Making Time for Life: Strategies for Cutting the Time Crunch

In today’s “had-to-have-it-done-yesterday” world, our lives seem to have become little more than a multitude of tasks strung together by a lack of opportunity. We always say, “If only I had more time,” – time for visiting with relatives, time for interacting with our kids, or time to just generally relax and rid ourselves of some excess stress. We worry about falling behind, leaving things out, or running late. Time has become a more closely monitored investment than most of our bank accounts, and just like money, we sometimes end up spending more than we have.

If you’re one of those unfortunate people who can’t seem to find the time, perhaps your problem is related to poor time management. When I was in high school, one of the classes we were compelled to take was a boring little lecture called study skills. Although I didn’t learn much from that class that I hadn’t already learned somewhere else, one of the things it did teach me was how to manage my time better. I learned early on that planning my study time was really no different than planning any other activity, and the things I learned about time management could be applied to nearly every task. Although I still run short of time occasionally, it happens to me far less frequently than it does to my friends, and I generally worry less about deadlines, overdue bills, housework, and being late. All it takes is a little planning ahead.

Learning to Manage Time

Of course, the first step to ending the constant time crunch is learning to prioritize. When you’re on a tight schedule, the last thing you want to do is spend precious minutes on a task that could have waited until later while a more pressing task gets left until the last minute. You also don’t want to have to rush through a task. Hurrying through a chore may seem like you’re saving time, but in reality, it can actually take longer. You may forget things or not be prepared, which costs more time in the end because you may have to backtrack or even start over. Here’s how not to let time be the manager of your life.

Lists, Lists, and More Lists

Everyone at some time has made a grocery list or a list of things to pack for a trip. Having a list gives you a point of reference and helps to reduce the stress of leaving things out. The idea of a list works equally well when it comes to other chores, like cleaning the house. Most of us don’t have the luxury of being a housewife who has most of the day to devote to things like cleaning, so we have to learn how to integrate household chores into what little time we have between work, school, our kids, and everything else. The list is a good tool for getting runaway chores under control.

If you have a big mound of work to do, make a list starting with the most important items and ending with the least important. That way, the things that have to be done will get done first, while the things that can wait will get done when their time comes. Place the list in a prominent place, like on the refrigerator or taped to the bathroom mirror. That way, every time you walk by it, you’ll be reminded that you have things to do and you’ll spend less time trying to figure out what comes next. I like to write my lists with all capital letters in red magic marker so that they can be seen from a distance, and I draw a box next to each entry so that I can check off the things I’ve already done. It may sound childish, but making a list this way gives me the advantage of being able to see what needs to be done compared to what I’ve already done, even from across the room.

Another form of the list is the infamous “job jar”, which is basically a list with each entry written on a separate piece of paper. Chores are chosen at random rather than done in order, which is fine for big jobs like home repairs, but smaller jobs like laundry can get ignored if their slip gets shaken to the bottom of the jar. The “honey-do” list is also effective, but keep in mind that jobs need to be prioritized. Don’t put something like replacing a window higher up on the list than, say, washing the car, especially if time is an issue.

The nice thing about a list is that as you go about your day, you’ll discover that a few random minutes of free time can result in your ability to take two or three things off your list. Before you know it, your list is done.

The Art of Multi-tasking

Lists are good for keeping track of what needs to be done, but sometimes even the list can grow to be out of hand. When that happens, take a look at the things on your list and see which chores can be grouped together. Is walking the dog on your list? Why not pick up the mail or take out the trash while you’re out there? Lumping similar chores in groups can help cut down on the number of tasks it takes to get the job done. I like to organize my inside chores by room. If I’m going to be in the kitchen doing dishes, then why not clean the leftovers out of the fridge while I’m there? Outdoor chores can be handled in the same way. Washing the car today? Water the flowers at the same time by laying the unused hose over in the flower bed, or maybe wash the dog while you’re waiting to wax the car. Need to mow the lawn? If you use a ride-on mower, you can fertilize and dethatch at the same time with a simple tow-behind rig made from an old dethatching rake, some weights, and a couple of old milk jugs. I do this a lot, which I’m sure tickles my neighbors, but my back-woods inventiveness means that in the end, I spend less time working, and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

One of the biggest places where people waste time is while they’re on the phone. Corded phones were notorious for tying us to the wall, but today’s cordless models give us the freedom to do other things while we talk. Take advantage of this freedom and put your multi-tasking skills to good use. Choose chores that don’t make a lot of noise, like dusting the furniture or sweeping the floor. I’ve found that in the course of a typical conversation with my mother, I can usually wash the dishes, fold the laundry, and make the bed. By the time I’ve hung up the phone, I’ve already taken three items off my list and my mother was none the wiser.

Getting Organized

Another way people lose time is through a lack of organization. I have a friend who is habitually late paying on her credit card. The problem is not a lack of funds, it’s a lack of organization. When the bill comes, it’s thrown into a pile with a lot of other papers on her desk and mostly forgotten about until two or three days before it’s due. Then, when the time comes, it never fails that the bill’s been lost or there’s no envelopes or she can’t find a stamp. A tiny amount of organization would almost completely put a stop to this drain on her credit score, and all it takes is a few extra minutes.

