4 Ways Busy People Can Make More Time for Themselves

If you’re like most people, you’re trying to balance a huge list of responsibilities coming from multiple sources. Responsibilities at home, at work, in your community, and so on. Although your intentions are admirable, trying to keep up with so many promises can be overwhelming.

Let me suggest a different approach: Give yourself more time to focus on the things that matter most to you. Don’t set unachievable goals, and don’t stress about whether you’re living up to them or not. Instead, make time.

It’s not that difficult. In the course of my career, I’ve found a few techniques that have been particularly effective at giving me more time to do what really matters to me. And perhaps they will be helpful for you too.

Three books have been especially influential in crafting my approach to better time management: Getting Things Done, by David Allen; The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey; and The 4-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferris.

I took a few insights from each of these, synthesizing them into my own personal method. For me, spending a few hours reading each of these books paid off with many saved hours over the years—but if you don’t have a long weekend to spend reading books on productivity and time management, here are the key points I’ve applied from each one.

One single task list: Your inbox

The basic theory of the Getting Things Done (GTD) approach is that you need a single task list. For me, that’s my email inbox. The advocates of “Inbox Zero” advise taking the inbox down to no messages at all, but for me that’s impractical.

Instead, I use the GTD approach of processing my inbox as efficiently as possible. If I can respond to a message or take care of its task in two minutes or less, I’ll do it immediately. Otherwise, I either schedule it, delegate it, or archive it.

Scheduled items go onto my calendar. Delegated items I forward to the appropriate person I work with. And archived items go into a Google folder for possible later review.

I use Evernote for saving notes, and it does have a “reminder” feature that some people use for to-do items and things that need later follow up. But in my experience you need to have one single task list, otherwise you have difficulty prioritizing (or finding) items between the multiple lists. So for me, that’s my inbox.

As a result, my inbox has only about 50 conversations in it right now—and all of them are items that I need to take care of. That’s probably a higher number than it should be, but it’s far lower than the thousands of unfiltered messages I see in some people’s inboxes.

Focus on what’s most important each day

One of the easiest principles to overlook, borrowed from the 7 Habits book, is the distinction between “important” and “urgent.”

If you draw a 2×2 matrix with unimportant, non-urgent items in the lower left and important, urgent items in the upper right, it’s clear you need to focus on the upper right.

But if you don’t have focus, it’s easy to let urgent but unimportant items overwhelm you. They are often the “shiny objects” literally knocking at your door or sending pesky chats and texts.

That’s why I like to start each day with a list of important tasks that I absolutely must accomplish—and I don’t go home until those are done. That keeps me focused on what’s truly my highest priority.

Of course, in everyone’s life (and especially that of a CEO) there are a lot of interruptions. But if you push yourself to stay focused on those few, critical tasks you’ve listed each day, you’ll be much more effective.

Delegate ruthlessly

From The 4-Hour Workweek, I took the idea of focus further—a few of the things people focus on every day are just not that important. You can completely eliminate those things.

Of the remaining activities, look at whether it’s something that you are uniquely qualified to do. Are you the best person to do this? If not, delegate it.

By ruthlessly paring down my list like this, I’m able to get a lot accomplished every day—while delegating many things to other people who are better positioned to take care of them.

But Stephane, you say: You are an executive with an assistant. Yes, that’s true. But everyone can benefit from delegation, and many of us already do, both professionally and personally. We just don’t always think of it as delegation.

On a personal level, you can hire outside experts to help with your photo editing, doing your taxes, or planning your vacation. I have even heard of people hiring freelancers via Upwork.com, my company’s website, to screen potential dates.

On a business level, many people already delegate their bookkeeping, accounting, payroll, and other functions. Why not extend that delegation to other areas, like redlining contracts, doing market research, or handling and paying invoices? Many people use virtual assistants to help with scheduling meetings, making travel reservations, and filing expense reports. Why not delegate someone to answer simple emails, or in more complex cases to draft responses for you to review before sending? Over time, the best of these assistants could even evolve into a virtual “chief of staff,” someone who knows you and your business so well that you can have them lead some of your meetings or projects with minimal involvement from yourself.

Delegation, like many things in business and life, is a learned skill. But it’s a critical part of time management, since it allows you to focus on your core strengths—not to mention the things you want to fit into your life. Over time, you’ll build your own network of trusted people and it will become second nature to call upon them, likely starting with more basic virtual assistant tasks and growing from there as you learn how to more effectively leverage their support.

Finally, value your own time highly

People, I’ve noticed, tend to really undervalue their time. But when you replace some of the time you used to spend on less important activities, or activities you aren’t yourself as effective at, with something where you’re truly productive—or with free time—you really notice the difference.

By managing your time better so that you are using it on the activities for which you can produce the greatest individual return, you’re increasing your productivity and effectiveness, while reducing your stress and increasing your leisure.

And that, in turn, gives you even more time.

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