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How to deal with stress: time management

Written by Toni Vanhala (6 Jun 2018)

Have you ever been overwhelmed by work and everyday chores? So was I, before I found peace of mind with these effective time management methods.

I act as the Development Lead for Headsted UK, work as a software consultant in my day job, and do my part in taking care of our household with four kids. I renovate our home, fix our family car, do the laundry, and handle many small everyday chores. I took the helm of our Finnish business development as the CEO of Headsted Finland this week. Recently, people have started to ask me how I manage all of this. Well, I struggled with time management some years ago. I was lucky to find some effective practices that work well for me.

Not a big deal, really.

I'm not going to prescribe a system that you must religiously follow. I will share the personal experience that I've gained by studying several time management frameworks, tips and tricks, and experimenting with them in my own life. But what worked for me may not work in the same way for you. You must try them out for yourself, and adapt them to fit your own unique life circumstances.

One size does not fit all

There are no silver bullets for time management. General suggestions work only to some extent, as putting them into practise involves all the complexities of our everyday life and personal qualities. In particular, identifying and building on your strengths, you can do stuff you're already good at, achieving things from the get-go, instead of wasting time learning something that does not come naturally to you.

I think the single best tool for me to identify my own strengths was StrengthsFinder 2.0, now called CliftonStrengths. After answering a barrage of fast-shooting questions, I was presented with some things I tend to be good at. I'm extremely good at focusing on something, and completely ignoring everything else. My wife would agree.

Sharp and focused.

This lazer-sharp Focus, combined with a relentless drive to Achieve things, means that I tend to get stuff done, but break or neglect things while getting there. Time-management-wise, I can only pick up one thing at a time, and need to be extra careful to check that I've taken everything important into account. When working in a team, I also need to spend considerable effort to keep in mind that we should reflect on what we have done and achieved, even celebrate a little, before I run off to Achieve the next thing.

The religion of time management

I've heard many consultants and life coaches burst with advice for time management. Much of this advice borrows from the very worst practices of traditional project management. Sometimes they focus on microscopic details, verging on productivity porn. Often it is dressed up in the form of a matrix, the go-to tool for every consultant. "Let's make a SWOT analysis of your schedule for this week!" Or, here's an idea: let's not.

Some years ago I found myself in a formal management position for the first time. At the same time, I took the role of project manager of a large, million-plus euros, R&D project. Many of us managers had challenges with our own schedule and stress management: we had killer deadlines, and didn't have time to plan how to start planning our schedule. I had great expectations for the leadership training, which promised to provide practical advice for time management. I was sorely disappointed when the Eisenhower matrix was introduced.

Military-grade time management.

There are a few major problems when you try to apply the Matrix in real life. When I started to fill it out, all my tasks clustered in the upper right corner: urgent and important! When you have acute issues with time management, that's how you perceive things. The exact same issue raised its ugly head when I asked a team to fill it out for their project.

A much more significant problem, however, is that it is very tempting to focus on your most urgent work-related tasks, and leave out things that are pleasant and enjoyable. Spending time with your family does not have an explicit deadline, but I for one prefer a life where I can enjoy doing things that are not absolutely necessary.

Well then, what does work? I've found out that time management frameworks in general are too strict for me. They're like diets that you only manage to make last for a few weeks, when you are still engaged and excited. After that the whole framework crashes, as it's built of components that all depend on each other. My own personal system is made of independent components that support each other, and that I've adapted to fit my personality, limitations, and life constraints.

Accept the inconvenient truth

You won't have time to do everything. I used to joke with my peers that we would need an extra hour each day, or an extra day per week, and everything would be fine. It was our way to avoid facing the truth: we will always have too little time.

Having too little time has two unavoidable implications: you must choose what to do and you need to leave some tasks unfinished. The choices may not be easy, but they are necessary. I have given up video gaming to pursue more satisfying and meaningful goals in my life. However, it is not easy, as video gaming, Netflix binging, and arguing on the internet all serve some purpose, be it relaxation or self-flagellation. You need to learn to let some of those things go, if you want to take up something else. If you want to learn the bagpipes, you need to give up your hours-long TV marathons.

You’ll also need to give up friends, a peaceful neighbourhood, and Music.

Second, you cannot finish everything at once. You must learn to live your life, where many things are in perpetual state of slow progress. Some of them won't ever be finished, but they keep on evolving. Instead of trying to finish and perfect everything in your own chamber, toss your ideas to the open. Let others tear them apart early on: show your unfinished Excel sheet to colleagues, and ask for feedback on your finger-painting of Mr. Trump. The ugly and the imperfect may serve as conversation starters. Bad is sometimes good enough.

Find the stuff that matters

Our old friend, the todo list is still as relevant as ever. Write down all the things that matter. The most important ones should make their way there quite easily. These are the things that Mr. Eisenhower wants you to focus on. Put your list in a safe place, so that you can look it up anywhere and at any time. I personally prefer to use Trello, which I can use both at my computer and on the move with my phone. Whenever a task pops into your head, write it down on your list, and out of your mind. When every important task is on the list, you won't need to worry about remembering them. The resulting peace of mind is something that you need to experience yourself.

