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How To Create More Time: A Strategy For Finally Getting Ahead Of Your To-Do List

time management strategies

Do you ever feel like you’re constantly behind? As though no matter how productive you are, you’ll never manage to “get ahead?” Do you find yourself wishing there were more hours in the day? Can you relate a little too much to this hamster?

the hamster wheel of always feeling behind

If so, this strategy is for you. There is hope for a life outside of the wheel, and I’m here to help you find it.

Keep reading to learn:

  • The scientific reason why you constantly feel behind

  • The counterintuitive secret to attaining a sense of time affluence

  • Tactics for embracing more strategic thinking

  • Strategies for more productive focus time

Time Famine Is A Social Construct

Time famine—the feeling that there simply aren’t enough hours in a day or days in a week—is nothing new. And if you’re feeling the crunch, you’re not alone.

A recent Gallup study on time famine found that nearly half of U.S. citizens say they don’t have enough time to do what they need to do. And if you’re employed, you’re even more likely to feel short on time — 61% of U.S. citizens in the workforce reported experiencing time famine.

For decades, researchers have sought to understand why we feel time famine, particularly in an era of virtual assistants and easy access to automation technology.

A report by the Economist suggests time poverty exists not due to rising expectations around output, but due to our own societal constructs of time.

“Ever since a clock was first used to synchronise labour in the 18th century, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours are financially quantified, people worry more about wasting, saving or using them profitably. When economies grow and incomes rise, everyone’s time becomes more valuable. And the more valuable something becomes, the scarcer it seems.”

In other words, time is money. And with that in mind, you’d think we’d be extremely careful with how and where we spend it. But, for many of us, that’s not the case.

A recent study on workplace productivity found knowledge workers (people whose roles require high level and analytical skills) squander a shocking amount of time catering to distractions.

One of the biggest culprits? Slack and similar messaging apps, followed closely by email. The study found that on average we check in with these communication tools every 6 minutes. As a result of this and other interruptions, 40% of knowledge workers never get 30 minutes straight of focused time in a workday. Yikes. 😳

The Secret To “Getting Ahead”

So we’ve set the stage. Many of us feel like we don’t have enough time. But then we spend the “limited” time we do have ineffectively. And while it may be easy to blame technology and so-called always-on culture, this struggle to find balance is not a new one. In 49 AD, Seneca the Younger observed a similar conflict in On the Shortness of Life:

The life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.”  -- Seneca the Younger

The secret to sustainable productivity, time affluence, and a happy, rewarding life is not swearing off Slack or putting in more hours at work. Nor is it learning how to juggle. It’s simple: It comes down to balance.

Balance in this context means spending less time ticking off boxes on our never ending to-do lists and more time thinking strategically. It means giving ourselves permission (and good reasons) to say “no.” It means not equating business with productivity. And, it means doing what we can to make the limited focus time we have truly count.

Your journey toward a more balanced life comes with two prerequisites:

  1. Understanding and accepting that you cannot “do it all.”

  2. Agreeing to make strategic thinking your top priority at all times.

Aside from perhaps putting out a literal fire, strategic planning is consistently the most important task in your queue. Remember that strategy or not, there will always be more work to be done. Not only will a strategy help you keep high level goals top of mind but it will also help you “trim the fat” from your schedule by determining the most meaningful ways to spend your time.

Self-Handicapping: Why We Make Excuses For Ourselves

Despite the obvious importance of strategic thinking, it is alarmingly common for people to put off strategic planning.

I can’t help but think of Charles Bukowski’s poem Excuses whenever I hear someone claim they don’t have time to get out of the weeds and think strategically. “I don’t have time” and “I’ll do that tomorrow when I do have time” are excuses rarely rooted in truth. You have everything you need (including and especially time) to be strategic — you just have to be willing to use it.

Often, it’s not a matter of disinterest or lack of skill that causes us to put off tackling the important task of strategic thinking. It’s actually our own self-sabotaging brains.

For years, broader research on procrastination has suggested our reasons for doing so are pretty dark. Since the 1970’s behavioral psychologists have classified procrastination as a behavioral self-handicapping strategy.

Self-handicapping strategies are a self-preservation method we use subconsciously to cope with our fear of failure. We turn to these strategies as a means to create impediments that make us less likely to succeed or perform well. In doing so, we have an “excuse” for any shortcomings in our performance that is not attributable to our own abilities. For example “I would have done a much better job on this project had I started sooner,” is a way for you to blame the time constraints, rather than suggest that this isn’t your best overall work for no reason at all.

Recent research on procrastination suggests we’re most likely to self-sabotage ourselves when tasks have high stakes or are deemed important to our personal worth. Strategic planning is definitely a “high stakes” task. So that may explain why it’s easier to procrastinate on it than projects with perceived lower stakes.

Those of us who procrastinate on strategic planning need to stop making excuses and self-sabotaging, because the outcomes of not being strategic are far more frightening than the actual work of thinking strategically.

Outlined below are a series of steps that even the most prolific procrastinators can follow to make strategic thinking less intimidating. With these tips, you’ll be well on your way to a more balanced way of life.

Reframe Your Approach

Anyone can be strategic if they’re curious and have a desire to learn. Perhaps another reason some of us struggle to find the motivation to spend time on strategy is that unlike many task-based projects, strategy is never done. But rather than looking at strategy as some big ominous project looming over your head and threatening your very existence, accept it for what it is: knowledge accumulated over time.

Strategy is the product of accumulated research, ideas, and assumptions. And rarely does a lasting strategy formulate itself overnight. Things change. We constantly learn new things. And our strategies need to evolve with us and the world around us.

jomo
"Strategy is the product of accumulated research, ideas, and assumptions." The secret to balancing strategy and execution:

So you can turn the somewhat overwhelming task of building a strategy into smaller, more manageable pieces which can be accomplished in one sitting. Instead of approaching strategy as a one and done task, think of it as a series of inquiries. Focus on answering one question at a time.

