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Time management traps

Time management is a particular interest of mine, for two reasons. Firstly, as an Occupational Therapist my goal is to help people to occupy their time in a way that enhances their health and happiness. I’m convinced that using time wisely is the key to a good life.

The second reason is that I suck at time management. I find practically everything in the world interesting and am easily distracted, so my plans are regularly pulled off track when I spot something appealing. I’m also prone to laziness, so deferring and dodging unpleasant tasks is another common problem. In fact, I am a champion procrastinator. This obviously clashes with my professional wisdom, leading to plenty of inner debates, recriminations and frustration.

As a result, I spend a lot of time researching and experimenting with a wide range of time management strategies. But to make meaningful change, it is important to understand some of the underlying beliefs that can be driving our time-management decisions. And how these can be seriously flawed.

Common delusions about time management


1. Overestimating how much we can get done in a day

How often is your to-do list crammed full of tasks, resulting in a sense of failure or frustration when you fail to complete them? It can be difficult to translate an idea of a task into a realistic sense of the time required, leading us to perpetually over-commit and under-perform.


Try this instead: when making to-do lists put an estimated completion time next to each item. When making a daily plan, include a rough schedule that gives a more realistic idea of how much can be squeezed into a day.


2. Underestimating how much we can get done in a year

We can easily assume that we need big chunks of time available to achieve something substantial. Yet if we do a little bit often, we can make a enormous amount of progress over 12 months. Imagine where you would be in a year’s time if you spent just 15 minutes a day practicing an instrument, learning a language or practicing yoga. Or if you spent 3 hours a week working on your creative project, home maintenance tasks or your blog (ahem…). Small amounts add up to a lot within a year.


Try this instead: Stop waiting to have lots of free time. Prioritise small sessions regularly.


3. Overestimating how much energy we will have in the future

Could you go to the gym today? Well…I’m a bit tired today. Could you go next week? Oh absolutely, I could go every day next week!


This is one of the most common traps of the procrastinator; the sense that in the future we will feel more like doing something.  


Try this instead: Assume that the energy you have now is the energy you will have later, and adjust your plans accordingly. When feeling tempted to procrastinate ask yourself “will I really feel more like doing this later?” If the honest answer is yes then fine, put it off. But if the honest answer is no, just do it now and get it over and done with.


4. Assuming there will be more time later

This is another trap for the procrastinator – the assumption that there’s plenty of time later. But this is generally nonsense. Given that we only have a set life span, then every passing day means we have less time remaining. And at a practical level, we should know by now that there will always be demands on our time – if we are busy now, we will probably be busy later.


As Shakespeare wisely noted “in delay there lies no plenty”.


Try this instead: recognise that there are no guarantees on future time availability and aim to use your time wisely now.


5. Seeing disruption as an aberration

This is one that I used to fall into all the time; the sense that once I got through this chaotic patch I’d have a smooth run to really get on top of things. Sigh! It took a long time to realise that disruption and change is the norm and the smooth patches are the fleeting aberration.


Try this instead: Stop waiting for the smooth patch. Learn to ‘dance with the chaos’ as best you can.


6. Difficulty relating to our future self

In a webinar on Sounds True Kelly McGonigal* made the observation that when we make decisions based on avoiding short-term discomfort, we are often creating additional suffering for our future self. In effect, we are saying to our future self  “bad luck, you will have to deal with the hangover / poor health / tax return / late fees / lack of savings / regret that you never wrote that novel, etc.”


Here is where the flawed thinking lies - at an intellectual level we grasp the idea of long-term consequences but we aren’t very good at realising that it will actually be us dealing with those consequences.


Try this instead: McGonigal suggests that we need to show more compassion to our future self, and that we can also refer to our future self for guidance. When making a decision on how to spend your time, check in with your future self of tomorrow, next month or next year, depending on the likely time frame of the consequences. How will your future self feel about dealing with the extra hassles you are creating for them? What advice would your future self give to your current self?

* This webinar was paid of a purchased series, but there is a free interview here that covers similar ideas.

7. Believing we need to be motivated to get started

The idea that we need to feel motivated in order to do something is the biggest time management trap of all. In reality your thoughts and feelings do not control your arms and legs. I’m sure you can think of plenty of times that you haven’t really felt like going to work or getting dinner for the kids or walking the dog. But you moved your arms and legs and did it anyway, because it was important.


If you can find ways to make yourself feel driven and enthusiastic, that’s great. If pep talks and visualisations and affirmations fill you with vim and vigour, then go for it! But sometimes trying to get ourselves revved up is just another drain on the energy budget. Sometimes we just need to acknowledge the ‘blurgh’ feelings and the ‘I don’t wanna…’ thoughts, and take them along with us while we get things done. As Oliver Burkeman puts it, “To be able to do what needs doing, whether or not you feel like it, is pretty close to a superpower.


Try this instead: Stop waiting for the Motivation Fairy, and focus on strategies for good decision-making instead. 

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