Ever been in that place where you are psyched because you find yourself with some extra time (goodness forbid an entire day!)? Your plan is to use that free time to get all those nagging, perpetually incomplete projects out of the way once and for all. But before you know it that extra time has evaporated into thin air and nothing got accomplished. Welcome to the free time trap.

When we’re not pressed for time, it’s natural to get distracted by little things or let things slide. We trick ourselves into thinking, “I can do it later,” because, after all, we have X amount of time and it feels good to not have to rush to get something done. The problem is that when “later” comes, we’re often involved in something else and by the end of X amount of time, it seems that little or nothing has gotten accomplished. 

While I am big advocate for using free time to relax, if that's not your plan, it can be very frustrating to get caught in the free time trap. So here are a few suggestions to make the time that you have more productive. (They also work for productivity in general.)

1) Put it in writing. Don’t make a mental list of all the things you want to accomplish in your free time. Mental lists are easy to ignore, push aside, or forget. Instead, make a commitment to complete your tasks by a) working out a realistic time table for completing each task, b) scheduling blocks of your free time to complete the task, and c) stick to that schedule as you would do (or should do) “on the job.”

2) Don’t let technology derail you. The bells and whistles that technology has brought to our lives have transformed most of us into Pavlov’s dogs. When we hear that “ding” sound, we salivate until we discover the juicy morsel that awaits us in that text message or email. But these constant technological interruptions wreak havoc on productivity. Research has shown that when we divert our attention from a task to respond to an alert, it takes an average of eleven to sixteen minutes to get back to the point of productivity we were at before we were distracted. Solution: disable alerts while you’re working on a specific task. You’ll be surprised at how much more you'll get accomplished when your world is distraction-free. 

3) Revamp your to-do list.

Far too often, our to-do lists set us up for frustration or failure because they’re too broad. Rather than making a list of projects or goals that we intend to accomplish, to-do lists should consist of simple one-step tasks that need to be accomplished in order to complete a project or goal. Instead of writing, "Clean the house," which is a goal, break it down into smaller steps, such as "Load the dishwasher," "Dust the furniture," etc. Once a task is done, scratch it off the list and move on to the next task. When you give yourself simple, specific, action-oriented tasks, it makes them easier to accomplish, which helps you feel more productive. So keep it basic. Keep it simple. And get it done!

© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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