Time management a thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable subject as Marie Dutordoir, and I found in a recent workshop we led for new academics at the University of Manchester. The workshop was inspired by our own struggles in time and energy management and how we cope with the demands placed on us as academics who also wish for a healthy home life!
The relentlessness over the past two years of being continually flexible, the disruption of absences and balancing everything can be exhausting at times. The demands on us can feel too high for our depleted resources to cope. For me this was brought into sharp focus when I saw this photograph my husband took of me working when my littlest was off school ill.
So many others feel the same, reflected in the instant success of Oliver Burkeman’s fantastic book ‘Four Thousand Weeks’. I was privileged to be in the audience for his TEDxManchester talk ‘Why patience is a superpower’. It certainly made me realise how impatient I am with myself and the power of stopping. It reminded me of my love of the acronym STOP – Stop, Take a breath, Observe what you feel, Proceed.
But stopping and letting things ‘take the time they take’ takes us out of our comfort zone. In fact, managing and balancing your time and energy leads to three uncomfortable feelings: un-accomplishment, fear of saying no and vulnerability.
The first of these is un-accomplishment. Our brains love accomplishment and release dopamine-generating feelings of satisfaction and happiness when we tick off a box on our to do list. When we leave things incomplete, we end up feeling unsatisfied and distressed. But, as the Circle of Life song from the Lion King explains:
“There's more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There's far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found“
During the workshop we explored tools such as to-do list and ta-dah lists (of tasks accomplished) to focus on what we are accomplishing rather than that sinking feeling of un-accomplishment or the overwhelm of everything we could be doing and have not done. We unpacked the time management story of rocks in jar and found we couldn’t even fit the big rocks in the jar, let alone all the other smaller tasks we wanted to do!
The second uncomfortable feeling is fear of saying no to others. Despite all the time I’ve spent reading William Ury’s ‘Power of a positive no’, this is still something I struggle with as I find so much interesting! The techniques in the book focus on knowing what is important to you. During the workshop, we spent time considering our three ‘time management non-negotiables’. These represent three activities which are vitally important for you to do on a daily or weekly basis. Once these are in place, we can start to feel firmer about what was important to us and we can think about how to deliver a (polite but firm) ‘no’ to other activities. The book recommends that the sentence starts with a matter-of-fact assertion and a declaration of intent (expressing your yes). Then you deliver a final no and proceed to seek a solution that will make everyone happy (propose a yes). For example, “It is really important to me to drop my children off at school (on that day). I will not be able to meet with you at time x, what is your availability on x day?”
This does lead on to the third feeling which is that of vulnerability. It feels very vulnerable sharing and living your values. It is one thing to make your priorities clear, but quite another to feel you are letting down others by acting upon these priorities. For me, these choices often come down to family. In the case of the above picture this meant I had to move my teaching, letting down students. There is power in this vulnerability as beautifully explained by Brene Brown here. She explores how vulnerability leads to connection which vital to human relationships and belonging.
From our reading, our workshops, and our experience we found that managing time is really about using the energy you have to focus on the activities which are most important to you, recognising that you can’t do every interesting project you hear about. It is about being firm enough in your values to protect the little time you have available (only around four thousand weeks in a typical lifetime) for what is authentically important to you. A little planning and a firm focus can go a long way in dealing with these uncomfortable feelings and in flourishing in the kind of life you want to lead.
Do get in touch if you would like to find out about our half day and full day time management workshop. It is designed with academics in mind to analyse the challenges of time poverty and overwhelm as well as providing valuable coping strategies.*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.