You've tried every time management technique you can find but you’re still drowning. It turns out there’s a much better technology available – it’s between your two ears.
No matter how hard you try to manage your time, the tasks on your to-do list are still shouting at you at the end of the day, to be deferred yet again to tomorrow’s to-do list. The deluge of emails in your inbox keeps rising faster than you can open them. And of course, that inexplicable thing called life gets in the way, threatening to drown you with ever-new and more urgent demands on your ever-shrinking available time.
There are a million time management tools that are supposed to help you keep your head above water. Calendars, journals, apps, timers, the latest-greatest methods that will enable you to manage your time effectively once and for all. That is, until they don't, and the next latest-greatest method, calendar, journal, app or who-knows-what-else comes along.
I have bad news and good news for you. The bad news is that the rising tide of seemingly urgent tasks isn’t going to abate anytime soon, and that scheduling app that promises you a new lease on life isn’t going to help much. The good news? There’s a better way and it’s really not that hard. You don’t even have to buy a premium-price planner for it to work.
It’s called focus. Manage your focus. Manage where you choose to place your attention and you’ll be able to manage your time.
Start With The Big Rocks
You may have at some point read the late Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey also wrote a lesser known but equally wonderful book called First Things First. Even if you’re not familiar with the book, you may have come across the comparison he makes there between getting things done and putting rocks in a jar.
You have a jar and rocks of various sizes to fit into it. If you begin filling the jar with the small rocks, you can’t find any way to also make room for the large rocks. But if you begin with the large rocks, then there is plenty of room for the medium-size rocks. And the pebbles then slide easily into the little crevices that remain. And the sand slips through any remaining space, with everything fitting easily into the jar.
As Covey so cogently explains, this is how your life works too. If you focus first on your top priorities – the big rocks - then it’s easier to accomplish the less important tasks – the small rocks – in the remaining time. If you fail to prioritize your more important tasks, however, you wind up squandering your attention (and time) on the less important tasks that don’t move your life forward.
Notice that we’ve yet to talk about scheduling tasks, devoting a specific amount of time to a task, planning your week, or choosing a time management tool. They all are important – but only after you have taken a step back, decided which are the big and the little rocks in your life, and why you should prioritize certain tasks over others. Without those prerequisite steps, you’re just going to flail in the wind, no matter how organized and disciplined you try to be, or which time management tool you use.
Focus More On What Is Important Than What Is Urgent
So how do you decide where to focus your attention? Covey again offers excellent advice. Divide all of your tasks – long- and short-term – into four categories: urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent, and neither urgent nor important.
Covey’s categories were based on the attention management philosophy of President Eisenhower, who famously said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
If you focus your attention on those tasks that are important but not urgent, you will go a long way toward solving your time management issues. More important, you will be far more effective in every area of your life because you will be devoting both your attention and time to those tasks that truly matter and that will truly move you toward achieving your most cherished goals.
Look around you at the people who accomplish great things, who seem to get it all done despite intense demands on their time. You will notice the “big rocks” principle at work.
Anyone who is accomplishing their goals is prioritizing the tasks required to accomplish their goals. Productive people spend a significant amount of their time working on tasks in the “important but not urgent” category, while busy yet unproductive people tend to spend a lot of time on “urgent but not important” tasks. When you're busy, it often feels like you’re being productive – except that you're not if you're busy working on tasks that ultimately don't move your priorities forward.
Do Try This At Home
Here’s an experiment: Spend the next 20 minutes writing out your priorities and goals. Choose the ones that are most important to you Then choose just one that stands out above the rest. Only then, go to your calendar and schedule time for that priority. Then schedule everything else.
Try sticking to this schedule for the next 30 days. Treat the priority you scheduled as a true commitment, to be changed only in the case of a true emergency. Keep a log of your progress and review after 30 days.
You will most likely be amazed at what you’ve accomplished. That book you’ve wanted to write that's gone unwritten for years now has a couple of finished chapters. Exercising a few times a week, which you could never find time for, is now happening. The [insert your own priority goal] is starting to take shape for the first time.
Will you experience distractions along the way? Will emergencies come up during scheduled times that you truly cannot ignore? Will you sometimes find yourself working on urgent but not important tasks despite your best intentions? Yes, Yes and Yes.
The laundry still needs to be done. Fires at work not created by you will still need to be put out. And you’ll need to attend to a whole host of other things that cannot be ignored if you want to just get through life.
But if you start focusing on your priorities – the big rocks – you’ll actually notice the distractions more. You’ll notice when you’re spending time on non-essential tasks, and start changing your schedule and your focus to avoid them as much as possible. And you’ll more easily get back on track and spend a lot more time moving your priorities forward.
In short, you’ll start managing your attention rather than trying to manage your time.