The Truth About Time Management

Where traditional techniques fail, An Edge for You's Annette Reissfelder takes a more fundamental approach to becoming "time abundant"

When we look at time management and its "products," from calendars to training sessions, I believe there is a fundamental problem. The underlying assumption -- that if you can get more things done in less time, you will have more free time -- is flawed… Because as any truly effective and efficient person can tell you, that is complete nonsense! They always have more things to do than they can ever finish in a given day, week, or month. No matter how much they complete, there will always be more.

So prepare yourself for a shock: if you really want to be more productive and have the free time to do other things besides work, then time management is not the answer.

It can be helpful, but, to really make a difference, you'll need to take a different approach. Before I share this with you, let me ask you this: What would you do with your time if you had more of it? What would you like to be doing with your time that you aren't already doing?

• Spending more time with friends and family?
• Taking more breaks, mini-vacations, and full-on vacations?
• Being able to be more creative and not worry about your business so much?
• Taking a month off to travel the world?
• Taking three-day weekends?
• Working 25-hour work weeks?
• ____________________ (you fill in the blank)

Why some people work best under pressure
Are you someone that works best under pressure? Do you need the rush of a deadline that's almost impossible to reach in order to churn out your very best? There are three reasons for this:

First, when you have a deadline and a project is due "tomorrow," you give yourself permission to do crappy work. You don't have a lot of time, you are working really fast, so if this isn't amazing, you have a perfect excuse. Your inner critic can go to sleep and you can get to work.

Second, when you are under pressure you have to come up with something. Instead of worrying and thinking "I don't know what to write" or "I don't know how to do this," because of the pressure of the deadline, you just "make yourself" come up with something. Good or bad; right or wrong, you get to work.

Finally, when you're under pressure, you get a surge of adrenaline. This gives you great levels of energy and your brain is fired up in the moment giving you more creativity and more power to accomplish what you're working on.

Now this is what American coach Christian Michelsen calls the "dark side" of the pressure cooker: Of course, the reasons why people work better under pressure are part of the reason why you might find yourself in this situation so often. Yet even though "in the moment" when you're working on a project with a deadline, you might feel great, it comes with a high price tag. Because when you're done with a project like this, there's usually a crash that comes right after it. Sometimes a big one, sometimes a small one. Some people have a history of getting ill the first day of their holidays. This constant up and down is quite exhausting, especially when there are so many projects to work on.

The best work is actually done from a state of peace and calm, but because people have an "inner critic" that is expecting simply all of their ideas to be great ones and all of their work to be perfect, sometimes it's not until the pressure is on that you can put the critic to sleep. However, if you could put the critic to sleep for ever, you wouldn't need the threat of a deadline to make it OK to go for it. When you're working "in the flow," at a peaceful and relaxed pace, the energy isn't coming from adrenaline, it's coming from a purer place.

There is also another reason why this way of working is problematic: every project team has people who just can't motivate themselves to keep a deadline in the early stages of the project, when nothing much will happen yet -- and this starts a very unflattering track record.

The price of being "hurried, worried, rushed, and stressed"
Many people I know who are working around the clock are missing out on a lot. But, it's usually not very clear what they're missing. It is not just that they miss out on doing fun stuff that they might rather be doing. They miss out on a high quality of life, because, after all, how you spend your time, is how you spend your life.

When you're stressed out by things you need to do to grow your business and feel hurried and worried, it can be very hard to stay present even when you are technically free to enjoy yourself after work. Why? Because there's a part of your mind that is still thinking about all the things you need to do, and worrying that something might fall through the cracks.

This impacts your health, your relationships, your attractiveness (to clients and co-workers) as well as your general feeling of aliveness. On top of it all, when you're feeling this way and working this way, your work can actually suffer by producing less than desirable results. A typical example: people who have their nose buried too deep in their computer tend to miss out on opportunities and synchronicities that show up. It is one thing for a business opportunity to go unnoticed -- but you probably don't want your life to pass you by.

Many people know that numerous clinical studies show that people who are under lots of stress are at greater risk for health issues such as heart attacks and cancer. Just like they also know that stress weakens our immune system, increasing our chances of getting sick (especially, again, with cancer). But they do precious little with this knowledge.

Become "Time Abundant"
I have been coaching busy managers and business owners for the last eight years. And among the top three reasons they hire me are variations of "to have more free time". But, for the last eight years I have not been teaching time management strategies. What does that mean? Do I not provide something my clients clearly want? The answer is that I do deliver what my clients want, just not through the means they might be expecting. There is no "program" that I teach my clients -- that's not how I work. Although I do use a few time management strategies that work for me (more about them in a moment), I never felt good advising my clients to use them.

So I don't know about you, but I could never get myself to fit my lifestyle into the structured "time-management boxes" that most experts profess. I just couldn't imagine my solution was in a new type of diary or note-taking… and since I have always been quite disciplined, I knew the solution wasn't there either. The following is what worked for me -- because I am the one person I really know most about.

Today, I realize whenever I hear a client say "I don't have enough time to get everything done", that I have more time abundance than most people I know. Somehow, I've managed to achieve something that has eluded so many. How? Why have I had so much time abundance in my life, in spite of the fact that I have a growing coaching business, and handle all my clients, from email to the actual coaching, myself.

