We’ve all said it.
Intellectually, we know we have the same 24 hours every day but, when we’re swamped, we yearn for just a little more.
“Time Management” is really an oxymoron since time is static and there’s no way to manage it. What we really need to talk about is priority management.
Let’s Do the Time Warp, Again
Let’s take a look at how a typical American spends his or her time each week:
- 7 hours watching (or yelling at the) TV;
- 3 hours reading;
- 2 hours working out or listening to music; and
- 7 hours in social activity with family and friends or going to parties or to entertainment events.
The rest of the time that we’re awake, we’re doing miscellaneous activities like driving, eating, cooking, washing, shopping, etc.
Other analyses put the number of years that we wait in line over a lifetime at 5 years and six weeks at red lights (clearly never studied my neighborhood).
Outside of work, if we want to spend more time doing something, we know it will require spending less time doing something else.
That’s why so many treadmills serve as supplemental storage areas.
What about at work?
Doesn’t it seem like that instead of taking something off our plates to make room for something else that we continually try to jam everything on the same plate and get stressed out when something falls off?
Did you know that, in a lifetime, we spend a total of 3 years in meetings (that’s got to be low) and are connected to the office 72 hours a week by our smartphones. There have to be opportunities in there somewhere to make some adjustments, right?
Who Do I See About Getting That 80% Back?
You know about the 80/20 rule, right?
80% of what we gain comes from 20% of our effort.
Makes sense and I’d be willing to bet that:
- Only 20% of what we read contributes to what we gain in life;
- A maximum of 20% of your email is worth your time (sorry Nigerian prince).
- You’d be lucky if 20% of what’s in your mailbox at home is worth looking at.
- As most men who live alone can attest, 80% of housework can be put off. In other words, only 20% is probably needed to make your dwelling habitable (back me up on this one, guys).
Of course as we think about ourselves, we each manage our time differently based on our personalities, what are responsibilities are and what expectations we and others have of us.
Waiting, Worrying, Wondering
Research on the impact of mindful leadership skills can help us change our priorities.
For example, leaders who practice mindfulness perceive time as if it’s moving more slowly than those who don’t because they practice keeping their focus on the present moment and better manage distractions.
Part of mindfulness training is learning to become aware of when we feel like time is controlling us and not vice-versa and, in that moment, choosing more structured and reality-based responses.
Conversely, if we feel like our lives have become too structured and inflexible, we learn to prioritize differently so that we spend more time in transactional activity.
Failure to adjust our priorities only reinforces the stressors we are currently tolerating.
There are lots of time-management hacks that are easy to find online. Many of them are quite helpful but many also belie a more overarching challenge: bringing awareness to each barrier.
A simple example is the amount of time we spend talking about barriers.
How frequently do you complain to others about challenges you face?
We complain to peers, sometimes to the boss. We complain during breaks or even while doing unrelated work. We complain to friends and family and sometimes our dogs!
If we were better able to bring awareness to our behavior, we could increase the opportunity to remove barriers.
Step 1 – Bring Awareness
The first step is to take a step back and be honest about why you believe you “don’t have enough time”. It’s important to acknowledge the emotions you feel when you’re overwhelmed and start to deal with them effectively.
There are steps you can take to respond to those emotions that can help you cope effectively.
First, ask yourself how you normally react when it seems like you don’t have enough time. Do you experience physical symptoms like stress headaches or biting your nails or tensing muscles?
What about behaviorally? Do you find yourself getting short with others at work? Are you yelling more? Have you lost your sense of humor? Smoking more crack? Ok – just kidding on the last one (I hope).
By recognizing these manifestations of time-stressors as they occur, you can remind yourself that this is what happens when you feel like you don’t have enough time. Each time you become aware in the present moment, it helps you move to Step 2.
Step 2 – Controllable vs. Uncontrollable
Every time you feel the emotions that arise when you’re stressed about time and bring awareness to how those stressors manifest for you, honestly assess whether or not you have any degree of control over the situation.
This is actually quite simple once you get in the routine of doing it but the key is to be 100% honest with yourself. We are hardwired to place accountability on anyone except ourselves when we run into barriers.
It’s much easier to blame others than it is to take responsibility for our contribution to the problem, let alone to take action to fix it.
Oftentimes, the cause of time-stressors can be both controllable and uncontrollable.
