The reason I ask is because the question is a true curiosity of mine. I would have to say that the most common fodder for self-loathing is a person’s relationship to their own time management. Everyone seems to consider themselves deficient in it. Can everyone truly be awful at this, or is it one of those cultural markers we use to judge ourselves against somebody else. Without even knowing how a person actually struggles, we witness their progress in life and label them a master of time management. If they’re getting something done, they must be really good at it with no effort at all. We’re the only loser who can’t get it straight.
Not true. At all.
In fact, I don’t know anyone who actually feels they have their own relationship with time all figured out. (I’m sure they’re out there, but I believe they’re rare.)
One thing I do know– there’s a general tendency to far exceed a mere mortal’s capability when a person decides they’re going to wrangle their poor time management skills, transforming their organization of it to absolute gleaming perfection. That’s the misconception. Perfectionism has no place in time management. It’s just a recipe for self-loathing, a person’s tool for self-sabotage. If I say I suck at time management, and then I create a totally unrealistic, inhumane recipe to transcend it (something like, “I’m going to take up hiking. I think I’ll start with Mount Everest.”) then all I’m doing is setting myself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then I can tell myself, “See? I can’t do it. So I’m not even going to try,” and remain in my stressed-out, chronically anguished state, because I’ve proven to myself the futility of my motivation.
In my own life, I can break down the success of my own time management into one simple word: Dopamine.
The secret is, it takes remarkably little action to get a satisfying hit of it, my favorite neurotransmitter of all, Dopamine, the brain-chemical of accomplishment (to far over-simplify it). Psychologist David Ley says Dopamine’s role in pleasure and reward is that it helps your brain to recognize “incentive salience.” This means that it’s like a little red flag to your brain, saying “hey, pay attention, this is about to feel good, and you want to remember this, so you can do it again.” What this means is, if we set a goal, it doesn’t matter how minuscule a step toward that goal is. If it’s on our to-do list (the cherished to-do list, my metaphorical ship’s rudder) and we check that box, our brain sounds a little reward alarm, “Oh my God, Yes she did, she accomplished something!!!” and all of the brain’s confetti drops, balloons rise and celebratory horns sound.
I like this feeling. I’m going to want to repeat it. So I do it again the next day. Dopamine is about learning that rewards feel good, so we can do them again.
Where we fall off the rails though, is to set inhumane standards for ourselves in the very beginning. Our inner demons have a tendency to evaluate our small beginning goals and tell us how pathetic they are. “You’re going to walk around the block every morning to start an exercise routine? You may as well do nothing. Nobody has ever lost twenty pounds by walking around the block,” the inner dialogue sneers, incredulous at our incompetence.
But walking around the block one day turns to two. Then three. And before we know it, a habit is forming, a habit built on the rewarding feeling of accomplishment, of consistency. We feel good that we’ve now done it eight days in a row. We start to look a little forward to it, rather than dreading it. And before we know it, we’re walking for miles. Then we’re climbing mountains.
Time management is like that. It has to start small.
I saw a meme this week which said, “I put drink coffee on my to-do list every morning so I can feel like I’m accomplishing something.” It was meant to be funny, but there’s some truth to that.
Myself, I put five things on my to-do list for every work day. Some of those things are substantial, some small. On some days I’m so energized by having completed my to-do list early that I keep adding whatever more will fit into an eight-hour day. On others, I may be content to just ride out the rest of the day unstructured, as long as the five are complete. This is the structure that works for me, and without it, I become lost and drifting. I’m the only person I’m accountable to in my business, and there’s no worse feeling than disappointing myself. There’s no dopamine in that feeling.
Time management can be so rewarding if it’s done with love, not cruelty.
For those who may want to re-evaluate their own relationship to the daily sprint, (the daily meander? the daily stroll? the daily marathon? whatever your speed) I do consider the following steps (inspired from Entrepreneur Magazine, 2015) to be a useful guideline. Remember, it has to be rewarding (dare I say fun?). Tweak this in any way you see fit to feel useful and satisfying to your life.
My only plea is to keep everything small to begin with. Remember, you’re watering a seed in hopes it grows to a mighty oak. Don’t drown it before it has a chance to germinate.
Practice the following techniques to become the benevolent leader of your own time:
- Carry a schedule and record all your tasks, conversations and activities for a week. This will help you understand how much you can get done during the course of a day and where your precious moments are going. You’ll see how much time is actually spent producing results and how much time is wasted on unproductive thoughts, conversations and actions. I want you to think macro here, not micro! Record only the significant time-sucks!
- Any activity or conversation that’s important to your success should have a time assigned to it. To-do lists can get longer and longer to the point where they’re unworkable. Appointment books work. Schedule appointments with yourself, for your important tasks, and create time blocks for high-priority thoughts, conversations, and actions. Schedule when they will begin and end. Have the discipline to keep these appointments.
- Plan to spend at least 50 percent of your time engaged in the thoughts, activities and conversations that produce most of your positive results. Ideally, 50 percent of your time should be spent doing what’s enjoyable to you. If this is not your reality, a different conversation with me needs to be had! Every day involves a little of the daily grind, whatever that means to you. But there has to be fulfillment, or no wonder you’re burned-out with your time management.
- Schedule time for interruptions. Plan time to be pulled away from what you’re doing. Take, for instance, the concept of having “office hours.” Isn’t “office hours” another way of saying “planned interruptions?”
- Take the first 30 minutes of every day to plan your day. Don’t start your day until you complete your time plan. The most important time of your day is the time you schedule to schedule time. And this, to me, is sacred time. It involves a little journaling, a little feeling out what I need to do today vs. what I want to do today, and hopefully finding a healthy marriage of the two.
- Take five minutes before every task to decide what result you want to attain. This will help you know what success looks like before you start. And it will also slow time down. Take five minutes after each activity to determine whether your desired result was achieved. If not, what was missing? How do you put what’s missing in your next activity? Identifying how you feel after accomplishing something, even very small, is an incredible stress-reliever. It’s a good habit to develop, to iron out the frazzles.
- Put up a “Do not disturb” sign when you absolutely have to get work done. My “do not disturb sign” is ear plugs when I’m in a public place working and a closed door when I’m home.
- Practice not answering the phone just because it’s ringing and e-mails just because they show up. Disconnect instant messaging. Don’t instantly give people your attention unless it’s absolutely crucial in your business to offer an immediate human response. Instead, schedule a time to answer email and return phone calls.
- Block out other distractions like Facebook and other forms of social media unless you use these tools to generate business, and put a time on it if that’s the case! I have been known to accidentally fall down the bottomless pit of Bored Panda’s inspirational animal stories, or Mashable’s unfailingly catchy headlines, and before I know it an hour has passed!
- Remember that it’s impossible to get everything done. Getting everything done is a myth in time management, no less fantastic than a unicorn. Also remember that odds are good that 20 percent of your thoughts, conversations and activities produce 80 percent of your results, so be okay with that.
Do you have a favorite book, tool, time management guru you’d like to share with us? Please do so in the comments so all can possibly gain from what gold you’ve found.
Be good to yourself!