7 Deadly Time Management Mistakes: And How to Banish Them Forever
Have you ever woken up with a feeling of slight stress or anxiety? Or maybe it was extreme stress?
You likely have felt stress because you had failed to learn the most important skill for someone aspiring to achieve: time management.
Jim Rohn said the “Time management is the best-kept secret of the rich.”
Have you ever felt like there is too much to do in a day — like there is no way you can accomplish everything that you want to accomplish? Maybe your intentions are so large that you can never match your actions to them.
Here are some practical, useful, and important mistakes that you need to fix in order to improve your time management.
Deadly Mistake 1: Thinking that the problem is not having enough time.
“Well,” said Red Jacket [to someone complaining that he had not enough time], “I suppose you have all there is.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is denial. You are just bad at time management if you think you don’t have enough time. You need to face reality.
You can’t do everything yourself.
There is a set amount of time. For everyone.
Complaining that there is not enough time will never create more time. It just makes you feel better for a moment. But it hurts you tremendously. Complaining about the lack of time actually prevents you from facing reality: something is broken.
You can’t outrun a jet plane by jumping on a bike and pedaling like a madman. You might outpace the plane for a few feet, but once it gets going, you might as stop pedaling, because you are not going to beat that plane.
Your problem is not that you do not have enough time. Your problem is that you cannot accept the fact that you are bad at time management.
Deadly Mistake 2: Keeping the Unknown, Unknown
The unseen enemy is always the most fearsome.
— George R. R. Martin
There is no way you can manage something, especially time, if you do not even know what you need to accomplish. The first step is to convert the unknown stressors in your life to become known stressors. Seal yourself away somewhere, and then brainstorm every “stress”, project, or task that you might even possibly have to accomplish. Do not filter — yet. Often, the best time for this is either right before bed or first thing in the morning. This brainstorm does not directly solve any problem, but it at least gives your mind the ability to know what is attacking it.
The next step is to figure out which of these stressors, projects, or tasks need to be completed, and in what order. Do not try to actually do anything at this point. Just capture the stress in a tangible form. Write it down. Make a list. Whatever it takes.
You have now transformed the unnamed, unknown stress in your life into quantifiable chunks that you can process and manage. Just this step alone can change your life.
My uncle Edward actually taught this technique to me many years ago. He had just listened to an Ivy-league educated physician speak, and the physician mentioned that this exact method is how the most brilliant and creative people in the world attack their problems.
Remember: if you ever start feeling stress and are not sure about where the stress is coming from, then stop immediately and find a quiet place where you can focus. Convert the unknown stresses into manageable chunks. Lasso all of the worry and anxiety and corral it into an 8.5” by 11” piece of paper. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be scared.
Once you are done, you are like the Ghostbusters after they have captured a ghost. You are now carrying around something dangerous and scary, but at least you know exactly what it is and where it is.
Deadly Mistake 3: Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit
Learn the lesson: Don’t waste your time lashing out in all directions at what seems to be a many-headed enemy. Find the 1 head that matters.
— Robert Greene
You now have a list of actions that need to get done. Maybe they are causing stress in your life. Maybe you are not sure how you are going to get any of those things done.
Your tendency is going to be to look at your to-do list and pick the one item that is easy. Your mind will be attracted to the low-hanging fruit.
The low-hanging fruit is a trap! And that low-hanging fruit is often the urgent projects, tasks, or items that are so hard to avoid.
Stop and reflect first.
The greatest difficulty after you have a to-do list is figuring out what to do first. We all have good things that we can do. But we only have a set amount of time in a day, a month, and in our lives.
Here’s the brutal truth: you will not be able to do everything on your list. It is impossible. Do not try to fight it. Deal with it. Accept it.
Now, how do we determine what to do first?
Here’s a rule. Stephen Covey describes it best in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He gave the example of trying to fill a jar with items. When filling the far, what should you put in first? The biggest items need to be placed in the jar first, since they take up the most room. If you start by putting the smallest items in the jar, you will not have room for the biggest.
Your list is the same way. But instead of the biggest items, pick the most important. There are absolutely some urgencies that need to be handled. Do what is extremely urgent, obviously. Put out fires so your house does not burn down.
But once the fires are out, it is back to the important, biggest items in your life.
Picking the low-hanging fruit is a deadly mistake. If you do not learn this, you will never be effective.
Deadly Mistake 4: Not having a low-friction way to capture projects and tasks that need to be done as they pop up
Never ignore a detail or leave it to chance.
— Robert Greene
Busy people attract work. You know that is true. Plus, if you have any responsibility at all, then you know that your list of projects at the beginning of the day is never the same as at the end of day.
There is no doubt that new action items and projects will emerge. Many of those things are unexpected. And many of those things must be done.
However, those items are interruptions into your perfectly planned day, right? Do you stop what you are doing and immediately start working on something else? For many of us, the answer is yes.
The best way to handle the new and important items that come up is to have a built-in way to capture the project or task and then to maintain our focus on the previously-planned (and important) objectives.
In order to do that, we need a system for capturing the new tasks that does not interrupt the important objectives of the day.
