A Guide to Managing Your Time When You’re Always Behind

By Leo Babauta

It seems to me that being behind on all the things you need to do has become (or perhaps always has been) a part of our basic human condition.

I don’t know anyone who feels they’re completely on top of things.

Most of the time, we feel behind — too many things to do in too little time. We’re stressed, overwhelmed, busy, procrastinating, distracted. This is never a fun feeling, and yet most of us feel it most of the time.

So what can we do? I think there’s not just one answer. If it were simple, we’d have solved it long ago. But there are a number of things we can try, and I’ve found them helpful.

We’ll talk about these one by one:

  1. Make a list. Then focus on one thing at a time, in intentional containers.
  2. Work mindfully with your procrastination and distraction. Practice with your fear, discomfort, uncertainty, and feeling of overwhelm.
  3. Work with your attachment to doing everything. Let go.
  4. Manage your energy. Learn to relax and replenish.
  5. Create flexible structure. Adjust over time.
  6. Let go of self-judgment.

Don’t get overwhelmed! These are doable actions. Let’s dive into them.

Make a List, Focus on One Thing in Intentional Containers

The first part of this is simple: make a list. Many of you already do this, but don’t skip the “intentional containers” part of this section.

Task List: A list doesn’t have to be fancy — you don’t need a special todo system. Just a text document or a notebook for now. Later you can find a simple todo system, but don’t use it as a way to procrastinate.

For now, simply make a list of everything you need to do. Now make a second list of the top 3 Most Important Tasks (MITs) on your list. This is the part you’re going to focus on for today. You’ll still try to do the smaller things on the list when you have time, but focus on those big tasks.

Focus on One Thing: Of your top 3 MITs, there’s really only one that you can give focus to right now. Pick one, any one. They’re all important. If one is more important than the others, pick that.

Here’s the rule: you can only do one thing at a time. So pick the one thing that feels like it’s the most important thing you can do right now. The one thing that will have the biggest impact on your life and on others.

Then give your full focus to that, as much as you’re able.

Intentional Containers: The ideas above might seem trite to many of you — that’s OK, that means you’ve been doing something right. Focusing on one thing isn’t as common as you might think.

But the part missing from most people’s way of doing things is the idea of Intentional Containers. It works like this: you set an intention for a certain amount of time, and try to hold up to that intention. For example, I am writing right now … I set an intention to write for the next 45 minutes (or until I’m done, whichever comes first), and I’m trying to uphold that at the moment. Now, I might not uphold that intention perfectly, and that’s OK — but I try to.

So Intentional Containers are a time where you set a certain intention to focus on one task — and you might also have an intention for how you’ll show up in that container. For example, I might want to show up for my time with my family with full presence and an open heart. But for my writing, I might want to be fully focused, with the difficulties of my readers in my mind and my heart.

Set an intention, set an amount of time (and perhaps a space for where you’ll do it), and try to be fully focused and uphold your intention within that time and place.

Work Mindfully with Procrastination, Distraction, & Difficulties

Once you set an Intentional Container, you will find a number of things come up:

  • Fear, uncertainty, doubt
  • Stress and overwhelm
  • The urge to procrastinate or go to distraction
  • Perfectionism, the need to control
  • The desire to exit, complain, lash out

Basically, fear and uncertainty of the task (or overwhelming nature of the task) will cause you to want to exit and run to your usual patterns.

