Time Management for Mere Mortals

If you’re reading this as a small business owner you should know that you are not an ordinary mortal. You are a rare breed of person who has decided to take control of your life by running your own business and succeeding or failing on your own terms.

However, you only have the same average lifespan as other mortals which according to Oliver Burkeman is 4,000 weeks, a number he puzzlingly describes as “insulting”.

Small business owners are constantly juggling their priorities and trying to manage all the demands on their time as best they can while keeping revenue flowing in a far from consistent or predictable way, largely by their own efforts. For too many of them, time not working means time not earning.

Burkeman has no concept of this. He is a successful columnist and author married to an academic and they are just taking a year’s sabbatical with their young son.

The exhortation to “Embrace your limits. Change your life” should give you a clue that this isn’t a book about being more productive. It’s about ditching the to do list and doing less.

I’m not a fan of time management books but I keep getting asked if I’ve read this one so I thought I’d have a look. I haven’t studied it or read it properly, I just skimmed it because honestly, reading time management books is not and never has been a priority for me. There is no one size fits all when it comes to time management. Most of the people I work with don’t have a problem with time, they have a problem with prioritising or scheduling, energy, focus or procrastination and sometimes with simply figuring out what they don’t know that would make a difference.

The main thrust of this book seems to be that we can’t do it all and have to make choices, that choices come down to making a commitment and that most productivity tools and hacks don’t work because we try to do too much and have to make better choices.

Got that?

Tell me if you’ve never heard that before.

What Burkeman fancifully calls “The Art of Creative Neglect” boils down to deciding what doesn’t really matter and deciding not to do it. If having a clean home doesn’t really matter to you just don’t do the cleaning. He cites everyone from Nietzsche and Seneca to Rod Stewart and Danielle Steel to make his points and focuses on a ‘hobbyist’ who becomes his hero because he steals time away from less important things to work on his hobby. I’ll leave that one with you.

What you choose to do first really matters

One of the points / tactics Burkeman advocates that I absolutely agree with is setting aside time for the things that really matter and doing them ‘before’ you do anything else. Allocating time to the important things has to be done first, before the rest of the to-do list kicks in, just as putting aside money for savings should be done at the beginning of the month (or as he calls it, “when you get paid” 😊) rather than waiting to see what’s left over.

Paradoxically, Burkeman says he gets annoyed by the rocks in the jar story  which proposes much the same thing. He justifies this by saying the problem is that ‘these days’ we have too many big rocks and can’t possibly fit them all in the jar.

Back to making choices and commitments, or “The Art of Creative Neglect”.

“Getting more done is just a way of inviting more to do”

Suggesting that answering emails simply invites more emails is one of the bizzare statements Burkeman makes. I’m not sure where that leaves us. Maybe emails work differently in his world. Maybe if he tried to have a specific time to answer emails (after he’s done his most important things) and not respond to everything as it comes in that would solve that one.

Saying productivity tools don’t work is also a bit simplistic. They may not make you more productive because they’re just scheduling tools not magic wands and can’t stretch time or help you do things in less time but they will make you more efficient and take away the worry of forgetting important tasks. The key is in making good choices about what you want to get done and what to prioritise before you start scheduling, and re-prioritising as the day progresses. They’re good tools for identifying if you’ve underestimated how long things really take (the most common of all time management issues.)

We have no idea how many of our 4,000 weeks we have left but that doesn’t really matter if you’re not putting off what’s important to some mythical date in the future, and instead make a habit of deciding what’s really important to you every day and doing that first.

The four basic rules of how we use time don’t change.

1. Look after yourself so that you’re fit to do everything else.
2. Look after your important relationships or there’s no point in anything.
3. Allocate time to do what’s important to you first.
4. Set strong boundaries and don’t let anyone steal your time.

That’s it. Have fun and if you do need help with prioritising just let me know!

And remember, you may be mortal, but you’re a very special kind of mortal! 

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