Time management. To-do lists. Multi-tasking. 24/7 availability. Many of you are desperately trying out a lot of different methods to squeeze more productive time out of your days or weeks, to get more done and to become more efficient.
Forget about it! You cannot manage time. Time flies. You cannot stop it. You can’t organise it. You can’t do anything to change it. And before you know it, you’ll be dead.
If you feel that you have too much to do, that you are over-worked and close to a burn out, you need to manage something else than time: you need to manage your tasks. Because time is a fixed value, it is the amount and the scope of the tasks that you accept or that are given to you that determine how much you work and how exhausted or how relaxed you are.
Because of this, the word “no” is the most important management tool.
Most of us instinctively say “yes” when we are asked if we want to do something. With new tasks come new clients, new responsibilities, more income, more excitement. When I had my own law firm, I was happy that so many people wanted to become my clients that I almost always accepted them. It made me proud that people from around the world wanted me as their lawyer. It made me happy to see that opening my own business right after graduating from law school was the right decision. But then I didn’t have time to deal with all these cases, I had to work nights and weekends, I burnt out and eventually I quit.
Also, it seems to be socially expected to say “yes” when somebody asks you something. “Do you want to come to my party?”, “could you help me with this sales project?” or “would you like to watch my children on the weekend?” If you say “no”, you will seem anti-social, suspicious, selfish, weird. You may simply say “yes” out of a reflex or because you don’t want to lose friends or a job or because you are afraid of saying “no”.
I have developed a few techniques how to deal with this problem:
- Say “no thanks” instead of “no”. If somebody asks you to watch their children over the weekend and you say “no thanks” in a very nice and genuine way, you make it sound as if they had offered you a favour but you graciously declined. I have often experienced that people don’t even know how to react to that. They just walk away, totally confused. Try it!
- Another reply I sometimes use is the famous line from Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener who coincidentally also works at a law firm: when asked to do something, he politely responds with “I would prefer not to.” However, I have found this to be less effective than a simple “no thanks” as it sometimes elicits the question “why?”
- Don’t reply at all. This works very well with e-mails, letters and voice messages (another reason not to answer your phone). Every day I delete some of the e-mails I receive from prospective clients without replying to them. I know I won’t have the time, or I am not interested in their case or they sound as if they don’t want to pay for my services. You find this impolite? It isn’t. Nobody has an entitlement to your time. It is your time and you alone decide what to do with it. You do not owe anything to anybody, especially not an explanation.
- Reply late. That’s a less drastic, but very effective version of method no. 3. Reply after a week or after a month. Usually the task will have found somebody else or it will have turned out that it wasn’t that important after all. You will innocently ask “does this still need to be done?” and to the reproachful account of how somebody else already completed the job, you will reply – with a thankful smile – “that’s good, I am happy to hear that.”
- I appreciate that all of this is harder when you are in employment because you have signed a contract that gives somebody else some control over some of your time. My first advice therefore is to avoid employment, but I realise that this is not always possible. When I was last employed and my bosses asked me to do things which I found not worth my time, I replied “Sure I can do that, but then I cannot work on something else in that same time. Which other project do you wish me to abandon?” Make sure that your employers realise that every hour can only be spent once and that every task that they give you comes at the expense of some other task.
The last point is also an important point for your own life, even if you are not employed. You may think “it doesn’t really cost me much to go to this party which I won’t enjoy, but it will make other people happy” or “well, it’s only one evening of the week”. But always remember: whatever you do, it prevents you from doing something else! This something else could be something that you would enjoy much more.