9 Ways to Get More of the Time that Matters

Work-Life Balance on 09.01.11
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Photo credit Julie Douglas

As the weather cools and fleets of school buses take to the streets I can't help but look back at a long, sweaty summer of 90 odd evenings listening to the crescendo of cicadas signaling dusk and assess how I spent my time. Turns out much of it was spent in my head while my body jettisoned my daughter around to the store or to day school. There were mounds of laundry, parades of dinners and always the rat-a-tat tapping away in a spreadsheet or a word document. These are the things that come to mind first.

But that's not really what summer was about. It was about configuring hands into a diamond shape while my husband, daughter and I sang, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." It was about watching our daughter trouncing down the beach and then sparring with the oncoming waves, or trying to catch the wind as she ran down the pier. It was about a dawn morning when my husband lovingly folded himself over me during a difficult moment. It was about watching my parents' eyes light up as they played with their two tow-headed grandchildren and feeling like a kid myself as I sat in their living room and pulled up a blanket.

These are the sort of moments that mean the most to me when I think back on how I spent my summer. And this is really the only reason why I care about time management, that corporate-sounding term we ascribe to the illusion that we can capture the ephemeral nature of time and wrangle it into something we can control. With this in mind, I've come up with a list of ways to bend time to our advantage, or at least try:

1. Look for the weird. On my commute this morning I felt like I was pulling the car into a well-rutted, predictable path full of traffic when I noticed a praying mantis clinging to the edge of the window. I was amazed that at 45 mph this little creature was body surfing the wind, swaying her abdomen from side to side when I took a corner. It reminded me that staying flexible is key to beating the odds. It also reminded that there's something weird and wonderful around us at most any time.  

2. Automate as many choices as possible. There are always 20 things to do at any one time. Designate a specific time and place to do routine tasks or chores so that you don't have spend mental energy on "what should I be doing next?" Considering and making endless decisions can be the undoing of your sanity.

3. Identify peak productivity times and knock out as much as possible; do the hard stuff at those times. For me it's from 6 a.m. to the time my daughter wakes up at 7:30 a.m. It allows me to get things done and put aside the nagging to-do list so I can be more present throughout the day.

4. Overestimate activity and underestimate time. Gauge how long something might take by comparing it to a similar task or experience you've had before; add 20 percent more time on top of that. The idea is stop borrowing against time.

5. Don't book every single minute of your day; build in Pura Vida time, or in Costa Rican parlance, time spent enjoying life -- listening to the crickets or even staring up at the clouds. Which reminds me that right about now there's probably a decent sale on hammocks.

6. Good riddance, guilt! Guilt is the jalopy that drives us down the road paved with good intentions, the one leading into the jowls of hell. Don't commit to things you truly don't have an interest in doing. No one arrives at their death bed thinking, "If only I had spent more time doing that thing for that person whom I can't even remember."

7. Fix your Achilles' heel. What's your biggest time-waster? The Internet, video games, worrying? Identify the loops in your life and you'll get a chance to step into them and put a stop to behavior that's become rote rather than a pleasurable pastime. Easier said than done, though.

8. Get out of your head. The voices in my head are a nonstop gab fest, but nothing shuts them up like dancing around my house with wild abandon or checking in with a friend or family member to see how their corner of the world is doing. The conversation's usually much better than the loopy one going on in my head.

9. Say, "Hello, Gorgeous." What's beautiful at this very moment to you? You're waiting at line at the post office, or at the doctor's office. What do you see that pleases you? Is it the 85-year-old woman across from you? The one with the jaunty blue hat, frog pin and devilish smile? Is it the image of your child when you squeeze your eyes shut and imagine her in front of you pretending to be a pirate, an oven mitt on her hand as a stand-in for a hook? Recast your surroundings and odds are you'll rewire your experience.

Do you have any game-changers when it comes to expanding time and doing the things you want to do while decreasing the time you spend on things you don't want (or have to) do?  

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