If you’re not sure where to start with your inquiries, here are a series of questions that apply to most situations.

  • What are my high level objectives and long-term goals?

  • For each of these high level objectives and goals, what are some mid-term milestone goals I can use as stepping stones?

  • What does success look like to me?

  • What (of my current efforts) is working and why?

  • What (or my current efforts) is not working and why?

  • Why is ____ important?

Schedule Smart

While research on scheduling and productivity found that packed schedules are actually detrimental to productivity, strategic thinking is one thing you simply cannot afford to leave off your calendar.

For most people, there is no recurring deadline or deliverable associated with strategic thinking. Or, if there is one, it’s not nearly as frequent in cadence as the actual act of strategizing should be. That’s why it’s so easy to let this important task slip off the calendar.

So, schedule time for it. Not just once in a while, but consistently. Block out a chunk of time on your calendar every week for strategic thinking. And spend this time focusing on strategy and nothing else.

Focus On Outcomes > Activities

Spend your strategic time “thinking big.” Ditch the spreadsheet. Ditch the to-do lists. Think outside the cells and check boxes.

Ask yourself what it is you want to accomplish and why it is important. It’s a loaded question isn’t it? Good. Because outcomes need not only be in the context of business objectives. You need to think of some personal motivations as well. Do your best to get away from thinking about tactics and more about outcomes.

how to map tactics to outcomes for more productive time management

Do you see the difference between tactics and outcomes? Thinking big means thinking about outcomes before tactics. A strategy built around key outcomes is far more effective than one that focuses on output.

Things change. Constantly. And sometimes the tactics we think are the right ones for our desired results turn out to be less effective than anticipated. When we have a plan that emphasizes our desired results, we give ourselves the flexibility to change the tactics we’re using to accomplish them.

One outcome, for example, can have several possible effective tactics:

ooutcome_tactics2

outcome_tactics3

So rather than thinking at a task level, think at a goal level. Once you’re clear on exactly what outcomes are important and why, determining which tactics to use to accomplish them will be easier.

Get Your Priorities Straight

With your outcomes in mind and perhaps a few possible tactics listed out, you have a good starting point for selecting which projects should happen first. Studies show that task prioritization as a means of outcome maximization results in better performance and more time savings. Higher quality performance and more free time? Sign me up.

Ruthless task prioritization is one of the easiest, most significant ways you can drive balance in your life and promote more time affluence.

Rather than trying to knock out every single item on your growing list of projects and ideas, prioritization requires you to focus on the ones that matter most. Sounds easy enough, right?

Not so fast. While we see the value in letting less important tasks go, we’re not great at actually putting that concept into practice. “People tend to under-prioritize and find the process of giving up lower priority tasks aversive,” says a recent review of research on time management approaches.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn better prioritization skills. Rather than leaving prioritization up to gut feel, we can think like product managers and use objective prioritization frameworks.

As a chronically terrible prioritizer, I can personally attest to the life-changing power of objective prioritization frameworks. Decisions that once left me completely torn are suddenly much easier because I don’t have to invest emotional energy into them. And as a content person, that means I then have more time and energy left to create things.

There are several fairly straightforward prioritization methods you can use at work. Usually I am partial to the following two:

1. Effort Versus Impact (aka Value Versus Complexity)

If I have a long list of projects and no idea how to determine which ones to tackle first, this is my go to prioritization method. I like it because it’s simple, yet versatile. I can use it as a prioritization framework for nearly anything, and it’s easy to adapt into a collaborative prioritization process in a team setting.

How it works:

  1. Start with a list of projects or ideas you’d like to prioritize.

  2. For each item in your list, come up with a general idea of the amount of effort it would require. Depending on how complex my list is, I either rank items from a scale of 1-10 or with a T-shirt sizing scale (i.e. extra small, small, medium, large, extra large and so forth).

  3. After you’ve determined the effort for each item, use the same scale to estimate the amount of value or impact each item will have if complete. These scores should be assigned in regards to potential progress toward specific outcomes and objectives. Otherwise, you risk adding high value scores to projects just because you “like” them. And that defeats the purpose of an objective framework, doesn’t it?

  4. Plot the items on a chart like the one below.

Making decisions based on the matrix is simple: The initiatives that have the highest value and the lowest effort are the most efficient use of your time. Meanwhile, projects with high effort and low impact scores are worth avoiding.

2. Buy-a-Project

If you want a collaborative prioritization method, this one’s incredibly useful. It’s actually a modification of the popular “Buy a Feature” prioritization activity used by product managers who need help deciding what to build next and want team (or customer) input.

I’ve used it a few times after brainstorming sessions that left us with tons of ideas but no idea which ones to start with. I’ve also seen it as a means for teams to get executive input into a list of projects they were considering.

How it works:

  1. Make a list of ideas or projects you want to prioritize.

  2. Assign a “price” for each project based on approximate amount of effort it would require.

  3. Give participants a budget (bonus points if you can hand them a stack of Monopoly money) to spend as they please on the list of projects.

  4. Calculate where the money was spent.

Some people will place all their money on one particular item they’re passionate about, while others might spread their cash on various items. The result is your prioritized list.

The TL;DR: Say Yes To Balance

If you’re feeling like you never have enough time, you’re not alone. But the truth is, you have all the time in the world if you’re smart about how you spend it. Rather than continuing to try to do it all, get out of the wheel every once in a while.

Remember to liberate yourself from the spreadsheets and the to-do lists, and spend time on strategic thinking and careful prioritization.

Say no to being busy, and say yes to a balanced, meaningful life.

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