Saving time has been elevated to an ultimate virtue. Articles for people who are trying to save time so they can “have it all” offer quick beauty tips, recipes that can be made in 20 minutes or less, and even advice on how to find gifts quickly at a convenience store.
But pursuing extreme productivity can be exhausting, and time spent searching for more efficient ways get more done could often be put to better use by just completing those same tasks. The key is to shift your thinking away from “get as much done as possible” or “save time everywhere you can.” Instead, take a step back and ask yourself how you can focus on getting the stuff done that really matters.
Time, like money, is limited, so it makes sense to spend it wisely. But even people who are great at keeping to a financial budget can treat their time like it’s an endless resource, then end up disappointed when they can’t do everything.
When I’m in the mindset of “saving time,” I gravitate toward faster tasks, not important ones. I find myself unwilling to commit fully to big projects because my loaded to-do list feels overwhelming. Scratching lots of little things off your list is satisfying in the moment because it creates the illusion of productivity, but it nearly always backfires.
I end up overwhelmed because the to-dos that really matter are still there, unfinished and getting more critical by the moment. Trying to save time turns into doing more things rather than impactful things, then getting none of it done well because I’m not focused.
So how do you give up trying to save time and start spending time more wisely instead?
1. Identify where you’re overloaded.
Everyone believes the thing they want you to do is the most important. You’ve almost certainly noticed this at work. Twenty-nine percent of workers report feeling “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressed at work, and 40 percent say that their job is “very” or “extremely” stressful. Job stress, more than family problems or finances, is associated with health issues in employees.
If you’re not attentive to your time budget, it’s too easy to let your job become your only priority, leaving you exhausted. It’s important that you budget some time for other activities, especially ones that offset your work stress.
Think about what’s important to you and consciously choose to spend time on that. Maybe you volunteer regularly or spend three hours a week in the gym. For me, spending 20 minutes meditating is endlessly valuable. It helps offset work stress and lets me disconnect from my busy days so I can really be present with family and friends. Activities like this won’t happen on their own; you have to be thoughtful about making them happen. Remember, spending time on healthy, meaningful activities is an investment in your own wellness, your family, and even your community.
2. Figure out what you really want.
If someone asked you “What do you really want?” what would your answer be? How long would you have to think? Many people can’t clearly express what their true desires are. “What we spend our time doing,” explains Harvard Business Review, “is the result of a dynamic interaction between internal clarity (what we want to do) and external pressure (what other people want us to do).”
If we want to be sure our own voice is the one we follow, we have to learn to hear it and prioritize it. Otherwise, others will be happy to push us toward something they want us to do.
I like to ask myself “What is the one thing that I’ll be upset about not getting done today if I don’t do it?” Knowing that answer helps me prioritize my time budget. It’s easy to spend the day doing 40 little things at the bottom of the list without ever reaching that one big thing you’ll truly be happy you finished.
3. Do what you’re doing.
Once you’ve figured out what’s most important to you and you begin spending time on it, try to get out of the habit of multitasking. The really important stuff deserves your full attention and your full focus. There’s time to do anything, but not everything.
Even if you only get one thing done on a given day, you will be happier if it’s one important thing and you’re proud of how it got done. Even leisure time deserves your full attention. If you decide to spend an evening reading, then what you’re doing on that evening is reading — and nothing else. The discipline of focus is hard to master, but it can make all the difference.
Multitasking is a myth, anyway. Studies, like a recent one by the University of Utah, regularly show that people who think they’re good at doing two things simultaneously actually aren’t. Spending time doing only one thing is time spent well, and this is true no matter how much time you have at your disposal. Even 15 minutes can be a productive sliver of time if you’re clear about what those 15 minutes are for and don’t deviate.
Ultimately, you want to reach a place of balance with your time. Learning to set a reasonable goal and spend your precious minutes on the steps that move you toward accomplishing that goal will go a long way toward bringing you that balance. You probably won’t accomplish that balance every day, but when you look at how you’ve spent your time over a week, a month, or a year, you’ll begin to see that you got done what you needed to get done; more importantly, it felt meaningful and impactful.
We are constantly being encouraged to find ways to do more, more quickly, more efficiently, when really we should be focused on doing what we want to do, and doing it better. There’s nothing more stressful than trying to figure out how to complete a thousand half-done, confusing, unclear tasks at the same time. Figure out what you want, prioritize it, and work toward it with single-minded attention. Over time, you’ll find a happier you.
Martha Smith is the head of consumer and brand marketing at Tophatter, a marketplace that is reimagining discovery commerce for the mobile era. She loves getting the chance to apply her expertise in content, digital media, and social media in a way that helps consumers remember just how fun shopping can be and stumble across products they didn’t know they or their friends and family would love.