Organize your schedule―and claim carefree minutes for yourself―in three steps.
1. Step Back (For a Second)
Figure out why you want more free time. “You can’t win a game you haven’t defined,” says David Allen, a productivity expert and the author of the best seller Getting Things Done (Penguin Books, $15, amazon.com). You’ll be more motivated to change if you have a specific goal.
Make a wish list. Write down all the activities that you long to do more of―whether they’re things that make you happy, relaxed, sane(r), or all three. Rank the items in order of importance to you, then pick one or two to focus on. (Once you get the hang of this system, you can address the rest.)
Now write down how you really spend your time. If it’s all one makelunchcarpoolrunaroundlikecrazy blur, keep a detailed diary for a few days. (Want some encouragement―and comfort that someone’s life is as crazy as yours? Check out Reader Time Diaries.) You might be surprised by how little time you spend doing things you love most. The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things?
2: Give Up What You Can
Consider this: Devoting more time to what you love can help you get more done overall. Says Neil Fiore, Ph.D., a psychologist in Berkeley, California, “Research shows that to be productive and creative, you must make time for recreation and relaxation. Trying to skimp on them hurts your motivation and often leads you to procrastinate.” Plus, being a little selfish will keep you from becoming burned out or cranky. To find ways to free up time, take a look at your list of current activities and ask yourself four questions:
What can I delegate? OK, so maybe your 11-year-old can’t load the dishwasher as well as you can. Hand over that task and you’ve got 10 minutes to spend on something more fulfilling. The fact that you’re teaching your child responsibility―with, yes, an occasional eye roll―is a bonus. If you’ve reflexively been handling most of the household duties, turn some of them over to your spouse. Try similar strategies at work: Give junior staffers assignments that stretch their capabilities rather than doing the job yourself.
What can I outsource? Housecleaning is an obvious answer, but also think about things like tutoring for your kids. Before you decide you can’t afford this, scrutinize your spending. Chances are, there’s a way to reallocate your resources. If you need more convincing, calculate what your time is worth, says Timothy Ferriss, a time-management expert. To get your “hourly rate,” cut the last three zeros off your annual salary, then halve that number. So if you make $60,000 a year, your hourly rate is $30. “If it takes you three hours to clean the house each week, that’s $90 worth of your time,” he says.
What can I do less well (at least sometimes)? When something you’re working on is good enough, stop. It’s a waste of time to do everything perfectly, such as polishing the underside of the banister. Instead, focus on doing the important things adequately.
What distractions can I limit, if not eliminate?
- Shut the door. Seriously. If you have work to do, make it clear that you need to be left alone.
- At work, check your e-mail only twice a day―at noon and at 4 p.m. “I’ve found those are the times when you’re most likely to have responses to your previously sent e-mails,” says Ferriss. And use the auto-respond feature: When you’re swamped, direct e-mailers to an assistant or, with his or her permission, a colleague.
- At home, give your BlackBerry a rest.
- As for TV, watch a show you love, then turn off the set. The average American spends 2.4 hours a day in front of the tube, but that investment yields sparse rewards. Studies show that watching TV doesn’t make people nearly as happy as activities that really engage them, like playing tennis, taking a walk, and eating with family.
3: Reschedule Your Schedule
Now that you’ve freed up precious minutes, decide how you want to spend your energy.
Establish one or two “nonnegotiables” and work your schedule around them. For example, eight hours of sleep a night, two hours of exercise a week, or one night out for fun, suggests Valorie Burton, a life coach in Annapolis, Maryland, and the author of How Did I Get So Busy? (Broadway Books, $13, amazon.com).
Create your daily to-do list on an index card. “The card forces you to focus on what’s important,” says Ferriss. (If you prefer to think in weeks, fill out five cards.) Write down only what you can realistically accomplish in a day―three to five items. Then make sure at least one item from the top of your wish list is part of your weekly plan. Yes, that means writing in “30 minutes on the hammock with my novel.”
Schedule a quick and brainless task first. This lets you cross off something right away and start the day feeling accomplished.
Schedule your most onerous task second. Whether it’s a difficult conversation with a friend or a tedious e-mail to a colleague, plan to get it over with next.
Challenge the list. “Sometimes all it takes to keep your sanity is to drop just one thing,” says Burton. Ask yourself: “What item here least reflects what matters most to me?”
Reassess every Friday. Gina Trapani, editor of Lifehacker.com, a website dedicated to time-saving technology tips, is a huge fan of this approach. On Friday afternoons, she sets aside a half hour to go through what she accomplished, personally and professionally, and to map out the next week. (Even a five-minute version of her ritual can do the trick.) “This helps me remember my priorities,” says Trapani. This also reminds her that it’s impossible to do everything. “When you’re realistic about how much you can do in a day,” she says, “you’re so much happier.” And isn’t that the point?
Tools to Keep You on Track
Let’s face it: Your new schedule is going to be under siege by everything from big projects to good old procrastination. To ensure that you stay on-task, try these tips:
- Do just a dash of whatever it is you’re avoiding. “Work on the task for a short period of time―perhaps as little as one minute,” says Merlin Mann, creator of 43folders.com, a time-management blog. “When you realize how much anxiety was created in your head, you’ll give yourself the jolt needed to follow it through.”
- Post a procrastination-busting Post-it. Timothy Ferriss suggests writing: “Are you inventing things to do to avoid what’s important?” Then stick it wherever you’ll see it regularly, like on your computer.
- Break projects into pieces. The optimal amount of time to spend on a task is 40 to 90 minutes. After that, take a break to recharge. And keep in mind that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. When you give yourself incremental deadlines, you’re more likely to get things done quickly.
- Take rest seriously. Not only will you feel better but you’ll also be more efficient. “When people are scattered, they perceive that they don’t have enough time,” says Valorie Burton.
- Don’t worry, be happy. One parting word of encouragement: According to a recent Real Simple/GfK Roper happiness study, 65 percent of women who say they’re “very happy” make time for themselves. (Only 39 percent of women who are “somewhat happy” do so.) So which comes first, the time or the happiness? Impossible to say. But the odds are good that the more time you make for yourself, the happier you’ll be.