Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 350,000 monthly readers and more than 87,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

You’re busy. I get it.

But what can we do about it?

What would you do if your schedule suddenly opened up and we found we have more time? I bet you’d reply with read, travel, and maybe even sleep. Some of you would want to organize the drawers, clean off your desk, or simply watch a movie.

So where is the time for that on your schedule?

Terry Monaghan is a self-described productivity expert whom we meet in Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

Terry Monaghan’s approach to time management is simple: You can’t manage time. Time never changes. There will always and ever be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize, she said, is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need, want, or should do. “When we die, the e-mail in-box will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t,” she tells us. “Eighty percent of the e-mail that comes in is crap anyway, and it takes you the equivalent of nineteen and a half weeks a year just to sort through. Eighty percent of your to-do list is crap. Look, the stuff of life never ends. That is life. You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing.”

Start with what’s important.

But everything is important you say? Everything seems important: work, family, friends, community, taking out the trash, paying bills, getting the oil changed, fighting the relentless torrent of clutter …

If everything is important you might be trying to do everything all at once. A “fusion lover,” as Ellen Ernst Kossek would call it in her book CEO of Me. Kossek describes how some people seem to thrive on multitasking, which we know is an illusion at best.

You know these people, they are the ones replying to work emails while at the kids’ soccer game or calling the day care provider to check in. But there is another layer to this, and that is the people who can’t decide what’s most pressing – they can’t focus on anything because they are driven to do everything. These people end up doing both work and home activities in a halfhearted way. This results in mediocre outcomes.

Time management gurus talk about clearing away any nagging “internal friction” that erodes the willpower and clouds the thinking before one can take off to superproductive heights. But honestly, in living in a stew of ambivalence and self-doubt, crashing between the impossible pulls of the ideal worker and ideal mother, “internal friction” doesn’t even begin to cover what’s going on inside.

Indecision about what is important and what is not important is like putting our life on hold. We pursue both what we want and what we do not.

Psychologists say that ambivalence is, literally, being of two minds. In their labs, they have found that that nebulous feeling is far more uncomfortable and stressful on the body and mind than either embracing one position over another or merely being neutral. But the discomfort of the ambivalent soul becomes unbearable if we are forced to make a choice. In constant battle with yourself, you fight, not to truce but to a stalemate. There is no clear victor, no end in sight. It’s like living life on hold. We distract ourselves from this uneasy internal landscape with busyness, with the bustle of our to-do lists. To be ambivalent, say the psychotherapists David Hartman and Diane Zimberoff, is to be preoccupied with both what is wanted and what is not. “The opposite of ambivalence is a rigid intolerance for ambiguity, nuance or paradox,” they write. “The synthesis of the two is ‘passionate commitment in the face of ambiguity.’”

In response to this, Schulte realized:

I would never be able to schedule my way efficiently out of the overwhelm. I had to face my own ambivalence about trying to live two clashing ideals at once. There would never be enough room in a day for both. As I had been on this quest to understand the overwhelm and the way out, I watched helplessly as Jeff, one of our best friends, died suddenly and inexplicably of stomach cancer. Life is so fragile. I simply couldn’t wait, like so many people clucked, until the kids were grown and gone and the madness was over to live my best life. … I may not have the time.

***

But you feel overwhelmed? This comes from unrealistic expectations. When we fail to meet our lofty goals for ourselves we think “we’re doing something wrong,” rather than challenge the assumptions.

Managing the overwhelm … comes down to knowing the underlying story that’s driving those unrealistic expectations.

***

So what can we do about this? How can we figure out our “shreds of far-flung time confetti” and package it into something useful, something meaningful? Something that allows us to live a more fulfilling life without always focusing on what we’re not doing.

Start by asking yourself what is most important to you. Then, and here is the key, work to “create a system and routines” that help you accomplish that.

It’s not so much that they scheduled everything down to the minute, but Monaghan forced Lucchesi to take the most important pieces of her jigsaw puzzle and fix them in time on her calendar first. Everything else flowed around those big pieces.

Schedule the stuff you want to do in big bold chunks of time and let everything else fit in around it.

***

Some other tips:

Clear your desk.

We started small: by clearing my desk. “It gives your brain a rest from visual clutter.” As we worked to build systems and routines into my days, we always seemed to be coming back to my brain, and how getting a handle on the overwhelm was not just about creating more space and order on my calendar and in my office, but doing the same in my mind.

Get off the worry wheel.

“Right now, you need to free up all this energy that’s being consumed by worry.” She told me to take out a piece of paper, set a timer for five minutes, and write furiously about absolutely everything that was bugging me. I didn’t have to do anything about this “Worry Journal.” Just getting the ambivalence out of my head and putting it somewhere would give my brain a rest. “It’s a way off the hamster wheel.”

To-do lists.

We did the same with the enormous to-do list I carried around in my head like a mark of shame. Every Monday morning, I began to set aside time to plan the week. I began with a brain dump. It was the list of everything on my mind from here to eternity. The working memory can keep only about seven things in it at one time. And if the to-do list is much longer than that, the brain, worried it may forget something, will get stuck in an endless circular loop of mulling, much like a running toilet. The brain dump is like jiggling the handle. “If your to-do list lives on paper, your brain doesn’t have to expend energy to keep remembering it,” Monaghan said.

***

Of course this isn’t anything new. It’s stuff we learned in preschool. “Plan. Do. Review.” Only we lost sight of what was important to us as we became adults. Take the time to figure out what’s important for you and embrace it. Try one of these things and if it doesn’t work, ditch it and try something else. “There is no right answer,” Schulte writes. “This is life.”

Another way to think about this is backwards, using inversion. What would ensure failure towards achieving our goals? Aside from the obvious, splintering our time amongst hundreds of tiny threads seems like a reasonable way to ensure you don’t really do anything. Does that look like what you’re doing with your time?

Sit down and make time for what’s important for you next week. Do it now.

Still curious? The last part of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time contains a fascinating discussion on how our minds and bodies are meant to work in pulses, to alternate between spending and recovering energy.