It can be a simple notepad that you use to track new items. It can be a digital to-do list or project tracker. But it must be something that is accessible to you at all times.
Develop a system that works for you. And use it. Refuse to be interrupted and to stray from what is important.
Attention to detail is a trait of masters. Do not let the important but new tasks or projects escape you. Have a system and follow it meticulously.
Deadly Mistake 5: Saying Yes too much
It comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much.
— Steve Jobs
“Yes” is the most dangerous word in the world.
When you say yes to a request, you are making a commitment. And if we are truly saying (and meaning) yes, then our commitment translates to responsibility, action, and time.
Of course, not every “yes” results in our honor being on the line.
Why is that?
It is because “no” is one of the hardest words to say.
So instead of making our yes’s significant and meaningful, many times when we say yes we actually mean no. Or Maybe. Or “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”
You need to say yes only when you intend to commit to something. Stop saying yes unless you mean it.
This does not mean that you should say “no” to every request. In fact, sometimes saying “no” prevents you from taking advantage of amazing opportunities.
But very few people are honest enough say “no” to a request when they know they will not be able to commit and take on the responsibility of saying “yes.”
Here is how I have solved this problem.
When someone asks me to do something, I first evaluate whether I need to say yes because of prior commitments or current responsibilities.
Then I evaluate whether I want to do what I am being asked to do. Remember, some amazing opportunities are available if you just say, “Yes.”
But what if you know that you cannot take on a new commitment or new responsibility?
I have two strategies.
I say “No.”
I never use this strategy. Because it is hard to say no!
Second strategy, for when first strategy fails:
I fall back on my golden rule of decision making. I always wait at least 24 hours before I make a significant decision about how I spend my time.
There are many reasons why you must wait at least 24 hours. A “yes” is a serious commitment. You should discuss serious commitments with your spouse. If you do not have a spouse, then you should discuss serious commitments with your mentor, coach, parents, or close personal friends. Or maybe even your dog. Dogs are good listeners.
You should not, as a rule, make decisions that will commit a significant portion of your time or mental energy unless you put some thought into it. Twenty-four hours may not even be enough time.
Here is what to say:
Thank you so much for asking me. I really appreciate it. This means so much that you would consider me and then actually ask me. I am humbled by this request. But can I have 24 hours to think about this? I do not make commitments easily, and I need to discuss this with some of the key people in my life before committing.
The language above diffuses the pressure that you might feel, while also showing gratitude and appreciation for a new opportunity.
Why does this second strategy work? It is because you will tell the person asking that you always need time to consider your commitments. This time is needed because you are so serious about following through on those commitments.
Deadly Mistake 6: Trying to solve every problem by just working more (longer, harder, etc.)
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
If you are an achiever, this is probably your default mode. If you are facing a problem, the natural solution is to work until the problem is solved — no breaks, no rest, no vacations. Just get it done.
I call this the brute force technique. Sometimes you need to fit a round peg into a square hole, and you don’t care if the peg isn’t round and the hole isn’t square when you are done. You just want it done.
You can achieve incredible amounts of success just by using “brute force.” But you are also limited.
Brute force works.
For a while.
But it comes at a cost. The work gets done. The problem gets solved. But something breaks. Or someone.
Robert Ringer talks about his Uncle George Theory, which states: “If your main focus is on keeping your nose to the grindstone and working long, hard hours, you are guaranteed to get only one thing in return: old!”
Using brute force is unsustainable over long periods of time. You will fatigue. You will break down. Other parts of your life will be neglected and potentially fall apart.
What will fall apart? Your family. Your job. Your health. Your friends. Your home. Pick one. Or all of them.
Stephen Covey refers to sharpening the saw. If you want to perform optimally, you must recharge and rest. The law of diminishing returns is real. Fatigue and lethargy actually make you less effective.
Just pushing through and using brute force may work over and over. But more of you and your energy will be required to obtain the same result.
You must re-charge. You must sharpen the saw.
But more than that: you must build a team.
The bigger goal you want to achieve, the bigger the team is that you need to build in order to achieve that goal.
In business, I often counsel entrepreneurs that the main job is to build your team. You cannot do everything. It is impossible. But you can find other people who have different skills than you who can join your team.
You do not have to stop using brute force entirely, because sometimes stuff just needs to get done. But you must realize that brute force has a steep price — one that you may not always want to pay.
Rest, re-charge, and build your team.
Deadly Mistake 7: The Biggest Mistake of All: Thinking that some moments are less valuable than others
There are no ordinary moments.
— Dan Millman
The biggest mistake of all: thinking that some moments are less valuable than others.
There are no ordinary moments. Right now counts forever.
If the task right in front of you is not worthy of your attention and greatest effort, why are you doing it? What else should you be doing? Is there someone else who would be better at doing it?
We all have certain moments and memories that are etched into the fabric of who we are. There are certain relationships in our lives that are so important that we don’t want miss a single moment with that person.
The truth is: every moment can be a memory. Even interaction can be amazing.
Don’t let your poor time management skills turn your most precious and valuable asset into long periods of dread, anxiety, and despair. Because right now can count forever.
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