A while back, I was working with a client on organizing her closet. Before I arrived, I asked her to estimate how many pairs of shoes she had. “Oh, probably about 8 or 10,” she told me. When I showed up, we unloaded the closet, and I saw that she actually had about 37 pair. “37 is a lot more than 8,” I said. We are going to need a different plan.
Since that time, I’ve noticed that people who struggle with their time often make a similar mistake. More specifically, they underestimate how long it will take to perform various tasks. For example,
- They plan for the staff meeting to take 30 minutes when it routinely lasts at least 45 minutes.
- They set aside 15 minutes for carpool pickup, but don’t allow for the 15 minutes it takes to get through the pick-up traffic.
- They think they can get ready in 30 minutes in the morning, but the more accurate assessment is 1¼ hours.
- They allocate five minutes to “check email,” but typically get sucked into the internet and end up losing an hour or more.
More often than not, we set a mental time estimate with the expectation that we will be completely efficient and encounter no unexpected delays. We fail to plan for unforeseen interruptions, detours, illnesses, or a wide variety of other time zappers. Also, we often fail to account for the delays that co-workers, children, family members, etc. can cause. Sometimes, it is just a matter of being a bit too optimistic about our own productivity.
If you are always running behind or feeling rushed, unrealistic expectations could be the culprit. Fortunately, there is a solution. As with the shoes, the best way to get organized is to assess what we’ve got, measure the “space,” and then design an effective system to comfortably accommodate as much as possible.
- To do the equivalent of emptying the closet, make a list of the tasks you regularly perform (e.g. shower/get ready, cook dinner, clean up the kitchen, fold a load of laundry, clear your email inbox, drive to work, write a paper, etc.) You may not think of everything right away, so leave the list in a visible location for a couple of days so you can add to it as you think of more items.
- Write an estimate of how long you believe each task is taking you. This is whatever time you would typically allocate in your schedule.
- Over the course of a week (or more, if needed), track your time and record how long each task actually takes.
If you see a discrepancy between your estimate and your actual time, you’ve identified a probable cause for feeling perpetually hurried. As with the shoes, you can only keep what fits in your space, which in this case is your calendar. You can rationalize and say that nothing can be removed from your schedule, but if you try to do more than you have time for, you will be stressed. A better approach is to see what can be eliminated, transferred to someone else, or made more efficient.
- Maybe you can hire a few hours of babysitting so you can complete errands more quickly.
- Perhaps it is best to cancel the subscriptions to the magazines you never find time to read.
- Consider if someone else can take over a task you’ve been performing out of habit for a long time.
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No matter how well you plan, there will always be seasons where there aren’t enough hours in the day, but having this be your “normal” is less than ideal.
Have you ever tracked your time by task? What has helped you clear time in your schedule?