Sometimes foundational to the problem is that the person doesn’t care enough to manage time well. They know that a productive life is better led than a slothful one, but are impeded by depression or having been beaten up in life’s first rounds, so it’s hard to come out for the next round. Or their life is in such disarray that managing time better feels insignificant, like polishing the brass on the Titanic.
Of course, those are tough situations, but if that’s where you are, your best shot is to defer thinking about time management and instead first take baby steps to improve your life, whether it’s to clean a corner of one room, take walks, decide to cut back even a bit on your substance abuse, get a job you can easily get, even if it’s barista, see the dentist, or help someone worse off. That can boost your spirits, self-esteem, and gratitude.
The next step for such people and the starting place for everyone else is the following list of tips, presented in chronological order.
Your to-do list. Get in the habit of writing all your appointments in your phone or computer’s calendar or in a paper week-at-a-glance calendar. Keep your to-dos that don’t have an appointed time on a memo cube on your desk or in your phone’s notepad. Check both throughout the day.
Curate potential tasks. Do you want to do the task? Some tasks are wisely procrastinated—Perhaps you would be more in the mood tomorrow. Or maybe you should delegate the task to someone else. Or maybe you needn’t do it all—You conclude that you have better things to do with your time.
Choose your approach. Some tasks can only be done one way, but often, you have a choice of whether to choose a fun, easy, fast, or a higher-quality approach. For example, how well researched does that report need to be? If you’re a people person, could you replace some of the spreadsheets with interviews? Would listening to music while you work be worth whatever distraction it creates? Do you need to just create a few talking points for that talk or is it worth the time to start by writing a script and then distilling it to an outline?
Write baby steps? If it’s a complex or long task, you may want to write the baby steps, the milestones that you can, if you wish, check off as they’re done. That feels good. If you don’t know the wisest way to break down a task, is there someone you should ask?
The moment of truth. That’s when you’re deciding, consciously or not, whether to do the task or something more pleasant. That’s when you have to force yourself, yes force yourself, to do the first few-second part, then the second few-second part. An object in motion, well, you know.
The one-minute struggle. Getting started is usually the hardest part but the next hardest is when you reach a stumbling block. Try the one-minute struggle technique. Usually, if you haven’t made progress in a minute, additional struggle will only create bad memories of doing tasks, thus making you more likely to procrastinate in the future. So, after a minute without progress, decide if another minute is worth it, whether to get help, whether you can do the project without conquering that roadblock, or whether you should go on with the project and later, with the benefit of having done more of it and with fresh eyes, take another crack at that problem.
Some people need additional ideas to manage time and procrastination. Here are a few:
Pomodoro. This technique is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer but any timer will do, including the one in your phone. Set the timer for 25 minutes and get to work. When it chimes, take a five-minute break to do whatever you feel like. Repeat. They say sitting is the new smoking. The Pomodoro technique helps you get out of your chair.
Punishment payment. You send (perhaps PayPal is easiest), $50 to a friend, instructing him or her to donate it to your least favorite political candidate if you don’t get the task done in time.
Peer pressure. Some people are motivated by daily or weekly check-ins with a friend, support group, or by posting progress on their social media.
Ritualizing. Should you do some annoying but necessary recurring task before allowing yourself to eat dinner? Should you schedule exercise time daily with a partner? Should you block-off X hours on your weekly calendar for some project and treat it inviolably, as you would a doctor’s appointment?
Bonus activities for more enduring change
Log. Many people don’t realize where the time goes. Do you want to log your activities for at least one day? If so, set the your phone’s timer for 15 minutes. Each time it chimes, in a few words, in your phone’s notepad or paper memo pad, write how you spent the previous 15 minutes. The act of writing it will make you more conscious of how long 15 minutes is (Many people don’t have that important sense) as well as motivate you to be more productive. At the end of the day, review your log to see what you’d like to do the same or differently tomorrow.
Revisit your major time sucks. Do you want to try to telecommute at least part time? Spend less screen time? Chatting time? Getting high time? Less time shopping and chopping for unnecessarily time-consuming meals? Less time spent processing and ruminating and more time taking low-risk actions? Forgoing your second cousin twice-removed’s third wedding in Winnetka?
Have a sponge activity at the ready. We often have time we have to spend waiting: in traffic, supermarket line, doctor’s office. Your phone contains a wealth of possible activities to usefully sponge up your waiting time. For example, Google/Safari-search for an article or video that would be helpful. Or read or listen to an audiobook. As I walk my doggie, I usually bring along a problem I need to think about.
Be Buddhist about it. Resist looking back to past failures and, unfair treatment. Also resist looking ahead to that daunting mountain of tasks ahead of you. Try to stay in the moment: doing what you need to be doing then, feeling good about each bit of progress.
Ask a friend. Sometimes, we just don’t know what we’re doing wrong. Do you have a friend who gets a lot done and might be willing to watch you for an hour or talk through your typical weekday and weekend to offer suggestions?
Forgive yourself.. Failure is frequent and wallowing rarely helps. I know you’ve heard it before but it’s true: You’re human; you’ll screw up. Successful people fail but quickly see if there’s a lesson to be learned and then quickly rebound by taking the next baby step forward. Easier said than done, but it’s not a bad aspiration.
I hope there’s at least a nugget of value here for you.
I read this aloud on YouTube.
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