(This article previously appeared on Jamesclear.com.)
Time management can be tough. What is urgent in your life and what is important to your life are often very different things.
This is especially true with your health, where the important issues almost never seem urgent even though your life ultimately hangs in the balance.
- No, going to the gym today isn’t urgent, but it is important for your long–term health.
- No, you won’t die from stress today, but if you don’t get it figured out soon, you might.
- No, eating real, unprocessed foods isn’t required for you to stay alive right now, but they will reduce your risk of cancer and disease.
We all have 24 hours in a day. How can we actually use them more effectively? And more importantly, how can we manage our time to live healthier and happier and to do the things we know are important while still handling the responsibilities that are urgent?
I’m battling with those questionsrjust like you, but in my experience there are three time-management tips that actually work in real life and help improve your health and productivity:
1. Eliminate Half-Work at All Costs
In our age of constant distraction, it’s stupidly easy to split our attention between what we should be doing and what society bombards us with. Usually we’re balancing the needs of messages, emails, and to–do lists at the same time that we are trying to get something accomplished. It’s rare that we are fully engaged in the task at hand.
I call this division of your time and energy “half–work.”
Here are three examples of half–work:
- You start writing a report, but stop randomly to check your phone for no reason or to open Facebook or Twitter.
- You try out a new workout routine. Two days later, you read about another “new” fitness program and try a little bit of that. You make little progress in either program, so you start searching for something better.
- Your mind wanders to your email inbox while you’re on the phone with someone.
Regardless of how you fall into the trap of half–work, the result is always the same: you’re never fully engaged in the task at hand, you rarely commit to a task for extended periods of time and it takes you twice as long to accomplish half as much.
Half–work is the reason why you’re able to get more done on your last day before vacation (when you really focus) than you do in the previous two weeks (when you’re constantly distracted).
The best way I’ve found to overcome this problem is to block out significant time to focus on one project and eliminate everything else.
So, I pick one exercise and make it my only focus for the entire workout. (i.e. “Today is just for squats. Anything else is extra.” Or I carve out a few hours (sometimes even an entire workday) to take a deep dive into an important project, leaving my phone in another room and shutting down my email, Facebook and Twitter during that time.
How much more could you achieve if you did the work you needed to do the way you needed to do it and eliminated the half–work, half–wandering that we fill most of our days with?
2. Do the Most Important Thing First
Disorder and chaos tend to increase as your day goes on. Meantime, the decisions and choices you make throughout the day tend to drain your willpower. The result: You’re less likely to make a good decision at the end of the day than you are at the beginning.
I’ve found that this problem holds true in my workouts as well. As the workout progresses, I have less and less willpower to finish sets, grind out reps and perform difficult exercises.
(MORE: How to Get Your Life In Sync)
My solution? I do my best to make sure that if there is something important I need to do, I do it first.
If I have an important article to write, I grab a glass of water and start typing as soon as I wake up. If there is a tough exercise I need to do, I do it at the beginning of the workout.
If you do the most important thing first, then you’ll never have a day when you didn’t get something important done. By following this simple strategy, you will usually end up having a productive day, even if everything doesn’t go to plan.
3. Reduce the Scope, but Stick to the Schedule
There might be occasions when deadlines make sense, but I’m convinced that when it comes to doing important work over the long–term, following a schedule is much more effective. (Here's a blog post I've written about the importance of holding yourself to a schedule and not a deadline.)
When it comes to the day–to–day grind, however, following a schedule is easier said than done. Ask anyone who plans to work out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and they’ll tell you how hard it is to actually stick to that schedule every time without fail.
To counteract the unplanned distractions that occur and overcome the tendency to be pulled off track, I’ve made a small shift in how I approach my schedule. My goal now is to put the schedule first and not the scope, which is the opposite of how we usually approach our goals.
For example, let’s say you woke up today with the intention of running three miles this afternoon. During the day, your schedule got crazy and time started to get away from you. Now you only have 20 minutes to workout.
At this point, you have two options.
The first is to say: “I don’t have enough time to workout today” and spend the little time you have left doing something else. This is what I would usually have done in the past.
The second option is to reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule. Instead of running three miles, you run one mile or do five sprints or 30 jumping jacks. But you stick to the schedule and get a workout in no matter what.
I have found far more long–term success using this approach than the first option.
The cumulative impact of always staying on schedule is huge. No matter what the circumstance, you know you’re going to finish today’s task. That’s how little goals become lifetime habits.
Finish something today, even if the scope is smaller than you anticipated.
James Clear writes about science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. If you enjoyed this article, then join his free newsletter.
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