Stop Trying to Manage Your Time. Try This Instead.

How many times this week have you caught yourself claiming that there's not enough time in the day to do everything you need to do or want to do?

There's not enough time to go to that spin class you love on Tuesday mornings. There's not enough time to read that book about time management that's been collecting dust on your nightstand. There's not enough time to take a lunch break at work so you scarf down a sandwich at your desk (and watch in disgust as blobs of mayo plop into your keyboard crevices). Hell, you might not even have enough time to shower on some days. Now your lack of time actually has a distinct odour.

And I bet you've also been telling yourself that you need to get better at "time management" (I was doing those double air parentheses things with my fingers when I said this). If only I could manage my time more efficiently, I would be able to fit more in, do more for myself, do more for my family, feel less guilty, and not feel so overwhelmed all the time.

This may come as a shock to you but time management is not possible.

I know what you're thinking. How could time management not be possible? There are thousands of articles, posts, videos, and even entire books written telling us how we can become a master at managing time. As if time is out of control and needs to be whipped into shape.

According to my good friend Merriam Webster, manage means "to work upon or try to alter for a purpose." But here's the thing. Time is invariable. We can't alter it, change it or manage it. We can't put time on a performance improvement plan as a consequence of just not being lengthy enough for our overloaded lives. (Listen here Time, shape up and give more of yourself or you're outta here!).

We all get 24 hours in each of our days. And if you're lucky, at least 7-9 of those hours are spent sleeping (but I'm willing to bet some of you don't have much time to do that either).

We can't manage time. But we can manage ourselves.

Here are three steps you can take to be less busy, less overwhelmed, and more in control of your life.

1. Set Boundaries and Say No

You've been asked for the third year in a row to head up the school's bake sale but you really need to take a break from your busyness and unwind (aka: you just don't feel like doing it). Your boss slaps another project on your already precarious, spinning plates and you feel like you're gonna lose it. You've been invited to your neighbour's end-of-summer party but you really need to finish something you've been meaning to do for your side hustle. The problem is, you just can't say no. It's too hard. It feels wrong. You don't want to let anyone down.

Setting boundaries is not easy. Saying no can be really hard to do. Especially if you think saying no will disappoint someone or add more to their plate.

Some of you reading this may even fall into the realm of chronic people-pleasing. You find it next to impossible to say no to anything, even if it means you'll be sacrificing something important in your life (time, energy, resources, your own wellbeing). And if you are forced to say no, you feel really guilty about it.

Folks often confuse saying no and setting personal boundaries with being selfish or disagreeable or lazy. But constantly saying yes to everything sets a destructive precedent. Just ask Jane to do it! She never says no!

Unfortunately, some people will take advantage of your unwillingness to say nay. A prime example is when employers engage in scope creep. Scope creep is when you do work more, take on additional responsibilities, and clock in more hours, without the perks of promotions and pay rises. While scope creep can happen to anyone, people who can't say no are especially susceptible to this insidious nonsense.

No matter what spectrum of being able to say no you fall into, it's imperative to set boundaries if you want to have more time, energy, and resources to do things for yourself and lose some of the overwhelm from being constantly too busy. And not only set boundaries but keep people from crossing them.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you should decline everything and live in a 'me, party of one' bubble. You absolutely should say yes to a lot of things. But just not everything.

Like I said before, setting boundaries is hard. You'll probably feel guilty and that's OK. Guilt is a normal emotion that doesn't have to guide your decisions. And yes, some people will be disappointed, especially if they're used to you saying yes to everything. But as long as you continue to let other people have domain over your life, you'll struggle to find life harmony.

Try this. Say no 3 times this week. Say no if you can't make it to your friend's BBQ. Say no if you can't handle another project at work. Say no if you just don't feel like hand stitching a costume for yet another dress-up day at school (What the?! You have to dress up as your favourite invertebrate this week?! And you want to be a sea anemone?!).

And ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the consequences if I don't say no? Will I be more stressed? Overwhelmed? Burnt out? Resentful? Will other people (including me) or activities be placed on the back burner?

  • What am I giving up in exchange for saying yes? Time (most definitely)? Mental energy? Money? My sanity?

  • What are my priorities? What's most important? What needs to get done and by when? What should I definitely say yes to? What can wait? And what can I say absolutely not to?