So the idea is to bring mindfulness to work with whichever of the above comes up for you. Turn your awareness on your urge to procrastinate or go to distractions, mindfully feel your fear, and bring curiosity, gentleness and compassion to whatever you notice.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a task (or your whole list), and your pattern is to turn to distractions … you might practice like this:

  1. Pause, instead of turning to your distractions. Turn your attention inward, to your body’s sensations.
  2. Keep your attention on whatever you notice — maybe it feels like a tightness in your chest, or throat. Maybe it’s a radiating heat in your torso, or a dark pit in your stomach. Stay with this feeling, instead of running from it.
  3. Notice the urge to run away from this feeling. You want to go to your messages, clean something, check email, look at social media. You want to do something easy or comfortable (shop or eat are two common ones). Notice the urge, but don’t act on it. Stay mindfully with the sensation of the urge.
  4. Bring curiosity and gentleness to your noticing. We normally don’t want these feelings in us, even though we can’t control them, so we usually try to push them away, ignore them. Imagine if you treated a friend like that when they’re having difficulty! That’s what we’re doing to ourselves. Instead, stay present with the feeling of difficulty, and be friendly, curious and gentle with it.
  5. Give yourself compassion. I don’t mean kind or encouraging words (those are helpful too), but the feeling of compassion in your heart — the same feeling you’d have if your loved one were in pain. Generate this feeling of compassion for your difficulty. It’s a powerful thing.

In this way, we change our relationship with our fear, uncertainty, discomfort, feeling of overwhelm or stress, urge to procrastinate or exit. They are no big deal. Rather, something we can practice with, something we can handle. We’re stronger than we think.

Every time you have one of these feelings (and others, such as sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, loneliness), it’s an opportunity to practice.

If you can practice, it helps with everything else in this guide — with focus, letting go of attachment, stress, procrastination, self-judgment, and more.

Let Go of Attachment to Doing Everything

This is a biggie. In many cases, the stress of not having everything done comes from our own mind, not from an external reality. There are exceptions — if I don’t do my project on time, I might lose my job, or if I don’t go to the pharmacy, my elderly mom’s health might fail. Those are situations where there’s an external reality that requires you to get something done.

But in most cases, there’s no terrible consequence for being “behind” on our tasks. I put “behind” in quotes because we’re often only behind in comparison to what we’d like to be, a schedule we’ve made up in our minds. For example, looking at my task list, I can see that almost all of the deadlines are things I’ve set myself. Many people I’ve worked with are like this — we set up a timeline in our minds of what we’d like to get done, but it’s only in our minds.

So the practice here is to let go of the attachment to getting everything done.

It can’t happen — we’ll never get everything done. It’s not likely that we’ll ever catch up to what we hope to get done — it’s just a fantasy. It’s not real, this expectation in our heads.

It’s like looking at a photoshopped model in a magazine and fantasizing that we’ll look like that — it’s not real. So letting go of that fantasy would be helpful.

Here’s how to let go:

  1. See how the expectation of getting everything done is hurting you. See that you’re stressing out, feeling overwhelmed, procrastinating because of all of that, being harsh on yourself, feeling disappointed. These are all caused by your expectations, which are created by you.
  2. Seeing that you’re hurting yourself, create an intention to stop hurting yourself. Stop holding onto the ideals that are hurting you.
  3. Instead, turn to reality, and find appreciation for reality just as it is. Expectations and ideals are like a movie overlaid on top of reality — we can’t see what’s right in front of us, because our vision is blocked by the fantasy that we’re not living up to. So instead, turn to what’s in front of you, and appreciate it. You are alive! You have a body, eyes, ears, hands. You probably have a home, and maybe someone who cares about you (or more than one). You might have your health. You might be doing something meaningful. Whatever the reality, appreciate it for what it is — a freaking miracle!
  4. From this place of appreciation, take action. Do the next step because it will help you and others, as a loving act. You don’t have to do it to meet an ideal, but from a place of love.

This takes practice, of course. But with time, we can begin to loosen our grip on the ideals and expectations that are hurting us.

Manage Your Energy, Relax & Replenish

Many people start to fall behind and get overwhelmed and stressed out, because they are tired and overworked. This might be you — are you feeling tired right now? Are you always working, always on a device?

If you answered yes to those questions, it might help to notice your energy levels. When they’re lower, don’t just ignore those signals (easy to do if you’re on a device). Care about your wellbeing.

