Your Time Management Problem is the Opposite of What You Think It Is


The challenge with time management used to be figuring out how to be productive with your time. Traditionally, advice would be simplistic little gotchas like - read a book instead of watching a movie, or turning your daily commute into a university by listening to audiobooks. As knowledge work has increased, and access to information has multiplied, that advice evolved into one of optimization. Listen to an audiobook while driving to work, but change the playback setting to 2x, so now you can consume twice as much content.

Want to be productive while watching sports? Read an article on your phone during the commercial break. Stuck sitting at a wedding next to someone you don't know? Take out your phone and start deleting emails so you can inch ever so closer to that elusive goal of inbox-zero.

Now our lives are filled with queues waiting to eat up our time. 3 Seasons of Game of Thrones to catch up on (30 hours). Then there's the video series on YouTube you started last Ramadan that you only caught 13 episodes of so now it's saved in your watch later playlist (9 hours). There's the 20 Kindle books you bought, but haven't read. The app is there on your phone, optimized for productive reading as soon as you get around to it though. The 20 articles saved to 'read later' that you'll end up deleting, including the viral article on lifehacking [this one in paritcular is a must read] that's supposed to give you more time to watch those lifehacking videos.... you get the idea.

So again, we optimize. How do we squeeze more out of less. How do we get more done? Maybe we need to wake up at 4am. How are all these other people accomplishing so much? Then we start to study those people doing more than we are to reverse engineer a solution - solutions that worked for people whose life context is drastically different from our own.

This causes even more problems because we start to see the things that "eat up" our time as limitations. I'll be productive if I can quit my job... so let me spend our family's emergency fund on the latest online thingamajig promising to let me make 6 figures of passive income every year. I can't be productive if my kids are always bothering me... so let me sacrifice some time with them now because I'll definitely have more time later.

Our problem is one of learning how to deal with the overwhelm of everything we want/should/need to accomplish while also balancing the responsibilities we have. All within the same 24 hours everyone gets in a day.

Solving this is a two-step problem.

Step 1. What's the Big Picture?

By time, man is [deep] in loss, except for those who believe, do good deeds, urge one another to the truth, and urge one another to steadfastness. [103]

The big picture is understanding your priorities in life. Spiritual and family needs are at the top of that list.

The question then becomes not one of, for example, "how do I read 75 books this year instead of 50"? It becomes a deeper question: "Does this book serve my larger purpose in life?"

This requires a huge shift in perspective. Someone might feel stressed that they have a lot of goals they want to accomplish (starting a business, writing a book, going back to grad school, homeschooling their kids, etc.), but don't have time because the daily grind is simply too difficult.

Wake up. Pray. Eat breakfast. Rush the kids out the door to school. Fight traffic to work. Get stressed out at work all day where they're pushing me to constantly "do more with less". Get home. Relax for 5 minutes. Help the kids with homework. Do other after school activities. Try to eat dinner as a family. Spend another hour getting the kids to bed. Maybe go to the masjid. Maybe watch TV. Maybe watch really stupid videos people forwarded me on WhatsApp. Spend a few minutes with your wife/husband. Go to sleep exhausted. Wake up and start all over again.

Here's the issue with that. We have to stop looking at this as a GRIND. Spending time with your kids is an investment, and those daily interactions add up, multiply, and compound over time. It's a blessing even if it seems every morning escalates into a shouting match trying to get everyone out the door on time. You may not have your dream job, but your time spent at work still enables you to fulfill a large responsibility. So take advantage of it, and do it to the best of your ability.

Reframe the roles, responsibilities, and activities that may consume your time. Stop looking at them as things holding you back from something 'more productive' and realize that for this season of life, these are the activities that serve your greater purpose.

How many people have gone on to famed business success, fame, and millions, but lost their families in the process (see also: my video on How Will You Measure Your Life)? Is it worth it?

That is the macro level. The micro level is step two.

Step 2: What Is The Best Use of Your Time At A Given Moment?

This is a constant assessment that needs to take place. Is your best use of time on a Sunday spent watching football? Maybe. Perhaps this is your way to unwind, relax, and get some entertainment. It could also be the 2nd day in a row where you did nothing but sit in front of a screen and ignored other commitments you had. It all requires context.

Would it be more productive to take a book to your kid's soccer game and read? Probably. But is it the best use of your time? Probably not. Your attention and focus needs to be on the game.

If you're stuck in a boring work meeting, should you check Facebook? Or maybe be super productive and read an Islamic article on your phone? It might seem like a good idea, but at that moment in time, your attention needs to be at work.

What about working out? Should you listen to Quran, music, a podcast, audiobook, or something else? It depends on your personal context. It might also be better to simply work out in silence and give your mind a break.

If you're stuck in the waiting room at the doctor's office, it could be a great time to catch up on emails and check Snapchat. If you're at the masjid 5 minutes early for Isha though, it's not a great time to check Snapchat.  That specific moment in time is one where supplications are answered.

Replying to text messages while eating lunch alone at work? Might be fine. Replying to text messages while eating with family? Maybe not.

Understand the demands on your time at any given moment, prioritize what is most important in that moment, and then focus relentlessly on that.

This is the example that the Prophet (s) laid out for us with his life. Aisha (r) was asked what he used to do in his house, and she said, "He used to keep himself busy serving his family and when it was the time for prayer, he would go for it. [Bukhari]"