How do you spend your day?

Many of us are not really able to answer these questions in detail. We tend to rush into the next “busy” week ahead and try to “catch up” with work. We may also feel that we can set work and life priorities well, but those priorities change over time and often compete against each other. Life can feel like a race, where time is scarce, and we haven’t got enough time to get everything done. Does this sound familiar?

So, how do you find a solution that works for each of us? My advice is to identify the roots of the problems. Time management challenges fall in three top categories: planning issues, prioritising challenges and performance. The latter needs to be defined in our own terms, but I like to refer to productivity as the “ability to create impact”. For some of us, it is about creating value in some shape of form.

How do we know which time management challenges we are faced with? First thing first. We need to focus on a diagnostic phase, finding out the real challenges we are faced with. We can use a simple method for this, which involves the use of a time-sheet. For a week or so, you will need write down what you do throughout the day. You can choose a time unit that suits you, for instance 30 minutes slots, and capture your activities on a spreadsheet or the traditional paper method. It is important take into account interruptions, planned and unplanned activities and related outputs. This is reality, a “time audit” where you meticulously observe and identify patterns that emerge. This phase in invaluable. It provides rich data which helps you understand the type of time management challenges you are faced with. You can then focus on a solution.

Abraham Lincoln said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” This is a great reminder that we can influence our future and get more productive by focusing and working differently …today! so let’s get started.

Master the art of focus

Where do you start? How do you know what to focus on? Prioritisation techniques can be very helpful but you need to experiment and see what works for you. I like to use priority matrices which help categorise my activities under the important/urgent criteria. But there are many more you can use such as “easy versus challenging”, “rewarding versus boring” activities. You can also estimate the amount of energy required and decide when you can best tackle the activity during the day. If you need to write a proposal or a grant application, this may require a high level of energy and concentration. Depending on your preferences, you may want to focus on this activity first thing in the morning (if you are an early riser) or late at night when everything is quiet (if you are night owl!).

Visual reminders can also be very helpful. I would recommend having visible notes of your short-term priorities and your long-term goals. This is a balancing act of course, as we need to constantly make decisions on what we should be working on or “doing”. Being reminded of our ultimate goals and purpose, on a daily basis, can help us prioritise effectively on a daily basis.

You can also use online calendars and book allocated times for specific activities and tasks. This works well when you have a high level of control over your schedule. If you have to work with constraints, make them your friends and plan your additional or core activities around them.

Finally, I am a great fan of the Pomodoro technique for specific activities such as writing or planning. This is a useful technique that helps you work in a focused manner in specific time intervals. So, for instance, you could spend 30 minutes writing, 5 minutes break, followed by a further 30 minutes writing and a slightly longer break. You are providing a helpful structure to focus your creative output.

Observe habits of the mind: the good, the bad and the helpful…

Our time management, motivation and concentration are impacted by our thoughts and emotions. And yet, we often thing we can learn to better manage our time through simple techniques, quick fixes that will solve our challenges and help us increase our productivity. We need to go a little deeper to find out what is stopping us manage our time efficiently and effectively. And this relates to habits of the mind – our thoughts, feelings and emotions which, often, get in the way.

Let’s, for instance, talk about multitasking. Research suggests that multitasking impacts our productivity negatively. We tend to learn to switch between tasks, but this comes at a cost as everything we do, takes longer to accomplish, and we can also feel increased tiredness.

If we take the example of procrastination, research suggests that our inability to start a task or activity can be linked to associated, often negative, emotions. So, if we learn to regulate our emotions, develop an increased awareness of our thoughts and feelings and build our resilience, we can positively influence our productivity.

Further research in the field of positive psychology, suggests that we can reach a highly productive mental state when we are fully energised and immersed in the activity. Researchers refer to this as a “state of flow” when there is the right combination of complexity and aptitude. So, our ability to develop the right skill-sets can help us boost our motivation and turn increase our productivity and performance.

Time well spent: enjoy the journey and help others

If we live up to 79 years we will have spent 28,835 days on Earth. That’s 692,040 minutes. We spend 26 years sleeping! And just over 13 years at work! Screen time, which includes TV and social media, can add up to 11 years! Eating accounts for 4.5 years of our life…The rest is spent on Holiday, Exercise, Romance, Socialising and School/Learning. And, on average, we spend 115 days laughing…(for some of us it may be more!)

These numbers are frightening in a way but a wake-up call too! Spending our time wisely makes a difference and we have to make choices every day to decide what we want to focus on. I recently wrote a post on Linked In, asking to give advice to someone starting in their career path. I asked people to vote and choose between “work hard”, “focus on work on life/balance’; “be kind and help others”; and “enjoy the journey”. It seems that the most popular choices were “enjoy the journey” followed by “be kind and help others”. Interesting and somehow surprising results.

So perhaps, we need to see and spend our time differently? We may want to measure performance of productivity differently, or at least add a breadth of measures which can deepen our relationship with time. Our ability to enjoy our life experience and help others along the way, may increase our sense of wellbeing and help us focus on what really matters to us. Getting things done and accomplishing our goals may only motivate us part of the time. Our sense of belonging, our need to connect and support others as well as appreciating the ups and downs of life, may be important factors to consider.

Food for thought and time to reflect…

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