We tend to think of the words “time management” as being a tedious drudgery which is only for students or business people, people concerned with deadlines or “productivity”.
But in actuality, time management, simply put, is about making your life better. Your regular day-to-day life. It’s about getting everything you need to get done, and having time left over to enjoy. It’s about living stress free, and being able to look back on each day with satisfaction – in fact, being able to someday look back on your entire life with satisfaction.
For many of us (myself included) procrastination and time wasting (hello Facebook, I’m looking at you!) is our “marshmallow test” (Google it if you don’t know what that is). But it isn’t just a test. As adults, once we become aware of it, we can make the conscious choice to change our habits, knowing that the (slightly delayed) rewards will more than make up for the (immediate, but relatively brief) cost.
The following exercises are based on one of the first college classes I ever took, way back in 1994. I found it incredibly eye-opening, and forever changed the way I saw my own use of time. It was indeed to make me a better student (which it did) but it went far further than that, allowing me to do more of the things I want to do and less of the things I don’t, simply by being mindful of the reality of the 168 hours there are each week.
Chances are, unless you have done this before, you will find something to surprise you, educate you, and, I hope, you will gain something from having done it.
If not, well… I sincerely apologize for wasting your time!
Step 1: How Would You Like to Spend Your Time?
For this exercise (and the ones on the next pages), you can print the picture (above), or you can download the Excel spreadsheet (bottom of the page)
In an ideal world, how would you like to spend your time?
-First, think of everything you have to do, and everything you'd like to do, at least once a week
-Fill these activities in, starting with what is most important at the top
-The first two should always be sleep and work, since you don’t really have a choice about them
Sleep should also be 480-540 minutes a day, 7 days a week. Don't try to make extra time by cutting out sleep. The effects are gradual enough that you don't notice it, but getting 6 hours or less most nights will make you stupider, more fat, quicker to be annoyed, more prone to getting sick, slower to recover from injury, more likely to crash your car, and ultimately cause you to die sooner. Skipping sleep to gain time is counter-productive, because it will make you less productive and slower when you are awake. Skipping sleep to have fun is counter-productive, because it increases depression and stress. Not getting enough sleep will cause you to age faster and be worse at sex. Basically, it will make your life worse in every way.
If you desire sleeping in on the weekends, you aren't getting enough sleep each night.
If you need an alarm clock to wake up on time, you aren't getting enough sleep.
Schedule more sleep for yourself, and if you have to be up at a specific time each morning, go to sleep earlier every night.
-After the activity list is done, then fill in the number of minutes you would ideally spend on it each day. Try not to think about how much time you really spend, but rather what you would if you could.
-The times have 3 spots, for activities you may do multiple times in one day (like eating)
-Finally, put in the number of days per week for each activity. Sleeping is 7 days, but work is normally only 5. Others may be only once (like laundry or shopping)
-When the list is finished, go to step #2
Step 2: Perception (how Do You Think You Actually Spend Your Time?)
For your top 10 time consuming activates – without using the last page, notes, or a calculator, try to estimate off the top off your head how much time you actually spend on each thing on average.
-column one is for a single, typical work (or school) day
-column two is for the entire weekend combined (two days)
If you're days off aren't Sat and Sun, just modify it to fit your circumstances.
Step 3: (perception Continued)
(Do NOT look at this until you have thoroughly finished 2a!)
For each day, fill in an approximation of your daily schedule.
Step 4: 168
Having filled out both sections of exercises 1 and 2, now go back to the first chart and multiply the total number of minutes by the number of days per week for each one.
Then divide that number by 60, to get the number of hours, and write that number in the last column.
When you have done this for each one, then go down the line and add up all the numbers in the last columns.
You should get exactly 168.
No more, no less.
But chances are you ended up with either a bigger or smaller number than that.
If your number is larger, that means you have unrealistic expectations for what you can possibly get done. Something has to be cut. That may suck, but you don't have a choice - there are only 168 hours in a week. You can't do everything.
If you try to do everything, you will inevitably sacrifice sleep and rest, and over time there will be serious consequences. If your number was much larger than 168 in this exercise, there's a good change you have fairly common headaches, insomnia, colds, physical ailments, pain, weight gain, digestive problems, and/or depression, which have no clear cause. The cause is stress.
Most people think of stress as being a response to negative stuff, but simply being too busy, even with mundane or even fun activities, can cause it as well.
If it continues long enough, it will lead to skin conditions, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, and even increase cancer risk.
In step 5 and 6 we will explore where some time might be saved and how to prioritize, but if you are far over the limits of the reality of time, the amount of life reorganization that's called for may be beyond the scope of this instructable.
