You do a lot, but are you getting anything done? Three strategies for escaping time poverty.

Time is a resource, and not a renewable one. It is finite, fleeting, and precious. We expend it to accomplish everything, dedicating great troves of it to building relationships, discovering truths and creating ideas. It is therefore surprising how little attention we give to managing it effectively. Many of us fail to develop the tools required to invest our time in ways that enrich ourselves and delight the world around us. When we fail to do this, it is more than time that is lost. We simultaneously fail ourselves and those that touch our lives. When we fail to manage time, when we use it all up in a way that doesn't advance our goals, we struggle to lead, to find joy, to love, and to create. In this state, we fail to serve the common good. We drag ourselves and those that follow us into a cycle that is unguided, undisciplined and unreflective. It expends all of our collective energies in a way that squanders the present and jeopardizes the future. This is time poverty. And there is a way to avoid it.

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Those who slip into time poverty are not hamsters on a wheel; they are pursuing dreams, founding companies, developing technology, or growing families. While all of these challenges are different, they have something important in common. These goals don’t fit nicely into an 8-hour workday, follow the lunar cycle, or stop just because you're late for yoga. They are relentless, persistent, and unwavering.  

If you’re like me, your psychology nudges you to fight fire with fire and return the persistence. You sometimes feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day (or night) to complete what you are palpably driven to accomplish in a time as short as a human life. And while some accept that there are tasks that need to wait until tomorrow, for many of us, that’s not good enough.  

If you’re a parent, building a company, running a department, researching a cure, or writing a novel, then you know these (and many others) are all superhuman feats at times. They require more than many are willing to give. And while not everyone with these types of aspirations experiences the negative effects of being robbed of every available second,

the drive that makes you formidable can also cause you harm.

So what is time poverty exactly? I find it useful to think of time in terms of effort versus accomplishment. Remember, we all have the same hours in a day. You’re going to “use” all of them doing something. If the effort you put forth in a day doesn’t move you towards accomplishing your goals, that is not good and it requires your attention. But a single day spent in this way is both common and minimally harmful. However, the longer it continues, allowed or unnoticed, the more damage you do to yourself, your goals, and those around you. It squanders your most valuable resource, and with it, your potential and momentum. But it also steals time from those that care enough to help, those that you're supposed to be leading, and those that value their time with you.

The warning signs are simple, but become less visible to us over time. As humans, we have incredible strength to endure and adapt, even when we shouldn't. We may endure working feverishly towards our goals, even if we aren’t really accomplishing them. Our days fill with tasks that are seemingly necessary, but the completion of all of those individual tasks creates a barrier to finding the time to accomplish our long-term goals. The truth is, many people have the strength to exist in this state for long periods of time. We create defense mechanisms in the form of excuses,  like “Who is going to do it if I don’t?” When we do this, we're trying to justify our failure to address the situation. 

To compound the issue, our psychology responds to the lack of meaningful progress by pouring more and more energy into the void in an attempt at feeling accomplished. And yet, if we're honest with ourselves, we can’t remember the last time we actually accomplished something truly meaningful. Day after day, our intellectual ability to face the situation declines as we fall into exhaustion. At this point, the downward spiral is gaining momentum.

What keeps us from escaping the cycle of time poverty is counter-intuitive. It isn’t about making bad time management decisions. Likewise, it isn’t about routinely failing to find the time to relax or discover those coveted extra hours in a day. Well-meaning but short-sighted mentors often tell leaders experiencing time poverty that they need downtime or to recharge. While this is useful for gaining perspective, it doesn’t address the cause, only the symptom. It sets up the idea that, in order to experience balance in your life, you need to take a break from your goals. But using downtime as a crutch will not stop the cycle from continuing as soon as you return from that break. The reality is, the best way to escape time poverty is having the tools to stop it from occurring in the first place. And if you're already there, rejecting the expectation that downtime will somehow fix the issue is a positive first step in addressing the problem. Finding a mentor that can help you see the options you likely cannot see for yourself is a good second step.

In the spirit of next steps for those that are already experiencing the negative effects of the cycle, I'd like to share 3 concepts that help me keep the perspective required to avoid prolonged stays in the land of time poverty.

First Concept: Start thinking about routine, not schedule.

