Time management is a skill that everyone can learn and should master because most people don’t have the luxury of focusing only on one task. We generally cannot ignore mundane activities of daily living when a deadline looms for completing important work. When we speak of time management, we may be thinking of multitasking. However, with multitasking, our mental energies are fragmented among many different activities. It is like digging ten shallow wells, giving up each time before striking water. Instead, if we pour our resources into one place, we will increase our chances of reaching an underground water source. It may seem counterintuitive to think that muti-tasking may not be the optimal way to manage our time. Instead, focusing on one activity at a time with total involvement is key to effective time management.
There are three critical variables to consider regarding time management—time, the mind, and attentiveness.
Every activity takes time as nothing happens instantaneously. So, time is an obvious variable in time management. There is a movement of time from the present to some point in the future, a relentlessly consistent linear progression. It is customary to look at time in three buckets—past, present, and future. We cannot change the past; the time that recedes into the past is gone forever. We are all traveling towards the future at the same pace. On any given day, everyone has the same number of hours. For time management purposes, the variable of time is fixed.
The mind is an important instrument that governs our actions—thought triggers action. Without the instrumentality of the mind, we can achieve nothing. The mind is like an aircraft that needs constant inspection, service, and maintenance to keep it airworthy. While taxiing on the tarmac, it may be inconsequential if something is wrong with the wing. But as the aircraft climbs into the air, the margin for error is virtually zero.
Similarly, a rigid, conditioned mind may not create many difficulties as we proceed through mundane, everyday tasks. However, for activities that require significant mental acumen, unless the mind is “battle-tested and ready,” it will not be up to the task. Decluttering the mind, making it agile and responsive to our needs is easier said than done. It seems as impossible a task as shrinking an oil tanker into the size of a speed boat.
The mind pegs itself to time and tends to move linearly. Unlike time which moves in one direction—past, present, and the future—the mind can rapidly shift its markers and point us to the past or the future. It accomplishes this bidirectional movement by changing the contents of our thoughts. Adding emotions, feelings, attachments, and sentiments to those thoughts makes them appear authentic. This captures our attention.
Since time is a fixed variable, and we cannot easily change our mental conditioning overnight, the power of attention is the only variable in our control. We can leverage this power to effectively manage our time and complete the tasks we have on hand.
The first step is to uncouple our attention from the time ticking away, the mind restlessly shifting from the present where the work is happening and worries about not meeting the deadline. To delink our attention from thoughts of the future and the passage of time is essential because, without full attentiveness, our effort on any task naturally becomes shallow.
When a deadline looms, it may seem counterintuitive to ignore the clock. Pausing for a few seconds without thinking of the passage of time, the future, or the past, we land in the present moment. The present moment is common to all, whether we are aware of it or not. Entering the present moment is easy but remaining there is a challenge. “This moment” appears momentary because our attention is scattered amongst various thoughts coursing through the mind.
Our attention takes a new path when we ignore the passage of time and thoughts of the future or the past. Rather than moving horizontally with time and the mind, it moves vertically through a deeper involvement in the present moment.
The deeper we go into this moment, carrying only the essentials—thoughts that serve the task we are undertaking, the more time “slows.” The logic is simple. It takes longer to complete a task when we give it 10% of our attention than when we provide the same job with 90% of our attention. Besides being more productive, the quality of the output also increases. Something surprising happens as we dig into a task with total concentration and strike “water” by completing it without fragmenting our attention. We may discover that less time has elapsed than we would have otherwise anticipated.
It takes faith in oneself to disregard the clock while a deadline nears. It also takes courage not to pay attention to fears and anxieties the mind may project about not completing the task in the allotted time. But with such faith and courage, investing all our energies into being attentive at present towards the job on hand, time management takes care of itself.