If your number is less than 168, congratulations! You have lots of free time available, which will add extra hours to each day when you learn to be mindful of it.
Either way you just learned something really important about how you manage time. And this is just step one!
Next, on to step two. Add up all of the total hours for each category under “weekdays”. Write this number on the left edge of the space next to your estimate. Now multiply that number by 5, and write it in the box labeled “leave blank”.
Do the same for weekends. Now add up all of the hours on both sides.
This number should really add up to exactly 168.
If it goes over, that means you made some mistakes in your estimates. It is impossible to go over. There are only 168 hours in a week.
If it goes under, but you still feel you don’t have enough time for everything you want to do in real life, that means that somewhere along the way you are spending more time than you think you are on certain activities; most likely you are wasting significant amounts of time without even realizing it.
Compare the totals you came up with in part 2 with the estimates in part 3, where each day’s clock was in place. Did you give more or less time to certain activities when you tried to fit it into a schedule?
Also look at how your estimate of actual time usage compares to the ideal use of time you filled out in step one. Of particular note is any discrepancies between things which you want to give only a little time to, but in reality are giving lots of time to (unfortunately, time spent working isn't something most of us have the luxury to cut back on right away, but with some advance planning, someday you can)
Now its time to go back and do this one again more realistically (honestly?).
Step 5: The Moral of the Story (part 1)
It turns out there actually really are a lot more hours in a day than most of us realize.
The key, much like with saving money, is simply in not wasting what we already have.
The average smart-phone owner checks it 150 times day, adding up to over two hour per day on mobile communication - that's not including apps and games - all those brief checks of FaceBook updates adds up to 14 hours a week, or 1/3 of available discretionary time, alone.
In particular, its worth being aware of open-ended entertainment; those which continue indefinitely, with no clear stopping points. For example, while a TV show or a book have a concrete end, a Facebook feed will never run out. It doesn't even have chapters or commercials to provide a natural pausing point. Many modern apps and games are deliberately designed to be literally addictive, and take up as much of your time as possible.
It may sound overly simple, but it’s true: what we choose to do with our time shows where our true priorities lie. If your actions aren't aligning with what you feel your priorities are, there is a problem. Chances are, at the end of the day, and at the end of your life, you aren't going to look back with deep regret and think “man, I really wish I had spent more time watching TV”.
We all need a break now and then. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with TV (or FB any other time waster), in fact I watch it myself. But there is a problem with it if there are things you want to do that you aren't getting done, or if you feel like you don’t have enough time.
The secret is actually very easy (in principal; but only slightly harder in practice):
Do the most important and time-sensitive things first.
If you have a project due in a week, there are two different ways you can go about doing it:
A) You expect it will take about 10 hours of time, so you set aside one hour in the morning and one at night for the next 5 days. You have plenty of time, so you aren’t too worried about it, so maybe you skip morning one because you have other stuff to do. As you get started later in the day, you leave the telly on in the background. When you get bored, you check email, when you are hungry you stop for a snack, if the phone rings you answer it. After each distraction it takes a minute to transition to and from the task, and it takes another minute to find your place and remember exactly what you were doing. A minute here and there isn’t much, but it adds up and you end up spending 1.5 hours each session. By the 5th day you have skipped a couple sessions, and end up having to work on it over the weekend in order to get it finished.
B) On day one you sit down - with no TV, no internet, phone turned off - and crank out the entire project with only two short breaks for meals, and 10-minute breaks every hour which you spend stretching and exercising. The exercise invigorates and refreshes you, allowing you to have more focus when you get back to work. Without any distractions, you get it done even faster than you expected, and still have a little time left over to unwind at the end of the day.
In option A, because each break adds extra time, you end up spending 15 hours all together. In option B you spend 9 hours, (maybe less), giving you 7 extra hours of free time in the week. Not only that, but in option A you feel increasing pressure as the week wears on, knowing you have a deadline pending. The closer the deadline gets, the more stress it causes, until you end up spending your entire weekend proofreading or troubleshooting or whatever. In option B you have 6 full days of emotional freedom, which means you not only get more time, you can enjoy that time even more! By procrastinating, you exchange one day of hard work (and a week of leisure) for a week of mild stress followed by a weekend of hard work plus much more stress.
The end result is causing significantly more stress and more work for yourself.
