We are so busy doing the urgent that we don’t have time to do the important.
Starved for time? Join the club.
Surveys confirm what our guts already know: We Americans are enduring a “time famine” unknown to previous generations. Faced with “urgent” work, “urgent” errands, “urgent” texts, “urgent” emails, and a slew of other supposedly “urgent” tasks, we’re increasingly squandering our finite lives on the “urgent” at the expense of the important. It’s making us miserable.
Ironically, much of the fault lies with innovations that promised more time. Email was supposed to replace tedious “snail” mail with the convenience of “instant” communication; instead, it fostered a culture of 24/7 availability. Facebook and its cousins were supposed to streamline social time; instead, they hijack our brains with each dopamine-releasing “like,” sometimes causing addictions that lower long-term happiness and crowding out time that could otherwise be spent on more meaningful social activities.
The problem isn’t unique to Americans. A 2017 study confirmed that a time famine has gone international.
Luckily, if you feel like you’ve lost control over your time, you can reclaim it. Here are nine suggestions. The overarching theme? Be deliberate about how you spend your time.
1. If you can afford it, spend money to buy time.
Author and strategist Jessica Leigh Levin writes, “research shows working adults report greater happiness after spending money on a time-saving purchase than on a material purchase.” This was true “regardless of where they fell on the income spectrum.”
Speaking of money …
2. Time, like money, is valuable.
We all have friends who endlessly prattle on about how they “can’t seem to find the time” for their goals, dreams, hobbies, and so on. Sometimes, the lack is actually real passion, real fire. More often, we are underestimating time’s value.
Recognize that, unlike lost money, you can’t reclaim lost time. Every second you squander is a second lost forever, and so is the opportunity to use that second on something you find meaningful.
Again, the key is to be deliberate. As the ubiquitous saying goes—Carpe diem.
3. Wake up earlier.
This advice applies to fellow night owls. Trust me, I know how tough it is. But if you force yourself to wake up even an hour earlier than usual, you’ll feel less pressed for time and more accomplished by the time you start your workday.
4. Have the courage to say “no.”
In her book Everyone Has Sh*t: Unsolicited Advice for Being Human, Jessica Levin encourages us people-pleasers to say “no” more. Do you find yourself often saying “yes” to things you don’t really want to do? If so, you may be taking on so many obligations you neglect yourself. You might be lending control of your time to anyone who requests it. Think about a few activities you can start saying “no” to.
5. Use the Pomodoro Technique to maximize your efficiency … and your free time.
A long-time favorite of productivity hackers, the Pomodoro Technique works because it’s simultaneously easy and effective. The Technique works wonders for time management. It enables you to “put in your all,” maximizing efficiency at work so that you have more time for leisure, hobbies, or personal goals.
As described by Francesco Cirillo, its inventor, the technique has four steps: (1) Decide on a task; (2) Set a timer for twenty-five minutes (each twenty-five minute session is called a “pomodoro”); (3) Work on the task; (4) Stop when the timer rings and write a check mark on a piece of notebook paper.
Cirillo suggests taking 3-5 minute breaks after each pomodoro, with a longer break (15-30 minutes) after every four pomodoros. It’s up to you how many pomodoros to accomplish per day. I’ve found 8-10 check marks per day to be manageable.
6. Live in the present.
I realize this sounds counterintuitive. So much of the self-help literature revolves around future-oriented to-do lists or rumination over the past. To me, this seems counterproductive. I already spend too much time fretting over the future and over-analyzing the past. If you have the same fault, try mustering the courage to live in the present. That is, whatever you’re doing, be fully there.
While the Pomodoro Technique can help cultivate presence at work, living in the present is just as valuable for improving our personal lives. So many relationship problems occur because one or both partners aren’t fully present. They aren’t paying attention. Instead, they’re inside their minds fretting about things they have no control over. Or they’re avoiding eye contact, desperately (and probably aimlessly) gazing at their smartphones to avoid the pressure of being fully present. Don’t do that. Life is too precious.
Be present—for your kids, for your employer, and, yes, for yourself.
7. Don’t confuse busyness with productivity.
Sometimes that pressing errand, work task, or social outing really can’t wait. Often, it can.
Gaining this perspective can help de-clutter your life so that you can transition from someone who is always “busy” with exaggerated minutia to someone who’s productive in a way that’s actually relevant to what’s important to you and to those you care about.
8. Take breaks.
People who disconnect and take breaks are more productive. This includes getting enough sleep. Humans might be working like robots, but we aren’t robots quite yet (well, at least not physically). If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of others. As Levin notes, airlines exhort mothers in an emergency to put air masks on their child first, because if they pass out from lack of oxygen then their children will too. The same logic applies to life.
Self-care is not optional.
9. Don’t let others determine your goals and values. Be you.
You’re a unique human being with your own interests and your own drives. Taken to an extreme, being “unique” can transition into selfishness. But a healthy recognition of your uniqueness can mean shifting time from less fulfilling tasks to the tasks that make your heart beat a bit faster.
So be deliberate in how you use your time. Recognize how utterly irretrievable every day is. Take ownership of your time and, therefore, your life. You wouldn’t waste your money; why do you waste your time?
Keep Seneca’s observation in mind:
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
You have one life. Don’t squander it.
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