And here's a bonus tip. If you think you're spending too much time, energy, or money on something and either not getting the results you want or are just not feeling it, reevaluate its importance so you can stop wasting time and avoid the sunk cost fallacy.

Whatever it is that you can't do, or don't want to do, or don't have the gumption to do, dare to step out of your yay-saying comfort zone and just say no. I 'no' you can do it (misspelling and pun intended).

2. Put Everything On Your Calendar

Another way to free up more time for yourself is to put everything on your calendar.

Seriously. Everything. Your work stuff. Your personal stuff. Your kids' stuff. Your pets' stuff. Put it all on there so you can quickly see what you've got going on for the day, week, month. This makes it much easier to know what you need to say no to and what you can say yes to.

If you look at your calendar and see that it's jam-packed, I bet you'll be far less inclined to add another activity or appointment to those little square boxes. You'll also mitigate the risk of double booking yourself and having to backtrack later.

I'm the reigning world champion at using time - as in not enough of it - as an excuse for not being able to go for a run around the block or do a few dumbbell curls in my backyard. But if I have my workouts (I use that term loosely) right there on my trusty Google calendar, colour-coded in blue, with a definitive start and end time, I'll do it. If I don't have it on my schedule, then I'll inevitably let some other seemingly more important thing - like rearranging my pantry (again) - creep in and take over.

If you haven't already, give life scheduling a solid go. Buy yourself a good 'ol paper wall calendar or start using the electronic calendar that comes with your email. I do both. You can even set up a prioritization system (e.g. red items are high priority, yellow is medium, blue is low, etc.) to help you stay focused on what's most important. And there's a whole host of fancy productivity and life admin apps you can use if regular calendars are too 1990s for you.

3. Try the 'Half Yes, Half No' Technique

The fun doesn't stop with boundary setting and calendars. There's something else you can do to free up time for yourself.

Let's say your family friends invite you over for a birthday party at their place Friday evening. You really want to go, and you don't want to disappoint them, but your calendar (the one you're using to schedule everything) is looking pretty tight. You have doggie and me yoga scheduled for right after work that day. You have to be up at stupid early o'clock for your son's basketball game on Saturday. And you know your week at work will be hectic because you've got a deadline to meet and Sally from accounting resigned (and you said yes to collecting the money and buying the gift and getting everyone to sign the e-card because you hadn't read this article yet).

See what I mean? You've got a lot going on. You should probably decline the invite to the party.

Before you do though, there may be an in-between option. You might want to try the 'Half Yes, Half No' technique. This technique is backed by years of rigorous, scientific research proving that it reduces stress, fatigue, and burnout.

Just kidding. I made up the term while writing this. But the approach really does work no matter what you call it. And it's pretty simple to implement.

Instead of a hard no, you could go to the party for an hour instead of hanging around for the typical 8-hour marathon celebrations your friends are famous for. Boom. You've just gained back seven hours of your time and you still get to see your friends. (Caveat: don't try this if you're like me and know you won't leave after an hour because you're having too much fun).

This technique can be adapted for almost any situation. You can say yes to being the parent helper at school once a quarter but not every week. You can tell your boss you have the capacity for another assignment if you hold off on a less urgent one. You can sign up for classes at the gym that are 30 minutes instead of an hour.

Instead of all-or-nothing, you can go with a little-of-something.

An additional perk to this technique is that you get to practice considering all the possibilities when it comes to making choices about anything in your life.

The Choice is Yours

It's liberating to know that you always have choices. And more often than not, you have many options to choose from. Get creative. Think of all that's possible. How you allocate your time is, for the most part, entirely up to you. You get to choose whether you say yes, no, or a combination of both.

Sure, there are some things we have to do even if we don't want to. That's life. But you have more control than you think.

The trick is to set boundaries whenever and wherever you can - at work and at home. Do it early and do it often. Get your priorities straight and have a system in place for scheduling all the things.

If you don't claim agency over your time, and your life in general, you'll find yourself feeling constantly overwhelmed, stressed out, and frequently using the 'I don't have time' excuse for not looking after yourself and not achieving your goals.

A quote from Jim Rohn sums it up perfectly. Either you run the day or the day runs you.