We’d all like to use our time better, which is why I enjoyed reading Lisa Evans’s recent post on The Top 5 Time Management Mistakes You’re Making. She pointed out several woes that I know I am guilty of, from underestimating the amount of time tasks will take to not managing distractions.
Does a little wasted time matter? A few minutes here and there probably don’t, but the truth is that a life is lived in hours, so time management is really life management. Mindless choices can keep us from living the lives we want. Fortunately, better choices can open up lots of possibilities. Here are five more big time management mistakes people make, and the mindset shifts that can put you back in charge of your days.
There are 168 hours in a week. Even if you work 60 (more than most people do) and sleep eight hours per day, that leaves 52 hours for other things. That’s plenty of time to have a fulfilling personal life, but seizing those hours requires moving work around creatively. The good news is that you may have more flexibility than you think. When I studied the time diaries of high-earning women for a recent book, I found that three-quarters did something personal during traditional work hours. They made up that time by finishing up work at night after the kids went to bed, or sometimes on weekends.
Most didn’t have formal flexible schedules; they worked how they wished and figured if they delivered results, the particulars are irrelevant. A recent study of a major consulting firm found that high-performing men with kids often used these same strategies. You can go years waiting for someone to give you permission to build the life you want, or you can simply choose to work as you wish and see what happens. Life is a risk. Be bold.
Don’t fear white space in your schedule. For starters, it’s just practical. As Evans pointed out, most people chronically underestimate how much time things will take, and white space keeps you from running behind. More importantly, though, white space allows you to seize opportunities. If a client calls to bounce some ideas off you, you can give her your full attention. To keep commitments from eating all available time, commit this concept to memory: If it’s a great use of your time, say yes. If it’s merely a good use of your time, say no.
While you don’t want to plan every minute, there is a vast space between being overscheduled and planning nothing. Some research has found that our workday energy levels peak at around 8 a.m. When you show up at work, it’s game time. You want to spend that precious drive and focus executing rather than deciding what to do. So before you leave the office each day, identify your top three to five professional priorities, and roughly when during the day you might tackle them. People who’ve tried this say it’s often game-changing. You do everything you have to by 10 a.m., leaving the rest of the day open to engage with what comes up.
If you can plan your day’s professional priorities, you can plan your personal ones too. Maybe you want to go for a run before work and take your spouse out to dinner at night. Maybe you want to meet a friend for a drink after work and peruse that great little book store you walk past on your way home. Achieving work/life balance isn’t just about the hours you work, it’s about treating your family and leisure time with the same mindfulness you bring to the job. Knowing what you want to do vastly increases the chances that it happens.
When people tell me they’d like to spend their time better, they often complain about time spent on email, meetings, errands, and other things that expand to fill the available space. While there are all kinds of nifty tricks to minimize these tasks, in the long run it’s more effective to focus first on filling your time with the good stuff. If you and a friend have tickets to a baseball game that requires you to leave work at 6 p.m., you will probably spend less time on pointless emails during that day. If your family is spending the weekend at a water park, you won’t be running from store to store. Time is highly elastic. Put first things first, and it’s amazing how efficient you can become.