I have a confession. I don’t like rules. Or structure. There’s just something in me that doesn’t like feeling boxed in or told what to do. I’m a free spirit. I just want to live my life!
But as I’ve grown in my career and as a wife and a mom, I’ve come to learn that I need structure in my life. And one area I really need structure is time management. If you’re like me, you probably feel like you’re always struggling in this area. We’re up against some serious challenges in our distracted, hurried culture, where people wear busyness like a badge of honor.
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That’s why I try really hard to be intentional with this area of my life, and I love helping other people do the same. When we do this, we can shake the guilt that often follows us around, and we can finally feel proud of how we’re spending our time. This isn’t just about getting more done. It’s about getting the right things done. It’s about spending your one life on what actually matters to you. And when you realize time is the most finite resource you have, you’ll go above and beyond to protect it.
What Is Time Management?
You’ve probably heard that time management is about maximizing your schedule so you can get more done in less time. Or maybe it’s about striving for work-life balance. But I want to take it a step further: The true goal of time management is to spend your time doing what’s most important to you.
You see, too many of us live with a gap between what we care about and what we spend our time on. We say our family is top priority, but our work calendar sure doesn’t show it. We say we want to get into shape, but we fail to plan even one run or workout for the week. Time management is about aligning the way we spend our time with what we care about the most.
Why Is Time Management Important?
Time management is important because, if we’re not careful, we all end up going from one type of busyness to another. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel of activity. And the problem is, we end up missing the true joy and meaning and beauty of our lives—ignoring the people and the purposes that make our lives fulfilling. By trying to do too much, we end up not doing much that even matters to us.
But practicing time management will help you:
Enjoy your time and live intentionally.
The problem isn’t the amount of time we have—the problem is how we use it. We all have a set amount of time: seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And yet we still can’t figure out how to fit everything in. It reminds me of this problem I have every time I go on a trip: I try to pack dozens of cute outfits and shoes in my suitcase. But it can only hold so much!
We make the same mistake with our calendars. We think we just need more time (like I think I need a bigger suitcase for my clothes). But the reality is, time management is about choosing what’s most important and being willing to cut out what’s not. Then, once you’ve made time for what’s important, you need to be present for it. You can have the most perfect schedule in the world, but if you’re always focused on where you’re not, you miss it. When you’re at work, be at work. When you’re going on a walk with your kids, be all there. When you’re on the phone with a friend, lean in and listen. Wherever you are, be there. You’ll not only spend your time on what was important to you, but you’ll actually get to experience and enjoy it.
When you set boundaries around your time, you force yourself to spend your time better. The quality of your work increases when you’re spending your time on purpose. So, scheduling out your time will help you be more efficient in the long run.
There’s an interesting case study that illustrates this point. Microsoft conducted an experiment by implementing a four-day work week with one of its offices in Japan. They let employees off every Friday for a month, and during that time they saw a 40% boost in productivity—even with the extra day off.1 Work will grow to fill the time you give it, so boundaries will help you do what you want to do in the time you have to work with.
I don’t know about you, but I often wake up with all sorts of lists and aspirations and goals, and almost every evening I put my head on the pillow with an even longer list. Chasing a finish line that’s always moving gets pretty exhausting. Being overcommitted, scattered and rushed will create unnecessary stress in your life. Your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health will all take a toll. And if you’re not careful, it will eventually lead to burnout.
On the flip side, though, managing your time well can lead to higher productivity, more focus and less stress about being overcommitted because you’ve learned how to say no and protect your time.
8 Time-Management Tips to Improve Your Life
So, I’m sure you want to live an intentional, efficient and low-stress life. But how do you actually get there? Here are eight time-management tips that will help you spend your life doing what’s most important to you.
1. Refuse to rush.
One time, I was standing in line at Target with a full basket. The lady behind me only had a few things in her hands, so I turned to her and offered to let her go first. She replied, “No thank you. I’m refusing to rush this year.”
Whoa. This moment stuck with me because it taught me an important lesson: Rushing is a choice. We get to decide what goes on our calendar. We shouldn’t be surprised when it’s packed tight (just like an overstuffed suitcase). So, what will you choose? Will you be busy, burned out, or running ragged? Or will you be peaceful, calm and flexible? Rushing is a state of our hearts just as much as it is a state of our schedule. We have to be willing to slow down and be present.
