Some Thoughts on Time Management (pt. 2)

One of the main reasons you might avoid the task of consciously, intentionally managing your time is the feeling of anxiety that arises when you think about all that you “have” to do. I put “have” in quotation marks because one of the first things to realize is that you don’t really have to do much of anything. The report for work, filing your taxes, the paper for class, buying life insurance – none of these things is anything you really must do. Like everything else, the truth is that, if you don’t do them there will definitely be some result, but life will go on, and often in much the same way.

Perhaps you’re saying, “yes, I don’t really have to do any of those things, but if you take “have” in this strict sense as something that you cannot avoid doing, then the only thing anyone really has to do is die”. Quite true. But my point is not that there really aren’t many things you have to do, so you can just skip doing anything you don’t like. My point is much simpler, and it is this: the nature of “have” or “must” or “necessity” always presupposes some goal. “I have to do the laundry today” presupposes that you really want the laundry to be done before tomorrow. So, “I have to do the laundry today,” really means “I want the laundry done before tomorrow, and the way to satisfy that want is by doing the laundry today”. This is the nature of every “have” (except death, maybe).

But what does this rephrasing of all “I have to” statements give us? Well, statements with “I have to” or “I must” have a certain inordinate psychological power over us. The second we hear “I have to” or “you must” we tighten up, our anxiety levels rise, our fears of failure take hold, and then we often procrastinate or rebel. Rebellion makes a lot of psychological sense in this situation, because hearing “I have to” and “you must” feel like hitting a big rock wall, they feel like commands from some inscrutable Master that wants to make us servants, or slaves, and no one wants to be a slave. So we naturally rebel out of the fear that we’re being controlled or dominated by these commands out of nowhere – and I say “out of nowhere” because they really feel that way. “I have to write this report” gives no reason or motivation that is really appealing or that makes writing the report feel like a natural, desirable activity. It just feels like the commands our parents used to give us – “Do it. Why? Because I say so.” – and that’s not very attractive.

Rephrasing “have to” statements to reveal their actual meaning – “it is necessary to do this if I want such-and-such result” – robs them of their authoritarian feel and makes them reasonable, sane, and non-threatening. It also gives us the chance to ask whether this end-goal (getting the laundry done by tomorrow) is really all that important to us. “I have to do the laundry today” sounds like a burdensome command that can stress you out, while “If I want the laundry done tomorrow, I need to do it” gives you the chance to say “Yeah, but I don’t really care that much if it’s done tomorrow; I have some other things to do today. I’ll get to it if I can, after these.” Now, laundry is a pretty mundane example, and chances are laundry isn’t really what stresses you out; it’s something bigger. And for lots of the more important things in our lives we don’t have the chance to just not do them the way we can with laundry. But rephrasing our thoughts about these larger tasks still carries the advantage of removing some of their authoritarian feel and reminding us just why we’re doing them.

And there are more and less complete (and so, more and less true) ways of rephrasing these tasks. Writing the upcoming term paper might not be something you can put off like laundry, but you can still rephrase in psychologically beneficial ways. “I have to write this paper.” Can then become, “I must write this paper if I want to pass this class,” and then “I need to write this paper to understand this area in my field, to get the feel of doing scholarly work, and to have a piece of work I can genuinely be proud of.” There’s no denying that this last rephrasing is much more motivating and freeing, and the first phrasing much more burdensome and anxious. This simple linguistic trick can really be helpful to motivate you to do your work gladly, and get real satisfaction out of doing it. Use it constantly, for every task that feels even slightly daunting or dreadful.

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