Do You Control Your Time or Does It Control You?


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high Cick-sent-mee-high) is one of the most famous psychologists studying the basis for happiness.  His break through work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, draws from the works of Carl Jung, Epictitus, Viktor Frankl and other great thinkers who have pondered what aspects of our psyche control our thoughts.  A major determinant of “flow” is taking on challenges that are “just right”–neither too complex and potentially demoralizing, nor too easy and likely to be boring.  Of course, as we master just right tasks we can increase the complexity and grow in our mastery.  Managing our time is a major factor in taking on these exercises in flow. In the current state of the world, most of us spend an awful lot of time feeling like we are trapped in a batting cage with tasks coming at us as if they are being delivered by a major-league pitcher.  We must fight our initial resistance to managing these inputs in a reactive way and instead set up some system that allows us to break down the tasks into their most basic components, prioritizing and tackling our commitments to free up blocks of time where we can get into flow.

A system I have advocated for decades is taking the time to break tasks down into meaningful but manageable “chunks.” This is a time-honored technique for tackling tasks…particularly those that are too complex and overwhelming.  If you find that you are easily overwhelmed, it is very likely that you are not breaking a project down into small enough chunks.  Try it! Faced with a job search? Go micro – commit to getting just the paper for your resume, then design the header. Leave it for a day and go on to other things. Come back to it and chunk a bit more, maybe you can do your education bullets or accomplishments from your first job. Additionally it helps to think in terms of categories of tasks you need to tackle regularly: computer-based work, phone calls, tidying, spreadsheet updates.  To get more things done without a feeling of overwhelm, pick an item from each category and get it done rather than trying to work on multiple items from one category. The variety will alleviate your feelings of oppression at the magnitude of the work. And again, if you have a sense of fear or foreboding, your tasks are probably a compilation of too many steps and you need to “chunk” these tasks into smaller more achievable components.

Fielding incoming to dos, analyzing what needs to be done, and then calendaring your commitments is the bedrock of productivity. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, offers one of the better systems out there for freeing yourself from reactivity and owning your time as you pursue your projects. There are many summaries of his work, but the biggest takeaways I find are:

1) stress comes from knowing what to do but breaking that commitment to yourself and others; stress rarely comes from a lack of actual time.

2) Filing each and every to do in an accessible  system that you review at the appropriate moment is a critical component of managing your work and life.

3) Items that are not in a place where you can access them effectively and have no next action decided AND attached to them will weigh on your mind.

3)Deciding on and then noting down the next step you must take for each to do will alleviate ruminating and significantly reduce your angst.

4) Take each to do through a decision-tree process: upon receipt if it takes less than 2 minutes to complete, do it immediately. Otherwise, decide: does it get delegated or deferred? If it gets deferred, either calendar it if it has a specific do date OR place it on a list of to dos with a specific next step written next to it.

4)Make a regular time to review your lists daily and commit to stop breaking your commitments: make a time to do those things that are due.

When you free time up for flow by establishing tasks in chunks that are manageable to complete and then field and file future to dos in a calendar system that works for you, you will free yourself from much of the worry associated with managing your time. At that point YOU will control your time — it will cease to control you.