To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly—no exceptions.
Be highly deliberate about how you spend your time
Own your choices. Own your time. Time is a zero-sum game. No one else will manage your time. Be comfortable saying no. Do not agonize over whether to go on a girls’ night out the same evening as your mom’s birthday dinner and try to cram in both or choose one instead of the other. Just make the call.
Eliminate opportunities to fail
This is a tried and true way to manage yourself and your own weak areas. Recently quit smoking? Do not go to a smoker’s house where there will be packs on hand. Know you are extremely crabby from lack of sleep? Do not confront someone on a tough issue that morning. Take risk out of the equation by changing the variables.
Have personal lines of defense to prevent yourself from making mistakes
Use them in order of what works best for you. If you know you are overtired, stressed, or otherwise not going to be at your best in a certain situation, utilize strategies so that the moment does not get the better of you.
These might include:
- Punt: Reschedule a meeting or event.
- Delegate: Send a proxy on your behalf.
- Soft-pedal: Do not take the bait—offer only minimal interaction.
Stash a box of healthy protein bars at your work station to avoid the vending machine during inevitable afternoon snack cravings. Keep an extra pair of work flats in the car for the day you realize you drove off wearing flip-flops or get soaked in the rain. Establish spots for everything in your home, so you can find things efficiently. Figure out what your repeat activities are, and reduce repetition. Constantly shifting sunscreen from bag to bag in the summer? Buy one to keep in each bag. Build in little systems to free up time spent on routine details.
Create conditions to foster your goals
If you do not live in a location with the kind of lifestyle, community, or work opportunities you want, explore how to relocate, or shift your expectations. Wish you did a kind of exercise daily but do not have time to go to a gym or center? Find a way to create a place at home to do it, and download video sessions so you are ready to go when you have a short window of time.
Do not reinvent the wheel. It is often more effective to go find a resource on something than to try to figure it out yourself. Our world is full of experts and instant materials on everything. Use them.
Pay bills once a month so you are spending a half-hour rather than multiple chunks of time focusing, transitioning, budgeting, and logging on/off sites. Keep a grocery list and order or shop for it no more than once a week. That is, unless you live in a quaint neighborhood with little bakeries and produce stands. In that case, enjoy picking up a fresh baguette and cheese. Batch other tasks instead!
Improve your consume vs. produce ratio
In a world of information overload, there is endless material to watch, read, digest. Aim to further yourself through action at least equal to the time spent taking in information. Make a practice of monitoring and managing your consumption vs. production ratio. Sometimes you are tired and may need a lazy day of watching movies. But as you develop the discipline to produce before consuming regularly (or at least do them in equal amounts), you may be surprised how natural it can feel to do instead of spectate. If you have a long plane ride, decide to finish a batch of work before you watch a movie. You may find that you finish the target work and then move on to another task because you are on a roll, and then still have time to watch a movie, read a newspaper, and take a nap. You will arrive feeling both productive and relaxed. And you now have that progress under your belt, furthering your own self-interest, for your career, side projects, or anything else that matters to you.
Plan for your logistics to be conducive to productivity. For example, on a long-haul flight, I brought paper copies of certain work so that I could read during takeoff and meal time, as it is difficult to use a computer while the tray is full. I was able to finish all my work by the time the lights went out and still get the rest I needed. This took planning to ensure that I had the papers I needed days in advance, a small effort that paid off. Same principle for train, bus, or car time—if you have a goal such as learning a new language, be prepared with audio tools so you can listen while you commute.
Limit negative and wasted time
Set limits. For example, if a colleague constantly stops by to complain, politely excuse yourself. Or at home, decide no work or work-talk after 8 p.m. This will ensure that you either start to wind down, focus on family or creative activities, exercise, or use some other part of your brain. No violent television, if it gives you bad dreams. Activities that result in poor sleep compound the negative impacts and waste of time.
Learn basic project management
There is a whole field on this. Grab a book on it and read it for basic familiarity. If you are fortunate enough to attend a course, great. At a minimum, know the basics and use the words, tools, and practices. Others will recognize it and appreciate it. It will serve your own results well. Schedules and tactical plans are critical workplace functions —and personal life tools as well. You cannot go wrong by honing project management skills. But do not overdo it or be inflexible. Always be willing to adjust to circumstances that may fit better with a tailored approach, such as a less formal plan or a more detailed plan. Both higher-up leaders and the working teams will be key important to inform your style selection. Modify as needed.
Manage the lack of time off problem
Most Americans chronically do not have enough time off from work. It is a problem for our health, families, and overall satisfaction in life. Many countries have more time off as a standard. Some countries are worse. But there is no doubt that the current norm in the U.S. is not enough time off. There are exceptions—companies offering sabbaticals, forced vacations, non-structured leave time, or unlimited leave—but they are still rare. Some companies start new employees with only 10 days of vacation per year, even if they are midcareer. That is not enough to sustain your own rejuvenation and rest, let alone raise a family. Two weeks can easily be taken up by major life events—a housing move, a family event, a close friend’s wedding, children’s activities—leaving no time for an actual vacation with downtime. Some companies offer three or even four weeks, but these are also sometimes the employers that require long, unpredictable working hours day after day. Exhausted, frustrated employees are bad for productivity, morale, and long-term success. If you do have ample vacation time, take it. Work will be there when you get back.
As for solutions, you can try self employment / entrepreneurialism, or you can try to find an employer with more humane policies. Negotiating more time off up front does not always work, but it is worth a try. If nothing else, it communicates that it matters to the workforce. We put up with limited time off because it is the norm, and alternatives are limited. I hope this will shift to a more balanced approach in coming years.
When you are in a job without enough leave time, try little things to manage it day to day. Set limits so you do not overtax yourself too many days in a row. Take short breaks to stretch and breathe and connect with colleagues. Turn the work phone off an hour before bed. You are running a marathon, not a sprint. Leave early to run errands when you need to, rather than cramming them in between dinner and bedtime. Delegate and hire help for things you can offload, if you are fortunate to be able to afford this.