Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Last week’s blog covered the first step – understanding how you spend your time by using a time diary. This can be a powerful way to observe your habits and patterns, when energy is highest, time-wasting activities, strengths and areas for improvement – and now we will look at further ways to break the cycle of busy.
1.Understand how you spend your time
Check out part 1 for which covers this first step.
2. Allocate your time
How you allocate your time each day needs to become a conscious decision, and include the aspects of your working and personal life that are non-negotiable.
If you are not planning, then you are likely to be operating in busy or crisis mode, and letting the day rule you and not the other way around.
Here are four habits for you to consider in getting a grip on consciously allocating your time:
Habit One: schedule your non-negotiables
At the beginning of each week add activities to your calendar that you will not compromise.
It is irrelevant whether this is to knit a scarf, go to the gym, fulfil a family commitment or achieve a critical work deadline. If it is important to you, and it is achievable, then schedule it in first.
Habit Two: take time every day to plan your day
Before starting each day, sit down for a few minutes and contemplate what you would like to get out of it. When you get to the end of the day consider what would you like to have achieved both personally and/or professionally?
Next turn this into a list which can be realistically achieved in the time you have. Block out time in your calendar aiming to do the most important and hardest tasks first, or when your energy is the highest. If your list doesn’t fit into your calendar, then re-prioritise the list, not your non-negotiables.
In the workplace, I recommend adopting a concept of working hours being less than your actual working hours. This can be a useful concept in structuring your day, regardless of whether you are in income generating employment. This will allow time for interruptions and unscheduled activities which is likely to happen anyway!
For instance, if you start your doing/working day at 9am and finish at 5.30pm it looks as if you have 8.5 hours each day, and often we try and schedule all of it. This may result in failing to complete what you set out to do, or skipping breaks and staying late at work to finish the activities you set yourself.
Habit Three: use productivity cycles
Consider splitting your day into 4 targeted 90-minute productivity cycles, having a break in between each and a lunch break halfway.
Spend a few minutes at the beginning of each cycle to decide what you will do and how you will approach it. Be clear on the standards you will set and what you would like to achieve.
Aim to do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a delusion and it is not physically possible to do more than one activity at a time. Jumping from task to task will simply leave you spinning too many plates in the air and likely to have your mind spinning in circles too.
Prepare yourself as well in terms of making sure you are adequately fed and watered or tackling any stress, if needed.
Habit Four: review regularly
Check in after each 90-minute cycle to see if you are on track and refocus if you need to.
At the end of the day spend a few minutes reviewing how the day went. What went well and what did you achieve?
If things didn’t go so well, try not to judge yourself harshly. Instead ask yourself what you learnt, and what you might you do differently in the next cycle or tomorrow?
This targeted approach is a blog topic in its own right, but suffice to say it can have a massive impact on your effectiveness, energy and wellbeing.
3. Have a system
Decide on whether you will use a diary, an online calendar, an app or a wall planner for scheduling tasks but avoid using multiple mediums. This in itself is a time waster!
Consider having your action list in soft copy (word, one-note, tasks or an app), again in one place, to avoid having to keep re-writing this. If you enjoy crossing things off your list, then have a section for completed tasks so you have a line of sight of your achievements.
4. Take breaks
Stopping when busy may seem counterproductive. However, the reverse is true. We are not machines and were not designed to work for too long without breaks.
When you work in approximately 90-minute blocks, take 5-minute breaks and a break at lunchtime. It is recognised that you will be more effective.
Additionally, your pain receptors may switch off when you soldier on, so you won’t always notice the negative effects of, for instance, too much sitting or standing. Your body may, however, tell you at the end of the day when your neck, shoulders, back or hips may be screaming at you. Had you moved and taken breaks throughout the day, the chances are this may have been avoided.
A break is also an opportunity to influence your nervous system, bringing it from busy to relaxed. Doing this throughout the day may also help you to come down at the end of the day when you want to truly relax and prepare for sleep.
Doesn’t need to be complicated. Interrupt your sitting or standing, stretch, breathe, walk, grab a cuppa or have a chat with someone etc. Whatever takes you away from the task at hand and gives you an opportunity to pause and recharge your batteries.