The first thing to look at is sleep — are you getting enough? Most people don’t. I have trouble with this myself. If I get less than 7 hours, I’m not at an optimal state. I’m at my best with 7.5 hours, and if I can get 8, that’s amazing. Fix your sleep first — that usually means getting to bed at a reasonable time, which means setting an alarm to shut down your devices before that time, and doing some kind of sleep routine to get yourself unwound and into bed.

Next, make sure you’re taking breaks. Throughout the day, get away from all devices every 30 minutes or so. I’m guessing most people reading this don’t do that. It drains us to be on devices for so long, without a break. Take a short walk, let your brain relax, get a drink of water.

The next thing is often the most ignored: give yourself time to replenish. That means get away from the devices for an hour or more a day, and for most of the day once a week. This is time when you’re not working, but maybe out in nature, or spending time socializing with people. Take a bath, drink some tea, read a paper book, do something with your hands. Let your mind have a break, so that it can replenish.

If you manage your energy levels like this, you might be more resilient and less likely to procrastinate or get overly stressed by being behind.

Create Flexible Structure, Adjust

I’m a fan of structuring my day, but with flexibility. It helps to organize that fluid chaotic thing we call Time.

A simple structure might be something like:

  • Wake at 6:30 am, meditate, read, make my todo list
  • Write (or work on most important task)
  • Email & messaging for 30 minutes
  • Shower, eat
  • Next most important task, followed by quick check of email/messages, and a break. Repeat.
  • Later: walk or workout, meditate, tea and journal, family time, bed

This is just an example, and you can get more detailed with time blocks. But the idea is that you have structure, so you know when you’ll get important things done that you might push back otherwise (things like meditation, working out and going for a walk).

It’s important that this structure be held as well as we can, without being rigid. If there are interruptions, we have to decide if the interruption is important enough to tend to right now  — important enough to set aside what we had planned. Or perhaps we need to delay dealing with it until later (or not deal with it at all, if it’s not important).

Flexibility means the ability to shift the structure as needed, on the fly. It means being willing to put aside what you had planned, to deal with what has come up. But it also means not just abandoning the structure when things get uncomfortable or you feel like procrastinating.

Let Go of Self-Judgment

You won’t do any of the above things perfectly. In fact, there’s no expectation of “perfect” because it’s not a real thing. We’ll try to do as much as we can, but it won’t be exactly the same as we intended. That’s normal and expected and completely OK.

However, the harmful thing comes when we add self-judgment on top of all of that. We judge ourselves, criticize ourselves, feel disappointed in ourselves, are harsh on ourselves. This is the usual condition for most people.

This self-judgment hurts us, just like the expectations that we create for ourselves. We stress about it, we feel bad about ourselves … this doesn’t help the situation. If we’re really behind or overwhelmed, feeling like we’re crap doesn’t make the situation better. It makes us more likely to shut down, to avoid doing the things we want to do.

The practice is to always be kind, loving, friendly, compassionate with ourselves. Whatever we do, there’s no shame or guilt. There’s just kindness. Are you behind? Be compassionate to your stressed out self. Are you feeling overwhelmed? Give yourself compassion. Did you fail at your goal? Compassion.

Be a good friend to yourself, not a harsh critic. Practice this every single day, many times throughout the day. Put a reminder where you won’t forget it.

Putting It All Together

OK, that’s a lot. How do we put this all together? Let’s take it one step at a time.

  1. Create a daily structure. Make a task list. Start working with Intentional Containers, focusing on one thing at a time.
  2. Get good sleep. Take breaks. Replenish.
  3. Practice noticing your expectations for getting everything done, and your self-judgment. Let go of those as much as you can, practicing kindness and appreciation.
  4. When you’re entering into an Intentional Container and trying to practice focus, notice whatever comes up (fear, uncertainty, the urge to procrastinate) and practice with it mindfully, as outlined above.

That’s not simple, but they’re things we can get better at with practice, and continue to come back to, over and over.

If you’d like to practice, join my Fearless Training Program. We’ll work on this together.