You need three lenses to think about how well you are managing your time: strategy, efficiency, and mental clarity. These lenses can also help you figure out the underlying causes of common problems like: I have too much on my plate; I can’t focus well when I sit down to work; I constantly procrastinate on certain tasks. Do any of those sound familiar? If so, look at them in a new way by picking up each of the three lenses in turn.
The only way to have more time in your day is to be strategic with what you do and efficient in how you do it.
Strategy: The Compass
When you look at the things that you are spending your time on, which ones are strategic? What things do you spend your time on that amount to fighting battles that won’t ultimately help you with the war? Imagine you are a battle strategist, leaning over a table with little figurines of your troops and resources. You are choosing how to deploy them. You wouldn’t waste resources in ways that are not going to ultimately help you be successful in your war campaign. Yet in our own lives, we often waste time, energy, and resources on things that yield little benefit for us or others, and that move us no closer to our long-term goals.
“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” – Seneca
To answer the question of whether a certain project, role, or activity is strategic, you must first know what your goals are. Think of this lens as a compass. First ask where you want to go, then ask if the things you are doing will get you there. Often, we don’t know exactly where we want to go in our careers. When we sit down to write out five-year plans, we stare at the blank piece of paper with a pen in our hand, feel worse once we realize we have no goals, and we abandon the exercise. Do not give up.
If you don’t have a clear five-year plan, instead think about what you value. For example, I have no idea what my career will look like in five years. However, I do know what things are important to me and that I value: I want to have an impact, relieve suffering, and help other people. I also know what is important to me in the way that I work: It is important for me to do work that allows me to be creative, have autonomy over what I do, and work as part of a great team. Beyond those values or requirements, I am flexible.
Think about your own career in terms of your mission and values beyond just the roles or titles you want to have. Use your mission and values as your compass to direct what things you add to your plate, and what things you drop from it. Your compass will tell you what to prioritize, what to delegate, what work you do needs to be A+ work, and what can be B- work.
Efficiency: The Clock
When you have too much on your plate, you have two options: remove something from your plate using your compass or grow the size of your plate. Efficiency is how you increase your capacity to do more. There are many aspects to efficiency, but one is working with a deep focus.
“Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.” – Peter Drucker.
Does this scenario sound familiar? You have an hour before your next meeting. You sit down to start a project or task. However, you decide to just quickly check email and knock out a few emails so that you’ll be in the right frame of mind to work on the project. Then get sidetracked with an email that required you to text someone or look something up. Once you were on your phone texting, you then decided to deal with the frustration of all those emails by taking a break to skim facebook, Instagram, twitter, and linkedin. Then you look back at the project you were going to do and realize that with 20 minutes left you barely have enough time to get started. However, you feel guilty, so you dutifully try to do at least a bit of it. But then you find yourself still thinking about the emails you got and all the other things you have to do.
Finally you rush to your meeting realizing you wasted an hour, you will now have to find time tomorrow to work on the project, and you feel guilty and frustrated because you wasted your hour.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat again tomorrow.
To work with a deep focus, you need three things:
- Create the time you need. It is hard to work with a deep focus for only 15 or 20 minutes. Create blocks of time to work on projects or tasks that require your full attention.
- Create the space you need. To give a task your full attention, remove all external distractions. Clear your physical and, more importantly, your digital spaces. Shut down your email program, phone notifications (or your entire phone), websites you don’t need, and close the door to distractions.
- Create the mental clarity you need. You likely already knew items 1 and 2 above. So why don’t you do them regularly? The reason is our thought clutter. Clearing the thought clutter is the final key to working with a deep focus.
Mental Clarity: The Key
Why is it that the scenario above repeats itself again and again? It is because we fail to manage our thoughts and emotions. The reason your reach for easier work, like email, or distractions, like facebook, is to avoid the negative emotions you think you will feel when you start working on the more difficult task. Perhaps you worry you will feel boredom, frustration, inadequacy, a sense of imposterism, self-doubt, or fear of failure. The fear of all those emotions leads you to avoid the task at hand and seek out easier tasks, distractions, or ways to feel ‘busy’ without actually working on the one thing your compass told you to prioritize.
This idea is will be the central premise of all my posts: To manage your time you have to first learn to manage your own mind.
As a first step, begin to intentionally notice the thoughts you have when you sit down to do a difficult task. What negative emotions are you avoiding? What feelings are you worried you will feel? What thoughts drive you to immediate gratifications, easy wins, or mindless entertainment? Write down the thoughts you have and the emotions you are avoiding. Understanding those thoughts will be the first step to changing them.
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations