By Elizabeth Grace Saunders
When you feel like you’re just one e-mail away from failure at work, it can seem ludicrous to take your eyes off of what you believe absolutely needs to get done to consider what you might regret in the future. The amount of demands coming at you feels so crushing and so unavoidable that you justify a missed soccer game here, a canceled dinner with a friend there, and a never-used gym membership over there, with the thought, I was just doing what it takes to get everything done.
Sometimes that thought is accurate when you have a truly urgent situation or a special event like preparing for an annual conference. However, in my experience as a time coach and trainer, I’ve found that reasoning is often a pretty façade for not knowing how to work smarter — so you end up working harder and sacrificing what’s important to you in the process. But when you neglect to consider common time regrets, you not only put a lien on your future happiness, but you can also decrease your effectiveness in and enjoyment of the present.
In my forthcoming ebook, How to Invest Your Time Like Money, I discuss how optimizing in the micro day-to-day activities is not the same as optimizing in the macro as a measure of success. For example, when you stop trying to get all tasks done from answering every e-mail to taking every meeting and start thinking about which activities matter most, you can get more of what’s important done now and live regret-free later.
If you want to stop making time investment choices subconsciously, based on what’s most urgent or most demanding, and start intentionally investing in what’s most important, start by understanding — and combating – these seven common time regrets, so that 20 years from now, you can look at your time investment with pride instead of remorse.
Not paying attention: If you have no idea how you invest your time, you’re probably not investing it in your highest priorities. This can leave you with an enormous sense of loss when you realize that you’ve let years of your life pass by that you can never get back and you have little to show for them. Start keeping a record of what you do by making note of key activities on your calendar or using a time tracking application, so you can begin to understand where you’re spending your time and where you might need to adjust.
Letting others steal your time: Legions of marketers work day and night thinking up ways to capture — and keep — your attention. They will gladly take as much of your time as they can get. So can the people around you. There’s never a lack of people requesting your time, from taking on a new project to volunteering for a committee to meeting for lunch. Depending on your professional situation, there may also be a strong pull for you to work longer hours and travel more. Engaging in media, spending time with others, and working can be wonderful things. But if you allow external forces to always dictate your time investment then you’re allowing others to steal your time. Practice saying “no” to what’s not most important to you so that you can invest in what is.
Deprioritizing family and friends: In the middle of deadlines and the many demands coming at you from all different directions, it can seem like less of a priority to make it home for family dinner, show up at a concert, go on a date with your spouse, call your parents, or connect with friends. Although in many ways these activities are less urgent, they are many times more important. A family dissolving doesn’t often happen in a single large event. Instead it erodes with each choice to not make the people who love you a priority. Engaging with friends and family can make life more fun and fulfilling, and provide an incredible amount of support during life’s ups and downs. Get these activities on the calendar so that you have clarity on your firm commitments. Each time you choose to spend time with someone else, you strengthen the relationship.
Skipping vacations: Taking time away from the normal day-to-day not only gives you the opportunity to have new experiences and bond with friends and family, but also it helps you reduce stress and gain perspective. Studies show that skipping vacations could put you at a significantly higher risk for developing heart disease or having a heart attack; a nine-year study of 12,000 men at high risk for coronary heart disease found that they were 32% more likely to die of a heart attack if they didn’t take an annual vacation (and were at a 21% higher risk of death from all causes). Relaxing is serious business. Be proactive in your vacation planning. Request time off at the beginning of the year instead of waiting to make a plan later. Otherwise, when “later” comes, you’ll again find yourself never leaving the office because you always feel like there is too much to get done. In 20 years, you’ll end up with a lot of “I always wanted to…” sentiments, instead of a treasure trove of “I’m so glad I did…” stories.
Neglecting your health: Getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly dramatically increases your happiness on a daily basis. And in 20 years you’ll feel a whole lot happier and be in a lot better shape. Avoiding trips to the hospital, medicine, surgery, and chronic pain helps you to savor life instead of simply trudging through it. Make the decision to builds habits now for exercise and a healthy lifestyle. A little time now can pay off huge dividends later in life.
Wasting time to save money: Saving money has its place, but many times spending a bit of extra money can save you hours in your day — and in many cases that time can be invested in activities that are most important to you. This could mean driving or taking a cab instead of booking a train because train travel would take three times as long. Or hiring a cleaning service to put your house in order or having groceries delivered, instead of spending the time and saving the expense to do it yourself. Or even choosing to live closer to work even though it’s more expensive because it saves you hours of time and frustration during your commute. In 20 years, you won’t miss the few extra dollars here and there, but you will miss the opportunity to live the life you wanted to live.
Never knowing yourself: In my experience, it’s so easy to lose track of who you are, what you enjoy, where you are in life, and where you’re going unless you purposely and intentionally take time to reflect. That could look like taking walks, journaling, praying, meditating, or simply staring at the ceiling for a while with no particular intention other than to be with yourself. In the end, if you never know who you are, it’s hard to feel really good about yourself.
These are just a few of the regrets I’ve seen that you can avoid by intentionally investing your time now. Not only will you end up with a more abundant and accomplished life in the future, but you’ll also really enjoy the present and feel good about what you do — and don’t — get done.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), a time coach, and the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training. Find out more at www.ScheduleMakeover.com.