2. Identify what’s most important to you.
Remember: Time management is not about doing more things—it’s about doing the right things at the right time. For most of us, the problem isn’t that we’re not doing enough—it’s that we’re doing too much. Focus your time and energy and resources on what’s most important to you. In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni says, “If everything is important, then nothing is.” Your time is finite, and you have to be willing to decide what makes the cut and what doesn’t.
3. Recognize the season you’re in.
We want to do it all, be it all, and have it all, all the time. But one of the secrets of time management is to understand that we experience life in seasons. What’s most important to you when you’re trying to build your career as a young professional will be different than what’s important to you as a young parent or a retired grandparent. Just because something doesn’t make the cut in this season doesn’t mean it never will. It just means you have the wisdom to evaluate and discern what’s best for where you are in this stage of life.
If you’re about to step into a new promotion at work, then now probably isn’t the time to also coach your son’s Little League team. If you’re training for a marathon, then you probably need to go to bed earlier and say no to a few social engagements.
When you’re committing to something new, give yourself permission to move something else off of your plate to make room for the new thing. Seasons don’t last forever, so be present and enjoy where you are right now.
4. Schedule your priorities.
Once you know what (and who) is most important to you, put them on the calendar first. Here are a few examples:
- If you want to grow in your current role at work so you’re considered for a promotion, schedule time to study and learn. Sign up for an online class and block out time to get it done.
- If you’re trying to create more time in your day to exercise, get out your calendar and schedule workouts or runs before you commit to social engagements.
- If you want to have a deeper connection with your spouse, schedule a regular date night and commit to it.
If something is important to you, it needs to make it on the calendar or it won’t happen. Stick to your commitments and don’t let less important tasks distract you from the main thing.
5. Identify your time traps.
If we want to live focused and intentional lives, we need to identify the time traps that easily knock us off course. For example, I struggle with always wanting to be the hero. I try to take on everyone else’s problems as my problems, and then guess what? I’m not only overwhelmed, but I also don’t have time for my own problems! What time traps do you get sucked into? Maybe it’s scrolling social media or binge-watching shows. Maybe you’re a people pleaser or you tend to overcommit yourself. Maybe it’s something else.
What are your time traps? They might look just like mine, or they could be completely different. When you can identify what causes you to lose your time, you can be on guard against it. This can help you cut out (and stop committing to) things that aren’t important so you have more time for things that are.
6. Practice saying no.
Once you know your time traps, you need to practice saying no to the things that steal your time or don’t align with your goals. And I mean actually practice saying no—like, “No, I will not watch Netflix because I’m choosing to finish these house chores.” Or “No, I can’t take on this extra project at work because it’s important to be home in time for dinner so I can spend time with my kids.”
Say it out loud and practice in front of your mirror or dog or friend. Really, try it! You don’t have to sign up for every potluck or volunteer opportunity or have a coffee date with a friend every day of the week.
Keep in mind that saying no to time traps will free you up to say yes to what really matters.
7. Make room for rest.
Rest is one of the most underestimated and necessary parts of our lives. When we refuse to slow down and actually get some sleep, we slowly chip away at our ability to be productive and focused when we need to be.
When you’re finished with your workday, take an actual break. Be with your family or your friends and refuse to peek at your emails or worry about the big project that’s due at the end of the week. By setting boundaries around work, you’ll end up getting more done when you’re at work. And do the same thing at home. If you plan to rest when everything is done, you’ll never get to rest because it’s never all done. Set an earlier bedtime, schedule time to renew your energy, and make time to rest—then watch how this can improve every other area of your life.
8. Focus on one task at a time.
Multitasking is a myth. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone while they’re texting? Right. They aren’t listening. They can’t! When we try to do too many things at once, we end up doing them all poorly. It’s better to focus on one thing at a time.
We live in a culture that’s addicted to distraction and stimulation, so we have to be intentional about practicing the art of focus. In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport says, “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” If our attention is divided, we’ll feel divided. If we focus on the mile-long list of things we haven’t been able to accomplish yet, then we’ll feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Instead, give yourself permission to focus on one thing at a time and watch how your productivity increases and your stress decreases.
25 Ways to Protect Your Time
As you can tell, I’m passionate about time management. I believe it’s an incredibly important part of living a fulfilling, purposeful and enjoyable life. If you want to see some big wins with time management in 2021, download my free resource 25 Ways to Protect Your Time. It’s a fantastic tool that will help you learn how to say “no” to the right people in the right ways so you can make room for what’s truly important.
As you do this, you’ll begin to create and live your own version of life balance. It’s your life after all—so be intentional about how you spend it.