5. Know what is important
When I teach time management, I get participants to complete a table of how they currently spend their day and how they would like to spend their day.
For some, this can show the difference between their current reality and a target life shape.
For others, it can show that, even if they had all the time in the world, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.
This not knowing what matters to you or what you enjoy, maybe a driver in itself for getting busy to fill the void.
If this is you, I recommend spending some time reflecting and creating a list of what matters to you, what you enjoy and what makes you feel good.
Once you have your list you will be able to start consciously prioritising these areas into your schedule, and set boundaries so that you can achieve them.
6. Set Boundaries
When you understand your personal drivers and what is important to you, you will see that activities will either take you closer or further away from your goals.
If spending time with your family is important to you, then taking non-essential work calls out of hours will take you away from that goal.
This will require you setting clear boundaries and choosing effectiveness over busy-ness.
Before I knew better, I used to try and do it all, both at work and at home. I exercised too hard, organised social events and would go to the opening of an envelope.
At work I would try and fix every problem and take on every initiative, often working late to get it all done. This, of course, had a downstream effect on my wellbeing but interestingly it also made me less effective.
No one really cares if you clear out your 1000 emails, read every document, fix every non-critical issue, be seen at every meeting or put your hand up for every initiative.
Picking a few things that were important to me and/or the company’s goals, and doing them well, resulted in increased effectiveness, recognition and time for me.
When I got clear on my goals, and chose effectiveness over busy-ness, I actually had my most successful and healthiest period in the corporate world. This approach continues today in how I run my business.
7. Give up saying you’re busy
Or at least catch yourself saying ‘I’m busy’ and question why you are doing it?
Perhaps, when you stop to describe your busy-ness, it might be that you have genuinely got a lot on. Or you may be able to connect to one or more of your drivers for wanting to be seen as being busy. (See last week’s blog which discusses drivers for busy-ness). Or perhaps you are using it as an excuse to avoid having to go somewhere or do something.
But the key thing that happens when you keep saying that you are busy, is that you are more likely to feel busy. When you feel busy you are more likely to act busy.
8. Use your energy wisely
Are you a morning or an evening person?
It makes sense that ‘your time of day’ will be when your energy is at its highest, and where possible you should structure your day to use this to your advantage.
Aim to tackle important and challenging tasks when you are at your peak, as you will be more focussed and productive.
When your energy tank is running low is a good time to tackle the less important, less challenging tasks or quick wins.
This may not logistically always be possible, for instance, if you repeat one task/activity all day. However, can you do a little more when your energy is high to take the slack for when your energy is low?
As a minimum, you should at least not be giving yourself a hard time when you are not running on all cylinders, and doing what you can to fuel your body and mind to support you.
9. Limit Time Wasters
It’s no secret that many people are addicted to their smartphones and spend a chunk of time online. Whilst this has its place, a study by Ofcom reports that the average Briton checks a mobile device every 12 minutes and is online for 24 hours a week!
Limiting time on portable devices, and on white noise and time-wasting activities, may give you some precious time back.
Recognise though that breaking the dependency on these may be easier for some of you than for others.
These activities create noise and a sense of doing something. Without them you may be faced with a silence and space you are unaccustomed too, along with the noise of your own thoughts.
A study by the University of Virginia found that 67% of men and 25% of women chose to shock themselves with electricity, rather than spend time alone with their thoughts, during a 15-minute experiment.
You may also like to practice being quiet. Turn off your phone, turn off the radio in the car, walk without listening to music etc. Start small and increase the time as you feel comfortable.
10. Get Adequate Rest and Sleep
Rest and sleep play a vital role in physical and mental wellbeing, with a number of the body’s systems effectively being reset overnight.
Inadequate rest and sleep will compromise your productivity and wellbeing, but it is too often one of the first things that is sacrificed in order to squeeze more time into the day.
Ensure that getting adequate rest and sleep is always high on your list of things to do.
In today’s society, busy has become the norm, a way of living. But busy for the sake of busy is futile, and seldom achieves anything other than feelings of stress, being overwhelmed, exhaustion and inadequacy. Taking control and consciously organising yourself and your time can help to strike the delicate balance between being effective and maintaining your wellbeing.
These blogs were written for Cytoplan with part 2 available on their website: