I honestly cannot remember the last time I said to myself, “I’ve got nothing to do.” That’s because life is damn busy, and it seems to get more hectic by the day. Especially once I had kids, everything went completely off the rails. Time just disappeared; it got sucked into a vortex of stuff. Hours blend, days become a never-ending pattern, and weeks and months fly by. And years… God knows where they go. So, how the heck can you even think about time when it’s so elusive?
These Are Busy Times
Let’s be realistic: there has never been a time in our lives where things were as busy as today. Technology helps our daily lives: that’s a fact. We move faster, communicate in a more leisurely fashion, and keep in touch with one another in ways that seemed only science fiction just fifty years ago.
And yet, the marvel of technology brings on a slew of new issues as well. We are all constantly connected, always online. No matter when and where, something beeps or flashes, and we are always on our toes. Waiting. Listening. Ready for the next thing. We jerk when our phone vibrates or our smart home alarm dings to let us know that a raccoon is crossing our back yard.
We are continuously under attack in that way, and so there is no moment to relax. That creates a massive problem for all of us because when you seem busy, when stuff is constantly happening around you, and you interact with it, you feel like you are accomplishing something.
Even if you read a news article that just popped up on your phone, and you take five minutes to write a flaming comment, you have done something. It doesn’t seem like wasted time. But is it?
In this article, I want to explore how we can understand where our time goes and, more importantly, how we can gain some of it back and put it to good use toward critical things.
What is Time?
When people think of time, I believe there are always two facets of that concept that have different connotations in our minds. On the one hand, we think of time as a continuum, as in the past, present, and future. We all have this long line in our minds, and along that line are the events of our lives. This timeline contains facts as we remember them from our first memory until today, and from here on, we have different thoughts about where it leads into the future.
On the other hand, there is the concept of our time. That is the time from our birth until our eventual and inevitable demise through death. Every human lives with the knowledge that they will die at some point in time, and because life is precious, the value of that time is extremely high.
Though, the issue we face is that we don’t feel the passage of time because, relatively speaking, it’s slow. Once a day goes by, you don’t have some massive countdown above your head that decreases by one. If you would, first of all, it would be slightly creepy, but secondly, you’d be much more aware of where you are, and you’d think carefully about your next step.
But we don’t know. Our countdown might reach zero tomorrow, or eighty years from now. So it’s hard to evaluate the passage of one hour against the background of that much uncertainty.
If you do nothing for the next hour, can you call that hour wasted if you continue to live for the next eighty years? But what if you were to die ten hours later?
The Value of Time
You see, the value of a segment of time is directly related to the number of segments you have to spend, much like with any economic commodity. But since you don’t know that quantity for sure, it’s challenging to evaluate and assign. One approach would be not to care. At the other end of the spectrum, the second approach assumes the end of time is nigh and treats every single moment as a precious gem.
Both approaches are, clearly, not going to get you to an optimal or even positive place. So, then, what is a better tactic? How do you find the balance?
Well, the answer lies in your ability to link time not to its mere duration but to its usage toward the things that are important in your life.
When you take the time to reflect, analyze, and define the important things in your life, something exciting happens-you become able to associate goals, actions, and decisions with those things. Since you can only do those as time passes, you begin to understand that the value of time now becomes a function of the value of the things you hold important.
If you were to decide that teaching your child how to read is a fundamental goal for the next six months, the time spent doing that is time spent adequately. Does this mean that if you spend time doing something else, you have wasted your time? No, unless you had a clear opportunity to use the time that way, and you deliberately decided to use it otherwise.
Priority and Time
This idea implies that you can look across all the aspects of your life, which includes your identities (such as individual, husband, father, etc.), as well as your life’s dimensions (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) and assign importance to elements that fall into those categories.
The next step is to look at the reality of your life today. It’s one thing to discover or create important things for you, but it’s a whole other thing to understand what you are actually doing because thinking and doing are very different. That becomes increasingly critical once you know that your brain is a fickle bastard who doesn’t have your best interests at heart all the time. This is where the personal time audit steps into play.
By unpacking your daily life, you will shine a light on areas where you must learn or practice saying no and other areas of opportunity where you must gain the courage to say yes.
Next, we will look at the steps needed to implement time blocking or calendaring to optimize the time in your life.
Personal Time Audit
A personal time audit is a process of understanding how you spend your time and identify patterns. Because it’s an audit, it may take you anywhere from one to four weeks to complete.
Most of our lives are pretty standardized within the confines of a month, and they tend to abide by a particular sequence. If your pattern is longer, though, make sure you do your audit for a long enough period to cover all the different parts of your life and all the things you do.
The audit involves a notebook or some digital note-taking system, and you must do it daily. You should have two different types of documents: one for a regular weekday, and the other for the weekend, just because, in general, they are quite different.
The daily audit will look like the page of a daily planner. It will have thirty-minute increments on rows from when you wake up until the time you go to sleep. For each time slot, you will record the following information:
- Where were you?
- What were you doing?
- How were you feeling (physically & emotionally)?
- Who was with or around you?
Fill-in these pages daily for at least a week, and then keep going until you feel like you’ve covered every “type” of day that occurs in your life. You’ll wind up with a minimum of seven daily trackers.
Identifying Daily Patterns Spent
You need to put them on a desk or floor in front of you and group them by similarity. For instance, keep the workday pages together. If specific things are happening on different days, keep those together, too. What you want here is to create a template of your typical day.
For most people, there will be two typical days: a workday and a weekend. However, someone might have multiple types depending on his or her particular situation. For example, if you work part-time and only go to work three days a week, your pattern will be different from someone who goes to work five days a week or someone who has two jobs.
Next, you will use a blank new tracker with the same hourly format, and you will document the pattern hour by hour:
- Where are you usually?
- What are you doing, usually?
- How were you feeling most of the time (physically & emotionally)?
- Who is generally with or around you?
As you fill in these “typical” days, you build an average picture of your typical day. However, in addition to the four attributes that you collect, your “typical” day sheet will include one more column:
- Relates to which essential item?
Here is where you associate the action with one or more items from your priority list or your long-term or short-term goals. That’s the list derived from your life vision and goals, which we discussed in the previous step.
The Time Pattern Explained
If you are like most people, a pattern will begin to emerge. You will identify areas where you spend time toward essential items, and you will locate periods that are not associated with a critical element.
As you look at these pages, you must stop and reflect. Realize that this is where your time is going. Your average day is just that-a time sucker. Every day that goes by consumes twenty-four hours of your life. Look at the page with an open mind and in total honesty.
You see the items that are not related to anything important, don’t you? What about the other way around? Are there any items in your importance list that are not present in your average day? That’s a huge problem because every passing day without even 0.01% going toward your critical goals will make those goals that much harder to attain.
Having your daily time audit side by side with your vision and mission will allow you to identify chunks of your day that you could utilize differently.
This process is what I call “making up time.” Of course, nobody can create time in the pure sense. But we can create “effective” time by reducing the amount of time we use for things that are not important and increasing the amount of time spent on essential matters.
The net effect will be that you spend more time on the things that are important to you.
Being Honest About Wasted Time
One way to put things in perspective is to add up the amount of “wasted” time. You can define wasted time as time spent on things that are not important. Note that fun, entertainment, and relaxation should all be, to some extent, part of your plan. They are important, but in this case, you must scrutinize the amount you indulge in and the time you devote to them.
If, after a long day at work, you spend thirty minutes watching a TV show to unwind and then spend another hour doing chores or learning something, you have spent that time productively. The TV-watching acted as a stress remover and buffer between two different activities. However, if you spend five hours watching TV, that is no longer just relaxation. It quickly morphs into wasted time and, if left unchecked, into addiction.
You are the only person who can evaluate these things, and you’ll know them in your gut very fast. Don’t try to lie to yourself. Yes, maybe one day you should be allowed to watch five hours of TV, but your audit creates an image of your “average” day. If, on average, you watch five hours of TV per day, that is a problem. You need to be self-aware enough to understand these nuances determine which part of your time has been spent effectively and which has not.
Look, we all have twenty-four hours in a day. That’s it. But the way we use it is what makes us productive or not. For that matter, there are two vital parts of the day, which people often misuse. They’re your morning and your evening.
Between the two, the morning is the time that is most often misused and has the most potential to generate additional productive time for you. Think about it this way: if you woke up one hour earlier every day, you’d gain 365 hours in a whole year. That’s like having nine additional 40-hour workweeks. It’s a lot of time.
Essential Parts of Your Day
But wait, you’ll say-I’ll lose one hour of sleep, and sleep is critical, too. Yes, that’s where the other side of the equation comes into play: your evening.
You see, the way your morning sucks up your time is through sleep and through your sluggish movements throughout your wake-up time. The way your evening sucks up your time is by things that you’ve convinced yourself are relaxing for you, such as TV. By taking a hard look at those and making them work in conjunction, you can master your time. Here’s the process:
- Resolve to wake up one hour early
- Create a morning routine that advances your goals first and fires you up for the rest of the day
- Resolve to go to bed one hour early
- Create an evening routine that relaxes you and is conducive to sleep
By doing both, you have not invented new time; instead, you have shifted the time you are awake to use it more effectively. By putting just 1% toward your goals every day in your new productive time slot, you can grow those goals exponentially. The compounding of small efforts over long periods is an effective way to accomplish your goals because consistency is key.
Once you master your morning and evening, there are other times you can look at and improve:
- Your lunchtime at work
- Your commute to and from work
- The time when you cook or do chores
By being super-deliberate and making sure that your priorities always come first, you will feel that you have created new time for yourself. In reality, you have optimized your time for productive use, but psychologically it will feel like you have made time from nothing. And that is amazing!
10 Steps to Increase Your Effective Time
To recap, here are ten steps that you can use today to increase your effective time.
- Start by creating a vision and defining the mission for your future life.
- Make sure to derive short-term and long-term goals in all areas of your life.
- Create a master project and on-going task list in a task management system.
- Use a priority system, such as the Eisenhower Priority Matrix, to prioritize your goals and tasks.
- Do your current time audit and identify productive time versus wasted time.
- Plan and schedule your priority items monthly, weekly, and daily, organized in a cohesive to-do list system.
- Create a morning and evening routine that advance your goals forward.
- Deliberately cut your wasted time by 10% until you reach the minimum acceptable.
- Re-run your time audit every six months and look at the progress.
- Reflect often and refine your life plan.
Other Resources on Time Management and Productivity
- 33 Freakishly Effective Ways To Be More Productive At Work
- 15 Ways to Increase Productivity at Work
- 10 Practical Ways to Improve Time Management Skills
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- What is your biggest struggle when it comes to assigning time to important tasks?
- Do you have any specific strategies you use to manage your time?
- What has been a major shift in the way you manage time that had a significant positive impact?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!