If you’re anything like me, you’ve grumbled the words “there isn’t enough time in the day” on at least a few occasions. The work never seems to end, and the light at the end of the tunnel moves further each day instead of closer.
Simply put, modern life is busy. It’s complex and uncontrollable and it stops for no one. The world around us is out of our hands; this is a fact. So how do we manage in a world that often feels unmanageable?
The answer lies in our brains. You can research all of the best organizational techniques and scheduling tips in the world, but there will be no long lasting change without a few integral mindset shifts.
I have researched basic adjustments of common thought patterns to improve time management so that you can have more productive days. Here’s what the science has to say:
Gain some control: think self management
Create new habits: practice positivity
Get a new perspective: your work is a privilege
Lifestyle renewal: implement these shifts daily to create new thought habits
We all strive for efficiency. We want the best way to complete our lengthy to-do lists as quickly and accurately as possible. The good news is that there is a solution, and it is already inside your head.
Walk On a New Path
The neural networking in your head is immense. Neuronal circuits are clusters of neurons that work together for specific tasks, whether it be perception, motor responses, higher order thinking, etc. The more you use certain circuits, the stronger they are.
Think of it like a trail path: the more it is walked on, the clearer it gets. Less things grow in the way because they’re constantly trampled underfoot. However, if the trail goes unused for years, things start to grow back and the original path is harder to see.
In your brain, negative thought patterns inhibit efficient work and a satisfactory lifestyle. The neurons corresponding to these patterns wire together in your brain, and as they fire more often, it becomes harder to reconstruct them. The negativity is a clear, beaten down pathway in your neural circuitry.
This is why thinking differently is the first step to effective time management. It must be mastered first so that everything else comes naturally. Below are a few prevalent paradigm shifts most busy bees need to confront.
Time Management vs. Self Management
I use the phrase “time management” throughout this article because it is the popularized term. However, as the award winning educator PJ Caposey points out, time itself cannot be managed.¹ Instead, think of the process as self management. Because that’s what you’re actually trying to do, right?
How do you organize thoughts and a workspace? How do you plan ahead for the day, week, or month? None of this has to do with changing time, it simply has to do with how you use time.
Once you make this shift, you’ll feel more in control. It’s you that calls the shots, not the clock.
Practice Positive Thought Habits
Really take a moment for self-reflection: is your approach to balancing life shadowed by overwhelming thoughts? I’ll never meet my deadline. I never have time for myself or my family or my friends. The week hasn’t even started and it’s already shrouded in a cloud of negative energy.
Don’t worry- this doesn’t make you a bad person. In fact, this natural negative outlook serves an evolutionary purpose. Imagine you’re a caveperson in a prehistoric world. You must assume everything is bad unless proven to be good.² Otherwise it will attack you, hurt you, or eat you. To truly understand, I suggest watching The Croods; it’s an adorable movie that really drives this point home.
Being conscious of the bad things is somewhat necessary, but if it is our default neural network, we run the risk of maladaptive behaviors that limit our productivity.³ A professor once told me that “just because a behavior saved our ancestors does not mean it is an acceptable behavior today.” The truth of this struck me. The world has changed since cavepeople roamed, largely due to our species. We cannot fall into habit with every evolutionary tendency; we’d be in (even more) chaos!
Therefore, the roots of our negativity could very well be unconscious. It has become a thought habit. That’s right- habits aren’t always a physical action. The aforementioned analogy to the trail path is the neurological basis of this. That’s why you need to do an honest evaluation of your own attitude towards life, and make the necessary adjustments.
“Have to” vs. “Get to”
Life is full of responsibilities, but we have a choice to view them as either chores or as opportunities. PJ Caposey makes another wise point: thinking of everything as a choice that you “get” to do instead of “have” to do provides a sense of control. The things you do not accomplish are not because the clock beat you, but rather they were chosen to have the lowest priority.⁴ Read more about PJ Caposey’s ideas here.
Saying you get to do something also frames it as a privilege. Go back to the roots of why you do what you do.⁵ Where you are is exactly where you need to be, so try to shape the mindset of your work as something you have the privilege of doing. Every bit moves you closer to your aspirations. If you feel otherwise, maybe time management isn’t the issue; it may be time to reevaluate things.
When you see responsibilities as choices and those choices as opportunities, your perspective and attitude will change. Your life balance will be healthier, happier, and you’ll be a better person for it.
Breathe New Life Into Your Routine
Understanding these mind shifts and implementing them are two different stories. It’s difficult to renew your habits, but more than possible. Your mental capacities for positive and productive thinking are beyond your own knowledge. So trust yourself and the wonderful clump of neurons that serves you every day!
Below are some small steps to help you start, but first, do an honest evaluation of yourself and your personal mental blocks. And remember, it takes practice; you are reorganizing neural pathways!
Create a “focus word.” When you catch yourself slipping into old habits, focus on your chosen word or phrase. For example, to break negative and overwhelming thought patterns, meditate for a moment with the words “I am capable.”
Change your speech. Research shows that saying something enough can make you believe it.⁶ ⁷ Don’t just change your thoughts from “have to” to “get to”, change it in your words as well. Make a conscious effort to speak with positives- it can actually change the circuitry within your brain.⁸
Ask someone to hold you accountable. If you’re comfortable, ask a trusted person to check in with you and hold you accountable for the goals you’ve set.
Reconstructing habitual patterns is no easy feat, so treat yourself with love, respect, and patience. Soon enough, the positive neural networks will be the habitual ones.
Reorganization of pathways in the brain is going to have incredible benefits on the way you manage time. Positive thought patterns lead to a better outlook on life, work-wise and otherwise. This new perspective is going to make all of the other time management skills fall into place. Prioritizing will come naturally, scheduling will lose the stressful aspect, and plans will practically organize themselves.
I hope this fresh interpretation of time management gives you the tools to effectively manage life.
1 Caposey, P. J. (2020). Think Self-Management, Not Time Management. Time Well Managed, 77, 20-25. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/jun20/vol77/num09/Think_Self-Management,_Not_Time_Management.aspx
2 Cherry, K. (2020, April 29). What Is the Negativity Bias? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618
3 Horton, L. (2019, August 8). The Neuroscience Behind Our Words. Business Relationship Management Institute. https://brm.institute/neuroscience-behind-words/
4 Caposey, P. J. (2020). Think Self-Management, Not Time Management. Time Well Managed, 77, 20-25. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/jun20/vol77/num09/Think_Self-Management,_Not_Time_Management.aspx
5 Stack, L. (2013). Intense Focus : Where Successful People Get Their Direction. The Productivity Pro, Inc.
6 Lodge, J., Harte, D. K., & Tripp, G. (1998). Children's self-talk under conditions of mild anxiety. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 12, 153-176. 10.1016/s0887-6185(98)00006-1
7 Alia-Klein, N., Goldstein, R. Z., Tomas, D., Zhang, L., Fagin-Jones, S., Telang, F., Wang, G., Fowler, J. S., & Volkow, N. D. (2007). What is in a Word? No versus Yes Differentially Engage the Lateral Orbitofrontal Cortex. Emotion, 7, 649-459. 10.1037/1528-3518.104.22.1689
8 Loeffler, L. A. K., Radke, S., Habel, U., Ciric, R., Satterthwaite, T. D., Schneider, F., & Derntl D. (2018). The regulation of positive and negative emotions through instructed causal attributions in lifetime depression – A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. NeuroImage: Clinical, 20, 1233-1245. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2018.10.025