Time management can be difficult. What is urgent in your life and what is important to your life are often very different things.
This is especially true with your health, where the important issues almost never seem urgent even though your life ultimately hangs in the balance.
- No, going to the gym today isn't urgent, but it is important for your long-term health.
- No, you won't die from stress today, but if you don't get it figured out soon, you might.
- No, eating real, unprocessed foods isn't required for you to stay alive right now, but it is will reduce your risk of cancer and disease.
Is there anything we can do? If we all have 24 hours in a day, how do we actually use them more effectively?
And most importantly, how can we manage our time to live healthier and happier, do the things that we know are important, and still handle the responsibilities that are urgent?
I'm battling with that answer just like you are, but in my experience there are three time management tips that actually work in real life and will help you improve your health and productivity.
1. Eliminate half-work at all costs.
In our age of constant distraction, it's stupidly easy to split our attention between what we should be doing and what society bombards us with. Usually we're balancing the needs of messages, emails, and to-do lists at the same time that we are trying to get something accomplished. It's rare that we are fully engaged in the task at hand.
I call this division of your time and energy "half-work."
Here are some examples of half-work...
- You start writing a report, but stop randomly to check your phone for no reason or to open up Facebook or Twitter.
- You try out a new workout routine. Two days later, you read about another "new" fitness program and try a little bit of that. You make little progress in either program and so you start searching for something better.
- Your mind wanders to your email inbox while you're on the phone with someone.
Regardless of where and how you fall into the trap of half-work, the result is always the same: you're never fully engaged in the task at hand, you rarely commit to a task for extended periods of time, and it takes you twice as long to accomplish half as much.
Half-work is the reason why you're able to get more done on your last day before vacation (when you really focus) than you do in the 2 weeks previous (when you're constantly distracted).
Like most people, I deal with this problem all of the time and the best way I've found to overcome it is to block out significant time to focus on one project and eliminate everything else.
I pick one exercise and make it my only focus for the entire workout. (i.e. "Today is just for squats. Anything else is extra.")
I carve out a few hours (or even an entire work day) to deep dive on an important project. I'll leave my phone in another room and shut down my email, Facebook, and Twitter.
This complete elimination of distractions is the only way I know to get into deep, focused work and avoid fragmented sessions where you're merely doing half-work.
How much more could you achieve if you did the work you needed to do, the way you needed to do it, and eliminated the half-work, half-wandering that we fill most of our days with?
2. Do the most important thing first.
Disorder and chaos tend to increase as your day goes on. At the same time, the decisions and choices that you make throughout the day tend to drain your willpower. You're less likely to make a good decision at the end of the day than you are at the beginning.
I've found that this same trend holds true in my workouts as well. As the workout progresses, I have less and less willpower to finish sets, grind out reps, and perform difficult exercises.
For all of those reasons, I do my best to make sure that if there is something important that I need to do, then I do it first.
If I have an important article to write, I grab a glass of water and start typing as soon as I wake up. If there is a tough exercise that I need to do, then I do it at the beginning of each workout.
If you do the most important thing first, then you'll never have a day when you didn't get something important done. By following this simple strategy, you will usually end up having a productive day, even if everything doesn't go to plan.
3. Reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule.
I've written previously about the importance of holding yourself to a schedule and not a deadline. There might be occasions when deadlines make sense, but I'm convinced that when it comes to doing important work over the long-term, following a schedule is much more effective.
When it comes to the day-to-day grind, however, following a schedule is easier said than done. Ask anyone who plans to workout every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and they can tell you how hard it is to actually stick to their schedule every time without fail.
To counteract the unplanned distractions that occur and overcome the tendency to be pulled off track, I've made a small shift in how I approach my schedule. My goal is to put the schedule first and not the scope, which is the opposite of how we usually approach our goals.
For example, let's say you woke up today with the intention of running three miles this afternoon. During the day, your schedule got crazy and time started to get away from you. Now you only have 20 minutes to workout.
At this point, you have two options.
The first is to say, "I don't have enough time to workout today," and spend the little time you have left working on something else. This is what I would usually have done in the past.
The second option is to reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule. Instead of running three miles, you run one mile or do five sprints or 30 jumping jacks. But you stick to the schedule and get a workout in no matter what. I have found far more long-term success using the this approach than the first.
On a daily basis, the impact of doing five sprints isn't that significant, especially when you had planned to run three miles. But the cumulative impact of always staying on schedule is huge. No matter what the circumstance and no matter how small the workout, you know you're going to finish today's task. That's how little goals become lifetime habits.
Finish something today, even if the scope is smaller than you anticipated.
A version of this article first appeared at JamesClear.com.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Based in North Carolina, James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he uses behavior science to share ideas for mastering your habits, improving your health, and increasing your creativity. To receive his most popular articles, join his free weekly newsletter.