There are 24 hours in a day. 1,440 minutes. Which at first seems like a lot, but dwindles with every passing second as you race to accomplish as much as possible before the sun sets. And it’s not just work. There’s always something else to do, whether it’s finishing assignments, honing your passion project, spending time with your family or just taking care of yourself by getting enough sleep.
Finding the time for everything is a struggle we can all identify with, from full-time office workers to freelancers to stay at home parents. And though the activities that fill our lives are different, we all need the same skills to make the most of our time. If you want to make every moment count, include these eight things. Because this is your life, it’s worth your time.
1. Make a task sheet.
Before GPS, plotting your path on a map was essential for long excursions. The road of life is no different (and we’re still waiting on GPS for it). It’s important to know where you’re going and, if you get lost, how to get back to the trail. An itemized to-do list is your map that can make all the difference.
I like create my list on Sunday night, right before the week starts. I’m at my most relaxed and refreshed, so it’s easier to take stock of what’s coming up and prioritize. For extra preparedness points, try splitting it up into sections that cover daily, weekly, or even yearly goals and projects. Of course, things will come up that weren’t on your list, but you’ll find that planning for known quantities in advance makes it easier and less stressful to deal with the unknowns.
Know where you’re headed, and every day can be another productive mile along the road to your ultimate destination.
2. Wake up early.
It may sound like a drag, but hear me out. Rising early gives you the opportunity to plan out your day, which helps reduce stress – and if you realize you’re going to be busier than you bargained for, you can use some of the time you’ve gained to complete your tasks. Having that head start puts you in control and gives you the time and freedom to stay ahead of the curve.
But even if you aren’t looking at your task sheet, having that extra time in the morning to pull yourself together is incredibly helpful. Athletes need to warm up their bodies, and your mind is no different. Give your brain something enjoyable but engaging to warm up with, whether it’s reading the news or just doing a few breathing exercises. That little bit of “you time” is just as important as what you’re doing for others later. And you’ll be thankful you took that time for yourself.
3. Work with people.
Life is collaborative. Being alone too much, or being surrounded by the wrong type of people, can distract you from your goals. To maximize your time, it’s crucial to spend some every day connecting to people that bring out the best in you. For full-time workers, this can mean seeking out the right group of people in your office, or sometimes, a new job. For full-time moms and dads, this might mean finding a club or group to participate in. In both cases, any time you lose to socializing is made up in the energy you’ll gain from building positive relationships with your friends, yourself and your goals.
For freelancers, this is a trickier balancing act. Working from home means no commute and little overhead, but it can waste your time in more insidious ways. When you combine your personal space with your professional space, you may find that the temptation to “work” on Netflix is too strong, or that you aren’t using your time effectively because you feel like you’re always at the office. Instead, consider going to a co-working space, coffee shop, library or any other setting where where you can surround yourself with friendly faces.
Being around people keeps you accountable, and there’s nothing like an interesting conversation to get your mental gears turning again when you get stuck – the biggest time-suck of all.
4. Give yourself something to work toward.
Goals like paying your rent and electric bill are fine, but they aren’t exactly inspirational. If you’ve started dragging your feet on a certain task because it feels like a chore, try orienting it towards something you want. Setting a reward or prize that you can earn through your efforts will make what you’re doing feel more like it matters — and having something tangible to prove it goes a long way.
This can be anything — finish your work before 5PM all week, and treat yourself to your favorite dinner on Friday. Get your spring cleaning done and reward yourself with a trip to the salon. Finish that novel you’ve been telling your friends and family about for years, and maybe you’ll finally earn that video game you’ve been dying to play.
Special goals should yield special results, but you can use this trick to maintain and build motivation for just about anything. Figure out what’s important to you, and what you’re willing to do for it. For me, celebration comes in signing up for a tri-state sprint. That may not seem like a reward, but…
5. Exercise, exercise, exercise.
Most people claim to be too busy for exercise, but making just 10 minutes a day for your body’s well-being can reduce stress boost your brain power. According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, working out offers an energy boost, builds your immune system, increases your physical and mental stamina and yes, it can help with those extra pounds, too.
But what’s the biggest benefit of exercise from the perspective of time management? The added structure is important, as is the burst of adrenaline that can propel you through the rest of your day. But above all, working your body clears and focuses your mind. It’s one way to find your Zen, which is critical if you want to stay productive.
6. Find your Zen.
We all work hard, and we often get so wrapped up in how busy we are that we lose track of the point of it. Reflection and contemplation can offer both relaxation and insight, getting you attuned to where you are and what you need to move forward, but it often feels impossible to find in the daily grind. That’s why it’s important to pull away from the chaos to find your Zen — to meditate, however you define it.
Because meditation is not restricted to closing your eyes and crossing your legs on the floor. The key to every relationship is communication, and the same is especially true when it comes to connecting with your body and mind. Some people start their days with stretching or yoga; others wind down by sitting in a quiet place and focusing on their breath. For me, concentrating on this simple but strenuous task grants me mental clarity with every stride, freeing me from my worries and responsibilities. It allows my mind the space and rest to make better decisions, and keeps my body tough enough to tackle any challenge.
7. Know when to call it a day…
When I said there are 24 hours in a day, I hope you remembered that eight of those hours should be spent sleeping. But those aren’t the only restful moments you should have. After a certain point, you will reach your limit. And that’s okay — you’re human. Where your limit falls differs for everyone, but what it is never changes: it’s that point at which your critical decision making has become worn out and you need to step back. You have to know yourself well to intuit when you’ve reached that point, which is why it’s important to find your Zen. But sometimes, as Zen as you may be, you just can’t know what you have and what needs doing until you’ve stepped away.
I cannot stress how important this is – DO NOT burn yourself out in the pursuit of productivity. It is tempting to keep pushing past your limit, but you risk damaging all the good work you accomplished previously and make more for yourself tomorrow. Learn to recognize when you have reached the end of your day, and if you’re not sure, follow the lead of those you’ve surrounded yourself with.
8. …and when not to.
Every rule needs an exception, and the addendum to the above rule is that sometimes, you need to push past your limits. Keeping too rigid of a schedule can be problematic. If you allow your limitations to define you, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to push and improve. Sometimes, you need to run that extra mile, if only to prove to yourself that you can.
If you’re asking yourself, “Can I do more?”, take an hour long break and step away. If upon returning, you’re still going in circles, it was probably best you stopped when you did. But if you find you’re raring to go that extra mile, then go for it. Just make sure to save extra copies of your work – that way you won’t lose your progress in case you’re more fried that you think. Ultimately, this one is up to you. Do right by yourself, and when in doubt, see step 5 and come back to it later.
Trying to be efficient with your time, treating it as the treasure you know it is, can be a lot of pressure. It can be tempting to obsess. But that is the opposite of being efficient with your time.
Above all, be kind to yourself. The road is ahead of you, and making every hour, every minute, every second count means continuing to move forward. Some days you may travel miles. Others only a few feet. But before you know it, the day is over, the drive at its end. And where you’ve ended up…
That’s what makes it worth it.