Now that you’ve mastered the top half of the Eisenhower Matrix, make a new list about the things that matter to you. Write down things that you want to achieve, add, or keep in your life. Don't put them on the lower half of the Matrix, left to be until all the more important stuff is taken care of. It won't ever happen. Spend some time instead, looking at the next small steps that can get you closer to things that feel meaningful to you personally.

Of course, identifying the things that are personally meaningful is not an easy task, especially if you've not had a chat with yourself in a while. There are several effective methods for exploring what is valuable and meaningful to you. The online programmes of Headsted all contain psychological exercises for this very purpose. For example, you can imagine a future where you have lived a long and good life. What were the highlights of your life? What could you have done differently? What are the important aspects that you can identify and bring to your daily life, here and now?

As another example, I have personally used a more mechanical approach of listing 100 possible goals. Every goal is something that I have dreamed of or wanted to do at some point in my life. It takes me several days to come up with a hundred goals. When I have reached hundred, I go through each one and compare it to the 99 others. Which one would I want more, get a black belt in Judo, or swim in a hole in the ice? After going through every one of the 100 goals, I have all of them sorted. I pick up the first five, the most meaningful to me, and put them on my task list. The next ten goals I put on another list, my not-to-do list. This list reminds me to focus and follow through on the most important ones, and not to get distracted by too many things at once.

Here are my personal todo lists in Trello. I have split them into different contexts, like when I’m at the computer.

Tame the email

Email can easily be a cause of stress. I'm not talking about the content of those messages, but the sheer amount of them. I used to have thousands of them. In my current day-to-day life, I have three email accounts, but I keep all of my inboxes empty. It's not difficult to do, when you make a habit of processing every email as soon as they land in your incoming folder.

Have you seen this in Gmail? You should.

I have a simple process that I follow:

  • If the email requires an action that takes less than two minutes, I do it right away.
  • If the email does not require an action, I either file it, or delete it (99% of emails).
  • If the email requires an action, which I cannot do right at the moment, I put it on my todo list.

Should you decide to follow my example and process all your accumulated email debris, you may want to reserve some time to do it. It took me more than two working days to process the thousands of messages I had stashed over the years.

Flexibility is the key

In software development projects, it has been long clear that "accurate estimate" is an oxymoron. Nevertheless, many time management consultants think that time management, or a major part of it, involves fine-grained scheduling. Not true! In fact, I think effective time management calls for a very flexible schedule.

If you were to carefully schedule everything, you would first need to accurately estimate every task. For trivial and simple tasks you might do well and make pretty ok estimates. For most tasks, you are doomed to fail.

Stop making estimates! Just do things that are on your list. Be flexible in choosing the task to work on. David Allen’s Getting Things Done framework gives good practical advice on what you should consider in this process:

  • the context, for example, can you use a computer, is it peaceful enough for a phone call, etc.
  • time that you can spend uninterrupted
  • your own level of energy
  • how important and urgent each task is

I would add that you should be ready to quit or switch tasks, if you notice that something - like your diminishing energy level - is stopping or slowing you down.

Now, when you have worked on the task, it will be much easier to figure out how long it will take to finish it. You have hard data and numbers that you can use, instead of vague estimates of each task.

Working against deadlines

Some things must be done before it's too late. Most times I take care of the important things without keeping my eye on the clock. After all, if they're important, focusing on them comes naturally. However, I do mark the hard deadlines into my calendar, and I heartily recommend it. Deadlines and meetings are the two things that you should put into your calendar. Other things, that are not time-bound, don’t belong in there.

When deadlines are approaching and there's little time to do them, I take time boxing into use. I write down a strict time slot for each task, and move on to the next one, even if the task is left incomplete. I've noticed that this has three effects: 1) I won't strive for perfection, 2) all the tasks progress at least a little bit, and 3) I find out which tasks are the hardest and require more time. All of these can help me to manage expectations with customers and colleagues; I won't be lying when I say: "I'm working on it!"

Get to work!

I managed to get a hold on my own schedule with these simple methods. Is my time management now perfect? “Of course not,” he said, writing this blog post at 5 am. You should not strive for perfection in any part of your life. Will the same methods work for you? Maybe, but you'll need to figure some parts for yourself. We all have our own life circumstances, personality, and challenges for scheduling. You should adapt the methods to fit your needs.

In any case, I urge you to try out some method for yourself. If your current ways to manage your work and schedules are stressing you out, how much have you got to lose, really? Start with small steps and be flexible. Try something else, if it doesn't work for you. On the other hand, don't expect a sudden improvement. You've been accumulating both good and less beneficial habits for a long time. Changes can't happen in the blink of an eye.

Note that tight schedules and work pressure are just a couple of factors that contribute to stress. How you perceive and handle stress contributes a lot to your mental wellbeing. I will discuss more about the causes of stress in later blog posts, as well as give some advice for handling them. Anyone in the UK or in Finland can benefit from our Shift Your Stress online programme, which teaches effective, evidence-based, ways to cope with your workload and to relieve stress.

Shift Your Stress is available through selected IAPT providers, through some employers, or directly from us. If you are interested to gain access, or would like to offer it to your customers or employees, please contact us.