Time management: Mind versus minutes

I’m always impressed by people that can manage their time consistently and well. They exist, by the way, in case you think I’m referring to some kind of fictional demographic—my housemate, for example, broke down a recent grad school assignment over three weeks and calmly executed the whole thing. She’s rarely late. She knows how long it’ll take her to get somewhere or perform a task, and she does it right, every time.

For me, however, effective time management has been a lifelong pursuit. My stages of varying success can be broken down by educational level. In elementary school, I was notorious for dozing off while getting ready for school, resulting in quite a few sprints for the school bus. This tendency for lateness continued through junior high. After that though, four years of boarding school, during which my time was highly regimented and packed with schoolwork and extracurriculars, managed to imprint some order on to my days. High school started the upward trend of improvement in terms of punctuality, which carried on through college and now into working life.

Note, however, that I said that time management continues to be a pursuit. As is the case with most people, the older I’ve gotten, the higher the stakes have become for timeliness; it’s less a question of running for the bus and more of whether I’ll be able to get a report done on time. I’ve also learned that time management is a much more complex issue than most people realize. On the surface, it’s about not being able to budget or effectively spend X number of minutes. Get a little deeper, though, and I see time management as being about a holistic approach to work, play, and perception that plagues people of all professions and age groups, myself included. Let’s start with, for example, this article about why procrastinators procrastinate: Tim Urban of “Wait But Why” posted an article in 2013 about time management (and since has produced TED talks, radio, and follow-up articles delving into the same subject). I come back to this article and its follow-up all the time for their clear and evocative thesis on—and I’m not making this up—the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster.

That impulse to online shop or read The Cut instead of getting started on that paper? That’s the Instant Gratification Monkey. Or how about the oft repeated, “I thrive under pressure?” Hello, Panic Monster. None of us really thrive under pressure; in my experience, skidding to the finish line doesn’t usually translate into a job well done. The cast of characters Urban lays out sounds silly, especially when paired with the cartoons in the article, but think about it—when I’m reaching for YouTube instead of making progress on something important, a visual metaphor makes it a million times easier to recognize that I’m looking for gratification or “pleasure” in the moment (versus the “pain” of work).

As far as perception goes, Urban also gets into a brief discussion of confidence and self-esteem, which I find compelling when thinking about factors in time management. I’d venture that a significant portion of people that struggle with time don’t believe that they have the potential to be the kind of person who doesn’t, or who can effectively plan their lives, which results in a negative feedback loop. The perception aspect can be external as well as internal—having too much to do and the pursuit of perfection, common pitfalls for young professionals, and can make you feel like you’re falling behind.

So, how to take on procrastination? Start things as soon as possible and plan progress in a realistic way with measurable goals. As far as staying on track and procrastination go, I personally am all about the Pomodoro Method, which blocks out working time and break time in succession (the usual breakdown is 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off). There are some great free online timers available that take care of the sequence for you. Short bursts of focus with built-in breaks usually offer me a lot of payout in terms of how much I can get done before I’m hankering for a break. I’m also working on tempering optimism with reality—to go back to the public transportation example, I’m trying to plan better for late trains and busses (for fellow D.C. residents will empathize—the metro repairs won’t be over any time soon). Taking on less and setting boundaries with time, especially in terms of balancing work, social, and volunteer responsibilities, is a much harder aspect to figure out but worth exploring nonetheless. What tactics have worked for you?

As a communications professional and lover of words, Priyanka is committed to helping people find their voices. She’s a studio fitness enthusiast and aspires to one day owning a first edition Edith Wharton.

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