, runs her own company, and looks even better in a bikini now than she did 20 years ago. Here I am sticking my hand into a box of Cheez-Its for yet another handful while binge watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt for the 3rd time in a row. Why do I lack the discipline she certainly must have? But then consider this: Maybe she has the metabolism of a hummingbird? Maybe she sleeps 2 hours a night and is quietly miserable? The answer? I don’t know and I will likely never know. I don’t have the facts, which is why it is incredibly silly to compare. Judging myself by my own standards means I am always moving forward. Sometimes it might be up, sometimes it might be down — but I am moving ever forward. Not too shabby.
- Learn your natural rhythms. I’m a morning person. I do my best writing and thinking right after I wake up. Setting a 5 AM alarm for me is no big thing — even on a Saturday. I also know that I become an epic grouch between the hours of 4 PM to 6 PM. It’s a level of surliness that no snack can cure. I do my absolutely damnedest to never schedule a meeting during those times. And, when the occasion calls for it, I pay close attention to my mood, so as not to unleash my inner dragon on people. A helpful tip I will give anybody who feels like listening: Always pay attention to your boss’ natural rhythms. If she is not a morning person, 9:01 AM isn’t the wisest time to ask for a raise.
- Actually block out times to do stuff. Tasks don’t magically get done. For example, the reason why America’s garages are so dirty, is because very few people say, “You know, I’m going to spend all this weekend cleaning the garage!” Tasks take time. Bigger tasks take a bigger chunks of time. At work, I make appointments with myself and block off time to do specific things, absolutely 0% of which are email.
- Understand the difference between real and manufactured drama. Real drama is a friend with a flat tire who needs help picking up her kids from daycare. Manufactured drama is when a friend texts you in the middle of the day: “I can’t believe she posted that on Facebook!” The former needs decisive action; the latter calls for a big cup of coffee and an hour-long chat. Show me a person who says she doesn’t like gossip as a form of distraction and I will show you a liar. One of my favorite people on the planet routinely send me texts like this: “You will NOT BELIEVE what just happened!” I will then type her back: “Urgent or can I call you later?” In 10+ years, the answer back has never been “Urgent.” Focus on the tasks at hand so you can savor that big, delicious scoop later.
- Anticipate your own forgetfulness. When I get in the thinking zone, I can forget what I’m doing. It’s not uncommon to find spoiled milk in our kitchen cupboard. On mornings, I can be on autopilot. Try to anticipate the things you’ll forget (mask, keys, snack) and put them in a place you can’t help but stumble on as you try to make your way out the door.
- Exploit every opportunity to multitask. I can’t stand exercise but I walk every day because it’s good for my health or whatnot. I specifically choose to walk the same path every single day because I have tired of the scenery long ago. Not needing to engage my situational awareness means I can use the time to engage my mind — and do tasks like dictate emails or listen to a book. When I’m not Zooming, I pace around on business calls or talk to my girlfriends while I’m doing dishes. Time is a resource you can’t replenish. Double-dipping on tasks lets you squeeze more productivity out of a day so you can double your enjoyment during your reclaimed time.
This is what works for me. You may find something works better for you. Share your tips!