How often have you heard someone say something to the effect of “there just isn’t enough time in the day”? Or when asked why something wasn’t done, respond with “there just wasn’t enough time!”
The mental clutter of incomplete plans, promises made to ourselves but left un-kept, and the low-level anxiety stemming from things that probably need to be done but have been procrastinated create a pressure of its own, steadily building up within us.
Steven Covey, in the (must read) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, distinguishes the way we manage our time into 4 quadrants:
- Urgent and Important (e.g. project deadlines, meetings, catching a flight, an unwell child),
- Urgent but Unimportant (e.g. random emails, notifications or phone calls that demand immediate attention but result in busy-work and distract from other activity),
- Non-Urgent and Non-Important (e.g. general time-wasting, YouTube or Netflix watching, social media scrolling etc.) and finally;
- Non-Urgent but Important (e.g. long-range financial planning, building stronger relationships, preparing your will, taking out life insurance, taking better care of your mind and body)
Taking a moment to think about how much of a typical week is spent in each quadrant, we can learn a lot about how closely our priorities correlate to the way we spend our time.
As I have progressed along in this journey toward a more balanced life, I have found that simply clarifying my priorities using the Roles and Goals method, is the fastest way to bring the Non-Urgent but Important into sharper relief. Establishing what is important to me in the medium term and finding ways to build my current reality around those priorities, has been key to controlling that low-level anxiety, making the way I distribute my time much more meaningful and purposeful.
Along the way, I have introduced useful productivity concepts like the Pomodoro Technique (breaking down individual tasks into 25-minute undisturbed “phone-off” intervals), a brilliant way to aggressively mono-task when important work needs to get done. Learning to delegate and outsource more effectively is another key skill to focus on. Getting the most important areas out of the way first, wasting less time on busy work, and delegating tasks that are not a good use of my time frees up more time to chase other passions.
The oft-used catchphrase “work smarter not harder” is just a cliché when used with no real context, but if we think of “smarter” as establishing and planning around priorities, then better time management, efficiency and progress are simply byproducts of that effort.