Do you struggle with not having enough time? Does it seem like you can never get all your work done, or find enough time for your family, let alone get the exercise and sleep you need to stay healthy? Do you feel like time is your enemy?
Time is our only truly expendable resource: We may gain any amount of wealth, or success, or employees, or friends-but each of us only gets 24 hours in a day, and only a lifetime's worth of time. Because time is limited and none of us likes limits, it's natural to feel that time is out to get us. I feel that way myself quite a lot of the time.
But it isn't true. We need to change this attitude and start seeing the demands on our time as a good thing in our lives-which is really what they are.
Here's how to start making time your ally:
1. Be thankful you're squeezed for time.
I realize this may sound ridiculous, especially when it's 1 a.m. and you can't go to bed because you have to meet a deadline in the morning. But, just for a moment, consider the opposite scenario. If you had all the time in the world, it might be because you either had no job, or a not-very-demanding one. Perhaps you would also have no partner, spouse, family, or friends to fill up your time, either. That doesn't sound very appealing, at least not to me.
The reason I feel pressed for time is that there are so many great things I want to spend my time on-writing for work, writing for pleasure, reading, hanging out with my husband and friends, hiking, yoga, and all the musical and cultural offerings all around me. It's an embarrassment of riches for which I can only be grateful, if I stop and think about it.
If that doesn't hold true for you-if you're spending too much of your limited time on work that you hate or people who you don't love, then that's a problem, and one you should solve. But your problem is not a lack of time.
2. Give up the "but."
A long time ago, a very wise workshop leader changed my whole attitude about time in about two minutes with one simple exercise.
I want to go to the beach but I have to work, he wrote on the blackboard, a classic time squeeze conundrum.
"Is this true?" he asked the audience. "Let's explore."
Below I want to go to the beach he wrote: I don't want to go to the beach. And below I have to work he wrote: I don't have to work.
"Now let's remove the lies," he said. "Is it true that I don't want to go the beach? No." And he crossed out I don't want to go to the beach. "Is it true that I don't have to work? No." And he crossed out I don't have to work. "There's one more lie," he said. "The third lie is 'but.'"
He crossed out that single word, and with it our whole misunderstanding of time and choices. "But" is about struggling with something that you don't want. But if you like your job and you like the beach then you're not struggling, you're choosing. "I want to go to the beach and I have to work." Maybe you'll go to the beach tomorrow. Or maybe you'll play hooky today and work extra hours tomorrow. Either way, getting rid of the "but" is the best way to start making time your friend.
3. Find your balance (or you'll lose efficiency).
Have you ever caught yourself thinking this way? "If I get to the office two hours early and then stay two hours late and skip lunch I can bang through and finish this project in two days instead of the week it should normally take." Or found yourself scheduling appointments back to back to back with no breathing room in between?
If that's you (and it's certainly me sometimes), it's time to cut it out. Sure, you can plan to work 15 hours a day every day but if you do you'll give back in lost efficiency what you gained in extra work time. The only difference will be that you're exhausted and miserable. You may wish you could do your best work every hour that you're awake, but you can't. So if you're getting to the office at 7 a.m., make sure to quit at 5 or so and go for a run or go home and play with your kids. Or spend the early morning getting exercise and enjoyment, arrive at work refreshed and then work late. Not both.
4. Work with your own rhythm, not against it.
I'm a night owl (and married to a musician who often gets home quite late). So for me, getting to work at 7 a.m. is a non-starter. I used to feel horridly inferior to the folks who got up at 5 am and conked out at 9 pm-even though I don't think I worked any fewer hours than they did, just later ones.
Then one day I got a contract to write a book on a newsy subject and I had only one month to do it. Under that extreme deadline pressure, my ideas about the hours I "should" work went out the window and I had no choice but to figure out a schedule that actually allowed me to function during a crunch project. That turned out be starting late morning, working till early evening, taking a couple hours' break for exercise, dinner, and socializing, and then back to work till late night. That's still the rhythm that works best for me. What works for you may be completely different. My point is, you should listen to your own inner clock and structure your day accordingly.
5. Accept reality.
Take yesterday. I posted a column to this site, interviewed the fascinating Emerson Spartz, spent time promoting my work and connecting with my network on social media, caught up on a couple of days' worth of email, had a two-hour meeting with a financial advisor, and sent a pitch on a complex technology topic to Computerworld. That's a pretty decent workday, but there were still three items left on my daily to-do list at the end of it.
I could have let it upset me but I didn't. There are always items I wish I'd had time for at the end of every workday and there probably always will be. I bet the same is true for you. At some point you have to acknowledge that you've done all you reasonably can today, pat yourself on the back for your hard work, and go spend time with your family, or take care of yourself, or just kick back.
That's something you can really be grateful for.
More on work-life balance: