OMG. Too much work, too little time.
There’s never enough time.
It has this strange, evil property that causes it to shrink or grow so you always have less time than you need to get everything done. It’s true for everyone, but it seems especially true in nonprofit organizations — chronically understaffed. And many of those who are there have an outsized sense of duty.
When you ask around getting more control over your time, there are some standard answers you’ll get:
- Plan ahead.
- Keep a task list.
- Stop procrastinating.
- Work in 25-minute bursts, with 5-minute breaks between.
- Set measurable goals.
- Prioritize your tasks based on importance.
- Give yourself a time limit to complete a task.
- Be more organized.
- Remove non-essential activities from your day.
- Do the difficult stuff first.
- Do the easy stuff first.
Blah, blah blah…
I don’t mean to bad-mouth these tips. Some of them work for me, some of the time. You likely have a couple of helpful go-to things on this list. If it works for you, it’s good.
But I think most time-management tips miss the point.
They don’t take into account the weirdness of time. And they put the burden on your habits. They’re like telling someone who wants to lose weight: “Just eat less!” That’s true for some of us, but of limited usefulness.
A lot of the challenge about time is in our minds. We are confused by persistent illusions about our time. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to overcome as if you can just “snap out of” these false illusions with willpower or a “good attitude.” The fact that the challenge is internal just makes it all the harder to perceive, much less to change.
A good way to fight your time illusions is to understand that they come from stories you tell yourself: “magical thinking,” as described in this insightful Harvard Business Review article: Be More Realistic About the Time You Have.
Magical thinking gets everyone at least some of the time. Worse yet, many of us have one or more “enablers” who encourage our time illusions. For most of us, it’s the boss, work colleagues, or even the urgency and importance of your cause. They have an interest in encouraging you to be confused about time. It’s a way — not conscious or malicious in most cases –to get more out of you.
And it works. Sort of.
Here are some of the stories we tell ourselves about time that get us into trouble:
My heavy workload is just temporary
For most of us, workload ebbs and flows. That’s what allows us (or the boss) to say, “Just get through this rush, and you’ll be good.”
When you find yourself thinking the current situation is only temporary, take a close, logical look at the facts. How true is it, really? Are you going to emerge into a more manageable reality in the near future?
Putting your head down and “powering through” a surge of work is sometimes what you have to do. But not always. More likely, you need to deal with the workload situation now. Get longer deadlines for the things you have to do. Get help by hiring or outsourcing. Get serious about it. Shed duties.
These things are tough, and you can’t do them by deciding you want to. So at least get the conversation started about how you will solve the problem.
The next time will be easier
The first time you do something, it does take longer. But we tend to overestimate the difference between first times and subsequent times. Don’t be overconfident about the time you need, just because you’ve done something before. Build “buffer time” into your schedule to make sure you don’t get caught in the illusion that it will take you half the time it did last time.
I will collect immediate rewards
You’ve probably experienced the rush that comes from heroically saving the day. When your boss and colleagues think of you as the go-to person who saves the day and gets stuff done. That’s no illusion. You get a shot of dopamine when that happens.
So, seeking the high, you take on more than you should. And your co-workers are more than happy to be your partner in what ends up being a kind of abuse. What suffers? The quality of your work. Your (other) deadlines. Your well-being and even your health.
Clear your vision at those moments and balance those short-term dopamine rushes with the long-term good. It will be better for you and for everyone else when you choose your heroism carefully.
Others will follow my instructions
When you delegate, you quickly discover the painful truth that people don’t follow your instructions all the time. It’s not that there’s something wrong with them — it’s just that everyone has to climb their own learning curve.
When other people get things wrong, it can be tempting to just grab the work and re-do it on your own. Resist that temptation. It eats up your time. And it’s incredibly disrespectful to them. Give them enough direction to “fix it” themselves. Everyone will end up better off that way.
Without me, this work will be poor quality
Sometimes it’s true that you’re the only one who can do it right. But more often, it’s an illusion — and a self-fulfilling one.
As long as you hang on to the title of The Only One Who Can Do It Right, you virtually guarantee that others won’t rise up and join you as fully competent colleagues. You stay stuck in the crushing need to do it all.
Do your best to trust others and bring them along so it’s not all up to you all the time.
Just admitting that many of the things that keep us over-busy are illusions is a critical first step toward solving the problem.
And please — work on solving it. Your ability to function and your health may depend on it.
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