Everyone wants to get the most out of their time. We want to get the most money, fun, happiness, connections, and productivity. We want every second to matter, and of course, every second does count. In reality, time is the only commodity we will ever have. It is the most precious thing we will ever receive, we each are born with a limited amount of time, and we don't know how much of it we have. And how we choose to invest that time will determine our quality of life in every aspect. But the problem for most of us is that we don't really control how we use our time. 

Let's be honest, we make decisions, and we claim to be in control of those decisions, but in reality, are we? This article is about time management, but not in a typical way. Instead, it is an article about becoming aware of how we let time slip away. Moments that we don't consider as lost time. This article is not about beating yourself up; rather, it is about motivating ourselves to do something different. To be inspired to take better care of ourselves, hoping that we will be more careful with how we spend our time and make choices that will make our lives more meaningful. Let start with an example of one of the most significant losses of time, and causes of underperformance, being hard on yourself.

To start being hard on yourself is not necessarily a bad thing. There are some times when being hard on oneself can be used to inspire performance and attention to detail. There are other times when we are hard on ourselves to control our behavior and as a coping mechanism. To learn more about that subject, read this article. The difference between the two is the benefit we receive as a result. As a tool to inspire performance, it delivers attention to detail, but coping can lead to a waste of time and exhaustion. But don't be hard on yourself if you fall in the latter category; instead, use this article as a means to motivate yourself to improve your self-awareness and learn the skills you need to control how your thoughts impact your decisions. 

There are two types of being hard on ourselves that are a significant issue in time management that we need to become aware of. The first is demanding perfect performance when moderate performance will earn you the same reward. The second is being hard on yourself after a less than ideal performance, rather than being objectively critical for the sake of improvement.

The following is an example of being hard on yourself and demanding high-level performance when a moderate version will suffice. Frequently people obsess about a task or assignment, say a school project or a report for work. The school assignment is homework to check whether you understood a book you were supposed to read. Many questions are being asked, and you need to write paragraphs in the answer responses. You write the answers to these questions. The answers are grammatically correct, and as they are, you will likely score an A or A+ on the homework. No matter what you do, there is no way to score higher. So you walk away from the paper and move on to the next task. 

Later in the day, you remember something for the assignment. You think to yourself, "I always do my best, and since I could add more to the paper, I should open it and add these new sections. If I don't do that, am I doing my best, or am I being lazy". To be clear, that is being hard on yourself and is a tremendous waste of time, and if this is you, pay close attention to the next few paragraphs because it could change your life. 

You know that more work will not get a better grade on the paper from an objective perspective, yet you go back and open the computer. You start typing new information onto the assignment. While adding the data, you see some opportunities for edits, gotta make those sentences perfect, and there you go editing away. You spend an extra 2 hours on the paper at the computer, but in reality, it turns out to be 4 hours considering the hour you spent thinking about the homework before on your free time, and the hour after thinking it through in your mind while making dinner. So what should have been a two-hour assignment turned to six. This is one example out of many. You might be saying, "why is this a problem?", "Who are you to judge me? I demand excellence from myself". That, my friends, is a lie.

The reality of the situation is that you are not demanding excellence or perfection. You are being hard on yourself to reaffirm beliefs about who you think you are. In reality, it is taking away from your quality of life. I am going to explain the mechanics of this situation and why it is a waste of time. I will also teach you how to take the steps you need to change this behavior and give yourself the self-compassion and affirmation you are genuinely looking for. 

We are continually attempting to reaffirm the beliefs that we hold about ourselves. In that, we are also searching for affirmation, attention, and acceptance from other people. Be it parents, friends, lovers, or co-workers, we want to know that they will accept us. So we have a behavioral guide in our minds that helps us manage our behaviors into what we think is acceptable. This is explained more in this article. Demanding perfection when there is no benefit to that perfection is one of the coping mechanisms we use to deal with these issues. 

At some point, we learned that we needed to behave in a certain way to get attention. So we go and do things to get attention, like making a perfect paper so the professor and our classmates won't give us a hard time or be critical. There are no errors, and nobody could be critical because being criticized by someone is evidence that we are not loved and that we will not be accepted. In that rejection, we would experience the pain of rejection. 

We continue making the paper as perfect as possible, even though the grade won't improve, there is a decrease in being chastised by anyone with each refinement. Our mind tells us the lie that we are doing these refinements because we demand high performance from ourselves. Still, in reality, if you weren't going to get a better grade, we could have been using those extra hours more fruitfully. Perhaps,  to learn something new or care for ourselves to be more prepared for another task or goal that we have yet to complete.

If your time doesn't earn you something more, something of tangible value, you are wasting your time. For example, tangible value could be feelings of joy from getting a hug or cooking dinner. The sense of joy is a substantial, real experience. It could also be learning a new skill like rock climbing or finance. But in the case of the assignment, you weren't getting anything of value.

Instead, you were avoiding a possible pain. Your mind was acting defensively, proactively, to ensure that you would not be vulnerable to criticism and attack from others, even if that attack would have done nothing more than cause you emotional pain. That is what the obsession is all about, and the waste of time.

First, let me say that emotional pain is a serious pain, and we all want to avoid it. That emotional pain should be respected, and we should all care for our emotional selves. But sometimes, we feel and fear emotional pain because we are confused about the meaning of the pain. When we were younger, we learned by experiencing pain from rejections, and as an adult, we re-experience pains and associate those pains with the pains of childhood. We learned that we could avoid pain by being perfect and avoiding mistakes, so our mind takes proactive steps to protect us. But the reality is that if we can overcome the pain and let it go, then we can allow ourselves the freedom of meaningless mistakes and the benefit of shifting our focus to more meaningful things.

For example, say you didn't add the additional information to the paper. Then in class, the teacher pointed out something you missed; maybe they didn't even call you out for making a mistake. You might feel the pain of the error, but the pain comes and goes; it doesn't take away from your grade. The teacher never noticed it because they didn't even read the papers; they just skimmed them because it would be too time-consuming to read everything. If you found a way to accept that pain, and understand that it didn't have any bearing on your self-worth, then you wouldn't waste any time doing meaningless work.

To change this behavior or set of reactions, we need first to become aware of the thoughts. Then we need to challenge the thoughts actively, and by doing so, you will be able to gain control of where you place your focus and attention and proxy how you choose to spend your time.

Whenever you find yourself thinking, "I need to make this perfect," or obsessing over a project, complete the following questions: 

  • By spending extra time on this project, what is the tangible benefit? 
  • What am I trying to avoid by spending extra time on this project? Put differently, if I made a mistake, what would happen, and how would it cause me pain? 
  • If I made a mistake, why would the pain of that mistake hurt, and does that hurt matter to me? 
  • What does it mean about me that I made that mistake?
  • From four, is whatever it means real, or did I make that up? 
  • Can I accept that I will be okay if I make an error and get hurt?

You will need to do this exercise at least three times a week for a few weeks, but if you do, it will change the way you manage time forever. You won't waste time on projects or activities that don't bring any value. You will have more time to spend doing the things you love or need to do.