If you’re limping to the finish line this December, stretched thin and stressed out, you’re not alone. To stay afloat at our jobs, and keep the wheels on the track at home, we’re performing at a frenetic pace. Technology is both friend and foe as we wrestle with the implications of constant connectivity. At work and at play we’re flying by the seat of our pants, sending emails at stoplights, answering texts while helping with homework, and ordering groceries while calling into meetings.
In short, we’re chronically overscheduled. At the start of any given week our online calendars glow like Lite-Brite boards, with every hour between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm spoken for. The downsides of this modern highwire act are numerous, ranging from scattered attention spans to fractured family time. And, I’ll add another casualty to the list: the seemingly quaint goal of honoring one’s commitments.
Can you last recall when everyone showed up to a meeting on time? Or when you hosted a dinner party and received a prompt reply from everyone you invited?
Back in the day—not so very long ago—meetings took place as scheduled, and guests wouldn’t dream of last minute cancellations. Unless they were in a car crash. Social invitations were proffered on handwritten cards, guests responded within twenty-four hours, and “Maybe” (damn you, Evite) wasn’t an option. Hosts in the etiquette golden age seemed more gracious and guests more appreciative. Work relationships, more hierarchical for sure, were also more respectful. Why have we lost so much ground in this area, and, more crucially, can we get it back?
Do less, but do it better
While we can’t do much about the people that dishonor our time, we can do better about respecting our own. An overscheduled life indicates lots of things, not least an inability to say “no” to the torrent of opportunities that come our way. Technology (of course) seeks to ease the pain with apps for time management, for improving efficiency, and for increasing brain power. Smartphone-enabled reminders coax us through the hours and color-coded calendar displays attempt to simplify our lives. In the moment, such tools may help. But in the end, they’re a band-aid fix on a gusher. To do a better job of honoring the commitments we make, we need to commit only to the events and activities that really matter.
To do a better job of honoring the commitments we make, we need to commit only to the events and activities that really matter.
From the endless buffet of work meetings, professional development conferences, school plays, and neighborhood potlucks, which ones should you say “yes” to? How to decide what stays and what goes? It’s impossible to know, writes life coach and trainer Astrid Baumgardner, unless you’ve established a set of priorities by which you measure these opportunities. In other words, you can’t make good choices if you haven’t first evaluated how you wish to spend your time.
Three steps later
Baumgardner advocates a 3-Step Plan for taking control of your time by setting clear priorities. The theory is, if you’re operating from a firm understanding of what you value and what’s most important to you, decisions around how to spend time become easier.
The first step? Becoming aware of how you’re actually spending your time. “Write down all the things that you do,” counsels Baumgardner. “How much time do you spend in each area?” From there, assess how satisfied you are with how you’re spending your time.
“Next, think about the most important areas of your life (career, relationships, personal development, finances, health, fun, or service). Rate each area in terms of how important it is to you. Use a scale with 1 being ‘not important’ and 10 being ‘vitally important.’”
Baumgardner goes on to suggest that we also rate our satisfaction with the amount of time we spend on each area. Then, go back and look at the areas rated as very important (8, 9 or 10) and see how that score lines up with our satisfaction rating. If they aren’t aligned pretty closely in their score, you’ve got some work to do to bring your activities in line with your values. Baumgardner’s final step focuses on setting new priorities so you can start spending your time more wisely.
Find out what’s missing from your life by asking:
What is the most important thing in my life right now?
Where would I want to spend more time?
Where would I want to spend less time?
What areas need my attention now (e.g., school, talent, health, relationship)?
Your new priorities
Congratulations! The list of activities you end up with is your new list of priorities. It’s the filter by which you should evaluate opportunities and the justification you need for saying those three magic words: "No, thank you."
As it turns out, operating with a set of well-thought-out priorities not only makes choosing what to do easier, it makes choosing what not to do more obvious, too. Establishing filters for how you want to spend your time lends validity to your choices and hopefully, helps ease difficult conversations. When it comes to honoring commitments, avoid those commitments that are destined for failure. You know, the invitations you accept out of guilt (neighborhood poker night) and the obligations you take on because you can’t say no (team manager of your daughter’s soccer team). Everyone benefits when we step off the treadmill and start making intentional choices about our time.
Everyone benefits when we step off the treadmill and start making intentional choices about our time.
Rather than resorting to white lies—or worse, radio silence—be up front about your choices and why you’re making them. Can’t dedicate time to mentoring a younger team member? Don’t avoid answering and hope she’ll get the hint. Face it head-on and explain how you’re committed to afternoons with your middle schooler. Want to turn down a role on the school board but hate to disappoint? Explain that you’re prioritizing your yoga practice in an effort to stay healthy.
When we make values-driven choices about how to spend our time, and honor the promises we make to those around us, our professional and personal relationships will be stronger and more fulfilling. So, figure out what you need to do, follow it up with what you want to do, and you’re well on your way to a true state of wonder: making and honoring commitments to the people and activities that matter most.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.