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5 Tips for Rethinking Time Management

Do you ever (or often) feel like you don’t have enough time? That you’re constantly trying to keep up and never seem to have the time to do what really matters to you?

If so, you’re not alone.

In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett spoke with Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (a book I now plan to read). The interview covered many topics related to time, and it got me rethinking some of my approaches to time management.

Here are my top 5 takeaways and tips from the podcast, but it’s well worth listening to (or reading) the whole thing.

1: Remember that now is all you have

The first thing that struck me was the discussion of what time actually is. So often, most of us think of it as a resource like money, a resource that we have a certain amount of and can spend as we choose.

This got me thinking about a phrase we use at work, “time-boxing,” that makes it sound like you can neatly parcel out chunks of time like pieces of cake.

But it doesn’t work that way.

Burkeman pointed out the problem with this way of thinking. “I just have this moment, and anything could happen in the next one.”

And it’s so true. We like to think we can control what we do with our time and that we’ll have a certain amount of it, but the unexpected is always around the corner, good and bad, big and small. You might get into an accident or spill coffee on your computer. Or you might bump into an old friend and spend an hour catching up.

Those unexpected moments come whether we want them or not, which is why it’s important to remember that we truly only have the moment right now.

2: You’ll never “clear the decks”

I have to confess that I often try to “clear the decks” before doing what I really want to. Some of this is truly important, like getting dressed, feeding myself, and of course, taking care of the cats.

But how often do I really need to check email? Or the news? Or go on social media? And how often do I use exercise or cooking as a sort of procrastination for dealing with more important things?

I’m certainly not alone in trying to get on top of everything. Burkeman said he had those tendencies, too, but he found something fascinating: “the act of [clearing the decks] causes them to fill up again faster.”

That initially seemed counter-intuitive to me, but as I thought about it, it started to make sense. For one, if you’re constantly focused on those sorts of tasks, you’re always shifting focus. You can also always find more to do if you try.

And because some of those things feel productive, or like you’re being a good citizen by watching the news, continuing those activities can make you feel like you’re earning your keep, as it were.

But knowing that doing those things can backfire and end up eating more time encourages me to take a hard look at how much time I spend clearing the decks.

3: Freedom in letting go of expectations

Knowing that you’ll never get to all the things on your to-do list might sound demoralizing at first, but it’s the opposite.

it’s freeing.

Just think – it’s not your fault that you can’t do everything, be everywhere, cross every “t” and dot every “i". As Burkeman described it: “[There’s] an incredible relief in seeing that something you had been trying to do… was sort of structurally impossible, logically impossible.”

In other words, it’s not because of you. You’re not doing anything wrong.

I find that a relief, and I hope you do, too, because knowing that frees up your energy and attention. Instead of beating yourself up or trying even harder, you can take a different tack.

4: Focus on a few things

With that new energy, you can think about what really matters to you. But the rub is that you can’t pick toomany things.

Although time isn’t a typical resource, it’s still fair to say that our time is limited. The title of Burkeman’s book comes from the fact that 4,000 weeks is roughly the span of an average human life. That gives me a different perspective, and it doesn’t seem like all that long.

So if you want to do something meaningful, or important, you need to be judicious about how you spend your weeks.

This is more than getting away from clearing the decks. It means you have to prioritize. You can’t be distracted by every cause that comes your way because you’d end up being spread too thin.

As Burkeman said: “[It] might be the case you have to sort of proactively not care about a huge number of very important issues in the world just so that you can meaningfully care about one or two of them. It might be that you have to do that just in order to consolidate your efficacy.”

This is something I struggle with. I often find myself interested in or caring about so many things. So, this is a useful reminder that while making deliberate choices isn’t easy, it’s the only real way I can make any impact on one or two things that are the most important to me.

5: Reframe a meaningful life

And finally, once you’ve figured out your priorities, you may need to frame what you consider meaningful.

After all, not all of us can win the Nobel Peace Prize, be Olympic medalists, save lives as a doctor, or have enough money to start a charitable foundation.

The good news is, you don’t have to do any of those things to have a meaningful life. So many other things have meaning.

Raising healthy and caring children. Sharing your art – be it writing, photography, music, drawing, etc. – even if only a handful of people will see it and be moved by it. Doing your job, whatever it is, to the best of your ability. Trying to brighten even one person’s day.

We can all make meaning in our lives if we take the time to think about it and make it a priority.

Managing time isn’t what you think

Although most of us like to imagine that we can manage our time, we can’t, at least not in the way we think. No matter how much you plan your day or carefully structure your activities, the unexpected will happen. And even when you think you’re accomplishing a lot by working on your to-do list, you may be making things worse.

Instead, the best thing to do is find a few things that matter the most to you and focus on those. It also helps to reevaluate what you’re already doing to see how you can make meaning out of it, or if you can’t, then maybe it’s time for a change.

And while none of us know how long we have – whether it’s 4,000 weeks, more, or less – if you make an effort to do something most days that matters to you, you’ll have led a meaningful life.


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