Now that we are returning to our busy, prepandemic lives, we are once again struggling with time management. We’re cranking through as many personal and professional tasks on our to-do lists as possible. We’re blocking out distractions, cutting down on e-mails and downloading apps to help whittle precious seconds off our weekly chores.
The problem with all these practices is…they work, says best-selling author and productivity expert Oliver Burkeman. You do get a lot of stuff done. You achieve “inbox zero.” Yet you still don’t feel in control of your life or able to get to your most important tasks. In fact, he says, the faster you work and the more you fit into your day, the more unfinished items you generate and the more you beat yourself up for not being efficient enough.
Burkeman’s advice: People have an average of just 4,000 weeks on this planet. Drop the fantasy of getting everything done and the futile quest for the perfect work-life balance. To feel more productive, make hard choices about what matters most…what you can’t do, even if its valuable…and how to feel at peace about not doing it.
Here are Burkeman’s eight strategies for shifting your perspective and prioritizing your time without simply adding to your stress…
Stop trying to cultivate good habits. They may be preventing you from making real progress in your life.
Example: You decide you want to meditate regularly, but trying to find the time and effort to do it every day feels overwhelming…so you keep procrastinating.
Better: When you decide to meditate every day, try jumping in immediately without any planning. Maybe it will feel so good that it will stick as a new habit and motivate you to do it the next day and the next. Maybe it won’t. But at least you registered a small win today and created some personal momentum. The irony is that just doing something once is ultimately the only way to become the kind of person who takes that action on a regular basis.
Use a “fixed volume” to-do list. With a traditional to-do list, you race through it, checking off items and prioritizing the easy things that you can complete the quickest.
Better: My “fixed volume” list actually consists of two lists. The first is an open list, filled with everything that’s on my plate. Fortunately, it’s not my job to get through it all. Instead, I cull only the most important tasks—the ones that can really move the needle in my life—and transfer them to my “closed” list, which can have no more than 10 entries. I do not add a new task to my closed list until an existing task has been completed and removed from the list. There still are plenty of mundane tasks that wind up on my closed list (e.g., paying the electric bill and mortgage), but this system helps reduce the amount of time I spend on those tasks.
Decide in advance what you want to be lousy at. I’ve accepted that there are whole areas of my life I must stop trying so hard to excel at. Being a wonderful parent may mean that I have an untidy house…getting in physical shape may mean that I don’t prepare gourmet dinners. This type of strategic underachievement lets me select what I neglect in my life. It also helps take some of the sting and shame out of a messy home or cold sandwiches for supper. Even in the areas of life that you must attend to, there’s room to fall short on a cyclical basis. Example: You can choose to drop your fitness goals for the next few weeks so you can volunteer to help elect a local politician who you deeply believe in. After the election, you can return to your exercise routine.
Serialize, serialize, serialize. Focus on one big project at a time, and complete it before you move to the next one. Multitasking may make you feel like you are getting a lot done, but it’s often a way to avoid deep commitment. It allows you to jump over to another project every time you feel stalled or anxious. Result: You wind up making marginal progress on many half-finished projects. Even if you complete some projects, the results often are mediocre and not as satisfying as excelling on one important project. Also, serializing trains you to tolerate higher levels of anxiety and uncertainty when you face a complication in a project—you have no choice but to find a solution and push through.
Use the 3/3/3 technique to increase your daily productivity. Most people can do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for a total of only about three hours a day. Beyond that, you can continue to be productive, but your energy levels just aren’t as high
and your concentration not as intense. This may seem like a limitation, but it’s actually quite freeing. I don’t try to optimize my time for the entire workday. Instead, I reserve those three high-productivity hours—when my energy is at its highest and I have a good chance of keeping interruptions to a minimum—for my most challenging and important projects. Outside of that, I try to make the most of my lower-productivity time by completing at least three shorter tasks, usually urgent ones I’ve been avoiding that require moderate concentration such as answering e-mail and conducting meetings…and dedicating time to three maintenance activities that require low concentration but daily attention to keep life running smoothly—perhaps returning phone calls or planning business trips. The 3/3/3 technique ensures that I’m prioritizing what matters and getting it done each day even as my mental energy levels fluctuate.
Pay yourself first. This technique comes from the world of personal finance where you automatically funnel a portion of your paycheck into worthy goals such as savings or retirement investing. If you wait to do this until the rest of your financial obligations are taken care of each month, there never seems to be any money left over. The same concept works well with time. If a certain activity matters deeply to you—such as working on a creative project or nurturing a friendship—block out time for that first when you organize your calendar for the week, then adapt the rest of your schedule accordingly.
Treat your to-read pile like a river, not a bucket. If you are like me, you have a pile of interesting books and articles on your nightstand or the digital equivalent on your phone or tablet. My expectation of getting through this ever-growing mountain of material became such a burden that it was easier to ignore it and, even worse, waste my precious time surfing Twitter. I had lost touch with the simple reason I built up the pile—I’m a curious person, always looking for information that excites me or is beneficial to my professional success or personal growth. Now, I envision all this reading material as a stream continually flowing past me. It’s okay not to reach the bottom of the pile. I can just pick whatever I’m in the mood to read.
Practice instantaneous generosity. People often say that giving their time, money and effort to others is a source of immense long-term satisfaction. So it’s surprising that we don’t prioritize acts of kindness in our daily lives. Example: We get an impulse to send an e-mail praising a colleague’s work or call a friend we hear is struggling or send money to a charity. But we decide to put these actions on hold until that day’s more urgent tasks are completed. Better: Give in to kind impulses right away before you find excuses not to. Dashing off a hasty note of praise is more valuable than never writing a longer, more profound one. And donating to a cause that moves you is worthwhile, even if you fret that there are more deserving causes out there.