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The Art of Spending Time

December 2023

 

Time is precious. There never seems to be enough. We are overwhelmed with daily tasks to such an extent that sometimes it gets hard to see the wood from the trees. Time management is a skill we cannot do without, and we all need to find models that work for us. Good time management is a key component of not just success but also happiness. We often limit ourselves with false ideas about our abilities and how much we can achieve. But our abilities can be cultivated. We must find our motivation, set goals, and then learn the techniques that work for us, to achieve what we set out to do.

To change unhelpful behaviours, one must be motivated. To be motivated we need to be aware of our purpose. We need to think about who we are and what defines us. Once that is in place, and we still find ourselves struggling, we need to look at our energy levels. Are we sleeping enough, eating well, and exercising regularly?

With the basics in order, we are then ready to manage how we spend our time. Here are a few tried and tested ways to help you manage this precious resource.

Patrick Forsyth categorised four base components for time management. These are proper planning, smart implementation, regular monitoring, and effective communication. He used the acronym LEAD – Listing activities, Estimating time, Allowing for contingency and Deciding priorities.

The simplest thing we can do in the short run to beat overwhelm is to limit the number of things we add to our to-do list to three to five rather than tens of them. With limited intentions, we have a chance of getting through them and having the satisfaction of achieving something at the end of the day. Do important things rather than a hundred things.

Here is a simple framework we can use to decide what those three to five things are. Categorise tasks into the following four – Urgent and important (to be taken care of immediately); Urgent and unimportant (should be scheduled); Important and not urgent (scheduled in the near term); Neither important, nor urgent (delegate if possible).

In the medium term, the first step to begin managing our time is to measure where we are currently spending it. Laura Vanderkam, an expert in time management, suggests that we look at our week as 168 hours. Track for a week, every hour of your time to see how you spent it. Write down in as much detail as you can, what you did for each hour or even half hour for the entire week. If this turned out to be a week that was not typical, due to too much travel for example, then do it for another week that looks more like your usual week.

We can write down what we did every hour in just enough detail to be able to make sense of it later. This can be done a few times a day. We do this for 168 hours ie., one week.

At the end of the week, examine this information, categorising activities as suitable. These may be Sleep / Exercise / Work / Family / Chores / Leisure.

Now we can decide if we are happy with how much time we are spending on the various activities and what if anything, needs to change.

We would have found that some of our activities are productive, some are reactive ie., meeting requests from other people and yet others may be building relationships, relaxing or plain wasteful. Some are high effort and low reward, and others may be high reward and low effort.

At this point, we must reflect on our long-term priorities. How do our priorities compare to the way we are currently spending our time based on the log created?

Let’s say your priorities are career progression, building personal relationships and focusing on self-care. Does your time log reflect these priorities? What should you be doing instead? The priorities you identified can now be broken down into actionable goals and steps. These steps can be scheduled into your diary.

A tool you can use here is SMART goals. These are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound.

Let us take the first example. Career progression is a big task. This can be broken down into acquiring new skills – applying to and enrolling in say a part time yearlong diploma or accelerated programme for example. You may then schedule the weekly hours that would be required to apply to and complete this programme over the year.

What we focus on is important. Remember the 80-20 rule or the Pareto Principle. 80% of outcomes result from 20% of inputs. This concept can be applied to time management. We must prioritise the 20% activities that produce the most results. This does not mean that the 80% can be ignored. It is about choosing wisely.

The key is to identify the priorities and set SMART goals around them.

An essential aspect of time management is increasing our productivity. A task becomes effortless if we can get in the state of flow. In this state we are multiple times more productive. To be in flow is to feel challenged appropriately and rewarded by the activity. Set aside two hours at a time, eliminate distractions, and focus on one activity at a time.

If the task to be completed is not pleasant enough for us to be in flow, we are likely to procrastinate, which takes a psychological toll on us. To counter procrastination, we can break down these tasks into small steps. Once we get started, we may be able to get more done than we expected.

In his book ‘Time and how to spend it’ James Wallman talks about finding happiness and success by choosing better experiences – experiences that lead to growth and transformation.

Managing our time is not all about productivity. Time is something to be experienced and our aim should be to spend it in a way that makes us more alive in every moment. What we do in our free time is as important, if not more important than what we do while working. Positive experiences lead to happiness and happiness leads to success. Productivity doesn’t lead to happiness or satisfaction. Happiness is a strong precursor to success and not a by-product. In spending our free time, we must consciously incorporate the benefits of being outdoors and offline, engaging with others to beat loneliness, being in flow as well as the many advantages of continued learning. 

 

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