Time is a strange entity, isn’t it? Sometimes hours slip through our fingers, joyfully evaporating into warm thin air; others painfully drag on, taunting us with their tedium. Some weeks might forever change someone’s life trajectory, like falling in love; others breeze by in a busy, focused routine as you work from home during a pandemic.
Not all moments are perfect nor memorable, but all moments of life are precious. That might sound cheesy, but hear me out. We’re only given a limited amount of minutes on this Earth — an amount we’re never privy to. While some days will inevitably be better than others, it’s our duty to understand that time is one of the most precious resources we have. Unless we master our relationship with it, we’ll find ourselves lost.
I talked with life coach Erin Van de Voorde about how she guides her clients in time management. Here are some tactics she suggests that will allow you to better manage the time you’re given.
First, think of it as energy management.
When you’re arranging your day, it might be tempting to list everything you need to do, assess how long it will take you, and move your schedule around accordingly. A task that might inspire one person could completely drain another, however. So it’s important to get real with yourself before you jump into your list indiscriminately to tackle the day.
“I often say to my clients, what we are doing here is learning to manage our activities,” explains Van de Voorde. “In terms of energy, we also have a finite capacity each day, so when we are prioritizing our most important way to spend our time, we have to invest our best energy into the most productive priority.”
Make space to prioritize what matters — and what can wait.
“Prioritizing means picking one thing — and only one thing — to be at the top. It is putting into action the principle ‘first things first,’” explains Van de Voorde. “Multitasking is not productive. This idea was solidified when I read The One Thing by Gary Keller. The main principle of that book is to ask ourselves: What is the one thing, that by doing it, would make everything else either easier or non-existent?”
So, as you make your list, step back and look at the big picture: What is your priority today? And how can you focus on bringing your best self to that task or situation? Give yourself time to collect your thoughts at the start of the day, and review these priorities at the end of the day.
When you’re busy, it might sound tedious to waste time meditating on something like this, but Van de Voorde vehemently disagrees. “We actually save time when we invest in making space for silence, envisioning our day to come, and processing the day at the end of it,” she explains.
As the renowned Israeli cognitive and mathematical psychologist, Amos Tversky once said, “The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”
Foster a focused environment by starting inwards.
Our environment can make or break us, but too much focus on our exterior can also prove to be a distraction or scapegoat.
I’ll never forget my college roommate’s procrastination tactic: cleaning. You could tell when she had a big paper due because our apartment would be spotless, while another friend (with a much higher GPA, mind you) basically lived in chaos but could get things accomplished by just going to the library to declutter her thoughts.
It may be true that our external environments reflect our interior lives, but managing that internal reality doesn’t change just by cleaning up or making your office look like a Crate & Barrel catalogue. “Often we need to put our internal in order first,” says Van de Voorde. And from there, the exterior messes might start to dissipate.
After investing energy in getting priorities straight in your interior life, shift your perspective to see time as another environment that takes shape according to that internal order. From there, managing time is simple — Van de Voorde challenges us to consider looking at our calendars as a bookshelf: placing each time block or task in its place will help us give order to our time environment.
Remember who you are — and where you want to go.
If you are struggling with time management, don’t try to hide it as a weakness — look at it honestly as a challenge you’re willing to confront, and then be open to involving the support of others.
“We often have blind spots when it comes to ourselves,” Van de Voorde says. “And that’s okay because we are actually made for relationships and for community. We need others to help us shed light on what we cannot see.”
Talk to someone who has your best interests at heart — like a friend, spouse, parent, mentor, or even a therapist or life coach — and ask them what they notice about how you manage time. Those conversations can uncover new perspectives on your priorities. Are you avoiding something? Are you spending more time on a certain subject or project because your intuition is telling you that there’s more there?
“One of the biggest mistakes I see my clients making is taking a disintegrated — as opposed to integrated — look at their life activities,” Van de Voorde says. In other words, when we look at everything in the context of our whole person, we’ll see that our actions need to integrate with our calling. For instance, maybe someone wants to work on time management, but the deeper reality is that they are feeling stressed and stuck with no goal or purpose. No amount of time-management “hacks” will change anything until that deeper reality is resolved.
Change that little voice
It might be tempting to berate ourselves for managing time poorly: I’m just terrible at organizing; I’m just a hot mess with no goals; I’m too busy for this. But this negative thinking doesn’t do anything to move us forward, and can actually drag us down. So instead, consider adopting positive self-talk: I am capable of organizing my time; I am learning how to do this, and that’s okay.
This might seem like a benign change, but it’s crucial when it comes to making small steps in improvement. “When our skills and mindset are in opposition — for example we think, ‘I’m so disorganized’ and we are trying to ‘do’ organization — we have disintegration, which produces inconsistency and leads to frustration, resentment, and ultimately giving up,” Van de Voorde says.
When it comes to the mechanics of managing time, no single hack will apply to every single person. Certain people do best by knocking off small little things on their list to gain momentum, while others might need to dive into that one pressing project first. Finessing a perfect morning routine may work for some, but you can be just as productive with a different rhythm if you’re a night owl. It depends on your life stage, personality, and your own personal goals.
Wise time management boils down to answering the big questions: knowing yourself and the role you play in the world, where you’re generally headed, and how your life should reflect that calling. From there, managing the limited minutes we have is just about tweaking and honing your own tactics while you’re on your way.