Happy Friday! As you read this sentence, 8000 milliseconds will expire and you’ll never get them back.
Getting my kids out of the door and into the car for preschool drop-off is always fraught with drama. It’s because they have no concept of time yet, while I have growing anxiety over it.
Time weighs on my every moment.
So yesterday morning, I told my five year old that he had a choice: he could see how long it takes him to get dressed, or he could try to get dressed within a certain time. Either way, I would use the stopwatch on my phone to time him.
He opted for the first option: see how long it takes him to get dressed. I started the stopwatch, and he looked at the screen in wonder as the milliseconds flipped by.
“Wow! Time is so fast!” he exclaimed.
Buddy, you don’t even know the half of it.
If you’re anything like me, it never feels like you can stay ahead of your ever-growing task list and the rapid pace of time.
Time chases you like a hungry wolf, determined to devour your work life and your life outside of work. And the more you scramble to stay ahead of its snapping jaws, the more anxious you get, the more distracted or overwhelmed you feel as you approach your work, and the less you get done.
And when that big, bad, hungry wolf of time finally catches up, it costs you in the form of missed deadlines, lost customers, lost career opportunities, and lost connections with your loved ones.
I’m tired of being wolf kibble. How about you?
Let’s take a look at how we can put more distance between what we have to get done and the time in which we have to do it.
How Time Gets The Best of Us
Part of the reason it’s so easy to fall into the clutches of time is due to an ENORMOUS myth in the modern approach to work:
A workday doesn’t really have 8 hours.
Or 10, or 11, or however many you might dedicate daily to “work.” The clock might say it does, and your calendar too, but you know after trying week after week to stuff all of your deadlines and projects into that arbitrary amount of time that a workday actually has way, way less time available for real work.
Why do we expect to accomplish more than we get done?
Why do we keep acting like there are a full, usable 8 hours in the workday?
Why do we beat ourselves up when we don’t accomplish what we somehow imagine should be able to fit within them?
For one thing:
The concept of the 8 hour, continuously productive workday is more than 100 years old.
Before 1914, the average factory worker’s workday was 10–16 grueling hours. Every moment of that time was spent devoted to accomplishing one task — over and over again. The working conditions were unrelenting and unsustainable.
Then, in an effort to boost productivity, Ford Motor Company revolutionized the American workday by cutting factory worker’s shifts to 8 hours while doubling their wages.
But it’s 2016. And you’re not assembling cars.
Here’s the thing: although the fundamental nature of office work is vastly different from that of assembly line work, we’re still expected to be in the office from 9 to 5 (and if you’re working for a startup, chances are the time at your desk goes deep into the twilight hours).
However, Inc contributor Melanie Curtin has observed that the average office worker spends only 2.5 to 3 hours actually working.
If you’re at a desk job that isn’t telemarketing or data entry, you don’t spend your days on repetitive tasks that take physical input and extended hours. Your success relies on your creativity, focus, and daily inspiration. Your days are never the same, and vary from meetings, tasks, and events.
And the more committed you are to doing great work, the more inaccurate your expectations will be as to your ability to deliver it.
People who are passionate and driven when it comes to their work tend to have an overly optimistic perspective about what they can accomplish in a single day.
Take a look at this brilliant example from GrooveHQ illustrating the fantasy vs reality of a typical workday:
So how can you control your overly hopeful deadlines and overestimations of your capabilities?
By avoiding a variety of time-management mistakes.
Think about how you approach your day. Are you running into these common time management slip-ups?
A 2005 study at King’s College, London University found that working while distracted by phone calls, emails, and text messages is equivalent to the IQ loss of a person smoking marijuana, or missing an entire night’s sleep.
You’re sleepless enough trying to achieve career success and find that elusive work-life balance, you don’t need multitasking robbing you of any more rest.
2. You plan too much, leaving too little time for execution
Take this piece of advice from the Marine Corps: If you have 70% of the information you need, 70% of the resources, and 70% certainty that your solution will work, execute. There are some things you can’t anticipate: interruptions, emergencies, delays, unexpected details, but you can’t know what these are until you start.
3. You don’t have a to-do list, and it’s not ordered by priority. If you don’t prioritize your list, you risk attending to the most urgent (but not necessarily important tasks, like responding to email) and abandoning tasks related to big-picture projects that don’t necessarily call your attention with their urgency.
