You can't manage time

Do you assume that when you finish your current projects, you will have more time to breathe or focus on your personal goals? I am constantly saying, “I just need to get these projects done and then I’ll have more time” even though I’ve known for years my assumption is an illusion. If you have a few moments when obligations slow down, do you find other tasks and requests creep into what you thought was under your control, and you are back to yearning for more time?

You can’t control time; time management is a futile goal. The endless struggle to rein in time makes you anxious and worried that what you can accomplish won’t be good enough. The stress takes the joy out of your days.

Using a checklist or schedule to manage your time can help you remember what you have to do, but it can also cause you to feel rushed, negatively affecting the quality of your work. Or you feel inadequate if you can’t complete the list as planned.

More often, you probably feel a loss of control around time. The day will never arrive when the flood of emails has stopped, when your to-do lists feels manageable, and when nobody is angry with you for not meeting their expectation or forgetting what you promised.

For those of us still working at a job or running a business, there is no such thing as “work-life balance” or any sustained sense of task balance. The best you can do is find emotional balance in your hectic days.

Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, said  “What makes our attention so vulnerable to distraction is the difficulty of attending to what is consequential in the grandest scheme — a difficulty temporarily allayed by the ease of attending to the immediate and seemingly urgent but, ultimately, inconsequential. Who among us would, on their deathbed, radiate soul-gladness over the number of emails they responded to in their lifetime?

Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.”

How to gracefully stop trying to control time

  1. Instead of trying to manage your time, can you manage how you feel? If you know what gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and then start today to align your work with your purpose, you will have a north star to help you choose what to do with your time. Then check in with how you feel throughout the day so you can choose what you want to feel instead, or go for a walk so you can stabilize your stress before heading back to work.
  2. Work with a coach or someone who can help you overcome how your protective brain has left you powerlyzed. A coach can help you look at the fears you have been avoiding that are making you work too hard, and the blind spots that have kept you in the dark, not knowing what to do next. (If you are interested in developing your own coaching skills, check out my new online Breakthrough Coaching training program.)
  3. Every year, choose what you want to do more of, and less of, to move you toward your a vision of a life full of days that feel more fulfilling than draining. Then stay healthy, connect with people who make you smile and laugh, and let your feet feel the earth as often as you can. Use the questions in this link to assess where you are today and then plan how you want to focus your life going forward.

If you only had an hour to live…

Maria Popova, author of the thought-stimulating blog, The Marginalian where I was inspired to write this article1, quoted her mindfulness teacher asking, “Imagine having only a year left to live, what would you do with it? Then imagine you only had a day left — what would you do with it? Then only an hour — what would you do with it?”

Now define what is most important to you. Let your vision of a life fueled by purpose and joy be the guiding light in your days. Every hour, take a break and ask if what you are doing is purposeful and fulfilling.

Yes, you have to make enough money to survive, but your work must align with your values today or have you on a path to a more fulfilling future to give you the sense of control you seek.

If you can face the truth about time in this way — there is never enough and there is just enough — you will reach the greatest heights of productivity and fulfillment.


1 The key ideas in this post are summarized from the article, Escaping the Trap of Efficiency: The Counterintuitive Antidote to the Time-Anxiety That Haunts and Hampers Our Search for Meaning by Maria Popova

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