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Failing at Time Management? Try Self-Management!

I’ll fallen for all the false promises around time management, time and time again. Do this and find 30 more minutes in your day. Do this and free yourself. Manage your calendar or your in-box or your “to-do” list and marvel at how much you’ll get done and all the free time you’ll amass.

No matter how faithfully I follow the instructions, I’ve never achieved having any span of time, even 5 minutes, where I marveled at how much time I had “created” in my schedule and then wondered how I might use that time I’d freed up.

The reason is quite simple. We neither “create” time nor “manage” time nor “lose” time. Time is time. We all have sixty seconds in every minute, sixty minutes in every hour and twenty four hours in every day. Each and every one of us. No exceptions.

So the question of time management is not outside of us (better planning, calendar tricks, a time saving device) but within us. How efficiently we use our time is within our control. Even more importantly, how effectively we use our time is us to totally up to us.

If it’s not “time management”, then what is it?

Two compelling questions, one about focus and one about distractions, are:

  1. Are you spending your time on the most important things?
  2. How much time are you spending on things that really don’t matter?

Even though time is equally measured for all of us (Chronos time), we’ve all experienced the subjective nature of time (Kairos time). Think of the times where time appears to go slowly, when we are bored or waiting in eager anticipation. Or those times, in a crisis, where time slows to a point of almost being suspended. Contrast those with the occurrences where time seemed to “fly”; when you were immersed in a pleasurable pursuit or creative work, where your focus was fully present and “in the moment”.

In either situation, where time either sped up or slowed down, in actuality it marched along, second after second. What changed was our internal state and our perception of time. Which leads me to my assertion: It is self-management, not time management that is important.

Wise Self-Management Looks Like…

Wise self-management means that you:

  • Are clear about your priorities and use your time in proportion to your priorities
  • Realize “busy” is a choice (and often a self-inflicted one) and not a badge of honor
  • Have the courage to say no to the things that don’t really matter or distract you from what really does matter
  • Recognize that your full attention is one of the most valuable things you have to offer – and act accordingly
  • Focus on the right things (for you) and not the many things that you believe others expect of you
  • Put your energy into the important few and discard the trivial many

Managing yourself also is a matter of recognizing that it is not only time but focus. Think of all the times you have bewailed that I only had more time: I’d exercise, I’d go back to school, I’d spend more time with my friends and family, I’d take more time for myself…. And how often, when you had that free block of time did you actually do any of these noble pursuits? Dedicating the time is the first step; dedicating yourself to the discipline to actually do that important thing is the second.

Showing Up in the Time You Have

There is another vital element of self-management and focus. Wise self-managers understand that it is how you show up in the time you have. There are dramatically different results between the time we spend focused, energized and productive versus the times we are weary, distracted or unable to concentrate. On those days I have energy, focus and clarity – I can get higher quality outcomes, with less effort and in much less time.

To show up in this best possible way requires taking care of yourself. You rest. You relax. You spend time with others who help you be your best self. You spend time alone in reflection and learning. For when you include self-care as a part of your self-management routine, you show up fuller, better and more robust when you are immersed in those things that really matter. This is not frivolous time – this is time spent investing in yourself, your capacity, your clarity, your stamina.

In a world that values busy, that stresses more over less, that places efficiency before effectiveness, it is counter-cultural to take bold actions such as:

  • Clearly defining a few top priorities and allocating your time accordingly
  • Taking time for your physical, mental and emotional well-being in order to be your best
  • Saying no
  • Doing less
  • Focusing on what really matters in the long term

From Busy to Bountiful

I’ve talked about some BIG ideas in this post and none of them are easy to implement. I think this is especially true in America, where our culture equates busy to better, importance to hyper-activity and over-extending our physical and mental limits as the professional default.

For just ONE week, I’d like you to observe just how many times you are either asked or ask others if “they are busy”? I suspect you’ll be shocked (and perhaps dismayed).

And so, let’s take a counter-cultural stance, merely by changing the dialog, one person at a time, about busy. And so, rather than asking others “if they are busy?” ask these questions instead:

  • Tell me about something you are doing that really matters to you.
  • What have you done in the last week that brought you great joy?
  • What are you focusing your time (or talents) on currently?
  • How are you using your skills to benefit others?
  • How are you? (and then just listen)

And when you are asked if you are busy (or some variation of that), shake up the conversation by using some of these responses:

  • I’ve given up busy for bountiful. I’m working to fill my life with (fill in the blank).
  • I’ve realized my best contributions happen when I am focused on fewer things, so I’m working hard not to be so busy that I lose sight of what really matters.
  • I’m not busy, but I’ve been super productive the last few months.
  • I’ve realized that busy wasn’t working for me – instead I’m focusing on doing fewer things better.
  • I’m not busy, but I am focusing on (fill in the blank) as the most important things for me.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts and insights about this topic. Please share!

One Response

  1. Spot on! Thank you for writing and posting this. This is where I have “landed” in my thinking — less is more and we can push back on the habit of being and declaring that we are “busy.” I have tried to remove the word “busy” from my vocabulary. I like to think of myself as “full” or “focused” and doing things that matter. Not easy at all but worthwhile. I try not to ask others if they are busy, but ask what they would like to give their time to, or not. Focus and Time (or feeling as if there is not enough of it to get things done) are the top 2 issues I hear from my 1:1 clients.

    Well done.

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