I've read more than my fair share of advice on time management for entrepreneurs. There are so many things I want to achieve and not enough time to do it all. I feel I'm always on the lookout for ways to get more done.
For the longest time, I thought I just hadn't found the right work flow and time management strategies. I figured, if I could just find the right combination of time management hacks, I could get it all done. While I still sometimes catch myself wanting to do more than I reasonably can do in a day, I'm getting better at thriving in a world of too much.
Thanks to an extremely insightful business psychologist, I had a huge revelation. What if time management isn't the issue at all? In fact, what if all the strategies I've been learning that promise better time management for entrepreneurs are actually part of the problem?
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In his spectacular book, Busy, Tony Crabbe explains that if we want to thrive, good time management is not the secret ingredient that's missing for many of us. He believes attention management is more important, and, in fact, time management strategies could be making us feel less successful and happy and less in control.
Time management strategies could actually be a part of the problem, not a solution.
The deceptive premise behind so much advice on time management for entrepreneurs is the assumption that it's possible to stay on top of everything. It assumes we can get massive amounts of work done if we just work smarter or harder. That's coupled with the assumption that we will actually benefit from churning out larger volumes of work.
What if those assumptions are false? What if churning out larger volumes of work doesn't make you feel like you are flourishing? What if there's a better way to thrive? What if getting in control of everything is actually impossible?
If that's all true, time management strategies don't help in the way we assume they will. They may even make our lives busier and make us feel as though we're constantly failing.
If you're constantly managing your time to be incessantly "productive" and to churn out as much work as possible in any given day, then your time management strategies very well may be making you unhappy, fracturing your attention, and destroying important moments.
For many of us, the reality is, you can never be on top of it all because there is simply too much to do. It's not your fault. Feeling out of control of some things is not a matter of poor time management or bad work habits. For many of us, there is simply too much to do.
Crabbe argues that, "You are better off accepting once and for all that you will never, ever be in control again, and that not being in control is okay."
Instead of trying to make sure every minute of the day is productive, many of us would benefit from developing better attention management skills. Crabbe asserts that the biggest blight on modern life is fractured attention. We place our attention on the wrong things by multitasking, making mindless choices, and using simple tasks to avoid doing tougher tasks. If we could just attend to more constructive tasks, we could thrive. Or, as Crabbe eloquently writes, "We can put in lots of hours at work, or put lots into our hours at work."
Attention Management Strategies
How do we improve our attention management? Here are some of Crabbe's recommendations:
Do you allow yourself to be distracted by your phone alerts, or your email? Do you jump from one project to another simply because you were interrupted?
Not long ago, the ability to multitask was seen as an important skill. I used to work as a career coach, and as part of that work, I wrote at least 1000 resumes, probably more. I would bet I highlighted a person's ability to multitask in half of those resumes. At the time, it was considered a desirable, even essential skill in many jobs.
Today we know that people really can't multitask effectively. In fact, multitasking drastically slows you down and distracts you. It's said that switching between tasks makes you 40% slower, and, according to Tony Crabbe, "the more you multitask, the more distracted you'll be, and therefore the worse you'll be at thinking."
We need to learn to manage conflicting demands on our time, but multitasking isn't the way to do it. Stick to the task at hand, and, as much as possible, limit distractions that will tempt you to multitask.
I'm far from perfect, but I do my best to limit distractions while I'm working.
I have office hours when my family is out of the house, and I do my most demanding work at those times when no one else is home. I limit the push notifications on my phone to the bare essentials.
I let the Etsy app send me push notifications about my shop, and I have a business email address set up to notify me right away when I get a new message, so I can respond to customers quickly, but I only check other emails once a day, and I don't let other apps send me notifications. I have an alarm set to go off every hour to remind myself to get up and walk around for a few minutes because it's healthy and helps me work better. I do answer my home phone when I'm working, just in case it's the kids' school calling.
Aside from the distractions I've decided are important, helpful, or time sensitive enough to allow, I keep interruptions to a minimum.
Are there ways you could limit the temptation to multitask while working? Can you find blocks of uninterrupted quiet time? Can you permanently turn off some push notifications on your phone, or put your phone on do not disturb while working? Think about the things that most tempt you to multitask and ask yourself if there's a way to eliminate them while you're doing your most in-depth work.
If our brain is on autopilot while working, we tend to go for the easy, automatic choices. We're not great at making tougher, and generally more productive choices when our brain is tired, or we are hungry.
When I carefully plan my day, I might make the choice to write a new article, or create a new design for my Etsy shop. Those represent my tougher, or more mindful choices. Without that planning, it would be very easy to dive straight into reading non-urgent emails, or catching up on business-related social media. Those are mindless choices that can easily sidetrack me because it's so much easier to click open my email or social media accounts than it is dive into a new creative task.
It can become a slippery slope. If I establish a routine of opening email or social media first thing in the morning, it's very easy to develop a habit (a mindless choice) of diving into those tasks first.
Tony Crabbe says, "We make great choices when we are 'cold'...When we're 'hot' all our best intentions disappear." That's why I do my best to make choices about my work day before I'm deep in the work.
I use a printable planner that I've developed to keep my life and business on track. At the end of each month, I make note of what I want to accomplish in the upcoming month. Then, at the end of each week, I make note of what I want to accomplish the next week, and, of course, at the end of each day, I review my progress and make note of what I want to accomplish the next day to stay on track with my weekly and monthly plan.
My planner has been extremely helpful. It allows me to see everything that needs to get done and limit my tendency to make mindless choices. It has also taught me how much I can reasonably do in a day. I've been notoriously bad at overestimating how much work I could do in a given time. Looking back at a week's worth of work on my planner gives me a better grasp on what I can reasonably expect to get done, so I don't set myself up to fail with more work than is reasonable.
Be very wary of the temptation of the simple task that falsely makes you think you're being productive. Interestingly, Tony Crabbe claims, "The biggest temptation isn't goofing off, it's the lure of the small over the complex task."
When I let myself give in to the lure of the simple task, I might spend the morning on a something fun like pinning new items to Pinterest. That's an easy job that can give me the feeling that I'm being productive without taxing my brain too much. Pinterest is very good for my business, so pinning is necessary, and it does help build my business. However, pinning new pins is extremely easy work that I could do at any time. My precious, early morning, best thinking and working time shouldn't be wasted on that kind of easy work.
If I'm managing my attention effectively, I'll make myself dive into more challenging tasks like writing a new article, or creating a new design for my Etsy shop. That work is more mentally challenging, so it's harder to get started.
Doing the easy work is a way to procrastinate while still appearing to be productive. Technically, you're working, but you're not choosing to manage your attention and apply yourself to the best and typically more challenging tasks that will have the biggest impact. Getting better at starting the big things will have a powerful effect.
If we manage our attention better by avoiding multitasking, making smarter choices and getting better at starting the big things, we'll get more valuable work done. If we can get the important work done, then maybe we won't feel the need to cram productivity into every minute of the day.
My Printable Planner
Planning my days with my printable planner has had a huge impact in my ability to get the most important work done and get better at starting (and finishing) big tasks. I've been far more productive this year than any other, and having a simple way to plan and monitor my progress on projects has played a big role in that. The planner I use is available on my Etsy shop if you'd like to use a printable planner to manage your own work and life.
If you want to learn more about how to use attention management, instead of time management to thrive, I definitely recommend Tony Crabbe's book, Busy. I read a lot of business books in a year, but few have caused me to change the way I do things the way Busy has.