A book about time management crossed my desk some years ago. It had all the usual advice - check emails at set times, eliminate unnecessary meetings, schedule difficult tasks first thing. The reason I remember it is for one of the more unusual tips I've read. It suggested, 'You should wear a wig. Think of all the time you will save washing and styling your hair.'
Indeed. I have coached many people since then, and while most have managed fantastically busy schedules, they have done so without wearing a wig to save time*. I'm pretty sure business stars like Bill Gates or Sheryl Sandberg have never succumbed to one for that reason either.
Thankfully, there's a new wave of advice focusing less on 'saving' time, and more on rethinking what you're doing with the time you have, and why. Tim Urban at waitbutwhy.com has mapped out pictorially exactly how many days, weeks, years and decades we have if we live to 90 years old (be warned, it fits on one page). He then suggests how you might use that knowledge to allocate your time on both a small and a grand scale. It might lead you to make some far-reaching changes.
On TED, speaker Laura Vanderkam suggests we schedule our priorities ahead of anything else. In her words, 'when we focus on what matters, we can build the lives we want in the time we've got.'
This plays neatly into the 'Urgency vs Importance' matrix. We spend most of our time in either the 'Urgent, non-important' quadrant or the 'Non-important, non-urgent' ('Insta & Netflix') quadrant. Where we should spend more time is the 'Important, non-urgent' quadrant.
Unfortunately, this quadrant is where a lot of life-critical material hangs out. It's where you'll find 'change career', 'become a better leader', 'spend more time with my parents/kids/partner' and 'sort out my pension'. (I didn't say it was all interesting.)
If you want to make better use of your time, start here, with the bigger picture. In a year's time, what do you want to have changed in your work and personal life? What do you want to have learnt?
Now look at your time use. What are you doing or not doing that stops you achieving your goals? Are you doing the right things with your time, or just the things you like or are comfortable with? This raises two additional questions. The first: if you're busy, but not with anything that contributes to your longer-term plan, do you really need to do it? Beyond essential tasks, what could you delegate or ditch?
The second question: if you have time, but you're not spending it where you need to, why is that? Perhaps you're scared to take the next steps towards your goals, or you don't know how to proceed, or you're not sure it's the right goal after all. Take time now to address these.
A final question. What do you, me, and the business leaders of each of MT's cover interviews have in common? Every one of us has 168 hours a week. What's different is how we choose to use them.
*If however you have worn a wig to save time, with life-changing results, please do let me know.
Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @_coachingstudio