Making time for what really matters

Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. Yet some people are more productive than others. They have a high capacity to produce extraordinary work with focus and without burning out. They attend to what brings meaningful impact – whether it’s pursuing a cherished hobby, nurturing fulfilling friendships, creating a happy home, delivering a high-quality work product, or building a better clientele for their business.

Having a joyful life starts with consciously choosing how to use the limited time you have in a day, week, month, and year. If you’re too busy to meet up with a friend, take the pottery class, write your novel, or turn your passion into a profession, they might not be priorities after all; they simply take more effort than you care to invest.

Own your choices, turn down invitations respectfully, and release the fear of missing out or losing what was. But if a relationship, activity, project or long-term goal really matters to you, you can make time for it in the following ways:

Assess how you spend your time

Do an honest assessment of your daily life to determine whether you’ve been neglecting your truly top priorities. They usually fall into one of five categories: work (e.g. profession, career, business); relationships (e.g. spouse, life partner, children, friends, community); health (e.g. rest, exercise, nutrition); spirituality (e.g. meditation, religion, mission); and personal pursuits (e.g. creative hobbies, fun projects, volunteerism).

Keep a time log, maintain a calendar, or take notes documenting how you spend your time, by the hour, each day. Do this for at least three months. Tracking your time raises awareness of how much is spent on the meaningful versus the meaningless. It gives you a visual cue of important areas that need your attention. It motivates you to drop time wasters and energy drainers that steer you away from your preferred path.

There’s no need to strive for a perfectly balanced life. It’s okay for things to get out of whack when you have deadlines, demands and desires pulling you in a certain direction. The more crucial questions are whether your actions are aligned with your priorities, and whether you’re spinning your wheels instead of making real progress.

Stop killing time

During a recent telephone conversation with a friend (I have not seen in several months), we talked about the challenges of maintaining friendships once you enter parenthood. As parents of young children, we agreed there’s a definite shift in priorities and interests. My friend said she had little time for get-togethers with friends, but quickly confessed she spent much of it watching trash tv.

Watching the boob dude is an easy way to unwind. It’s a habit-forming activity that requires little thought or engagement. It’s the most common form of leisure, even though taking a nap, experimenting with a new recipe, making a social call, and playing bongo drums are much more satisfying.

Reduce your screen time to create more time for purposeful things. Here are some examples: Reserve at least one day when there’s no screen time. Limit your leisure screen time to one to two hours a day. And make deliberate choices about the tv shows, movies and other stuff you watch.

Why watch shows that lower your consciousness?  Why sit through a bad movie just because it was on your DVD queue, someone else recommended it, or you paid for the ticket? With no trash tv or bad movies to kill time, you get to read a good book, go for a mindful walk, compose music, or plan out a long-term project.

You can certainly choose to indulge in screen time to relax and destress. But if you want to engage in more productive activities, start with re-allocating your screen time to those things.

Give undivided attention to what is before you

Carve out non-negotiable time for the person, thing or activity that is most important to you. Schedule the date and place on your calendar. When your mind wanders to what you think you should be doing instead, bring your attention back to the present. If you get bored or restless, come back to your breath and notice what is before you.

Minimize interruptions and distractions, like checking social media, reading emails or allowing drop-in visits throughout the day. Set aside time slots for when you will engage in these activities.

Attempting to juggle more than one activity when each requires singular focus lowers your productivity, reduces efficiency, and heightens stress. Because the human brain cannot process more than one thing at time, the best you can do is switch quickly from one task to the next. Multitasking is an unnecessary time waster, not a valuable skill that leads to greater efficiency or effectiveness.

Single-tasking (i.e. focusing on one activity at time and doing each sequentially) results in greater flow and better outcomes. And if you do “multitask,” it’s best to layer or blend activities that draw on different mental faculties. Listen to a podcast while you make dinner. Watch a movie while you work out on the exercise bike. Have your kids play with your friend’s kids while the two of you chat and catch up.

Savor the white space

Because time is limited, you might think maximum productivity means filling white space with activity and action. This mindset leads to overscheduling and plugging gaps with pure busyness.

Take deliberate breaks between activities. Forego external stimuli and simply sit in silence and notice your breath. Observe the thoughts and experience the feelings that arise, while resisting the urge to do anything about them. Savoring the white space produces clarity, sparks creativity and fuels imagination. It helps you to reflect and respond mindfully, rather than rush and react hastily.

Know that you are already whole

When you’re learning, growing, striving, and seeking to move to the next phase, it can be hard to appreciate your present state. Ongoing comparisons can cause you to pursue goals that bring fleeting excitement, but not lasting joy.

Experience the journey of life with deep curiosity and profound wonder. Can you tap back into who you are at the core – before test scores, performance evaluations, college degrees and professional awards became a reflection of your worth?

Operating with a sense of abundance leads to a healthier relationship with accomplishments and external markers. You don’t always have to maintain a pristine home, keep an exciting lifestyle, stay at the top of your game, or be the perfect parent. You can allow laundry to pile up, be boring, take a nap, and make mistakes without criticizing yourself.

Once you let go of seemingly important goals and ideals that don’t make a true difference, you can invest your time in what really matters.


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Photo by: Ferrous Büller