About time

I’m a big fan of procrastination. Give me a completely pointless or otherwise useless task to distract me when I should be working (or indeed writing…) and it will become the focus of my being. Even as I begin writing this post, I have checked social media several times (no major updates) and begun watching Naked Gun 2½ again (still funny). If I was to try and quantify how much time I had lost to procrastination over the years well, firstly that would be an excellent way to waste some more time, and more over I imagine it would add up to a significant length of time.

In my professional life, I am better at holding back the procrastination beast, but that does not mean I am using my time entirely efficiently even then. Being able to better manage my time is a constant goal for my personal and work life, and as we discussed last week in my post on the benefits of reading, it is clear having control over our time and what we do with it is important to allow us to do more interesting things in life. In this post, I want to have a think about what time management means for us, and crucially how we can best use it to benefit our health and wellbeing.

What do we mean by time management?

It might appear obvious what I mean by time management, the clue is in the name as the saying goes. But there are actually two similar, yet subtly different aims for time management, and it is important to decide what your goal is when organising your time better.

The first potential goal for time management is to more efficiently manage your time and the tasks and activities you need to complete in a day. In this scenario, activities which might have taken you five hours to complete before would be completed in four, for example.

The second option is managing time to take part in more activities and tasks during your day. In this scenario you may wish to take up a new hobby, or maybe find time to read more as we discussed in last week’s post, so you need to organise your time better to fit more in.

While both goals will benefit from similar time management ideas, it is important to keep in mind what you are wanting to achieve and focus your plans accordingly. There is no use wanting to better organise the tasks you need to complete already, only to find yourself taking on new activities which fill in what time you have saved.

What does the research say?

If you were to search online for research into time management, you will almost certainly find a sizeable collection of papers writing about time management and how best to achieve it. You might even discover much of the research looks at doctors managing their time, something I know from experience can be a challenge.

What you will begin to realise as you wade through the literature; very few studies have actually looked at the benefits to health and wellbeing time management can bring. It is not that there are no studies, it is just they form the minority of the studies published. I wonder whether this is because time management is simply assumed to be a good thing, but I cannot prove this. Clearly, better managed time gives you the chance to do other things (like forest bathing) to help improve your wellbeing, but does time management itself help as well?

While it might not surprise you to read, research suggests people consistently feel they are “time poor”, and this lack of time is linked to a lower sense of wellbeing, poorer health and ultimately low productivity. The authors of this paper also argue people and organisations frequently ignore the benefits of better time management, though I assume given you are reading this post, you are not in this group.

How people approach managing their time, in particular whether they value free time over making money (1,2), has been shown to be linked to wellbeing. I suspect it will surprise no one, but people making work choices with a focus on work-life balance were consistently happier than those who had less free time but made more money. This is further emphasised by a study looking at the benefits of the standard work week, showing the chance for time off work with family and friends (i.e. the weekend) led to better overall wellbeing, while those working in demanding jobs were especially likely to see benefits of family time when they had it.

You have probably noticed I have so far avoided actually writing about the evidence for time management, but fear not, data is available. The best evidence, a recent meta-analysis (synthesis of the results from in this case 158 studies) has shown time management is beneficial for our wellbeing. In fact, the study found time management strategies are better for improving wellbeing than they are for improving work performance, suggesting time management makes you feel happier even if you are working much the same as before. And while the meta-analysis is the most comprehensive research available to date, it is supported by additional smaller reviews and a single study suggesting time management is beneficial for our wellbeing at the very least.

Managing our time better

The data is not comprehensive, but it does tentatively appear time management is good for our wellbeing. If this is indeed the case, how we go about better managing our time is the next important consideration.

Understanding the problem

Before we make any changes to our time management, it is important to understand how we are using our time to begin with. One of the easiest ways to do this is by creating a time log, a diary of our day (or maybe week) including all the tasks and activities we complete and how long they take.

If you look online, you can find a large selection of prepared documents to complete a time log (examples here), or you may choose to make one up yourself. However you choose to record your time, I would avoid using time periods shorter than about half an hour. While we want to understand how we use our time, we need to be careful not to find ourselves micromanaging it.