This example does not only hold true for projects. Compare these two hypothetical scenarios, in which you are expecting a ride to pick you up for a day trip:
Option 1: Option 2:
7am wake up, get dressed | 7am wake up, check email
7:30 pack | 7:30 talk to roommates
8am eat breakfast | 8am exercise
8: 30 exercise | 8:30 get dressed, eat breakfast
9am talk to roommates, check email | 9am pack
9:30 go | 9:30 go
Notice that in both scenarios all of the exact same things get accomplished. You spend the exact same amount of time on each thing in both. But in the 2nd, eating breakfast and packing are hurried. The first is stress free, because you know that the most important step is already taken care of. In scenario one if your ride shows up early, no problem. In scenario two, now they have to wait for you. In the first one exercise fits in just fine, but in the second one, it might just get skipped because of watching the clock, knowing the packing still needs to be done. In option 1, if you finish early, you can sit back and really relax and enjoy your time talking to roommates knowing that you have nothing you need to be doing.
To put it another way - the major difference between those two time management scenarios is that in the first you do things in the order of how time sensitive they are. That doesn't mean that anything gets bumped off the schedule completely.
But even though the exact same things are being done for the exact same amount of time, one leads to less stress than the other, and is more flexible. In the first option you don't feel busy. In the second you do. In the first, if packing takes longer than expected, you can always skip email and check it at night, or have a shorter conversation. In the second, if packing takes longer than expected, you are stuck. In the first you have more time to savor and enjoy your breakfast.
Want to work out more? Do it first thing in the morning, right after you get up. If you put off exercise until 11pm, its going to feel like it is imposing on your time. But when you just wake up and spend 15 minutes doing it first thing in the morning, I guarantee you that you will not notice that lost 15 minutes at any point during the day afterward. Not spending enough time with the kids? Make it the priority, and then do all the other stuff that needs doing afterwards. Whatever it is, just do it. Get it over with. Then you don't have to worry about it. That makes the free time you have afterward much higher quality time than the "free" time you have when you put it off. That is what makes the difference between stress and no stress.
I'm lazy, and I like leisure. That's why I try to get the crap that has to be done out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible.
I used to do tasks I didn't like slowly, because I wasn't motivated to do them, until I realized that it just meant I spent even more time doing something I didn't like. When I realized that, I made the decision to change my own habits, with the result of getting the same amount done faster, leaving more free time for other things.
Step 6: The Moral of the Story (part 2)
Going back to the exercises, let’s look at the average person’s discretionary time:
There are 168 hours in a week. Of that time, there are a few things that you have to do:
56 hours per week of sleep
40 hours of work (plus 5 hours of mandatory lunch breaks and 5 hours commuting = 50)
9 hours cooking and eating
4 hours of home maintenance: shopping, laundry, cleaning, etc
3 hours of body maintenance (getting dressed, shower, toilet time)
= 122 hours of time each week that are filled by necessities
-> 168 hours total – 122 hours = 46 hours per week of discretionary time
(46 hours divided by 7 days = average of 6.5 hours of free time per day)
Whether it is working out, keeping up with emails, reading books or personal projects, 46 hours a week is more than enough time to get done all the things a person needs to do.
Most people don't actually deliberately prioritize all the crap they end up wasting time on. It’s more that they just aren't very aware of time.
Since we have a limited amount of time in this life, it is worthy of mindfulness.
I think a lot of people actually don't realize that they have, on average, 6.5 hours of free time every day.
They don't really realize how much time they put into things that aren't really that important to them.
Most people (myself included) like to take their time doing things, because they don't like to feel hurried. The irony is, all that taking their time ends up being the reason they feel time stress later on.
Remember that any second you spend doing any one thing is a second you can't spend doing something else. Any time you spend on small talk is time you can't spend on meaningful conversation. Any time you spend watching TV is time you can’t spend reading a book.
All the possible things that can be done can be put somewhere roughly within a few categories:
1) things which need to be done, and are time sensitive.
2) things which need to be done, but not by any specific time
3) things which don’t need to be done, but will benefit you in the long run
4) things which are enjoyable
5) things which are neither practical nor enjoyable
There are some things which fall into both categories 1 and 4. Spend plenty of time on those things!
Everything in 1 and 2 should be done first and as quickly as possible, to get them out of the way and over with and leave more time for the stuff in 4. 4 is good, but only after 1 and 2 are finished. Where 4 goes in relation to 3, well that is up to the individual circumstances, and often comes down to a judgment call or a personal preference. But most important of all, anything in category 5 should NEVER be done, under any circumstances.
And yet, you may begin to notice, after having done the previous exercises, that a lot of your unaccounted for time is actually going into category 5 items. Stuff like responding to Facebook messages by people you don’t even know or particularly like, or finishing a book you aren’t into just because you started it, or sitting in rush-hour traffic (when you could be reading on the train or getting exercise on your bike, but still getting where you need to go).
Look for those things. And then eliminate them. In that way you can reclaim your (already existing!) 46 hours of free time every week.
And almost like magic, you have done the impossible: you have actually created more hours in the day!