Too Much to Do, Not Enough Time

(This is a repost of an article I originally wrote on July 7, 2008 at and edited again in January and June 2011. I was thinking about it again yesterday, when I recognized that if you’re having a hard time getting things done on your to-do list, that might be a sign that your activities don’t authentically line up with what you value. If there’s alignment, it’s usually easier to get things done.)

I have enough time for everything that I need to do! Sound like an unachievable nirvana? It’s not. Through relentless soul-searching (trying to figure out why I didn’t have any time to exercise over a three-year period) I discovered that if you don’t have enough time to do something, then one of the following is probably true:

  • You haven’t prioritized the activity high enough.
  • You are imputing higher importance to activities that are really less important.
  • You’re trying to complete too many activities in too short a time.
  • You expect more of yourself, in general, than you are reasonably able to accomplish.
  • You just don’t value the activity you’re avoiding, or its results.

Sometimes, you may be struggling with more than one of these challenges. When I tried to figure out why I had no time to exercise, I was faced with all five.

First, if something is important to you, it will become a priority. When I was complaining that I never had enough time to exercise, what I was really doing was prioritizing exercise right out of my daily routine. Other things were just more important to me, whether I wanted to admit it or not: putting in face time at the office, doing more and more tasks from my office to-do list, spending time with family, reading books, surfing the Internet, and writing research papers (yes, I really like that!)

My second challenge was that I placed too much importance on face time at the office. For my job, I can accomplish almost as much from home (sitting on my computer) as I can do when I’m physically located in the office. My old morning schedule was to wake up at 7, get online for 45 minutes to check email and handle a few of the day’s tasks, get into work by 9, crunch on the to-do list until 5, then spend a couple of hours at night finishing up the tasks I couldn’t complete before leaving. And then I would feel guilty when I didn’t get absolutely everything off the to-do list for the day, even when I had accomplished what others might consider exemplary. I finally asked myself: what’s more important, showing up on site or getting things done? I had to acknowledge that the latter was indeed more important, and accept that taking a walk in the middle of the day (especially if I thought about important problems along the way, or brought a colleague to have a needed discussion) was OK!

My third challenge was taking on too much. Before I reorganized myself, my daily to-do list had between 10 and 12 items on it. Now it only has the 3 or 4 most important tasks that would have been on the longer list. I typically get all of the tasks done during the day, and as a result I feel less guilty when I get home. There is more time for playing trains with my son, or watching a movie, or doing laundry. (Is laundry really important to me? I found out that on most days, it’s not. On the days that I’m running out of clean clothes, it becomes much more important.)

I still expect more of myself that I’m reasonably able to accomplish, but I’m not sure this is a problem – it stimulates me to learn new things every day and to keep pursuing new challenges. I just have to remind myself that I’m running a marathon, and resist the urge to evaluate whether I’m making progress on a day to day basis. Sometimes, you just have take a step back, and let progress take shape over a slightly longer period of time.

So how did I solve my exercise challenge? I set my expectations for myself a little lower, I stopped feeling guilty about less face time at the office (meaning I chose to impute less importance to it), and I made sure that my daily agenda included taking a 2 or 3 mile walk a couple times a week. On those days, that walk ranks #1 or #2 on my short to-do list, alongside the report writing or meetings I might otherwise be obligated to do.

I’m doing less, I’m getting more done, I’m feeling less guilty, and I’ve lost 10 lbs. already as a bonus. I think it’s a good deal, and I’m willing to make the process of self-evaluation that got me here important so me so I can reap some more benefits.

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