I feel I have no breathing space to plan ahead, but am constantly fire-fighting in the here and now. How can I manage my time better and more efficiently?
A: In the Western world, one of our greatest shortages is time. Most of us spend much of our working and personal lives feeling rushed and wishing we had more time to do things properly and to get round to things that would bring us pleasure. The bad news is that this is a state of affairs that is unlikely to change; in fact, it has become enshrined in our culture, where being busy is associated with virtue and success.
Always feeling rushed and unable to complete tasks to our own satisfaction can have a debilitating effect, making it hard to gain pleasure in the present, so worried are we by the next thing on the agenda. And thinking of all the things we haven't done makes us feel depressed.
It's unlikely that your current state of over-activity will abate, unless fate delivers a period of forced inactivity - and that's not something to be devoutly wished for. There are several options in tackling this issue, as well as the one you suggest: becoming more efficient with your use of time. One is to learn to care less about not always achieving your usual high standards. However, I suspect you are hard-wired for perfectionism, so this is only theoretically an option.
Another possibility is to do fewer things better, to meet your own quality criteria. This usually involves saying no to people at work and at home, although it won't be good for your career or your personal relationships if you limit your engagement to the tasks and activities you know you can handle to your own satisfaction.
A further complication is that the world, and management textbooks in particular, continually exhort us to excellence. 'The good is the enemy of the great', we are told, in a misquotation from Voltaire, which suggests that doing our best is not good enough. Though there is much to commend Jim Collins' Good to Great and other books in the same vein, they up the ante in terms of making us dissatisfied with our own performance.
I'm not immune to these feelings myself, so it was with some relief and interest that I recently read of the work of Herbert A Simon, a Nobel prize-winning economist, who in 1957 introduced the notion of satisficing.
By this he meant making a choice that is both satisfactory and sufficient to meet the needs of the situation without necessarily being the best of all possible options. He linked this term to two others: optimising and maximising, the first concerned with achieving the best outcome from a given situation and the second achieving the most, be it the highest quality or the top price. You choose which of these three strategies best fits the circumstances.
Try applying this to your current tasks and roles, evaluating each one and allocating it to one of the three columns. You'll probably find some things that you seek to maximise that could, without detriment to you or others, be moved to the satisficing column - so doing them 'well enough' is fine. Others will need to remain in the maximising list: it's important to you and the people you are doing the task for that your output is of the highest quality, and you need to save your energies to enable you to do that. For some tasks it's not simply a matter of quality: other factors such as relationships and your own needs and feelings have to be taken into account.
The underlying principles relate to value-based time management, an approach I've used for some time. For example, I've come to terms with the fact that I am a great cook but a lousy cleaner; I've found someone else who gains satisfaction from doing my cleaning. I could pay her more and maximise the cleanliness of my house, but I choose to optimise instead, establishing a balance between cost and result.
Of course, there are always things you can do to use your time more efficiently - such as finding your golden time (the hours when you're at your most productive), ring-fencing it with the co-operation of others and using it to plan and to tackle longer-term issues; delegating more; taking on only the things where you can personally add the most value, and so on.
But these make sense only when you determine your priorities in your professional and personal life and start managing your time to reflect them.
Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org