Do you have too much to do and too little time to do it? Do you have tons of unread emails in your inbox? If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. In today’s hectic, connected world it seems like we should be busy 24/7 just to keep up with the basics. What we do never seems to be enough and there doesn’t seem to be enough time to do things well.
Too many demands on your time can lead to a “scarcity mindset” in which you are so busy running around taking care of the problem right in front of you that you neglect to take actions or make decisions that will help you in the long run. Feeling deprived of time or energy makes you eat fast foods instead of cooking healthy meals, forget to pay bills on time, not return important emails or phone calls, or allow your house or apartment to disintegrate into chaos. A scarcity mindset may lead you to you neglect the people you care about and your own health and well-being.
So what can you do instead? The key is to take control of your time, rather than letting time control you. One study found that people who were under time pressure and felt they had control over their time reported greater life satisfaction, felt less overloaded, and had less tension than those who were equally busy, but felt they had little or no control over their time. Even if you can't control how much free time you have because of a demanding job and/or taking care of kids, you can start to be more intentional about how you manage the time you have.
Below are five things you can do to take control of your time:
Take a step back and think about your larger life goals. Decide what goals are most important to you. Is it to build and maintain relationships, be a good parent, advance at your work, contribute to your family or neighborhood, make lots of money, or take care of your health and live a balanced life? Once you’re clear about your priorities and goals, you can use this as a basis for planning your time and commitments.
If you’re like most people, you’re likely to overestimate what you can get done. You may forget that you’re less productive when you’re tired, that you’re bound to be interrupted, or that you may encounter issues along the way (like a printer jam) that sidetrack your time and attention. Take your initial estimate of how long it will take you to get a task done and then increase it by at least 25 percent to begin with. See how well this works and adjust it up or down as needed.
Limiting how often you get interrupted is key to getting things done. This is particularly difficult if you’re a parent of young kids. If you’re in an open plan office, you’re likely to get interrupted by co-workers wanting to chat or ask you questions. Texts or emails may keep pinging on your phone. Or the dog may start a cacophony of barking because the UPS truck just pulled up. You can’t avoid interruptions altogether, but you can do some things to limit them. Wear earphones, close your office door (if you can), set your computer not to ping with each email or turn off the sound on your phone. Make sure the kids are entertained during the time you plan to work or delegate someone to watch them. If you can’t get work done at home, leave the house and work in a library or quiet coffee shop.
Most of us prefer to say “yes” than to say “no” to people we care about or institutions we believe in. But prioritizing your goals means giving up some things you may want. If you think you may be missing out when you say "no,” focus instead on what you plan to accomplish with the extra time, even if it’s getting some much-needed rest. Setting boundaries with others is an important part of managing stress. Organizers often ask the person who always volunteers to do more because it’s easier than trying to convince the person who never contributes to show up. So, before you commit, think about where this task or role lies on your list of priorities and only say “yes” if it’s a high priority area. If being involved in your kids’ lives and being an active part of your neighborhood is a high priority, you may want to say “yes” to being on the PTA. But if advancing at your job is highest and you have a demanding job, “no” is the way to go.
Even when you do have free time, you may delay getting started because the job is aversive or boring, because you’re overworked, or because you don’t think you can do a good job. Once you figure out the reason you’re procrastinating, you are in a better position to find a solution.
If the task is unpleasant or boring, think about how important it is to you or your family.
Doing the laundry is a boring but necessary evil. In this case, it’s best to schedule a specific time each day to do it so you build a habit. Eventually, your brain will automate the habit and it will feel like a normal part of life. Doing laundry several times a week means you only do it for an hour or two and then you can get on with things you prefer.
If the task is boring but not that important, think about letting it go.
Does your sock drawer or craft cabinet really need to be perfectly organized? A general rule is to get the most important things done first. if you're doing a spring clean, clean and de-clutter the visible areas and then move to the closets and drawers if you still have the energy. If a task is not that important, you might think about letting it go or delegating so you can focus on more important things.
If you’re overworked and tired, be deliberate about motivating yourself
You may want to make a deal with yourself that you get to take a break and watch your favorite show after getting a certain amount done. Or you may decide to do your exercise first to get your energy going. Visualize the outcome you want (like a clean living space or a feeling of accomplishment after finishing a difficult work assignment) and let that motivate you.
If you don’t think you can do a good job, evaluate whether this belief is true
The belief that you can't succeed may be just a symptom of lack of confidence. If it’s true that you don't have the skills for the assignment, ask for help or find a way to learn the skills. It's amazing what you can learn if you set your mind to it. If confidence is the issue, then make a commitment to yourself not to get hooked by that old story and just get started.
If you always feel like you don’t have enough time, it’s time to take control. Decide which time demands are out of your control and which you have a choice about. Then make the best choices for yourself without guilt. In order to achieve your most important goals, you may need to plan, let things go, stop procrastinating, motivate yourself, delegate or be more intentional about your commitments. Whatever you do, remember that the rewards will be worth it in terms of greater accomplishment, less stress, and more peace of mind.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, life coach, author, and national speaker. She practices in Mill Valley, CA and online. Her expertise is in helping clients manage stress, anxiety, health, and relationships using mindfulness, brain-based skills, and cognitive-behavioral strategies.