It all comes down to “When I have time.” Have you said these things to yourself? “I’ll take care of it when things settle down.” “I just need to figure this out before I jump into that.” “One day I’ll have time.”

Fighting today’s battles easily fills your day. Between work, chores, kids, paying bills, and helping out your friends, there is never enough time in the day. It’s already hard just getting to the gym. So you rarely get a chance to start the projects or go after the things you really want.  There are many books and resources about time management strategies. But in order to make good use of them there are a few fundamentals to acknowledge that will always be true:

  1. There will always be another fire to put out.
  2. Work fills the time allotted.
  3. Everything is a matter of priority.

There Will Always Be Another Fire
Do you remember last month when you thought everything was going to calm down once you were finally passed that one thing? And then you took care of it, but you still don’t seem to have any more time because something else came up? Life is always moving forward. There will always be new things happening. Most of us maximize our time based on what we see in our lives right now. So any time something unexpected comes up it throws us off and stresses us out. If instead you can build in an expectation for the unexpected in your life, you will be better prepared and able to handle it in stride. The best way to do this is to simply give yourself more time than you think you will need for your current tasks. Some ways to do this include:

  • Extra travel time. Is it 15 minutes away? Give yourself 20. Is it really important? Give yourself 25. This will cut your road rage in half. If you get there early you can use the extra time to send an email, call a friend, or simply check your phone so you don’t have to later.
  • Plan ahead. Schedule a chunk of time in the future where you will get something done. Then commit to it. Don’t let yourself move it. You might get invited to go do something, but you’re committed. Don’t let FOMO get in the way. This is your time to get it done. By planning ahead you can make time for all the little (or big) things that need to happen rather than trying to fit them in.
  • Plan similar tasks in chunks. For example, don’t plan to vacuum tonight, mop tomorrow, and scrub the bathroom the next day. Get it all done together. You won’t lose time mentally preparing yourself (how long do you putz around on your phone before actually starting something you don’t want to do?) each day or lose time taking out supplies and putting them away. You’ll also be in the cleaning mindset the entire time. An added bonus is that it’ll feel much better to see all that progress at once.
  • When you take care of something unexpected, return to your schedule of giving yourself extra time. Otherwise you’ll just start using the extra time for something else and

Work Fills the Time Allotted
Say it takes 20 minutes to do the dishes well after dinner. If you are given 15 minutes to do it, you will likely finish but it may be sloppy. There might be soap left on them, or you might have missed a spot. If you are given 20 minutes, you will complete it well and move on to the next thing. If you are given 30 minutes? It’ll still probably take you the full 30 minutes. But you will take your time, finish what you’re doing, check your email, and then get started. If you’re not careful you may end up only giving yourself 15 minutes for the actual task. Remember how you already checked your phone when you got to your meeting early? Don’t check it again, just get to work.

Now think about it differently: You’re busy at work, with deadlines to meet at the end of the day. But there is a small emergency. You need to drop everything to take care of it. Do you still meet your deadlines? Likely, you do. The point here is that work fills the time alotted for it. There is balance that is needed to make sure that the work is still done well. But more often than not we have more time than we think we do. We feel busy only to find out that we can still manage when we are forced to take on more.

Everything is a Matter of Priority
Pick your priorities. Remember your to do list is yours. You are the one who chooses what goes on it, and what goes at the top. And when it goes on top. People tend to think of their time priorities as a static list. For example: 1. Family 2. Friends 3. Work 5. Hobbies. But in reality our list of what we prioritize is constantly changing based on our circumstances. How many times have you let a call from a friend or parent go to voicemail because you were in the middle of getting something done? That means you put the task first. But if you had known that it was an emergency, you would have stopped the task to take the call. The point is, you already change your time priorities on a regular basis. It just takes a conscious decision to add something to the list yourself. If there is something you have always wanted to do – or brings you a lot of joy – put it at the top for a while. As long as you keep a balance the work will just fill the time alotted.

It may feel like you can’t prioritize it because there are so many other important things going on in your life. Check in with yourself: do you watch TV? Hang out with friends? Tackle interruptions and emergencies when they occur? If your answer is yes, that means you are already in practice of re-prioritizing your time. So pick some time a week from now to do that thing you really want to be doing. Stick with that schedule, keep it your priority, and watch yourself do it without falling behind on everything else.

Some Extra Tips While at Work:

  • Schedule time with yourself in a conference room to work without interruption.  This not only gives you uninterrupted time to take care of your work, but it puts you in a comfortable mindset for doing that work. Just by scheduling the meeting with yourself you are setting the expectation with yourself that you will be getting work done during this time.
  • When you are busy and someone interrupts you, ask them to schedule a short meeting with you.  This will teach people to think about what their questions are and make sure they are ready before using your time. This is especially important if you have a drive-by boss or work in an interrupt culture.
  • Line up back-to-back meetings. Rather than having meetings at 9-10am, 10:30-11:30am, and 1-2pm, schedule them 9-10am, 10-11am, and 11-12pm. It will incentivize you to complete the meetings on time and frees up all that lost switching time between meetings.

Naturally, use your best judgement. If there is a true emergency, it deserves priority.