3 Ways to Make Time for What Matters

We all have ambitious goals — and yet the days tick by, filled with tasks and assignments that keep us from ever having the chance to think big. We could all use more time. Here’s how to find it: 

STRATEGY #1: Say “no” to work that isn’t aligned with your goals.

We’re all so conditioned to always say yes that we forget: sometimes we can say no — and sometimes we should!  Suppose someone at work asks you to sit on a new committee. Suppose this committee has nothing to do with your goals. Suppose it seems like it’s just going to be a waste of your time, or prevent you from doing something more important for your career.

Saying no can feel uncomfortable, but the hard truth is that if you never say no, you never end up with time to do what’s really important. (And most of us don’t — only 30% of people who set goals achieve them!) Ask yourself two questions to help determine whether “no” is an option:

1. Why am I doing this?

If you can’t answer that question in a very compelling way in under a sentence, say no!

2. If I don’t do this, will there actually be any negative consequences?

Maybe your boss needs you to say yes to this committee. So you can’t say no this time. But maybe your boss won’t care. And if they won’t care, why should you? Some things you can very easily say no to:

  • Writing emails that no one’s reading and that no one asked for.
  • Reading emails that aren’t important.
  • Filling out forms that no one’s looking at.
  • Having meetings where nothing is getting accomplished.

That last bullet point is a big one. 47 percent of people say that excess meetings are their biggest time suck. They’re estimated to take up 15 percent of the average person’s day – and in some cases so much more. To avoid this, stop equating meetings with importance, don’t go to meetings when you can give written input instead, and delegate attendance to others if you can. As much as possible, give yourself permission to say no. 

STRATEGY #2: Assign work to others where it makes sense (and make sure it’s done).

The big question to ask yourself here: Can you have someone else help you complete a task?

The goal of this strategy is to think about how quickly you can remove yourself from an obligation and make yourself dispensable, not having to spend time on a task, or even think about it. 

This strategy also comes with the very high benefit of having brains other than your own — with different skills, perspectives, and expertise — in the mix. People don’t like to think of themselves as replaceable, but the faster you can “replace” yourself, the more time you’ll have to pursue your passions to focus on where you can contribute the most value. 

We all want the freedom to spend our time on the most important tasks and think about what other incredible things we can achieve, rather than feeling the need to do everything for everyone. You don’t have to prove your worth – you have to protect your time and direct your energy with purpose.

As you ask yourself if a task can be assigned to someone else, don’t think about practicality at first. Instead, focus on the idea of possibility. Is anyone else on the planet who could possibly have the skills and abilities to do this?

It’s important to distinguish between things you are used to doing yourself, things you have no choice but to do, and things that are impossible for anyone else to do. The goal is to spend your time only on the things that are impossible for others. Making these distinctions can be hard at first. But we can think about these delegation examples:

  • A colleague asks if you can give feedback on a document she wrote about marketing. Are you the only person in the world who knows about marketing? Of course not. Someone else could do this.
  • Your office is messy. Are you the only person in the world who could clean it? Of course not. This could be assignable to someone else.
  • You need a cup of coffee every morning. Can someone else spend the time making the coffee? Sure.
  • You need to exercise. Can someone else do it for you? Unfortunately not. (And you should — only 23% of U.S. adults get the recommended amount of exercise.)

Almost everything is assignable, and even things that aren’t assignable in full are often assignable in part. There’s a rule of thumb I use: “Can I explain this task to someone in less than sixty seconds?” If so, it’s usually worth it to take those sixty seconds, explain it to someone else, and assign it.

Once you know what you could possibly assign, you need to figure out how to assign it. When you’re ready to delegate a task, there are generally two choices: a human you know, or a service that is free or that you can pay for.

If it’s a human you know, great – send them an email or give them a call. Suppose someone asks you to give feedback on a presentation. Do you have a colleague who knows about these issues? Just send the link in an email: “Hey, I would really appreciate your insights.”

Otherwise, there may be a service that can handle it. Assuming there are no privacy issues that prevent outsourcing your work, there are services that can do all kinds of things, and you may be surprised by some of them. There are services that can do a quick research online, make slide decks, write or copy-edit, or maintain your calendar. Here’s how easy that last one makes setting up a meeting — all it takes is an email link:

You do need to put in a system for accountability when you assign something. When delegating to a colleague at work – or even to a service – it is critical to ensure that you hold them accountable for delivering.

Otherwise, you’ll end up spending even more time dealing with it than you would have if you just did it yourself in the first place (and you’ll be late and stressed about it). Verbal commitments are crucial. Written commitments are even better. 

If you’re on a call, ask for delivery dates on every action item, confirm the delivery dates verbally during the last few minutes of the call, write a recap email during the meeting, with the delivery dates, and send the recap immediately after the call.

Send an automated follow-up email four to five days before the committed delivery to check on status and make sure the recipients remember to get the task done, and then, if not delivered, reply to the original thread on the due date, to all of the attendees, and ask why it’s not done, how this can be avoided in the future, and what the new expected delivery date will be.

This should help to keep your assignments on track.

STRATEGY #3: Automate as much as you can.

Different from delegating, the question here is whether a machine or software tool exists that can keep you from ever having to think about something ever again. Automating certain processes can save you over 90% of the time you spend on them now. If I can use a tool to get something done more quickly and efficiently than I can do it myself, then I should. 

For example, there exist tools like Boomerang, a Gmail plugin that can help you control your emails. It can schedule-send and deliver reminders automatically for you; SummarizeBot, a tool that uses artificial intelligence to summarize long pieces of writing for you; and automatic Slack reminders, which can help you gather status reports from your team or in advance of one-on-one meetings.

Going through these strategies for everything on your to-do list – saying no, assigning, or automating – is a good place to start to get plenty of time back to do the things that matter most.