By Paul Kenneth Glass, Ph.D.
RISMEDIA, March 8, 2008-I can’t get this done! I have too much to do! This is not fair!
Have you ever felt this way? It is difficult to imagine that you haven’t. Most of us have felt the multiple demands of work, family, and other responsibilities that have been continuously added to our already too-busy schedules. When do I get a break? Why can’t others see all I have to do? No one seems to understand, and often no one jumps in to help.
The problem of being overwhelmed by excessive responsibilities is clearly a common problem. However, the way the problem is handled is critical to maintaining health and being productive in your life. The likelihood of managing the time demands in our lives is not good unless there is a dedicated effort to step back and understand what you are doing to contribute to your own problems (and to not just think or talk about needed changes, but doing something constructive to change your time management habits).
Frequently I hear the complaint, “there is nothing I can do,” or “I can’t control the things that come up at work or home.” I do not argue with these comments. However, I remind people that we have more control over what we think, feel and ultimately do, to help ourselves, than most people can imagine. In other words, we can’t control the stressors in our lives, but we can manage our responses to the stressors.
Research by Salvatore R. Maddi and his team at the University of Chicago have discovered practical ways that have proven to increase, what he terms, Hardiness-our ability to deal with stress in positive and healthy ways. His studies point to the direct benefits of better time management in order to resist the negative effects of stressors, such as overwhelming time demands imposed on many individuals.
This brief article suggests some of the practical ways to manage one piece of the Hardiness profile, “Control.” Specifically, Maddi identifies the need to feel a Challenge in your work or life, have a sense of Commitment to important aspects of your work or life, and finally a belief in your ability to exercise some degree of Control at work, or in other aspects of your life. These hardiness characteristics offer ways to resist harmful effects of stress on your physical and mental health. Control over how you choose to use your time is one major element in the management pressures and demands that create feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed.
Control here refers to the perceived and real ability to change what you have control over and resist the temptation to worry and fret over what you can’t control. The statements at the beginning of this article illustrate the stress that can preoccupy, exhaust, frustrate, and drain the spirit of even the finest and most dedicated individual. This is followed by the loss of focus on challenge and unravels the commitment toward the most important tasks, people and events in your life.
What Can Be Controlled?
The management of time in our life is something that can be controlled. This will then lower the stress and provide a sense of greater peace, lead to greater productivity and improve your attitude and relationships.
The effective steps to gaining control are as follows. Though not every step applies directly to every person’s job or life, these will introduce a guide that you can use to accommodate your personal situation,
1. Get up 15 minutes earlier than you do now. If your day starts under great duress you have established the tone for the rest of the day. Getting sufficient sleep to provide for the early rising time is necessary.
2. Make a list of things to do when you get to work and keep track of them on a palm pilot or special computer software.
3. Make sure that you have not over-committed yourself. Often we schedule projects and meetings back-to-back and do not even allow time to walk to the other end of a building to get to an appointment. We, of course, are then behind schedule, and feel rushed and tense.
4. The list you make for any day needs to generously add 25% to each scheduled item. Research clearly points out the common tendency to underestimate (by 15%-25%) the time needed to do most daily tasks.
5. Prioritize the lists of events and tasks on your list. Frequently the most stressful work (or other) tasks are the ones that we put off or make last on the list. As an example, consistently people discuss the 18 items on their list, complaining that they will never get everything done. Yet, it is often the case that one or two items are the ones we least like to do (or are more difficult and less enjoyable than other tasks), so we consciously or unconsciously avoid them. Consequently, when we have 16 items completed, we have not reduced the stress at all, and carry the worry (over the most uncomfortable projects) home with us, and begin the next day with them still on our “to-do” lists.
6. Delegate as much as is reasonable. Too frequently we feel so important that we believe we are the only one who can do some tasks. This will only frustrate others (feeling you don’t see them as competent enough), and guarantee you will continue to add more to your workload. Teach others to assume responsibility for projects they are capable of doing. Remember, if you were sick and unable to do the work, the company would not stop operations.
7. When designing your list of things to do, spread tasks over several days, weeks, etc. if possible. Knowing that the tasks are at least on the schedule will help reduce the stress.
8. Divide the task list into two columns. On the left, write the task and on the right, list the way you will complete the task and the resources needed. There is significant stress reduction in knowing that you have thought through the task ahead of time. If you have new ideas during the day or evening, write them down on a card and put the card away to review at a later time. Worry about not forgetting what ideas we had causes enormous stress and loss of valuable time.
9. Set morning time for specific uninterrupted periods. Though many of us want to offer an open-door policy to others needing our help or advice, it is unwise to teach others that you have no limits to their intrusions. It is critical to remain focused and efficient by setting times (i.e., 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.) as an open-door time period. Also, it is very helpful to request that interruptions are only made after clear efforts have been made to solve problems before asking for help. The process of teaching others to think through something first will often lead to them solving their own problems, or will provide a focused, and likely shorter, time demand on you.
10. Don’t answer the phone. This sounds terrible, however, if you can train others to answer the phone and collect the appropriate information, you can have some control over when to return the call and be prepared for discussing the issues relevant to the call. Often it helps to leave a voice message requesting them to provide information about their concerns and a time period that you make return phone calls (i.e. ” I am currently unavailable but will return you call between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m.”). If possible have a “human” answer for you. People are frequently irritated by only having access to a machine. Nevertheless, studies show that for every interruption of less than 30 seconds it takes from 5-12 minutes of time to refocus on the task you were doing.
11. Set time in the afternoon where your schedule is free for at least one hour. Interestingly, this time is usually taken up by the new and unexpected demands made earlier in the day. The value of knowing that you have saved time to catch up always gives a feeling of control and reduces the likelihood that you will always feel behind in your tasks.
12. Take time to be more than a “working machine.” Say hi and pay attention to others each day. This also contributes to a feeling of knowing more about others, feeling more in control, and effortlessly encourages commitment to you because you treat others with the concern and respect they deserve. Schedule this each day. This is as important as almost anything else you do. It will actually help manage your time by making others want to do a good job for you.
13. At the end of your day set 10 minutes for reflection on what has been accomplished, and what remains on your list for tomorrow (or in the future). Remember to always have a way to handle every item on your list. This make things feel more under control and reduces the stress, anxiety, and worry that exhausts us at the end of the day.
14. When leaving work, arrange for sufficient time to travel home. Communicate realistic expectations to others regarding when you will be getting home, versus being stressed about being late.
Set similar time management strategies for your non-work life too. To manage time, reduce stress, and feel in more control, you must organize your time and expectations in such a way as to drive your life at a more comfortable pace, knowing and planning your time constructively and healthfully.