Veronica Arreola’s schedule just seemed to sneak up on her. Her job at the University of Illinois at Chicago required long hours, and she was doing some pro bono freelance writing for a local nonprofit. Weekday mornings, she drove her 6-year-old daughter to school, and after work she picked her up. She also fit in errands, housework and social obligations. It felt manageable — but just barely, and she was constantly running behind schedule.
And then things got worse. Commitments, tasks and other obligations began to fill in every nook and cranny of her waking hours. Soon Arreola, 34, found herself cramming work or chores into her nighttime hours, cutting into her sleep time. She wasn’t eating well and self-care fell to the bottom of her to-do list, even after she started experiencing severe migraines.
“I was always wishing I had time to get a massage — and, really, I probably did have time, I just didn’t make the time,” she recalls. “I was always putting off things that would be good for me.”
Eventually, her mood and her relationships began to suffer, and her depleted vitality negatively affected the quality of her work. “I was working hard to keep up,” she says. “But then I wore myself out, got sick and fell behind because of missed time from work.”
Arreola’s plight is a familiar one. Most of us pack our calendars to the gills in an effort to get more done. We commit to more than we should, assuming that we’ll somehow squeeze it all in. Often, we ignore the consequences of overscheduling until, like Arreola, we become so exhausted we can’t keep up, sometimes to the detriment of our health and our closest relationships.
So how can we stop overscheduling? Admitting we have a problem is the first step. But actually breaking our addiction to overscheduling requires acknowledging our limits, observing our patterns and clarifying the values that make our lives worth living in the first place.
The world of work has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. We now live in a global marketplace, where people are doing business across far-flung time zones 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And instant communication (email, instant messaging, smartphones) has dissolved the once built-in boundaries around the workday. We’re awash in interruptions — emails, text messages, cell phone calls — the combination of which can make it hard to complete even the simplest of tasks.
In fact, says Julie Morgenstern, author of SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life (Fireside, 2009), many of us have lost the ability to accurately estimate how long activities are going to take before we commit to them.
The other problem is that we don’t accurately take stock of how busy we already are. “People overcommit simply because they don’t know everything they’ve committed to,” says time-management guru David Allen, author of Getting Things Done (Penguin, 2003). “Their self-regulating mechanism has blown a fuse.”
All this adds up to a schedule that not only runs you ragged, but regularly throws you curve balls and prevents you from focusing on the things that matter most, says Morgenstern. “When you are overscheduled, you have no time to reflect on your priorities and your to-do lists, and you very easily get caught up in — and spend an enormous amount of time on — things that are not necessarily important.”
Moving away from this sort of “what next?” reactivity is the first step to creating a manageable schedule. That means taking time to reflect on which tasks you really need to accomplish now, and which can wait or be dropped entirely. Once you prioritize things, here are some additional tips for taking control of your schedule:
Build in buffer zones. When you’re scheduling an activity or a deadline, pencil in a “buffer zone” — say, 15 to 30 minutes before and after each significant task — rather than scheduling items back-to-back. Including buffer zones serves a number of functions: First, it builds in the breaks you need to be effective and acknowledges the reality that virtually all tasks require some kind of mental and physical transition time. Second, it helps you tend to unexpected items that crop up during the day, including various tasks (such as filing, phone calls, schedule changes, travel time or conversations) that are attached to most efforts. Meetings, in particular, tend to involve both preparatory and subsequent tasks, and creating a zone of time to accommodate those demands keeps them from contributing to a full-blown cascade of lateness.
Know when you work best. Everyone has peak times of energy, creativity and mental focus — and at times those resources lag. Pay attention to this ebb and flow and schedule your commitments accordingly: Plan to accomplish demanding tasks when you’re likely to be charged up; the least important or challenging when you’re more likely to have low energy or needing some kind of break. Working with your natural energy patterns will allow you to accomplish more in less time, and with less effort.
Understand your limits. Most of us don’t know how long it actually takes to complete routine tasks during our day, and as a result we have no clue about how much time to allot to various activities. Morgenstern suggests timing yourself doing the same task (such as creating a meeting agenda or sending a memo) on three different occasions and then determining the average. That number will give you a good guideline to follow when making similar future time commitments. Alternatively, you can start by doubling the amount of time you think something “should” take. This will probably get you close to the actual time requirement, and you can always use any leftover time to get a head start on your next task. Finally, avoid scheduling more than one ultra-demanding task for the same day. It’s a recipe for exhaustion and anxiety.
Harness the power of technology. Turn off your phone ringer and email-alert beeps, and close down any social networking or instant-messaging tools before you begin your work session. Set a timer on your computer, desk clock or watch to alert you when your allotted time is almost up. If you see that you are running significantly behind as your day’s agenda progresses, proactively reschedule or delegate any items that can’t realistically be accomplished within the confines of your current schedule.
Fight the urge to multitask. Performance psychologist Jim Loehr, EdD, author of The Power of Story: Change Your Story, Change Your Destiny in Business and in Life (Free Press, 2008), says multitasking is not the productivity maximizer many think it is. In fact, he says, it works against effective time use. “People get the sense — because there is so much on their plate — that they have to be able to do a number of things simultaneously,” Loehr explains. “But the energy signal in a human’s focusing system is binary. You are either focused or you are not. If you have 10 balls in the air, nine of them are in free fall.”
Honor the priority of the moment. As an extension of the multitasking wisdom above, designate specific hours for work, family and self-care, and don’t let them bleed into each other. Writing staff performance reviews or answering emails while trying to interact with someone you love doesn’t give either commitment the attention it deserves. Worse, it will likely leave everyone involved feeling both frazzled and frustrated, creating a negative domino effect on the activities and interactions that follow.
A Friendlier Schedule
Arreola’s migraines ultimately convinced her to rightsize her schedule. In addition to limiting her after-work obligations to two big commitments per week, she has begun leaving her work at the office more often. “At home I try to limit time on the Internet or my smartphone because otherwise I will constantly check email,” she says.
She is also trying to become more attuned to her body’s signals. “The migraines raised the ante,” she admits. “Now, if I don’t listen to my body, there’s a bigger consequence.”
Both by choice and necessity, Arreola still puts a real priority on getting things done. But she’s learned the hard way that overscheduling works against her productivity and personal effectiveness. So she uses an interactive online calendar to remind herself when to switch gears, when to take breaks and when to switch the computer off altogether. And she takes the scheduling of her self-care activities and downtime as seriously as she does her professional demands. “If I am making time for a board meeting or some other obligation, then I know I can make time to go to yoga,” she says.
The net effect is that she’s healthier, less harried and more satisfied with her daily accomplishments. And rather than lamenting that she can’t possibly get everything done, Arreola is taking comfort in the fact that she’s doing the things that matter most — and getting better results from her efforts across the board.