Let’s think about time for a minute.
In a typical day, you have to get up and get ready for work, travel (or maybe not, depending on how your work has responded to recent events), work for around 8 hours, travel back, get ready for bed, and sleep in preparation for the next day. Presumably, somewhere in there you’re also planning on eating, relaxing, and perhaps talking to another human being. In a whole day, you may only get a couple of hours to yourself to complete any important outstanding tasks. So why is your to-do list so long?
Often I see people’s daily to do list and even I’m overwhelmed by the amount of things they try and get done when they’re not going about their daily lives. OK, the weekends are a little better, but that’s no reason to try and cram 10 tasks into an 8 hour window.
I often find that people think time is vertical rather than horizontal. In other words, they believe that in a day they can stack lots of activities on top of one another (clean the house, buy food, read a book, call mum, meal prep, etc.), rather than recognising that time runs horizontally. Time is a stream that flows in one direction, and often it flows much faster than we’d like it to. Instead of trying to keep up with it, we should recognise that realistically, time is against us.
So what to do? You can’t delete your to do list entirely, but you do have to find a way to get everything done without trying to do everything at once.
Trying and failing to accomplish too many things in one day can leave you feeling deflated and useless. Many people also get overwhelmed by the sheer amount they have to do, and end up doing nothing at all. But instead of exhausting yourself trying to be superwoman (and giving yourself anxiety in the process), there is a much simpler way to both get things done and feel like you’re getting things done at the same time.
The Three Tasks Rule
The three tasks rule is as simple as it sounds. Instead of seeing your day as a boundless expanse of time that needs to be filled, find the three most important or pressing tasks you have to complete and put them in order (if you’re having trouble prioritising your to do list, check out our article on The Eisenhower Principle and How to Use it). Then spread these tasks throughout the three corresponding parts of the day: morning, afternoon, evening. Easy.
There are a couple of important caveats to this rule. The first is that you have to write everything down. If you thought having a huge list of things to do was anxiety-inducing, then try adding memorising the list onto the list. Maybe it’s just me - I start panicking whenever I see someone in the supermarket without a shopping list - but I find writing things down very reassuring, and also a big time saver, which is what we’re going for here. Hand-written in a diary is always best too, as we tend to remember things we write by hand better than things we type. Also, if you have a diary or notebook you carry around, it’s easy to see tasks from previous and upcoming days, and know where you are in the mountain of things you have to do.
The second is that you cannot, under any circumstances, time yourself. There are so many time management apps and methods out there that say you should allocate 20 minutes to a task and then move on to the next thing. Here’s a question: how long does a task take to complete? The answer: as long as it takes. Unless you’re the Usain Bolt of admin, I think keeping a strict time limit on everything you do is a bit of a non-starter.
Timing yourself will not make the task be completed any faster. I’m going to say that again, so it sinks in. If you time how long it takes for you to do something, that does not mean you will do it faster. You’re literally just timing yourself. That’s it.
The only thing that timing yourself does is add pressure and stress to whatever you’re doing, which was probably already stressful enough without you doing it. You’ll have much better peace of mind if you just allow yourself to finish whatever you’re doing. After all, the whole point was to get it done.
Now I hear you saying, well I have work in the mornings and afternoons, so how am I supposed to fit in a whole urgent mission in between 1 and a half hour-long meetings? Fear not, there are a few principles that can help you manage your time and tasks a little better to fit into the gaps in the day
1. Figure out how much time each task would take to do
Some tasks are big (write another chapter of that book I’ve been working on), while others are much, much smaller (set up a dentist appointment, call the bank, post a letter). It’s important that you try and figure out how much time you’re going to need for each task so that you can prioritise them accordingly.
Be realistic! It doesn’t take just 5 minutes to write an email, and you’re going to need more than half an hour to make dinner. Be generous with yourself and avoid any extra pressures.
2. Put shorter tasks in tighter sections of the day
If you desperately need to send a letter but you only have 5 mins on your lunch break to run to the bank or the post office, then use those 5 minutes. Don’t be afraid to squeeze things into short time slots. If you only get part of the task done, then move it to another time on another day to make sure you stay on top of it.
3. Get things out of the way
Let’s face it, we never feel like doing anything that we have to do, so waiting till you feel like doing it means it’s never going to get done. I always opt for the quick and painful, ripping off a plaster approach to tasks. Instead of dwelling on how much I don’t want to do it, how much I hate speaking to people on the phone, I just get on the phone and push through, because I know I can!
If it’s on the list, then I do it.
4. Make time for the things you love
I should add that you can put anything in here, from your weekly shop, to a dinner date, to reading a book. It’s a great general time management principle, and it does wonders for your mental health too!