Have you ever wished you lived in an alternate universe with 36 hour days and no need for sleep? If so, you're not alone. As the pace of modern life increases, hundreds of thousands of people are left feeling unable to cope. The strain is too much; the stress gradually builds until you never stop working, and you're never caught up.
A few people, however, seem untouched by the demands and stresses of daily life. True, most of these people know when to say no. But even so, they stay busy, wholesomely busy. What's their secret? How do they move from "frantic" to "productive"? How do they get so much done?
There are two answers. The first is one of perception; the second is one of organization. One is internal, one is external, but both of them stem from you, and you can make both happen. This article is chiefly about the organizational aspect. But because organization falls to pieces without perception, let's look briefly at the way you see yourself and the world around you.
Do you hate yourself? Do you see yourself as a stressed and miserable failure? If you do, then you are. It's as simple as that. Too often, we seem to think that our view of ourselves is a result of our realities. This thinking is backward. Our realities are a result of our view of ourselves. You must be able to think of yourself as calm and capable before you will be.
Where Does Your Time Go?
With that said, there are external things you can do to reduce your stress and better manage your time. An excellent way to begin is by setting aside a notebook to serve as your time management journal. It can be as cheap and straightforward as a wire-bound notebook or as expensive and fancy as a leather journal.
The journal is your place to jot down things that relate to time. Write down your biggest time wasters, write down things that take up a lot of time (not necessarily wasted), things that never get done because you don't have enough time.
Do not, however, use your time journal for writing to-do lists. Not now. Later, perhaps, when you feel calm enough and capable enough to see twenty items staring at you in black-and-white.
Throughout the day, jot down tasks you've accomplished as well as the ones left undone. When you can, estimate how much time each task took.
At the end of each day, write a couple of sentences describing how you felt about your day. These will probably be fairly depressing, to begin with, but be encouraged; over the next few weeks, you'll get to watch them improve as you start gaining control of your time and stress.
Making Time for the Important Things
Once you've kept track of where your time is (and isn't!) going for three or four days, set aside an hour and sit down with your journal and a pen or pencil, read over your entries. You're not doing this to blame yourself for all the things that didn't get done; don't even let that creep into your thinking. Instead, focus on where your time went. How can you do better? What needs to be improved?
Flip to a blank page in your journal. List the five most important things in your life. These could be spiritual, family, friends, career, health, personal enrichment, or something else entirely different. Remember, this is your journal and no one but you will ever see it. Don't be afraid to be honest. You may think that writing down something like "Personal enrichment" is somehow "selfish." That's okay. If it's important to you, write it down anyway.
Write down how much time you spend, on average, per week on each area. Now write down how much time you would like to spend. Write out a few specific things you would like to do in each section. For example, if you put family as one of your most important areas, a particular item you might want to do is cook dinner at home and have everyone around the table to eat it. If health is one of the things you put, then you might write down "Walk 30 minutes each day" as a specific thing. Whatever you choose, write down five things for each of your five areas, twenty-five things in all. Be as specific as possible.
Now, pick one thing from each area. Take out your calendar and, over the next week, make time for each item. Don't argue that you're adding to your time instead of decreasing it. You have to make time for the things that are most important to you. Other items will fall naturally into place.
Once you have your times set, then follow through. If you put Thursday as your day to get together around the family table, do it. Don't ditch the entire plan because one of the children won't be there, though. It may be that if you wait until all your kids are around, you'll be waiting forever. Instead, do your best with what you have on the day you set for it.
Free Yourself from the Things You Hate
Your next task is to write out the five things you spend time on that you wish you didn't. These can be something that you can't possibly get out of, such as your job, something you feel you should get out of, such as computer games, or something that you could get out of but feel you shouldn't, such as homeowners association meetings. Put a three by things you can't get out of; put a one by stuff you can and feel you should, and put a two by something you can but feel you shouldn't.
Start with things marked with a 1, something you feel you spend too much time on. Maybe it's computer games. Perhaps it's reading emails. Whatever it is, pick a time (say, 15 or 20 minutes a day) that you will allow yourself those activities. Then use a timer to make sure you don't go over your allotted time. As soon as your timer goes off, stop what you're doing (no cheating!) and do something you feel you should do but never have enough time for, a load of laundry, emptying the dishwasher, or vacuuming the living room floor. Keep the task small, so you don't feel overwhelmed.
Once you've managed to get your 1's under control, look at the 2's. Is there something on there that you hate? Ask yourself why you're doing it. Do you just feel like you ought to—even though you aren't accomplishing all that much with it? Does it give you a feeling of being in control of something? Will people be mad at you if you stop doing it?
Balance the pros and cons of each item marked with a 2. If you feel that you can't get out of them without the world crashing down around your ears, then mark them with a 3 instead of a 2. Otherwise, dare to say No and cut them out of your life. Remember, they're only on this list because you hate doing them, anyway. Why spend precious time on things you hate?
Finally, look at things marked with a 3. At first glance, these are the impossible ones, something you can't possibly do anything about. But take them one at a time, and ask yourself if there is any way you can limit the amount of time you spend on each of them. If you work late or work over lunch, for example, why do you do that? Because you never feel caught up? Because you need money? It may be that cutting back on your work allows you to be more productive so that you get more done in less time.
If you think you need the money that working overtime pays you, it may be time to look at your family budget and figure out why. Usually, when people have to work overtime to make ends meet, there is some flaw in their spending patterns that need to be reworked.
When Things Fall Into Place
Once you have your five highest priorities in order and you've cut out or cut back your five lowest, the things in between will start falling into place. Use your time journal to keep track of when things get done and when they don't. Once a week, sit down and sketch out a few sentences describing how you feel about the previous week. Were you stressed out? If so, when, and why? Is there something taking up your time that should be, or that doesn't have to be? Consider cutting it out or cutting it back, just as we did in the last section.
Now, look at the things that didn't get done over the past week. Were they essential things, like paying bills, or less important stuff, like cleaning out behind your toilet? Learn to differentiate between things that must be done in a specific time limit and something that doesn't have to be.
Use three separate categories: things that have to be done (like paying bills), something that needs to be done (like washing laundry), and things that should be done (like cleaning behind the toilet). Use your calendar and your time journal to make sure that things that have to be done fill up your time first; then things that need to be done, then last of all, something that should be done.
Remember: you are a calm and confident person—no more of this rushing around and stressing to get everything done. Use your time journal so that the essential things get done first, and let the other stuff go with grace if you need to. You may find that when you're no longer trying to get them done, you have time to do them!