We’ve been discussing the value of time a lot lately. For me, it’s been an appropriate topic. Lately, my work-life balance has been out of control. There are a few reasons for this:

  • I’ve been giving into time-sucks.

  • I’m struggling to organize a few new writing gigs into my schedule.

  • I don’t give myself any breathing room.

The result of my poor time management? One, I’ve been working a lot at night. Long after my boyfriend and cats have gone to bed, I’m up typing. Two, I’ve possibly been missing out on more work. Because my schedule is so stretched, I haven’t had time to take on other gigs. If I was more efficient with my time, I might be able to earn more. There are a handful of other irks, but these are the two that bother me most. Ultimately, I want to feel like I have more control of my time so that I can, as J.D. said, spend it on the things that matter most to me.

I am getting better, though. Here are a few tactics I’ve adopted that have helped me learn to better manage my time.

Tackling the tough stuff first

One simple time-management tip has made a huge difference in my day: Get the tough stuff over with and done.

If there’s something on my daily to-do list that I dread, I try to make sure it’s the first thing I tackle. Sometimes this isn’t that easy. But when that dreadful item is crossed off my list, the rest of my day is cake. I work more efficiently knowing that I don’t have to deal with that item.

Here’s an example: Sometimes I really don’t enjoy video editing because it’s excruciatingly meticulous and time-consuming and technical. When it’s on my to-do list, I often dread it for the entire day. But I’ve found that getting it out of the way in the morning helps me get it done faster so I can really focus on the rest of my work in the afternoon.

Finding my optimal times

There’s some work I do better in the morning and some I do better later in the day. I first noticed this when I was a technical writer. For some reason, in the morning, I struggled to communicate. If I had to guess, it probably had something to do with my being half-asleep. At any rate, when I had to write instruction manuals, I knew I might as well get the technical stuff (spec lists, spreadsheets etc.) out of the way in the morning. I saved the writing for the afternoon, when I was lucid. Years later, my brain seems to work the same way. I tackle analytical tasks in the morning and I save thoughtful, intuitive tasks, like writing, for the afternoon.

Letting go of what I can’t control

J.D. recently wrote about the basics of investing wisely. This sentence in particular stood out to me: “Ignore the news and ignore your fund.” Around that same time, Warren Buffett’s annual letter was released, and it echoed the same sentiment:

“With my two small investments, I thought only of what the properties would produce and cared not at all about their daily valuations. Games are won by players who focus on the playing field — not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays.”

While I can control how much I decide to invest, I can’t control (nor do I have much knowledge about) the daily valuations of the market. Yet, I’d check my investments every single day, throughout the day. I didn’t realize it at first, but this took up a lot of my time.

I’ve been learning to let go of the things I can’t control — things like the stock market. I should instead spend that time on areas of my finances that I can control — like getting my work done so I can earn a living. That’s a pretty important one.

Letting go of obsessions and bad habits

On a similar note, I had to let go of some obsessions that became time-sucks. These time-sucks included:

  • Checking the stats of my blog
  • Monitoring my budget throughout the day
  • Refreshing my email
  • Checking my phone for new notifications

It’s good to stay on top of this stuff. But there’s a difference between staying on top of it and becoming obsessed with it.

And then there are bad habits. Part of the reason I left Facebook is that I found myself mindlessly browsing it for hours on end, not really enjoying the experience very much. It just became a habit that ate up a lot of my time. The Internet makes it easier to develop mindless habits like this. Sometimes I find myself typing in the first few letters of a website into my browser without even realizing what I’m doing, I’m on auto-pilot and, half an hour later, I have no idea what I’ve been doing or what I’ve read/looked at. Meanwhile, I could have been using my time productively.

Stepping away from work

Earlier this year, I decided to fulfill one of my New Year’s resolutions and I signed up to volunteer at my local library. Over the past few months, however, my work schedule has become a bit overwhelming. But I vowed to offer my time at the library, so I want to stick with it. Here’s what’s interesting, though: I get more work done on my volunteer day than any other day of the weekWhat’s up with that?

I could be wrong, but I think this happens because I step away from work, and when I come back to it, my mind is clear and focused. During the week, I put a lot of pressure on myself and try to cram way too much into one day. I’m a workaholic, and I rarely take breaks. As you can imagine, I’m often stressed. After my volunteer realization, I started doing a couple of things differently:

  • I take breaks every hour: I go for a small walk, call my mother, or even just go outside to breathe and bask in the daylight.
  • If I’m stuck, I move on: This sort of goes against the “get the tough stuff out of the way” solution. But if I’m truly stuck on a problem — I don’t know how to start an article, for example — then I save it for tomorrow. For me, it’s better to work on something that I know I can get through than to spend hours dwelling on my problem.

Basically, I’ve learned the importance of giving yourself breathing room. When we make a budget that has zero room for fun or small indulgences, that budget often fails. For me, it’s the same way with time management. I tell myself I’m going to cram a bunch of stuff into one day and, when I don’t accomplish it all, I feel like I’ve failed. It’s important to make time for breaks.

Overall, I want to learn to manage my time so I can spend it more fruitfully. Like money, when my time goes unmanaged, I usually don’t spend it wisely. I want to spend my time on what matters the most to me, and that means learning to be in control of it.

What about you – How do you manage your time effectively? Have any of these methods worked for you?

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