Throughout most of my 20s I was constantly late—to work, appointments, parties, whatever. People usually cut me slack for it, and I just chalked up my god-awful time management to being overly busy. Now that I'm older, wiser and even busier, I know my lateness was less about a packed schedule and more about a cloudy, unorganized mind. We've all heard (and probably failed at) tried-and-true “time management” tips, such as when to reply to e-mails and how to structure a to-do list. Here's what brain science has to say about taking control of your time.
#1 Meditate mindfully.
I will never forget it: a former boss and I were walking through Times Square after a business lunch, and she turned to me and said, “What is up with you these days? You're so on top of everything. Whatever it is you're doing, keep doing it.” The truth is, I'd started meditating—just simple deep breathing for 10 minutes every morning while repeating a mantra like “Breathe in calm, breathe out anxiety” or “Breathe in clarity, breathe out confusion.” There may not be any research linking meditation directly to time management, but mindfulness meditation has been shown to speed up information processing in the brain, improve memory, boost concentration and make tasks feel easier—all necessary for making the most of your minutes.
#2 Figure out why you waste time.
Everyone procrastinates, at least a little bit. And researchers have theorized that we have different reasons for it: arousal procrastinators get a rush from waiting until the last second, avoidant ones don't want to face an undesirable task, and indecisive procrastinators are somewhat paralyzed by how to even start. Most of us are some combination of all three, says Srini Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “If you're getting a high from waiting, you can ask yourself, What are some other ways I can get that rush? You might find that finishing early and giving yourself a few hours off can feel just as good,” he says. To avoiders, Pillay points out that although you think you're putting this task out of your mind, it's still in there: “On an unconscious level, you are having anticipatory anxiety about it, and it's still taxing your brain because that anxiety center is not really at rest.” Indecisive procrastinators may find that they're catastrophizing what would happen if they took the “wrong” approach to a project. “You can always go back and course-correct,” Pillay suggests.
#3 Be a little more grateful.
Often when we're busy, we can resent the people or tasks that are making us so—but that may just add to the stress. “When you are thankful and grateful for what you're doing in life, even when you are spread thin, it helps immediately with giving you the energy and motivation to get things done,” says Larry Marks, a clinical psychologist at the University of Central Florida. In one study at the University of California, Davis, participants who kept a daily journal of things they were thankful for showed more enthusiasm, energy and determination than people who wrote neutral entries or kept track of annoyances. Bonus: They were also more likely to have taken steps toward achieving an important personal goal.
#4 Try pomodoro.
No, not the pasta sauce—this “pomodoro” is a pop-psychology technique created by entrepreneur and productivity consultant Francesco Cirillo. The basics: Set a timer and work for 25 minutes straight, without any interruptions or distractions, then take a five-minute break. After four cycles, take a longer, 15- to 20-minute break. Repeat until your task is finished. No research has been done on this technique, but it's become a word-of-mouth phenomenon through sites such as Life hacker.com, and Cirillo's book The Pomodoro Technique has been read by more than two million people. I've never read the book (too busy!), but I've used the technique regularly since my husband told me about it. In fact, I used it just now while writing this piece, and I am happy to say I saved myself a good hour and a half of hemming and hawing. Sure, a clear mind free from psychological baggage may be the best tool in your time-management kit, but once in a while all you really need to get something done is an iPhone timer kicking you in the butt.