Expectations are infinite. Time is finite. We’re always choosing. Choose well.

10 Jun 2019

Do you want to curb burnout and carve out time for what’s truly important? Ever feel buried under a never-ending pile of email, paperwork, to-do’s, obligations, and other people’s demands? Are you seeking the seemingly elusive concept of ‘work-life balance,’ or feel burned out?

Author and TED speaker Laura Vanderkam whose work focuses on time management and productivity gives some practical advice on how to achieve this. Her core beliefs: “Spend more time on the things that matter, and less on the things that don’t” and “Time might be finite, but possibilities are endless”.

In her latest book, Juliet’s School of Possibilities, she writes a short fable to remind us just how important it is to manage our time well, as well as exemplify what happens when we don’t. She says, “We find advice easier to remember when it comes in the form of a tale. So I wrote this book to give people a more vivid reminder of why time matters.”

These are some practical steps she advises to do to curb burnout and focus on what’s truly important.

Engineer hope in new possibilities

We spend a lot of time thinking about things we don’t want to do, but anyone who wants to dream about what is possible needs to make a long list of things they do want to do. What would you like to spend more time doing? What would you like to see, do, experience? Try to list 100 things. Some will be big, but some will be doable in the next few weeks. As you do those, you’ll start to remember what it’s like to be hopeful about the future.

Prevent email from dominating your life

Email expands to fill all available space. The only way to spend less time on email is to choose to spend less time on email. She suggests you give it consciously chosen blocks of time that work for your main goals. For some people, that’s one hour-long block in the morning and one in the afternoon. Other people prefer to be on for 20 minutes every hour. Either is fine. The problem is when email is constantly an option. Then you never get anything else done.

Identify your time-wasters

The biggest time-waster is mindlessness. Some of us start the workday not knowing what we wish to accomplish, so we get distracted or just react to what seems urgent, or say yes to a tangential meeting just because that time happens to look open. In our personal lives, we don’t think about the weekend until, say, mid-day Saturday, at which point it’s too late to take a day trip, or book a babysitter, or get together with friends who might need advance notice. Thinking about time before you’re in it vastly increases the chances that it is spent well.

Decide what to outsource and what to own

One key realization is that everyone outsources things. We don’t drive our mail to its destination, we let the postal service do that. We don’t churn our own butter or (probably) make our own clothes. So we’re all delegating already. As for what’s best to hand-off, she thinks the better question is what’s best to keep. You should focus on work that you, uniquely, can do. What can you do best that others can’t do nearly as well? Anything that’s not that is a good candidate for outsourcing, even if you happen to like it, or are pretty good at it. In terms of managing others, find people you trust, and be very explicit on what ‘good’ looks like for you. No one can read your mind, so recognize that it will be a process, but one with a big payoff.

Consider your impact

We all feel busy. But there’s a big difference between being busy and getting done what matters. “Anyone feeling this way might envision themselves at a dinner given in their honor, many years in the future,” suggests Laura Vanderkam. “People are giving toasts about all the impact they’ve had on the world. What would they say in their speeches? Now, the key question: how much time are you spending on anything related to what’s being said in these speeches? The answer can be a bit depressing, but it can also light a fire under us to change what we can.”

Track your time

She thinks that a week may be a good goal. If you want to spend your time better, you need to figure out where it’s going now. That way, you’re working from reliable data, rather than stories and cultural narratives about where the time goes.

Release the guilt of feeling perpetually behind

Most stuff doesn’t matter. Think about today’s date, two years ago. Can you remember what you were worried about then? No doubt you felt rushed, harried, behind. Two years later you have no idea why. So you can do yourself a favor and relax about whatever is bothering you now, two years early.

When to say ‘yes’ versus ‘no’

If expectations are infinite, and time is finite, then saying ‘yes’ to one thing is, by definition, saying ‘no’ to something else, even if that ‘no’ isn’t always obvious. Maybe it’s ‘no’ to your larger professional goals, ‘no’ to deeper relationships, or ‘no’ to your health. Are these really the things you want to say ‘no’ to?

“As a practical matter, whenever I’m asked to do something in the future, I ask myself if I’d do it tomorrow. For some reason, it’s easier to see opportunity costs for tomorrow versus some vague future time (November looks pretty free right now…but it won’t be once we get to November!).”

Create margin in your schedule

Build in lots of open space. Open space invites opportunity in a way a cluttered calendar can’t. If it’s hard to just leave time open, then use it to go outside and walk (or run) around. In Juliet’s School of Possibilities, the heroine, Riley, gets one of her best ideas while biking on the boardwalk. Laura Vanderkam used this example because she thinks this happens to a lot of us: we get great ideas when we remove ourselves from our desks and all the inputs via our phones. When we give our minds the freedom to just play around with ideas, they come up with all sorts of amazing things!



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