Free yourself of unimportant activities

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Do you want to use your time more efficiently? We’re all aware that time seems to slip away from us, and how little we get done each day. Free yourself of unimportant activities, and use time more wisely.

This article explains the art of prioritising, to make the most of your time in achieving your treasured goals. 

You all know the feeling

You’re dying to start a pet project early in the day. Maybe you want to go bushwalking, write a short story, or you have a long-term project at work.

Whatever your goal is, you’re raring to go. But somehow it never seems to happen.

The house is a mess or you’ve got a pile of emails to answer. Because that niggles at your brain, you feel compelled to do that first. 

Afterwards though, you feel jaded and uninspired. And other pressing problems or tasks loom up immediately. So your chance to work on that important goal slips away yet again.

What happened to those resolutions?

Why can’t you get started on what you really want to do? What’s holding you back?

Perhaps you’ve never learned how to prioritise. Instead, you get caught on unimportant activities. If you can reduce the time spent on these, you’ll have more time for more meaningful activities. 

If you don’t know what really matters to you, you’ll be pushed around by momentary pressures or impulses. You won’t be living with intention. 

Free yourself of unimportant activities, and make time for what matters.  

Importance of prioritising

Grab a cheap exercise book to write your thoughts down as you read through this article. 

Now’s the time to start prioritising what to spend time on, and what to let go, or to do quickly. 

Your aim is to work out how to make the best use of your time each day, every day. 

Make the best use of your time

Sadly, that’s easy to say and hard to put into practice. However, in his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey describes how to identify which activities are worthwhile, and which chew up time. Often this is because we don’t think of the consequences of our day-to-day actions.  

For instance, have you ever had a minor crisis pop up because you’ve forgotten to do something vital? Maybe you forgot an appointment or meeting, or an important family event. Fixing these problems can take far more time and effort than planning ahead to prevent them in the first place. 

And do you have any idea of how much time you spend on social media, chatting on the phone, or watching boring videos? Think of what you could be achieving if you cut these timewasters down. 

So firstly, work out the sorts of things you do in an average day. Then you’ll be able to see if you’re focussing on what really matters, or getting caught up in the trivia of life. 

Classify your activities

Firstly, group all the activities you do in a day under one of four headings. (I’ve changed the order in which these were originally presented in Covey’s book.)

1 Urgent and important

2 Urgent and not important

3 Not urgent and not important

4 Important and not urgent.

As everyone has their own idea of what’s important in life, you’ll interpret these categories slightly differently to anyone else.

The examples I give probably reflect my values, and you may or may not agree with these. The idea is for you to work out how to group your activities, based on your values and goals.

Only group 4 Important and not urgent activities is worth spending much time on. We’ll focus on those later. 

For now, we’ll discuss the rest – the trivial and not-so-important tasks that we want to reduce or get rid of. 

1 Urgent and important 

Most of us are swamped by tasks that are both urgent and important, because they demand our immediate attention.

Many are important to our health, security or well-being. So they can cause a lot of stress, especially if we’ve left them till the last minute. Or we have to act because a crisis forces our hand. 

So overall, we spend a lot of time, energy and attention sorting these tasks out. 

Examples of urgent and important tasks:

Getting medical treatment – you’ve fainted twice in a week.
Getting that report done for your boss by the deadline.
Ringing the electricity company to prevent the power being cut.
Clearing rubbish in the yard when a bushfire is looming.

So how do you cut down the number of urgent and important crises, to give you time for meaningful activities?

Plan ahead by using a diary

Prepare for tasks coming up by keeping track of them ahead of time. A diary is key to organising your life effectively. The second part of the article which focusses on the Important and not urgent group of activities gives a full description of how to set up your diary to make it work for you. 

Unfortunately, the small screen size of mobile phones makes it really hard to see at a glance all the details you need to know.

A cheap, A5-size paper diary that shows one week per double page spread is much more effective.

Put reminders ahead of time in your diary, so you remember those appointments, bills, health checks and maintenance chores.  

Scan your diary at the beginning of each week, to remind yourself what’s coming up over the next couple of weeks. You’ll feel more in control, and will stop simple issues turning into crises. 

