There’s a time management mistake many women don’t know they’re making. It’s a costly one because it can perpetuate the feeling of overwhelm—the sense that you will never be done with all you have to do. It can prevent you from finding peace and feeling satisfied with life.
Here’s the problem I see in all of the time-management advice out there: believing that the aim of time management is to do more. People think they should manage time well so they can get everything done. Smart women already know how to keep track of events, deadlines, and tasks on calendars. They make their to-do lists and work as efficiently as they can to fit more into each day. Their aim is to maximize productivity.
The goal of doing more assumes that you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment when you’ve completed your tasks. And while it does feel good to get things done, that feeling is often fleeting because there is always more left to do.
You can never finish it all.
What works instead?
To feel true satisfaction, you need to view your time management system through a different lens. Your tools, no matter what they are, must allow you to forget momentarily about the things you “should” do so you can fully immerse yourself in what you want to do.
More specifically, clear space in your schedule for two kinds of activities, which research has shown tend to make people happier:
- Doing things you find both mentally challenging and uniquely gratifying. They’re what make you lose track of time, give you energy, and cause you to feel strong. This is what author Cal Newport calls “deep work” and what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Of course, these activities differ for different people. (Read more about deep work in my book note, and here is a TED Talk about flow.
- Connecting deeply with people you admire or love, without distraction. Researchers have found that people don’t need just more time off—they need “shared free time” with friends and family.
So how to avoid making the time management mistake smart women don’t know they’re making?
First, take some time to reflect on how you use your time. More specifically:
- Determine which activities give you flow or joy. For the next couple of weeks, make note of professional and everyday activities that make you lose track of time. They challenge you yet compel you to stick with them because you tend to get lost in them. Note also when you are doing something that energizes you. Keep track of what you enjoy or makes you feel strong. Note what you actively do that has intrinsic value. Everyone likes to be praised for a job done well, but receiving compliments isn’t something you do that gives you flow.
- Identify the shallow work you turn to in order to feel productive. Whether you’re employed or not, most smart women have to respond to emails and attend meetings. But such correspondence and interaction—what Cal Newport calls “shallow work”—is rarely essential to making you a better version of yourself. Emails and meetings are two things that can trick you into feeling productive.
- Think about the people who engage and inspire you, and who make you laugh and feel whole. Then take one small step by reaching out to them. Email, text, or call them. Send them a note or make plans to meet with them.
- Learn to say no to things that you dread, make you feel weak, and drain you of energy. Though you can’t say no to everything of this nature, you can decline things more often than you may think. Check out some helpful hints on how to say no. Or, read what happened when four female scientists challenged themselves to say no 100 times!
- Speak with those who have control over your time, suggesting ways you could do less by presenting them with the trade-offs. (Read more about trade-offs.) For example, talk with your boss about how she could prioritize your responsibilities given your time constraints. Or be candid with your children about how much of your time their activities require. (For more help with identifying what’s essential, check out this book note.)
Make some tweaks to your time management system
- Be consistent. It doesn’t matter whether you have a digital system or keep track of things on paper. What matters is that you use it reliably and often. If you don’t record your key tasks and events in a place(s) where you know you can retrieve them, your brain will continue to remind you about them. That eats up unnecessary energy and can distract you when you need to work deeply or focus on other people.
- Build in time to rest. Focus and willpower require it.
- To be less reactive and more proactive regarding your time, add time to think.
With a bit of planning, you can begin to change how you see your calendar and to-do list and use them to better serve you.
Older versions of this article appeared in March 2016 and October 2019.