Almost everyone these days feels overloaded; between our jobs, family responsibilities, social obligations, chores, errands, hobbies, and more, there are simply too many things to do.
In this FitBliss blog, we’ll review some basic time management principles and discuss strategies for getting a better handle on your never-ending to-do list.
Focus on the Important Things
There’s a time management-related theory called the “big rocks” or “pickle jar” theory. It’s best explained through a visual description.
Imagine you have a glass jar, which you have to fill with several large rocks, a handful of pebbles, and a container of sand. You try pouring the sand into the jar first, followed by the pebbles. You then try adding in the large rocks, only to find that there is no room left!
Okay, new strategy — you first fill the jar with the large rocks, then the small pebbles, and finally the sand. Remarkably, everything fits.
So, how does this apply to time management?
We can think of the large rocks as our most important (and often most-involved) tasks, the pebbles as our moderately important tasks, and the sand as our small, least important tasks. When we focus too much on the lesser important tasks, we tend to run out of time for the bigger things, leaving us feeling drained and unaccomplished. If we instead focus on our larger, more important tasks, however, everything else tends to fall into place.
It may seem like an obvious recommendation to “focus on the important things,” but most of us don’t do this — we live our lives in the minutiae, forgetting to evaluate how our actions lead us closer to our higher level goals. But by clarifying what’s most important to us, and by aligning our energies to serve these things, we feel more fulfilled and productive.
- Take a few minutes to write out everything that’s on your plate—from going to the grocery store to tackling a large project at work.
- Identify the big rocks, the pebbles, and the sand, and record this prioritization.
- Similarly, identify the tasks and areas of responsibility that you explicitly do not want to focus on.
- Place your list of big rocks, pebbles, sand, and “won’t do” items in a location such that you can reference the list easily and regularly.
- When evaluating what to work on day to day (or week to week, etc.), prioritize the big rocks — are your actions leading you closer to your goals?
Adopt an 80/20 Mindset
The 80/20 principle originated from an Italian thinker who noticed that 80% of the healthy peas in his garden came from only 20% of his plants. The same principle has since been observed in many different fields and is now generalized to mean that 80% of output comes from 20% of input.
In the context of task management, the principle suggests that only a small portion of your overall tasks are high-leverage tasks—the tasks that will yield large results and build momentum towards the end goal. These are the tasks to focus on.
- Pick a project that’s on your list, and brainstorm the small set of high-leverage tasks that will get the project to 80% completion. Focus on these activities, and forget the rest. Repeat this exercise whenever you plan for another project.
- When deciding what task to do next, take a moment to think of the output of that task — is it really worth your investment?
- Consider your low-leverage tasks. Delegate them, automate them, or let them go completely.
- Examples: Hire a cleaning service once a month to clean your living space, subscribe to a weekly meal plan service, automate credit card payments.
Create a Routine
When we fall into bad habits, most of us will blame lack of willpower (and subsequently feel guilty for not having our s*** together). But willpower is a finite resource, and it is highly vulnerable to decision fatigue.
In short, the phrase “decision fatigue” refers to the idea that decision-making wears down willpower. As an example, if you make a lot of decisions early in the day—deciding things like what to wear that day, what to eat for lunch, and what projects to prioritize—you’ll find it difficult to make healthy, sound decisions later in the day.
Context switching, similarly, is a quick and fast way to consume willpower. Context switching happens whenever you switch focus from one context to another, whether that be from one project to another, or even from your phone to your computer. When you switch focus, there’s an overhead cost you have to pay to re-orient yourself to the task at hand. This overhead cost not only wears down your mental energy, but it consumes time as well.
Creating a routine is an effective strategy to get things done without taxing your willpower—with a well-planned routine, you can minimize the number of decisions you have to make and the number of contexts you have to switch between. The consistency of a routine can also help you feel more grounded, particularly if you design the routine to include activities that nourish you.
- Brainstorm an ideal morning routine to get your day started on the right track. Suggestions:
- Stretch or do light physical activity
- Mediate / breathe
- Drink water or tea
- Eat a nourishing breakfast
- Create a plan for the day: decide on the top 1-3 major things you want to accomplish, and try to tackle those first
- Referencing your “big rocks” list, think through your responsibilities, and brainstorm a routine for getting through your tasks. I recommend you batch similar tasks (e.g., block out 2 hours on Mondays for administrative-type tasks, or 1 hour at lunch-time to review and respond to emails). Some weekly routine examples:
- Mornings are for focused work on top priorities (“big rocks”); afternoons are for errands and random tasks.
- Mondays are for priority A, Tuesday for priority B, Wednesday for priority C, etc.
- Mondays are for planning, Tuesdays/Wednesdays/Thursdays are for focused work, Fridays are for review.
- Use your calendar! Once you’ve decided on your routine, add it to your calendar. This includes work-related tasks as well as self-care activities, like journaling, exercising, and even taking a bath. By creating blocks in your calendar to focus on particular tasks, you’re much more likely to stay focused and actually follow through.
1. Track your time (optional). If you feel simultaneously way too busy AND guilty for never getting anything done, then you might find it beneficial to track your time for a day or a week. Set a reminder on your phone or computer to remind you every hour to quickly record what you worked on for the last hour. At the end of the day (or week), reflect on how you spent your time. Did the way you spend your time align with your priorities? What’s taking the most time? How can you adjust your schedule to align more with how you want to be spending your time?
2. Make yourself accountable. Consistently using a calendar is a great way to hold yourself accountable, but consider other means — maybe share your goals with a friend, and schedule “accountability” calls with them. Similarly, schedule activities with other people involved. If you’re trying to get more fit, for example, you can sign up for a fitness class, buy a session with a personal trainer, or schedule a workout with a friend.
3. Breathe. As instinctive and natural as breathing is, most of us forget to do it properly! By taking moments throughout the day to consciously and deeply breathe, you punctuate the chaos with peace, ease, and control. By doing this regularly, you will help reduce your stress levels and improve mental clarity and overall function.
Ultimately, it takes time to find a system that works best for you. I encourage you to make changes slowly — perhaps one small change each week — and to reflect regularly on how you’re doing, taking a few minutes each week to evaluate what works and doesn’t work for you and your lifestyle. A simple increase in awareness is sometimes the most powerful change of all.
Dominique Alessi, Health Coach
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