2 Urgent and not important 

Urgent and unimportant activities also chew up lots of time.

You may think you’re accomplishing something by finishing these. After all, you get a little glow of pleasure each time you cross one off your list.

But many of these tasks are trivial or merely busywork. Or they may not be meaningful to you personally. Somehow you’ve got caught up in stuff you don’t care much about.

Examples of urgent but unimportant activities:

Answering all emails at length, regardless of how important they are.  
Helping someone fix their broken-down car for the tenth time.
Covering for a colleague again while they leave early.
Rushing into the sales in town to buy an item you don’t need. 
Reporting each day to your boss the tasks each person has done. 

You may have a pattern of helping people who make the same request over and over. And you may not mind doing this occasionally if you value the relationship. However, if they think you’ll keep helping, they’ll keep asking. 

And eventually you’ll resent being used as a convenience. Or of often being expected to do things that don’t interest you.   

Free yourself of unimportant activities

It’s in your interests to set limits on time spent doing activities that aren’t important to you. If your friends are annoyed, that’s unfortunate. However, you have the right to spend your time wisely.

You may need to learn assertiveness skills to avoid seeming standoffish. Explain to your friends why you’ll be less available. Politely suggest ways that could help others solve their problems. If they won’t try to help themselves, why should you continue to rescue them? 

Although you can’t refuse requests from the boss, you can suggest more efficient ways of getting the same result. Or you may be able to persuade them it’s not necessary after all.

3 Not urgent and not important 

These are the unimportant activities you fall into without thinking. They’re the easy option when you’re bored, tired, or feeling aimless. They’re pleasant and somewhat enjoyable, but not very important.

They rarely give you a buzz, but the low level of pleasure they give can be mistaken for happiness. However, the bland and undemanding nature of these activities ultimately leaves you bored and dissatisfied.

Examples of not urgent, unimportant activities:

Playing games on your phone.
Obsessing over the latest fashions.
Reading trivial comments on dozens of internet sites.
Watching hours and hours of trivial TV shows.
Surfing the internet idly with no real purpose.
Reading gossip magazines, fake news, and sensationalist blogs.
Stalking people on the internet to find out what they’re doing.

Timewasters

Most of these activities are timewasters that stop you doing more meaningful and challenging activities. You keep doing them because you don’t realise how much time you spend on them. 

It’s only at the end of the day or week that you realise you haven’t achieved much. Then it all feels too hard to work out what you really want to do. So you ignore your increasing sense of emptiness, and flick on your phone again.

It’s a vicious circle

The emptier you feel, the more you use timewasters to numb your feelings. But timewasters don’t give you a reason to get up in the morning.

Only more fulfilling activities can do that. Having an inner drive to achieve something more valuable will make you ditch these unimportant timewasters.

Being more mindful, moment by moment, of the activities you choose to do will also help. Making sure these activities are in line with your goals and values will move you in the right direction as well.

If you really want to get rid of your timewasters, do these three things.

1 Define your timewasters

The first step to eliminating timewasters is knowing what they are. There are several apps that can help you do this, or just use pen and paper.

List all your activities that you’d define as timewasters.

These may include social media, surfing the internet, idle chatter, video games, eating and drinking when you’re not hungry or thirsty, smoking, talking on the phone and so on. It all depends whether they’re a problem for you or not. 

2 Tally time spent on timewasters

Secondly, take a tally over several days or a complete week if possible. Record the time spent on each timewaster immediately you finish it.  

Then total up the figures for each day, and for the whole week.

You’ll probably be shocked at the result. Imagine what you could achieve if you spent this time on meaningful tasks!

3 Commit to using time meaningfully

Thirdly, ask yourself: What would you rather be doing?

Look back at the goals you wrote out for yourself. Would you rather be wasting your time with trivial activities, or doing a more meaningful activity? 

What’s stopping you from doing something more worthwhile? How long will you wait to start? 

If you don’t take steps now, you’ll be waiting forever. Free yourself of unimportant activities, so you’re not stuck repeating them for the rest of your life.  

Focus on the important goals in your life: the important and not urgent activities.

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