When I started my career, I had a lot to do, but somehow it was always possible to finish what I had on my agenda for any given week. It might mean putting a couple of extra hours in here and there, but by and large, it worked. As a consultant, some evenings got longer and longer, but I still hardly ever worked over the weekend. Of course that changed entirely when I had my own company, with millions of things to do myself, and a handful of co-workers that needed to be trained and overseen. The handful then became 15 people, and then 25, and more work than I could handle. And then I did what I now know many people do -- I panicked and took care of more urgent stuff than important stuff. In my case, "creating systems" (which constituted an important part of my job role) was per se not an urgent task. But my mistake was that I became cluttered and unclear in my priorities, trying to make as many things a priority as possible. The result was six-and-a-half-day workweeks. Our cleaning people always came in after 8pm, and I knew all of them, and was sometimes still working when they had left. I was so overworked and at the same time noticed that other people in the office didn't fully realize what exactly I was so busy with, because they didn't see much of the output.

It was only when I started my coaching training that I started turning the situation around. I had to. Into this workload, I suddenly needed to make time for two and a half days every six weeks (one was a Saturday, but since I worked Saturdays anyway, it did feel like I was losing two and a half not one and a half days. One of the questions that this raised was, "what are the things I cannot compromise on?", and I realized there weren't that many. I also realized I could delegate whole chunks of work to other people in my support team, if I changed my attitude towards their competence and created systems that would allow them to do more -- which they loved, by the way! That was the beginning.

Of course I wouldn't have put it like that back then, but what I was really on my way to doing was implementing the first five principles that I had just read in a newsletter from Christian Michelsen. (He had a few others that didn't speak to me, so I replaced it with my own personal #6.) The more I applied the following principles, the better I felt -- and the more resourceful and resilient I became.

Principle #1: Free Your Mind of Time Scarcity
Principle #2: Love What You Do
Principle #3: Develop Patient Timelines
Principle #4: Simplify Your Life (de-clutter)
Principle #5: Upgrade Your Energy Sources
Principle #6: Follow Your Changing Needs

Principle #1: Rid yourself of constantly thinking "lack of time"
When the worst comes to the worst, spend a few minutes finding out what will happen if you can't make the deadline. Chances are you discover that others have built a little leeway into their timelines, so that you may end up having an extra two-to-three days, or even a whole week! Then you can take a deep breath and be ready to start working in your priorities. This won't work every single time -- but I know lots of people who are so stressed and overworked that they can't produce anything for hours, and end up browsing the internet -- only to find themselves working (that way) until the wee hours of the morning. If you really can't work, don't! (See #6.)

Principle #2: Love what you do
My friends sometimes say "…but you work quite hard too", as if working was something bad! If you love your work, why wouldn't you want to work! But if you really don't enjoy your work and, for some reason, still want to stay in that line of business, I'd strongly advise you to look for at least some chunks of activities that you can enjoy!

Principle #3: Develop patient timelines
I think we can all benefit from some principles of project management here. Many activities within a project can happen in various moments during that project. Others are absolutely critically determined by their position in a sequence, and obviously these will then be your priorities in that moment. But often the pressure we create is entirely of our own making, and this applies especially to the self-employed and entrepreneurs. Be actively patient with yourself and overcome the fear of not offering the tightest schedule, and losing the bid. It is often your choice!

Principle #4: Simplify your life
There is a flourishing trade in books, tapes, and CDs, all based around that one principle of de-cluttering. Throw out what doesn't serve you anymore, whether these are just objects or demands you make on yourself. When you can hardly remember what you need something for, you probably won't need it at all. If you are a careful type, don't throw it away just yet, but box it and put it in the basement -- figuratively speaking.

Principle #5: Upgrade your energy sources
Whether it's yoga or salsa, meditation or track-and-field, there is something that gives you energy, and you know what it is! Don't give up such activities, but devote some time to them on a regular basis. (Massages and steam baths are great too, but there is nothing wrong with something a little more active...) And if it sometimes doesn't work out, just make a new appointment with yourself!

Principle #6: Follow your changing needs
If you can't work, do something else -- take a walk, if necessary, do a breathing exercise, or use the "cheapest antidepressant known to man --gratitude", as Ben Furman, a famous Finnish colleague says. Monitor how you are and take care of what you really need. Do you really need that bar of chocolate, or is it just that you are tired but don't allow yourself to take a break? Try to get the real message. Whatever you do, don't self-reproach!

Imagine if you applied these principles, and as a result...

• You felt more relaxed
• You were in the "flow" of life
• Your work would just "happen" (no more forcing things, now the ideas just come to you and come through you)
• You had more time for play and fun and for the people that really matter in your life
• The work you did was far more effective

I have to warn you that it can feel strange because the drama of day-to-day life might disappear -- leaving you with an unsettling sense of peace and calm... In fact, it is not unusual that an unconscious part of a person's mind will try to sabotage this shift, if their ego feeds on drama. I see that with some coaching clients -- we need to keep an eye on applying these changes so that they stick! So if you are ready to tap into this, feel free to start! And when you reach a point where you would appreciate some support, get that support!

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