Priorities

With an understanding of what we are doing currently with our time, the next challenge is to understand what is important in our lives and what is surplus to requirements. You might want to attack your time log at this point with highlighters or coloured pens for added flair (or maybe that is just me).

There are many ways to prioritise activities you complete during your day. You could keep it simple, with two categories of chores and hobbies, though this might be a little too simple to help you manage your time better. An alternative approach might be to categorise according to importance, complexity, length of time to complete, consequence if not done etc., though I would imagine this is a little too detailed.

For me, a good compromise is to rate tasks according to the following scheme;

  • Important tasks which need completing at a set time
  • Fun tasks which are important to you
  • Important tasks with no time limit
  • Fun tasks which could be missed if needed
  • Whatever is left

As you can probably guess, the list descends in order of importance, with activities finding themselves at the bottom of the list being disposable if you need more time. I will leave it up to you to decide how you prioritise your activities during the day, we all have different priorities after all. What I would say is keep things consistent. If a task is important one week, and unless something changes dramatically, it should remain important the following week.

Setting goals

For anyone who has ever been near the corporate world or higher education, you will almost certainly have come across SMART goals. The idea, when setting a goal, is to make it specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited.

Creating SMART goals for your daily life is probably a bit of overkill, but there is one part of the acronym we can make use of; achievable. Whatever we do when setting a goal, make sure it is achievable. I am never going to run a marathon, so setting it as a goal would be futile. Again, understanding what you can achieve and in what time is an individual thing, but be honest with yourself.

And importantly, make sure you are not too hard on yourself if you don’t quite achieve your goals. Achieving our goals can be an important boost to our wellbeing, but missing them is not an excuse to be harsh on ourselves. Instead, refocus, adjust the goal and consider what needs to change for you to achieve it the second time.

Saying no

Possibly not the advice you were expecting to see in a post about time management, but learning to say no is an important part of managing our time. Some of you will be better at this already, but for those of you who struggle, it can quickly mean you are piled high with tasks to complete and little free time to do it in.

How you go about saying no will depend on the context. For some people, giving an explanation as to why you cannot do something will be sufficient. For others, you might feel it is OK to offer an alternative to what they are asking for, maybe something which will take less time. Ultimately however, for some requests, you simply need to say no and not be worried about doing so. We have finite amounts of time, and filling it with unreasonable requests is almost guaranteed to leave you feeling worse off.

Lists, lists, lists

My wife will love this section of the post as she is an aficionado of the list. I am not. I have a small list of reminders for important tasks in the week (cannot forget to take out the bins) but otherwise I do my best to carry things in my head. My wife on the other hand keeps lists for everything from shopping to weekly activities to jobs to do for work.

As much as it pains me to write, keeping lists can be a good idea. If you want to organise your time better, knowing what exactly you have to complete is a great start. Whether you are old fashioned with paper and pen, or a little more up to date on the phone, keep an organise list of the things you need to achieve, and make sure to take pleasure when you cross a completed task off. There are few things more satisfying than methodically working through tasks and crossing them off when done.

Ask for help

The final part of my advice for better time management could arguably be the first and most important bit. Asking for help can be seen as a weakness by some people, but it is really a strength. Having an understanding of things you are struggling with and having the ability to ask others for help when this happens is an important personal attribute. We are social animals after all.

There can be many reasons why you might need to ask for help. From the task being beyond your abilities to time running away from you, sometimes it is only with support we can achieve everything we need finish. No matter what you try, there may come a point when only the help of others can see our time better managed. Be prepared to ask for help, and most of all feel positive about doing so.

The end of lost time…?

On the face of it, managing our time better is simply a tool to allow us to take part in other wellbeing-boosting activities. Intuitively this makes sense, but increasingly there is evidence to support managing our time as a way to better wellbeing in and of itself. No matter how busy life is to begin with, getting a better handle on our time could be the first step to better wellbeing. Why not make some time (sorry, couldn’t resist…) this weekend to take the first steps.

And remember, if you are taking steps to manage your time, or else have some useful tips to organise our lives, make sure you leave a comment below. Sharing what we know and learn allows us all to grow together.

Happy weekend!

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