One of life’s great paradoxes is that our most important personal projects rarely come with specific deadlines, notes author and former clinical psychologist Alice Boyes for Harvard Business Review.
And because they don’t have deadlines, these personal priorities often end up on the back burner while we’re distracted by a series of time-bound responsibilities. Boyes recommends several tips for recovering time to devote to your most important priorities. Based on her suggestions, here are a few common mistakes we all make that prevent us from making progress on our personal projects.
1. Underestimating how much time you need
You’ve probably heard the recommendation to block off time on your calendar for your important (but not urgent) projects. Boyes adds that you should make the block much longer than you think you need. Rushing to finish and return to your routine tasks can undermine your effort to focus.
Boyes recommends reserving a recurring time on your calendar each week for doctor’s appointments and other important things that are easy to put off. “Most weeks the slot will go unused, but keep it walled off for when the need arises,” she writes.
2. Setting broad, vague goals
Another barrier to making progress on your priorities is that you haven’t figured out the very next step you can take on them. Either your goal is vague (ex. learn about Excel, be more innovative) or it’s unwieldy and overwhelming (ex. write a memoir, prepare presentation for VP).
Reflect on your goal and find a small, concrete step you can take toward it. For example, when Boyes decided to set up a new password management tool, she started with the goal of setting it up just for her 10 or 20 most important accounts.
3. Avoiding unpleasant tasks
Many important-but-not-urgent projects involve preparing for long-term risks, and because of this, they can make us feel anxious, Boyes writes. Other projects pay off in the long term, but can feel awkward in the short term (for example: networking, correcting mistakes, and learning new skills).
“Broadly speaking, working on important things typically requires having good skills for tolerating uncomfortable emotions,” argues Boyes. She shares that she works through discomfort in these situations by acknowledging and labeling her emotions.
Other experts recommend managing anxiety at work with breathing exercises and short walks around your office.
4. Letting little things dominate our time and energy
The classic examples in this category are meetings and email, which tend to take up more time than they deserve. Boyes offers two more: accidentally micromanaging (you realize you just re-wrote your employee’s report instead of editing it) and taking too long to make a minor decision.
In both cases, she recommends setting boundaries on how much you’ll put into the task. For example, limit yourself to three comments on an employee’s report or give yourself a time limit for making a decision. Experts also recommend focusing on work that only you can do and investing time in coaching your team to be more autonomous.
5. Missing opportunities to streamline
Prioritize projects that will save you time in the long run. “In modern life, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being ‘too busy chasing cows to build a fence,'” Boyes writes.
If you find yourself repeatedly fixing the same problems, giving the same instructions, or performing the same small tasks, look for ways to save time. For example, consider batching the tasks, creating templates, streamlining your process, or eliminating some of the tasks altogether.
6. Taking too little vacation
Research has found that workers who take all their vacation time are 6.5% more likely to get a raise or promotion compared to those who have 11 or more unused vacation days.
A break can help you get a better perspective on whether you spend your time in a way that reflects your most important priorities, Boyes writes. She finds that travel is particularly helpful: “There’s nothing like a literal 10,000-foot view to give me a clearer perspective on my path.”
7. Failing to track your progress
Tracking your progress to goals can feel like yet another task, Boyes acknowledges. But tracking is worth it, because it can provide a big motivation boost and help you find opportunities to be more efficient, she argues.
The key is to find a tracking method that works for you, she writes. For example, grab coffee once or twice a year with certain colleagues, and the conversation will prompt you to reflect on how you’ve grown since you last met. Or you might prefer to use a spreadsheet, calendar, journal, or phone app.
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