“Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity.” ― Jean de La Bruyère
One of the biggest frustrations plaguing the modern world is the feeling that we have too many tasks on our to-do lists and not enough time to accomplish everything. Adults and children alike continually feel overwhelmed by the growing gap between expectation and possibility.
This sense of having “not enough time” is just a feeling. We all have the same amount of time in each day, but we often try to pile as many tasks as possible into a relatively small slice of time.
In project management, it’s common to view each day as a container. Each workday allows for eight hours of tasks, and any good manager will expect an output equivalent to exactly eight hours of work.
The problem is that even the best time managers often fail to apply this same principle in their personal lives. Each of us begins the day with a 24-hour container and the opportunity to organize the contents of our personal basket.
With a day job, hungry kids, 10 pounds to lose, and aspirations to write a novel, how do you fit all of the stuff you want to do into your small container?
There are two tools that can help with identifying how to fill the hours of your days: simplifying, and letting go.
Simply Your Tasks
When we view our 24-hour days as containers with a limited capacity, it soon becomes clear that we’re trying to fit too much stuff into a small container. Since we can’t upgrade to a larger container, we must instead get rid of some of the tasks, errands, and obligations that are causing our feelings over overwhelm.
Mindfulness is good tool to help us simplify what we need to do. Pay attention to all the things you do today and tomorrow, all the tasks on your to-do list, and all of the things you’re squeezing into the container of your day. Simply observe, without judgement.
What websites are you visiting and how much time do you spend on them? What games are you playing at home and on your phone? What are you reading? How much time are you spending on email and social media? How much TV are you watching? What busy-work are you doing? How much time do you spend on personal hygiene, tidying your home, and caring for others? How much time do you spend commuting and what do you listen to on the road? What are you spending the valuable commodity of your attention on?
You may quickly realize that you’re filling your small container with a lot of junk. This awareness is a great place to start. By understanding your mindless habits, you can make an effort to circumvent and rewire them. This might mean banning yourself from certain apps or websites until you’ve completed a few really important tasks, or completing meal prep on Sunday so you have time to work out in the evening.
You might also notice that you have quite a few commitments filling up your life. Figure out which are most important to you, start getting out of the less important ones, and then say “no” to any new ones.
If you’re like me, your to-do list has at least 10 tasks at any given time. But how many of these tasks can you reasonably complete today?
Let’s say you decided to choose only three things to accomplish today. Which three items from your task list would you choose? I would recommend finding the tasks that have the most impact and that matter the most to you.
Now, which task would you pursue if you could only complete one task today? That single action item should be your focus as you start your day. You can’t do you entire list today, and you can’t work on your top three tasks right now, so just focus on one important task.
By carefully choosing your tasks each day, you’re taking care with the container of your time. You might choose important tasks today and joyful ones tomorrow, but you are being intentional about the choices. You begin to treat your time like the precious gift that it is: limited, valuable, filled with goodness, and not overstuffed.
Learning to Let Go
What about all of the other tasks on your to-do list that your want to do (or feel that you need to do)? What if it doesn’t all fit into your limited-capacity container?
This is where we practice the art of letting go.
If you discover that you have too many tasks to fit into you day, and you’ve decided to only place the most important and beautiful things in your container, a lot of things that you think you “should” do are not going to fit.
You may get to those less important things later, or you may not. Either way, they won’t fit into today’s limited space.
The fact that not everything can be done in one day is not the problem. It only becomes an issue when we become frustrated that it doesn’t all fit. In our fast-paced world, this frustration comes from an ideal that we should be able to do it all. Many strive to complete all thirty items on their to-do list, plus mediate, work out, travel, read more, learn a new skill, be the perfect spouse, be a better parent, practice hobbies daily, and so on.
I hate to break it to you, but your ideals don’t match with reality. The reality is that you can’t do all of this today (or even this week). You can prioritize and choose do pursue some of them, but the others will either have to wait, or fall by the wayside.
Since we can’t go trade in our daily allotment of 24-hours for a larger container, we must learn to adjust our ideals. Let go of your old ideal with joy and relief. You new ideal may be something like this: this moment is exactly as it is. An attitude of acceptance and gratitude for our limited time will carry us further in life than the frustration and overwhelm of not achieving everything. Whatever you are doing, it is enough and has earned its place in your day.