First let us point out that you probably have enough time since you chose to read about time management. That is a good sign!
It means you prioritized today’s tasks so you could improve your productivity in the long term. As a gesture of appreciation, let us give you a little bit of help right away.
Make a quick mental check. These are the most probable sources of distraction you can reduce almost immediately:
1. Phone notifications
It doesn’t matter if they’re from Instagram or Slack. They distract you the same.
Try to filter these notifications – either by muting some of them permanently, by enabling “Do Not Disturb” mode or by filtering them, for example, let only calls and messages go to your smartwatch and put your phone out of your sight.
2. Distinctive background sounds
A bit of background noise can be helpful. But playing kids or chatty coworkers are too recognizable for your brain which makes them hard to bypass. Try booking a meeting room for yourself. If you work from home, buy a nice pair of noise cancelling headphones – they are a blessing.
3. The big unknown
When there’s a task ahead of us that seems vague and unclear, we tend to put it aside.
Depending on your job description, such tasks can be 20% of your workload or even 80% of it. That makes them productivity killers.
Shortest way is through, as they say. Try learning more about the task, maybe researching it a bit and make it specific, clear and understandable.
4. Personal conflicts
Is the task you have problem finishing tied to a person you don’t get along with? Well, it shouldn’t be personal – it’s business.
You’re not in kindergarten anymore and you don’t have to be friends with people you work with.
Are they assholes?
Well, be a bigger person and stay civil. Limit the interaction to necessary minimum and get the work done.
5. Internal conflict
Does a huge boulder drop in your stomach every time you think about the task? Try to describe it.
Put to words what makes you feel uneasy.
It’s usually one specific barrier and once you give it a name, it’s much easier to overcome.
Is it a fear of failure? Is it a task you don’t feel competent enough for? Is it something you messed up before? Maybe it’s been given to you by an extremely demanding boss?
Whatever it is, once you name the barrier, you’ll have easier time overcoming it.
No, our attention span isn’t shortening
One of the biggest myths about stress and time management is that our brains are somehow de-evolving.
That simply is not true. To change brain structure, the evolution would need thousands of years. The truth is, there’s multitudes of stimuli that fight over our attention nowadays.
There were no social media, no tablets, no smartwatches, no smartphones until 15-20 years ago.
We touch our phone hundreds of times a day. We look at two or three screens at the same time.
Those are the uncomfortable facts of time management today. There’s simply too much to absorb. The sensory overload creates distraction.
You are perfectly capable of focusing – there’s just too much going on.
Humans use 4 distinctive types of attention:
This is the type of attention you’re forced to use in distracting environment. When confronted with multiple stimuli, you pick one and focus on it. Example: there’s a party going on in the cafeteria but you are writing a report. You choose to aim your attention at your report instead of eaves-dropping on the party.
This is the multitasker’s holy grail. But in reality, divided attention is very shallow and works only for easy tasks – keeping your eyes on the page of a magazine while eating a sandwich, for example.
Have you ever been to a children’s party? One second you’re stopping Susan from tripping over Sam, next you’re helping Alex tie his shoelaces, then you’re answering questions about the cake flavour and so on and so on.
Switching quickly from task to task is alternating your attention. The self-proclaimed multitasker is probably efficient at this rather than sustaining actual divided attention.
Everyone’s desired outcome. Focused attention is used when there are no distracting stimuli and there’s a task at hand you can fully devote yourself to. And sometimes when we fail to focus this way, we feel like we are not doing a good job. Then we’re more prone to fall victims to time management myths.
These 10 time management myths might actually add to your stress
Here are so-called productivity hacks that just grind our gears.
1. “Get more stuff done”
One of the biggest myths is that your aim should be to do more in less time. The relativity theory doesn’t allow for time travel unless we brake the speed of light (which is highly improbable in your situation).
Maybe you should focus more on delegating or prioritizing – something that doesn’t have the need to break the laws of physics to actually work.
2. “Eat the frog first”
Doing the hardest tasks first might be counter-productive. First of all, this approach doesn’t care about priorities or your energy levels. Second, small wins early on might be more motivating – every successful task means a little hit of dopamine for your brain. And guess what helps your motivation and attention? Exactly, dopamine.
3. “Focus on the finish line”
We hate to break it to you but with most jobs, there is no definite finish line. There are tasks that need to be done once and then there’s work that needs to be done continuously.
Every day. All year round.
First of all, you’ll never have unlimited resources – be it manpower, know-how or capital.
Second of all, nor life nor business wait for one task to end. New stuff will always pop up. No project has linear trajectory and the lines between tasks are often blurred. That is the nature of a world that keeps turning.
As we mentioned before, multitasking is much, much rarer than so-called multitasker would have you believe.
Your brain isn’t multithread processor, you have only one consciousness – one stream of thought. Ergo, multitasking shouldn’t be something you strive for.
5. “Deep focus”
If you are a programmer, you are striving for “flow” – the state of uninterrupted hours of focused work. While it seems desirable, it’s not feasible for majority of jobs. Whether you are a creative, a manager, a field worker, a janitor… finding routine is much more beneficial for your productivity.
…and other time-based gimmicks. This may work for a person with a monotonous and transparent agenda. If you’re writing your bachelor thesis, pomodoro might be very helpful at managing your time.
But if you are juggling managing your team, preparing reports to your superiors all the while being on Zoom calls for 4 hours a day, pomodoro technique won’t be of any help.
7. “Structure your day better”
Having a structure is very important. The sad truth is, most of the tools you can find to do this were not designed with your job in mind.
Together with Pomodoro, many time management tools are gimmicks that give you some sense of control over your day.
Some jobs just don’t have the luxury of having a rigid structure – and if your job is among those, don’t beat yourself up about it.
8. “Early bird gets the worm”
Aren’t you tired of all the billionaires waking up at 4AM to do yoga and respond to e-mails before dawn? Regular sleep schedule is much more important for your energy levels.
Whether you are an early bird or night owl, respect your body’s natural signals of tiredness. Do not – we repeat: DO NOT – try to limit your sleep time.
Just find what works best for you and stick with it.
9. “When you feel exhausted, you’re only halfway there”
This is something power lifters like to say: “Push through it, brother!” Well, straining your brain only leads to more tiredness. It’s not a muscle, it won’t grow. No one ever focused more after pushing through fatigue.
10. “Beyoncé/Elon/Gates has the same 24 hours as you”
Well… They do. But they also have access to different amount of resources. Not just money, but staff, connections, the power of personal brand…
Even if after prioritizing your tasks, respecting your biorhythm and having set a successful routine you feel like your days are too short, maybe you just need another pair of hands.
There’s no shame in feeling overwhelmed.
The gist of it
To lower your stress and to manage your time better, there are three key points:
1. Prioritize your tasks: What is deserving of your attention? Which tasks can be delegated? Where is your specific skills set absolutely necessary?
2. Find a routine: When are you most productive? Use this time for your “deep focus” sessions. When are you easily distracted? Use this time for small wins – reply to e-mails, return calls, organize your calendar.
3. Set boundaries: Learning to say no is crucial. When you set a boundary – for example „I am not available for calls between 2 and 4 PM you have to enforce it. Because what’s the point of setting it if you can’t respect it yourself?
If anything beside these three things helps you to be more productive – more power to you. Just don’t put the time management hacks on pedestal taller than you, please.