If you’ve read Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Workweek, you can just jump to the end of this post. For everyone else, I invite you to take a closer look at your relationship with time. Especially those of you who are too busy to spend, oh, I don’t know, 5 or so minutes reading this.
Somehow, “I’m busy” has become the new “I’m fine” in response to being asked how you are. I get it thought — I know you actually ARE busy, but stay with me here.
Whenever I’m working with new clients, they’ll typically tell me they don’t have time to sit down for a satiating, nutrient-dense breakfast, so they just grab a “quick toast and coffee.” Or they have too much going on and can’t get to bed on time. It’s not just a once-in-a-while-thing either. It’s day after day after day.
Sound like your life? If so, let me ask you this: why do some people seem to effortlessly crush their to-do lists and others find theirs growing out of control?
Seriously, There’s Not Enough Time
I never like to say “We all have the same 24 hours in the day,” because that logic is fundamentally flawed, and can come off sounding privileged. In truth, all of us are filling our 24 hours in different ways depending on our jobs, lives, families, hobbies, obligations, and unique life goings-on.
Sometimes I choose to be busy during my 24 hours because I have lots of things that are important to me — family, friends, my clients, my home life, my role at the Primal Health Coach Institute. And *usually* I like that because I enjoy my work and I like being productive.
I’m choosing to be busy because it leaves me feeling fulfilled. The problem arises when it leaves you feeling like a victim, like you can’t keep up, or like you just want to bury your head in the sand.
Lack of Time = Lack of Priorities
It all comes down to priorities. If better health or a leaner waistline was really important to you, you’d make it a priority. Unfortunately, if you’re like most people, you unknowingly put other, less important priorities in their place (everything from stewing over a mean comment on social media to worrying how you’re going to get it all done).1
Whenever you catch yourself having an I-don’t-have-enough-time moment, remember that what you’re spending your time on is a choice — and you always have options. This is the perfect time to take a step back and ask yourself these four questions:
What’s important here?
What’s not important?
Am I wasting time on things that aren’t important?
What else could I be doing with my time?
Go ahead and do this exercise with me for a sec. Get out a piece of paper (or the notes section on your phone) and jot down your daily schedule. What time do you typically get up? When do you go to bed? How much time do you spend at work? On social media? With your family? Daydreaming? Running errands? Working on your health?
Looking at your list, what are the three things you spend the most time on?
Like it or not, those three things are your priorities. How you spend your day reflects what you believe to be the most important. If that’s not sitting well with you — or you feel like you have an equal amount of priorities (even though that’s not actually possible), you’re in a good place to start making change.
Because when you learn to eliminate your non-priorities, you free up time to focus on what does matter to you.
How Do You Eliminate Non-Priorities?
It starts by taking things off the table that aren’t important or urgent. Research shows that having too many options can lead you to waste time attending to details that don’t matter or avoid a task altogether. In this experiment, a Columbia University professor set up a booth selling jams at a local farmers market. Every few hours she alternated between offering 24 jams and 6 jams. She found that 60% of the customers visited the booth when there was the larger assortment, however more people actually made purchases when there were fewer options.2
Not only that, when faced with tasks of mixed urgency and importance, participants in this study prioritized to-dos that were time-sensitive over ones that were less urgent but had a greater reward3 Researchers found that the effect was even more prominent in people who describe themselves as busy, adding that they were more likely to select an urgent task with a lower reward because they were fixated on the clock and “getting it done”.
But how do you determine what’s urgent and important? Enter the Eisenhower Matrix, named for the 34th U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. It’s a prioritization framework (used by everyone from athletes to CEOs) that helps you eliminate time wasters in your life.
And in case you need proof that Eisenhower knew what he was talking about, during his two terms in office, he signed into law the first major piece of civil rights legislation since the end of the Civil War, he ended the Korean War, oh and he created NASA.
Eisenhower recognized that having a solid grasp of time management means you’ve got to do things that are important andurgent — and eliminate all the rest.
Important tasks get you closer to your goal, whether it’s wearing a smaller pant size or not feeling ravenous all day.
Urgent tasks are ones that demand your immediate attention, like a deadline or showing up on time for an appointment.
Once you’ve got that straight, you can overcome the tendency to focus on the unimportant tasks and instead, do what’s essential to your success, whatever that looks like for you.
Let’s Put the Matrix into Action
Using the questions below, you’ll be able to get a good handle on your priorities, evaluating which are urgent, which are important, and which can be delegated to someone else — or ditched altogether.
1. Does it have consequences for not taking immediate action and does it align with your goals?
ACTION STEP: DO IT. This is a task that’s both urgent and important, which means it’s a priority. And getting it done first will take a lot of pressure off your plate. Examples are:
Completing a project for work
Deep breathing when you’re stressed
Responding to certain emails
2. Does it bring you closer to your goals, but doesn’t have a clear deadline?
ACTION STEP: SCHEDULE IT. This is a task that’s important, but not urgent. Since it’s easy to procrastinate here, scheduling time to attend to it is your best bet. Examples are:
Spending time with your family
3. Does it need to get done within a certain timeframe, but doesn’t require your specific skill set?
ACTION STEP: DELEGATE IT. This is a task that’s urgent, but not important — at least not important for you to do, specifically. Sure, it needs to get done, but you could probably pass off this task off to someone else, which frees up your time. Examples are:
Making sure the kids are ready for school
Shopping for groceries for the week
4. Does it not have a deadline or get you closer to your goals?
ACTION STEP: DELETE IT. This is a task that’s not important or urgent. And it’s a huge time suck! It’s the kind of “task” that makes you wonder where all your time went. Using a browser blocker like Freedom can help a ton. Examples are:
Scrolling your social media feed
Playing online games
Worrying, obsessing, and stressing out about things that don’t matter
Bonus Tip: Figure out what time of day you’re the most focused. When do you tend to get a lot accomplished? Are you a morning person? A night owl? Knowing when you’re the most productive can help you get stuff done with less effort.
Now tell me what you think. Have you tried these strategies? What’s worked for you?
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.