What brain science says about how to manage your time to be more successful

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When I was deeply involved in an investigation, I could no longer efficiently manage my time. My workouts and journal writing would be among the first victims of my busy schedule. Time for maintaining friendships was the next to go, and finally, no time for reading, either.

I spent years thinking this was a normal reaction if I wanted to do everything in my power to stop criminals. I accepted the fact that a demanding job required trade-offs in the rest of my life.

Randi Zuckerberg called it the entrepreneur's dilemma: "Maintaining friendships. Building a great company. Spending time w/family. Staying fit. Getting sleep. Pick 3.” To be successful, you must make sacrifices. Big ones.

As a business owner and entrepreneur, you wear multiple hats to get everything done. This means you must efficiently manage your time so you won’t get distracted, lose focus, and waste precious energy.

We have all struggled with maintaining a life-work balance because we really do want to have both a healthy private life and a successful professional career. We’ve tried all of those time-management tips about how to structure a to-do list, but it still doesn’t eliminate the problem.

And this is why: Time management is more than just work-life balance. The way you successfully manage your time is less about a packed schedule and more about a clear and organized mind.

Here is what brain science says about how to manage your time so you can be more successful:

1. Manage your time by prioritizing information to make better decisions

We've all experienced a barrage of information coming at us all at once. We get paralyzed and can't move ahead with any decision! This is a normal reaction because your brain is experiencing an overload of information that is queuing up for attention.

Just like a computer can get overloaded by too many jobs coming in at once, our brain reacts in much the same way.

What this means for you: When confronted with chaos or bottlenecks, prioritize the information. This simple act frees up your brain's energy so it has more space for other information.

2. Manage your time by being wise in how you split your attention

It is possible to juggle several things at once, but remember, the only way to do multiple mental tasks, if accuracy is important, is by doing them one at a time.

If you're speaking during a meeting and you observe that people are splitting their attention by texting or checking email, announce that the next point you are going to make is important so you get their full attention.

What this means for you: When you feel pressured by several things at once, make a conscious decision as to whether you should split your focus. Place a time limit on how long you will spend spitting your attention. And then go back to focusing on your first priority.

If a thought should enter your mind about another matter, jot a quick note to remind yourself at a later time and resume focusing on your priority.

3. Manage your time by stopping brain drain

Your brain uses energy like every other part of your body: a typical person’s brain uses approximately 10.8 calories every hour. And while you might not run out of energy because of strenuous mental tasks alone, your body will react through stress and other physical responses.

What this means for you: Knowing this, start your day differently. Since prioritizing your priorities takes energy, make this your first task. Otherwise, you will end feeling overwhelmed when you cannot see a way to get through your day’s work.

4. Manage your time by recognizing your brain loves visuals

 Visuals are a great way to activate the mind. That’s why storytelling, pictures, and metaphors work so well -- they generate an image.

Visuals are laden with information. They provide color, shape, size, context, etc. Since they take less energy than words, they are efficient ways for the brain to process information.

What this means for you: Use visuals to represent each priority so you can see how it will look as you approach your goal and again as you tick it off your list. There is a reason checklists are so useful.

Grab a pen and paper and write down your prioritized projects for the day. This saves your brain from the need to recall and review each one. Save your energy for getting those task done!

5. Manage your time by working in sprints

Physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman has discovered that we operate in a 90-minute rhythm throughout the day by moving progressively through periods of higher and lower alertness. After working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, we begin relying on stress hormones for energy.

The result is that our prefrontal cortex starts to shut down; we begin to lose our ability to think clearly and move into a physiological state commonly referred to as “fight or flight.”

This research confirms that we have a need for rhythmic pulses of rest and renewal throughout our day. Many of us rely on willpower to bulldoze through lengthy projects or meet deadlines, but taking regular breaks is just what our brain needs.

What this means for you: Instead of overriding a period of low alertness with caffeine, manage your time by working hard for 90 minutes and then take a 20-minute break. Make it a priority each morning to focus single-mindedly on your most challenging and important task for 60 to 90 minutes before taking a break. Even better, encourage those who work for you to do the same.

 

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. LaRae is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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