When the bills come, don’t throw them in a drawer or into an unorganized pile and leave them there. Use an accordion file. Put the most pressing bills in the front and the ones that can wait in the back. Try labeling the pockets with phrases like “Due Now” or “Due in two weeks” to help you keep track of what’s important. If you’re a procrastinator like my husband and this doesn’t help, maybe you should think about signing up for automatic bill pay. Then you won’t have to worry about keeping up with a paper receipt or finding a stamp at two in the morning. You’ll just have to be sure that there’s enough money in your account when the bill comes due. If your bill is due on the same day every month, already have the check ready before the bill ever comes. You can simply turn around and put it back in the mailbox.

Having a designated place to conduct business like bill paying is helpful as well. Keep everything you might need, like envelopes, pens, stamps, and extra checks, right there within the work space so there’s no time wasted searching for items. Keep a calendar handy so you can see at a glance when things are due. I like the large desk kind that doubles as a scratch pad. It has enough space to write in important reminders about deadlines and due dates while keeping my spilled coffee from ruining my desk top. Invest in an inexpensive office calculator for chores like planning your monthly budget or balancing your checkbook. An old adding machine with the roll of paper attached is great for this. The paper tape acts like a record of your calculations, and saving these tapes can help you keep track of changes in your expenses from month to month. Being able to see fluctuations in your spending habits can help you plan ahead, which will save you hours of time in the end.

The same theory can be applied to the entire house. Try keeping the supplies you use to clean the bathroom in a cabinet or drawer in the bathroom itself. You’ll be more likely to clean up a small mess when it happens because the tools to do the job will be handy, and it won’t get left to become a much larger mess later. Store extra trash bags in the bottom of the trash can, underneath the bag you’re currently using. When one gets full, just take it out and pull up a new bag. Keep cleaning tools that go together in the same place, preferably, close to the place where you use them the most. I like using buckets for this job, because they’re easy to store and usually come with a handle to make them easy to carry. Put bathroom items in one bucket, kitchen items in another, and so on, and label them accordingly. In a pinch, you can just grab the appropiriate bucket rather than waste time searching for supplies. This strategy also helps if you have children who assist with the daily chores. Everything they need will be right there, and you won’t have to waste extra time helping them get their supplies together.

Having good organizational skills is the biggest factor in overcoming the eternal time crunch. Organization is the backbone of efficiency, and something that’s efficient will always save time.

Seeing the Unforseen

Another reason why people find themselves short of time is that they don’t allow themselves extra time to compensate for the unforseen. Let’s say that you need to walk the dog before you leave for work, which usually takes around fifteen minutes. On this particular day, your dog sees a squirrel and runs off after it, leaving you chasing him for twenty minutes. By the time he comes back, you’re running late. Or let’s say that on your way to work, you come across an accident and have to choose a detour that takes you ten minutes out of your way – leaving you running late again. Preventing this from happening is as easy as allowing yourself extra time.

Always give yourself at least thirty extra minutes. That way, if anything does go wrong, you won’t be left trying to catch up. Keep a clock in every room in the house, even the bathroom, so you won’t assume that you have more time than you really do. Also, try to make sure that all of your clocks have the same time, and if you can, set them to your timeclock at work. That way, you’ll be running on the same schedule as your boss. My husband likes to set his clock thirty minutes fast, but I’ve found that after a while, this ceases to help because you know that the clock is fast and will unconsciously compensate for it. And don’t spend your extra thirty minutes right off the bat by watching the weather channel or checking your e-mail. Save those activities for last, when you’ll have a better estimate of how much free time you have.

Also, take a look at your morning routine and try to discard those activities that are either unneccessary or could wait until later. Do you really have to check your e-mail as soon as you wake up? Do you really need that second cup of coffee? Try to condense your routine as much as possible to eliminate that feeling of being constantly rushed, and keep your estimates of how much time you need as realistic as possible. If you’re still pressed for time, then try to accomplish part of your morning routine ahead of time. Use a coffee maker with a self-timer to save yourself ten minutes of stumbling around half asleep making coffee. Lay your clothes out the night before so that you don’t waste time trying to decide what to wear. Make sure your briefcase or backpack is packed and ready to go. If you have kids, the same theory applies to lunchboxes and book bags. Put your briefcase or backpack by the door so that all you have to do is pick it up on your way out. I even take the extra step and leave my shoes and umbrella by the door as well. That way, I always know where they are and don’t have to waste time looking for them.

Conclusions

As you can see, saving yourself time is as simple as using a little common sense. Keep your routines simple, try to stay organized, and plan ahead to avoid delays caused by minor setbacks. Set yourself a schedule and stick to it, but don’t come unglued if things don’t go exactly as planned. Eliminating that rushed feeling from your life can help lower your stress level and generally leave you in a better mood with more time to devote to the things you want to do instead of the things you have to do.

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