4. You’re constantly distracted, but you don’t take purposeful breaks. According to a study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most common unproductive activities were:
- Reading news websites
- Checking social media
- Discussing non-work related things with coworkers
- Searching for new jobs
If you’re doing any of these things while working, you’re multitasking, and your brain never gets a break. Scheduling in your breaks can both help you focus more (you know you’ll get that Facebook time after these 25 minutes of focused work) and lets you enjoy your breaks more (you aren’t guiltily wasting time you should be using for work because hey, this break time is scheduled in your calendar).
5. You have too many time-management strategies but no method of tracking your time.
How can you be sure if any of the time hacks you’ve collected are working if you don’t evaluate if they’re improving your productivity and efficiency?
Here are some strategies for tracking, planning, and estimate your time so you can actually use it effectively.
Choose a tracker and start gathering valuable data about your time-management.
Tracking your time can help you plan your time with increasing accuracy. If you can make a few clicks and immediately know how long that last project took you and your team to complete, you’ll be more able to estimate an accurate deadline for a similar one.
There are dozens of time tracking apps and websites to take advantage of, so take your pick of time-tracking secret weapon. Really Good Emails marketing director Sean Kennedy has created an exhaustive list of time-tracking apps that will be sure to help you spend less time being busy and more time being productive.
What happens when you forget to start and stop your chosen tracker? Apps like Toggl (once you download the desktop app) and RescueTime let you passively track, meaning it tracks your work without you ever having to click “start.”
Estimate project deadlines thoughtfully.
Projects almost always take longer than you think. But how can you estimate how much longer, exactly?
Start by factoring in not only the 100% focused time the project will require, (including management, outside meetings, and training) but also the laundry list of other things that will inevitably happen in between, including:
- Other high-urgency (but not necessarily as important) tasks
- Quality control rejections
- Unanticipated events, emergencies, holidays, sickness, breakdowns, etc.
“Don’t think about the best case scenario, says Mike Delgado, Director of Social Media and Community Engagement at Experian. His advice includes to “create consequences and rewards” for every deadline, and to involve others in your deadline-making to hold you accountable.
“Remember that setting deadlines for yourself is geared to help you finish. Don’t create a deadline if you don’t intend to achieve it.”
Avoid pushing back deadlines for tasks by tracking your time, and using past time-tracking data to inform your planning as you’re scheduling in time slots for each task of your day (or project).
Schedule and set timelines on your calendar
Your calendar isn’t just for meetings and project deadlines. Zoom in on the details of your day by scheduling individual tasks, and even giving your breaks their own designated blocks.
Here are some of the best task-scheduling techniques to help you level-up your calendar skills.
- Practice single tasking to avoid wasting your focus on multiple tasks at once. This takes planning, though: in order to work exclusively on the most important task on your to-do list without absent-mindedly clicking back and forth between your inbox, office chat, and social media profiles, you’ll have to use your calendar to block out time to do those things that are urgent but not always as important as your main task.
2. Schedule in tiny but important tasks. Time slicing allows you to free up time for making a phone call or returning a quick email. It only works, though, if you plan out the tasks you plan to squeeze into those 1- to 5-minute slices, and you follow your plan so that you are actually time-slicing, and not just multitasking.
3. Use a timer. The popular, yet incredibly simple Pomodoro method is a time management strategy that breaks your work into 25-minute periods divided by scheduled five-minute breaks. After four of these sections, you take a longer break. You can single task for a set amount of time, and then truly enjoy that break.
Note: Mindful.am, our calendar app in-development, will have a built-in Pomodoro feature to help you break projects down into smaller tasks that you can schedule into 25-minute chunks.
The more you manage your time well and stick to deadlines, the more confidence you’ll inspire in your customers, your managers, and ultimately yourself.
Ending that workday with a full checklist and a sense of accomplishment? Sounds pretty good.
And the more productive you feel within those 8 hours, the less you feel obligated to work long hours or put in extra time outside your workday.
And that way you can slow down, stop running from time, and truly enjoy the present moment.
A mindful approach to time management is the difference between being chased by a hungry wolf and stopping so you can admire its beauty.