Today was the day you were finally going to sit down and write those thank-you notes for your anniversary party. But one interruption after another kept getting in the way of your attempts at time management. Now that it’s bedtime, you’re wondering how long this task will play leapfrog across your calendar’s pages.
The feeling that we lack the time to accomplish these kinds of tasks can drain our mental energy and increase anxiety. Much of the blame for this feeling lies with the increasingly busy world we live in. Studies show that, thanks to our fast-paced and screen-saturated lives, our attention spans have decreased.
Another reason, though, that we struggle with time management may surprise you. “We often intentionally try to stay overly busy to distract ourselves from emotional wounds, such as guilt or loneliness,” says life coach Meadow DeVor. The good news? Research suggests the happiest, most productive people have one thing in common: Instead of trying to be the boss of their calendar, they’ve learned to take command of their attention span.
“Making conscious timing decisions is proven to reduce stress significantly,” assures Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Just read on for the secrets that’ll help you make the most of your time.
1. Time Trap: Feeling Drained
You wearily jotted down your weekend chores over your lunch break, but now that you’re looking at the list, you feel exhausted before you’ve even started. If we even think about upcoming projects when our mind isn’t alert and energized, our resolve wilts, notes Pink. “Our level of brainpower changes over the course of the day,” he explains. “And the difference between the high point of peak productivity and the low point can be huge.”
Time Saver: Tap Your ‘Power Hours’
Tackling your most important work during the productivity pinnacle of your day will make you feel more “time rich,” says Pink. For example, if you’re an early bird, start analytical tasks (like updating your résumé) in the morning, when you’re most focused. If you’re a night owl, wait until the sun sets. Not sure if you’re a lark or an owl? Pinpoint when you feel most mentally alert on a “free day,” like Sunday, when you’re in charge of your time.
2. Time Trap: Trouble Prioritizing
You want to start taking daily walks to boost your health, but finding time to fit them into your schedule feels like a pipe dream. “When we’re overwhelmed, we easily lose sight of long-term objectives and have a much harder time prioritizing,” says Judy Ho, PhD, author of Stop Self-Sabotage. “This stress is strongest when we lose sight of why we’re striving to get something done in the first place.”
Time Saver: Focus On Your Why
Identifying your internal rewards for prioritizing a task boosts success. Yale researchers found that West Point cadets who focused on internal motivators (like a desire to lead), rather than external incentives (like getting a job) were more likely to graduate. The key? Remind yourself of your values, like staying healthy and energetic for your kids or grandkids, suggests Ho. This helps you focus on the real reason you’re exercising, so it feels much easier to prioritize.
3. Time Trap: Procrastinating
You’ve known for a few weeks that you have to clean out your late aunt’s old office, but you’ve been delaying this difficult task because you know just how emotionally tough it will be. “Often, the more meaningful the activity, the more we put it off,” observes DeVor. “Delay is a common defense mechanism and is almost always about control — a reaction to fear and an attempt to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty.”
Time Saver: Cure It With Kindness
When postponing an important task, instead of trying to will your behavior to change, get curious about why you may be delaying, advises DeVor. Perhaps cleaning out your aunt’s office means that you’ll have to you face your grief. “Procrastination, however, will only lift through self-compassion,” she says. “Simply offer yourself love. Place your hands over your heart and repeat: ‘I’m on your side.’ This gently affirms that you can begin, and it will be okay.”
4. Time Trap: Putting Yourself Last
Does your time get gobbled up by everyone else in your life? (And now your neighbors want you to lead the homeowners’ association and your friends need a volunteer for the library fundraiser.) Observes DeVor, “When I or my students say we ‘never have enough time,’ what we really mean is that we want a way to find time for ourselves without having to feel guilty or selfish.”
Time Saver: Give Yourself Permission
Long-term happiness requires accepting a simple truth: Your time is precious, declares DeVor. The first step to taking control of your time management is not wasting a moment on guilt. To start letting go of unfair self-recriminations, try a relaxing visualization: Close your eyes and picture feeling at peace as you tell a friend ‘no’ to an upcoming demand on your time. Practicing a specific action plan for time management, such as saying, “My plate is full — if I said yes, I’m afraid I’d let you down,” increases the likelihood that you’ll follow through. And the more you set specific boundaries, the more “time freedom” you’ll enjoy.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.