With our constantly connected, fast-paced lifestyles, it’s not surprising we feel under stress to keep up. But a few simple strategies to manage your time can help you feel calmer and more in control
We live in a world where groceries, advice and even a hot meal are all available at the touch of a button. So how is it that we seem to have less time than ever? ‘People get into a loop where they use the phrase “I have no time” as a way of self-validating their distress about everything they need to balance,’ says psychologist-turned-author Dr Alice Boyes. But it’s not just internal – businesses profit off the ‘no time’ lie, telling us we don’t have time to cook, exercise or look after ourselves, then rake in the cash with their solutions. ‘Your brain believes this message and you fall into a short-term mode of thinking where you’re just focusing on keeping your head above water. This leads to the phenomenon of being “too busy chasing cows to build a fence” where you don’t focus on the systems, processes and long- and medium-term planning that would help you lower your stress going forward,’ says Dr Boyes.
It’s common to look at the uber-successful and wonder how they do it all. But it’s important to remember that everyone has the same amount of time – people just use it differently. Turn the page to find out how to optimise yours.
SET SYSTEMS IN PLACE
‘Devote the most energy to activities that will have ongoing, rather than one-time, payoffs,’ says Dr Boyes. ‘Create processes that save you extra work and extra decision-making.’ For example, set up autopay on regular payments rather than having to remember them each time, plan meals, and spend time learning a useful skill that will help further down the line. ‘Implement good basic systems such as batching tasks, automation, and using checklists and decision trees. Especially try to reduce unnecessary decisions, which can be as simple as having routines for when, where, and how you do things.’
RETHINK REPEAT TASKS
‘One strategy I write about in The Healthy Mind Toolkit is to outline repetitive tasks as if you were going to outsource them to someone. For instance, every time I need to clean my printer drum, I forget how to do it, because I only need to do it infrequently. I then have to re-find the instructions each time, but now I have the instructions saved so I no longer have to try to find them online for my particular model.’ So, pens at the ready next time you file your tax return, fix the boiler, or cook a recipe you’ll want to reuse. ‘Just make sure you’re not reinventing the wheel when it comes to how you do repetitive tasks, either in your home or work life.’
‘When people are behind on important things, they often think they don’t deserve to relax, and so keep attempting to grind along with their work, even if what they’re working on isn’t objectively their most important task,’ says Dr Boyes. If you’ve been denying yourself a break because you don’t feel you’re getting enough done, Dr Boyes advises a little kindness: ‘Allow yourself time to relax – it might help you to see what your most important tasks are more clearly, and make working on them feel more manageable.’
LET GO OF PERFECTION
‘There are some competitive situations in which you need to put in an effort to be as perfect as possible, but there are many situations in which attempting perfection isn’t worth the investment,’ says Dr Boyes. Her advice? Learn to distinguish between the two, and you’ll find many tasks aren’t as important as the time dedicated to them suggests. ‘Work on achieving as close to perfection as you can when it matters and let it go when it doesn’t.’
If you’re juggling a lot (who isn’t?), make sure your higher priorities take turns at the top of the pile. ‘For instance, don’t always de-prioritise your health in favour of work, or vice versa. It’s more realistic for important priorities to take turns at the top, rather than thinking you’ll get to everything,’ says Dr Boyes. This may also help you realise what really is urgent, and what can wait.
TAKE A DAY
We’ve all put off a nagging task that no matter how vital, can take an age to turn into action. ‘If there is something you’ve been putting off for years, like figuring out insurance, making a will or setting up a password manager, then clear a whole day in which you’ll only do that. Allow yourself to do what you want after you’ve done it, but don’t allow yourself to do any other work
GET SOME PERSPECTIVE
‘Keep in mind that the big decisions that contribute the most to your success don’t require daily effort,’ says Dr Boyes. ‘Our big successes often come from just a few decisions, like deciding to buy a house or starting a side hustle. You only need to make certain big decisions a few times in your life, but these contribute hugely to its entire trajectory. The most important thing is putting in effort at key times to think through these big decisions. You don’t need to optimise every second or even every day of your life, because the most impactful decisions you make might be just a few a year.’
Dr Alice Boyes, is a former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit (TarcherPerigee, £11.99), applying ideas from social, clinical and positive psychology research for use in everyday life.
Words Hattie Parish. Photographs Stocksy. Originally from Healthy magazine Dec/Jan 2020