Who hasn’t wished there were more hours in the day? Unless you’re more disciplined than some, you spend virtually every waking moment connected to friends, family, co-workers and people you’re not even sure how you know through social media, texts, phone calls and emails. You’re working long hours at the office, rushing to your kids’ soccer games, meeting friends for dinner, trying to squeeze in spin class, and frustrated that you can never seem to get around to cleaning out your closet or tackling the reading piling up on your nightstand, much less writing that screenplay or novel you’ve always fantasized about.
Cindy Troianello, an organizational business consultant, executive coach and trainer who has taught critical business and personal skills at UCLA Extension for the last eight years, believes modern society tends to make us all want to take on more — professionally, socially, personally — and that tendency, combined with the ease with which we are distracted by the Internet and our smartphones, can leave us feeling that we’re never able to get to everything.
“It’s an epidemic,” Troianello says. “We compare ourselves to others, compete to get the most done, and then get angry when we get stuck in traffic or in a line. We don’t seem to have time to take care of everything, and that often means we end up not having time for ourselves.”
If you’re infected with this malady, Troianello proposes two remedies. First, simplify your life by paring down your to-do list. “In one sense, many people are happier when pursuing a goal,” she says. “The problem comes when you’re chasing after so many things and never quite getting there because you have so much piled on your plate, which can lead to dissatisfaction, and in some cases even depression.”
The second solution — perhaps in combination with the first — is to be more efficient with your time. Troianello, who sits on the advisory board of UCLA Extension’s Human Resources Management Certificate program and teaches a course in time management and organizational skills, points out that by setting realistic goals and taking the appropriate steps to stay organized and productive, you’ll open up more discretionary time that you can spend on yourself and with your loved ones — without that constant nagging feeling that you’re not getting enough done. She offers the following commonsense tips:
Decide What’s Important
“Time management is about being strategic,” Troianello explains. If you have a lot to do and know you can’t do it all, she says, prioritize the tasks that you’re going to feel best about crossing off your list. Stay focused on the big picture rather than getting sidetracked on a single tangential task.
Write It Down
The to-do list can be essential to both your productivity and your mental health. “Carrying everything in your head takes brain function,” Troianello says. “Write it down, refer to it regularly, and tackle each item systematically.” She recommends keeping sub-lists tied to certain activities that you tend to return to, such as packing for travel. Maintain long-term lists as well as lists for what you hope to get done that day, with stars by what’s most important. Troianello likes to include even the simplest tasks, just to experience the satisfaction of crossing them off.
Set a Date
Nearly everyone keeps a calendar, but Troianello says most of us aren’t doing it right. We know to include future lunches, meetings, doctor’s appointments and weekend plans. But the calendar can also help to ensure that you’ll get those elusive tasks done. Set aside time in your home or work office with the door closed and your phone set to voicemail. You say you never seem to get around to exercising, even though you mean to? Block out a particular hour of the day. You wish you were better at keeping in touch with certain friends? Add contacting them to the schedule.
Take Baby Steps
For months you’ve vowed to clean out your garage, but the task has felt so daunting that you’ve put it off. Troianello recommends breaking down any large task into small chunks. “Getting started is always the hardest part,” she says. “Force yourself to work on it for a very short time. Fifteen minutes will often lead to 30 or 60, and then you’re on your way.”
In the era of texting and social media, it’s all too easy to get diverted from the task at hand, especially when we’re looking for any excuse to stray off course. When you’re trying to be productive, turn off all media and put your phone out of sight. “Tell yourself that after you get a certain amount done, you can go back to it,” Troianello says. If thoughts pop into your head, write them down so that you can continue with what you started.
It may seem like a contradiction, but Troianello believes that some tasks can be paired. You can fold laundry while talking on the phone, respond to emails while standing in line at the store, and catch up on reading while waiting at the doctor’s office. By getting multiple tasks done at once, you free up time later.
Troianello believes that perfectionists tend to be less organized and productive than the people she calls “good-enough-ists.” Yes, get things done, but don’t obsess over making everything a shining, perfect specimen. “Productive people leave a trail of completed tasks in their wake,” Troianello says. Obviously it depends on the task, but in many cases it’s better to cap your work at “good enough” than create a bottleneck of uncompleted items.
If you’ve taken the steps to become more productive but there still aren’t enough hours in the day, you’re likely setting the bar too high. “It’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve, and satisfied with what you accomplish,” Troianello says. Taking on more than you can handle is a recipe for frustration.
Schedule “Me” Time
Resolving to get a lot done and taking time to relax and unwind are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Troianello includes the latter on her to-do list. “It’s an important goal that you don’t want pushed off the list by all the other things you needed to get done,” she says. “And if you’re organized and finding ways to be more productive, you will have more time for yourself while also feeling good about what you’ve accomplished.”