For example, let’s say, as the Vice-President of Operations, you have a report that has to be in the CEO’s hands by Monday morning but successful completion is dependent on getting a financial analysis from the VP of Finance. Even though you’ve finished 90% of the project, you’ll need to that analysis to support the conclusions of your report.
It’s now Friday afternoon.
This is a typical leadership scenario where your ability to complete your work is dependent on others doing their jobs in a timely fashion. It’s also typical in that it becomes easy to blame others, like that VP of Finance.
As the Ops VP, you have options:
- Turn in the report on Monday without the financial analysis which compromises the integrity of the report but blame the VP of Finance for not being timely with her contribution;
- Confront the VP of Finance now and put her on blast for negatively affecting your ability to meet the CEO’s expectations.
In both those options, you’ve put the blame outside of yourself. However, mindful leaders take ownership of their responsibilities and act on them accordingly.
If you waited until Friday to talk to the VP of Finance, that’s on you. Not only should that conversation have taken place sooner, it needed to come from a place of collaboration.
“I know my request for the analysis is an added burden for your team and I appreciate your willingness to take it on.
“I have question and a request: Is there anything I can do to help you meet my deadline? I’d also appreciate it if you could keep me apprised of your daily progress so I’m not freaking out at the end of the week.”
Not only will she appreciate your willingness to help out and recognize the added hardship to her department but she will likely reward that compassion by keeping you up-to-date, as you requested.
Had you either turned in the report without the analysis and blamed her or stormed into her office and chewed her out, you’d be less likely to get cooperation in the future.
Again, the point is to look for controllable components of situations that seem uncontrollable at first glance.
Step 3 – Take Action on the Controllable
Break down every controllable component of a time stressor and create a plan of action around each one.
Take the time and energy spent complaining and pour it into doing your best with the time allotted.
Make sure each action step is simple and not made up of multiple tasks. This allows for quick successes and builds confidence as you move toward meeting the larger goal.
Communicate clearly with your colleagues about what you’re trying to accomplish and explain why distractions need to be kept to a minimum while you stay focused.
When (not “if”) your progress fails to meet your own expectations, become aware and let go of self-defeating statements, e.g., “I knew I’d screw that up. I’m such an idiot.” Instead, focus on going back and reassessing your plan. Then,
be sure to give yourself credit for being flexible instead of giving up.
let go of your need to be perfect.
Set expectations of yourself that are more likely to cause you to succeed.
Honestly, I’ve never understood why leaders feel the need to challenge themselves to the degree that that they routinely fall short. That serves much more as a negative reinforcement than a positive one.
Step 4 – Let Go of the Uncontrollable
For complainers, nothing sucks time better than uncontrollable barriers to success but, if you genuinely try hard enough, almost anyone can find some small piece of every barrier that can be made better through personal accountability.
In large companies, it is not unusual for people in one department to blame those in another department, claiming to have no control over them. However,
the act of blaming undercuts the collaborative culture that engages employees.
What do you do instead? Respond confidently about the other department’s ability to find solutions while seeking ways to give them a hand.
Having said that, where no control seems at all possible, the choices become a) accept the fate and adapt your team’s strategy accordingly, or b) worry about it.
The research is clear that worrying affects multiple aspects of work and personal life. Yet we choose to worry in such a way that it occupies valuable time that could be spent readjusting our response to the barrier.
Some research has shown that we spend up to 85% of our waking hours either worrying about the past or what’s to come in the future.
Again, bring awareness to your worrying.
Recognize those moments when you’re either engaging in conversation or thinking about issues over which you have no control.
Label those moments as “time suckers” so that every time you identify an instance of worrying out loud or to yourself, you connect it to your need to find more time to do actual work.
To be clear, the goal of mindful priority-management is not to eliminate non-work related thought or discussion. Those moments can be renourishing, especially as a healthy break between blocks of work-time.
However, each time we think or say that we don’t have enough time, we can teach ourselves to first do a mindful, present-moment self-assessment of what our contribution is to the problem and act on it accordingly.
Mindful Follow-Up Questions
- What opportunities exist for you to reprioritize how you spend your time at work?
- When you feel the stress of time, how does it manifest physically and behaviorally?
- What are some of the unique challenges that leaders face in effective priority management?
- What is an example of a controllable barrier that you routinely face at work that you could take more ownership of?
- What steps can you take immediately to create more time for your work priorities?