Thin or fat, we all have to live within 24-hour days. Not managing our time can lead us to lives that are harried and inauthentic, and feelings that we are stressed and can never catch up. While Dimensions readers may have recently added whole new aspects of social lives to their schedules, most of us still need to know how to schedule ourselves better.
When I teach stress relief, I include a section on time management. I believe that we need to know what we want our lives to be about in order to best manage them from day to day. So I invite my students-and readers-to do some imaginary time traveling.
Take a few minutes to imagine that you are at the end of your life. (Yes, you too are mortal.) Imagine that it has been rich and full. Look backwards over it, and notice its highlights. Who and what in your life were most important to you'? What are you grateful for having accomplished and included? (You may not yet have accomplished these, but imagine your life as if you had done so.) Is there anyone or anything you would have liked to spent more time around? Less? Even, perhaps, something you would like people to say about who you were'? Write down who and what were most important; these will guide you in your present life.
Now imagine traveling to the time which is halfway between now and the end of your life. What needs to happen between the halfway point and the end of your life, so that at the end you will have led your rich, full, authentic life? Perhaps you will have to complete some aspect of your education, or you will have to tend to your health so that you can remain active. Perhaps you will need to see more of certain people and much less of others, or perhaps you will want to pay more attention to meeting new people. What are the tasks of this time period? Make notes on what is wanted and needed.
Now imagine yourself in 10 years (or less, if you imagine less time available). If you have always wanted to own your own business, or have children, or whatever-what steps would you need to take within these 10 years, so that you will be ready for the last half of your life?
Bring your time travel to five years from now. Where do you want to be in five years, so that you will have led the life you want by the time your life is ending? Now travel to a year from today. Again, answer the questions about who and what you need in and out of your life, in order to be prepared for your future. You may be getting some very specific items on your list-note them.
While it may seem a bit time-consuming, bring your time travel to six months, three months, one month, and one week from today. Note that your lists may have begun to include items like paying the rent, doing the laundry, or taking that final exam. In order to accomplish the big steps which may comprise the life you want to have lived, you will be taking many smaller steps along the way.
Now you get to the nuts-and-bolts specifics of everyday time management. So that you can be prepared for next week (and subsequently next month, year, decade, and so on), what do you need to accomplish between today and tomorrow at this same time? Put down all the items you must do, should do, and would like to do. Make sure to include one or more items that are fun. Fun is especially important when something hard is on your list, but it is essential to your having the time of your life! If your life lately has not been one where fun seems even remotely possible, what would be most relaxing, least stressful, or relatively not-bad? (Sometimes it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other; for such times it is useful to know that someday things will get much better than they have been lately; and then find whatever is best for right now. Perhaps it will only be having a quiet cup of tea, or five minutes to yourself. Do the best you can.)
Now, go over your to-do list and mark the items that must get done with the letter A, Mark the items that should get done with the letter B, and the items you would like to get done (but which are not essential) with the letter C. Having done that, go through your A list and put a "1" next to the most important A item; a "2" by the next one, and so on down. Do the same for your B list and C lists.
The A list is what you move hell or high water to accomplish-especially your A1 and A2. items. When possible, do your A items early in the day, before the rest of life interferes with accomplishing them. I like to schedule exercise for myself first thing in the morning, before I can rationalize my way out of it. By the time it's done, I'm awake, and it's crossed off my list.
Your aim is to make sure you handle the most important items in your life. Have you ever seen the T-shirt that says, "I forgot to have a baby"? By taking a little time to think about what is important in your life-not just the drudgery but also the meaningful parts-you will guide yourself to a richer existence.
Murphy, reality, and having more fun with your list
It is essential to be realistic and complete when planning your time, or else you will reel frazzled and think this whole column is full of nonsense. Remember to allow time for yourself to get the amount of sleep and rest you need, to do the laundry, to cook and shop, to get dressed, to start the car in the winter and to get to work without acquiring speeding tickets. If you are responsible for others, allow time to handle their tasks, too. Notice if you need help. Perhaps you and some friends can schedule baby-sitting exchanges, for example, so that you can have a few moments to yourself, or team up to do home repairs and the like.
You may find that there is no way you can fit all your tasks into 24 hours. If that is the case, you will have to learn how to say no. You can refer to my column in the June 1995 issue of Dimensions for some assistance in boundary setting. Having a good life does not mean being exhausted all of the time.
I always remind my students to include Murphy in their time management. Murphy's Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong-and at the worst possible time. If you have a project with a deadline, move up the completion date in your' schedule so that the project will be completed three days in advance-to allow time for you to have the flu, repair the transmission, bring your relative to the hospital, or handle whatever emergencies life will throw your way. Allow time for the traffic jam, or for the line at the Laundromat. If, by some miracle, no emergencies happen, you can use the extra time you scheduled for fun, for your "C" list, or for rest.
When I know I have something difficult to accomplish on my list, I pre-plan a reward for myself. The reward may be something as simple as a walk outside, or it may be dinner with a friend, or half an hour doing nothing useful. I like to schedule such rewards for after the difficult duties, just so that they feel like rewards.
Another thing to note: you can get great feelings of accomplishment by crossing items off your list. Even if you walk the dog several times a day, on some days you might want to put "walk the dog" on the list, just so you can cross it off. Yes, it's playing games with yourself. And it feels good.
And now it's time for both of us to move on... ß