Schedules happen to you, routines are created by you. Building positive routines that support your intellectual, emotional, and physical health is likely the most important change you can make. While not all routines are good, the ones we create can drive our effectivity. They also play a role in how we feel about what we’re doing. If you want to read about different routines, there are plenty of articles like this that have great ideas. If you’re not up to that, I’d like to suggest one small routine that helps me keep on track:

Don’t read email in the first three hours after you wake up.

Really, that’s it. I find that reading email first thing in the morning positions you to be reactive throughout the day. If you begin your day by digesting and responding to the needs of others, it’s easy to lose track of the major goals you need to accomplish in the day.  

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I also recommend an analog planner like the one above. Why analog? Because it forces you to make a cup of coffee (or tea, if you’re from that side of the world), find your favorite pen, and sit down to plan your day. You. Plan. Your. Day. The major strokes of your day are the result of human thought and careful consideration, not a calendar app. How will you help a client the most today? What are the three things that are most critical to you and what are the things most likely to stop you from achieving them? If you thoughtfully plan the day, the week, and the month instead of having your life “scheduled” through meetings and appointments, you’ll find you gain control of the day’s objectives and the arc of your story. This control will help provide focus and give you a gauge to make adjustments when you feel stuck. 

Second Concept: Begin protecting your time, not all at once, but one instance at a time.

We’ve all had days where we were swamped throughout the day, but ultimately didn’t move the needle on the things that really make an impact, right? What actions did you take that waste time, though? Did you go to a meeting you weren’t needed in? Did you answer emails or respond to instant messages throughout the day instead of being disciplined about when the right time to focus on them is? Have you trained the people around you that you will prioritize everything as urgent thus you spend a bunch of your day thrashing? Did you spend two hours watching TV or checking social media (and did you even notice the time passing)? 

The idea is to become ruthless about protecting your time, even from yourself. It is not enough to develop routines that stop others from wasting your time. You need to identify and stop behavior that wastes your own time, day by day, instance by instance. At first, this is hard, the opportunities are not always obvious. But you'll get better as you seek them out.

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Let’s take email for an example because this is one of my favorite examples of wasted time. I interface with clients on a daily basis, have internal teams pulling at me, and have a half dozen or so professionals in my network that I advise. They all send me emails throughout the day. They, however, get a response from me in one of three defined windows. I’ve trained them whether they know it or not. When it’s time for me to write an email to you, it has my full attention. You will receive thoughtful responses from me. They will be timely, but not immediate. When I operate like this, I answer the same amount of emails but spend less time doing so—and doing a better job of it at the same time. Find these types of opportunities in your own day.

Third Concept: Reflect on the situation. Block off 2 hours to sit down and have a talk with yourself.

Reflection is a routine we embrace to allow ourselves to monitor for when change is required and to measure the progress towards our goals.  If you succeed in moving mountains every day, reflection is a way to give yourself some credit. I’m not talking self-aggrandizing; I’m talking about a tiny voice internally allowing you to feel a sense of pride in what you have accomplished. This type of reflection creates a routine of self-motivation that plays a valuable role when pursuing long-term goals. 

Remember that analog planner I told you to buy? Use it again here for recording your reflections and progress. The act of writing it down is a form of reflection, and the record reinforces the sense of accomplishment.

The mental challenge here is building a routine of setting honest and challenging expectations for yourself while constantly evaluating and reflecting on your results. Without reflection, you could be spending your time without realizing changes are required. Without setting the expectations, there is nothing to measure. Both setting goals and reflecting on accomplishment and failure is part of the key to sustaining intellectual and emotional endurance.

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Breaking a sustained cycle of time poverty means having the mental commitment to engage in the routines, disciplines, and activities that support your productivity and help you accomplish all of your life’s goals—even under incredible workloads. It is about innovating how you approach your day, taking advantage of technology where it makes sense to do so and also embracing analog approaches that remind us the strength is in our humanity, not the technology we use. 

Start your day by setting your own expectations, not letting others set them for you. Develop healthy routines that reinforce productivity and reduce waste. Reflect, so that when the day comes that you accomplish a goal and get to decompress, you do it to find the joy in all you have accomplished and the people you’ve accomplished it with—not to escape from the goals you left behind.  


By: Jason Sgro


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The ATOM Group, www.theatomgroup.com, combines a rare blend of business acumen and purposeful technical application. ATOM focuses on serving clients through technical projects and reserved capacity engagements for mobile and web software development, enterprise applications, business intelligence, compliance and security along with business strategy, technical leadership consulting, and corporate training.