We’ve all been there. A few months ago, you got invited to a dinner/ conference/ speaking engagement and, figuring it was A Good Thing To Do, you shot off a quick “Yes, I’d love to” and popped it in the diary. Now, it’s the night before the thing and you are checking your phone every five minutes hoping you’ll get a message to cancel. Because in this moment, now that it’s actually here, you have no desire to do the thing to which you so rashly agreed. In addition, it’s not a priority, and you can see now with the clarity that comes with imminence that it will be more of a hassle than a pleasure or business boost.
This kind of scenario is familiar to us all, and it touches on several subjects I have seen my clients grapple with on a regular basis. It’s about time management, of course, but it’s also about juggling priorities, setting (and holding) boundaries, and developing sufficient self-knowledge to know what we want, need and are able to do.
Not just the jitters
Of course, sometimes the desperate hope that an event will be cancelled comes simply from fear. Anxiety and a cold feeling of “what have I got myself into?” are completely normal before a big speech or presentation. It’s also normal to feel underwhelmed by a business trip that involves an early flight and an overnight stay away from your family. We all have moments when we can’t be bothered to do what we have agreed to, or when we’re just plain nervous. But the times when we’re faced with a commitment we made and that now fills us with zero enthusiasm, or that we don’t feel inclined to make time for, or that just no longer make sense within our business or personal goals – that’s a different matter.
This issue usually arises when we are asked to commit to something at least a few weeks ahead of time. The thing is not imminent enough that we can truly envisage doing it, so we reply a casual yes and make it Future Me’s problem. Then, as we are confronted with the reality of actually doing it, we realise we never should have accepted in the first place.
A single question to simplify choices
Now, while time and priority management create broad challenges that can be tackled in a thousand different ways, the remedy for this particular problem is actually very simple. I don’t normally have much time for self-help experts, coaches and – heaven help us! – “gurus” who present their theories as fix-all silver bullets but, honestly, this one actually works. Here goes.
When a request to commit your time comes in, simply imagine you’re being asked to go to the talk/meeting/party tomorrow. Ask yourself: if this event were happening tomorrow, would I be excited and pleased to be doing it, or would I be wishing for a cancellation, a train strike or a snowstorm? Your answer will tell you whether you actually want to say yes or not. I know. Easy, right? Let’s take an example. You get a LinkedIn message from a contact of a contact asking if you’d like to have coffee and see if your working lives can overlap at all. You say yes because, well, all networking is good, right? Now, when it comes to taking time out from an urgent call for tender or having to make a really interesting potential contact wait a week for a slot in your diary, you realise that the connection with this person is very tenuous and the potential for mutual advancement slim. This coffee is not a priority and, in fact, it never was. When you accepted you assumed that Future Self would have way more time to spare. Now, all you can think is: “Why did I agree to this?”
In the personal sphere, even more examples abound. A friend suggests going to a concert after work. You enthusiastically buy tickets for three months from now. But now it’s the day of and you’re silently willing your manager to ask you to stay late. So when you’re asked to the concert or, another example, whether you would like to volunteer for the parent-teacher committee, imagine it’s happening tomorrow. Are you pleased to have the opportunity to meet other parents, get your voice heard, hopefully make a difference for the kids at the school, or are you dreading the bureaucracy? So often, we make plans based on a distorted image of our Future Self and what that person will like, want and have time for, forgetting that if Today Self doesn’t want to go to a PTA meeting, have coffee with someone with a slight networking potential, or stand for two hours listening to an – albeit superb – Mexican guitar duo, then Three-Months-From-Now Self won’t either.
So, the answer to what seems like a problem purely of time and priority management actually lies in self-knowledge and clarity of values. When you’re asked to do something or go somewhere – whether it’s a party, professional event, concert, dinner, networking evening, creative project, or volunteer group – base your reply on what you would want to do if it were happening tomorrow. Trust that your Today Self and your Future Self are sufficiently alike that the former can make decisions for the latter, and that the latter will thank the former for their insight and good judgement.
Are you struggling to juggle multiple competing demands on your time? Are you finding it hard to decide where to invest your time and energy, what to prioritise, and when to say no – either professionally or personally? Working with an experienced, energetic and insightful coach can help you figure out where you want to go and how you want to get there – and deal with time vampires along the way! – so you can make confident and mindful choices, on purpose and with purpose. Contact me to find out more about working together.