Do your days seem to get busier and busier? Do you have no idea where the time goes? Are you committed to projects you don't really care about? Do you wish you had more time for the people and activities that mean the most to you? After having read that last sentence, are you currently thinking, "Oh yeah, how come I never spend any time with my favourite people/activities?" You might need to work on your priorities. Here are five ways to help with this very common problem.
1. Take stock.
Here's a trick from a team building exercise to illustrate your current workload. Draw out a typical week of your life (or use a calendar or day planner): 7 days of 24 hours each (168 hours total). Mark the time you spend at work or, if you have numerous smaller projects, how much time you devote to each of these in a day. Mark down your sleeping, meals, leisure time, commute, workouts, everything. Add any TV watching/internet time. Try to be honest; the point is to get an accurate picture. If you want to be a real stickler, you can record what you actually do during an entire week (but remember that you're more likely to spend your time productively if you're writing it all down; that's how food journal diets work).
2. Judge, and be ruthless.
Now that you have the week in front of you, try to take on the role of an unbiased observer. Where do you spend most of your time? Is there enough time for the things you like best? Is your TV watching a full-time job, and if so, is that a problem? There are no right answers apart from the way you feel about how the time is spent. You're not trying to become an überproductive robot, just someone who spends time on the good things in life. Maybe you notice that your commute is longer than you thought and you could fit in some leisure reading or a good podcast on the bus. Maybe your weekends are overextended with sports and you'd rather have a lazy Sunday morning. Maybe you haven't seen your friends in months, but you spend every evening playing Candy Crush. At this stage there may be obvious substitutions you can make to use your time better. If not...
3. Start from scratch.
My high school chemistry teacher explained how the kidney works by comparing it to a junk drawer: if you need a few items from the drawer, it's tricky to rummage around when it's full of clutter. It's easier to dump everything out, pick the stuff you need, and put the rest back. I don't remember much else about kidneys (except maybe something called a nephron?), but her analogy stayed with me. So (figuratively) dump all of your commitments and start again with a clean slate. What are your favourite things? How would you spend your time in an ideal week? What times of day would you devote to work? If you have a 9-5 job, how would you best like to spend your evenings and weekends? This exercise helps you be active (I won't say proactive, which is just a buzzword), as opposed to reactive, in the way you spend you time. Don't be afraid to dream big; if there's a hobby you once loved or one you'd like to try, you'll get results with even an hour a week as long as you make the time.
4. Say yes to "no"
We often take on more than we can handle, in the workplace and in our home lives. We do this for many reasons: We want to look like team players, we are people pleasers, we genuinely want to help out but aren't aware of how much time we can devote to something. These requests can even be enjoyable, such as social commitments, volunteer work, or team sports. But your time is valuable, and you need time to recharge from your vital tasks. You've already thought about the way you'd really like to be spending your time in point #3, so evaluate the extra commitments you've made and decide whether they are really worth it. Learn to get comfortable saying "no" to requests to work for free, to put in more hours than you can handle, to sign up for another committee, or to make cupcakes for the whole class. "That won't work for me" or "I'm all booked up this month" are fine too. This isn't a good strategy for items falling within your job description (or else your boss will want to have a different conversation) or in areas you want to prioritize, but by clearing out the nonessential you'll be making room for what matters.
5. Revisit regularly.
Priorities change, and it makes sense to revisit the way you spend your time. Like paying yourself first, you can make sure that your favourite activities and people get first dibs on your available time and energy. Just listen to your needs and don't be afraid to turn down anything that doesn't work for you.