Does the phrase ‘time management’ annoy you? Is it because you feel like it’s a lost cause? It’s probably one of the most (over)used terms when it comes to nailing your personal and professional life: it serves as a vague piece of wafting advice that seems almost impossible to master.
Memes that spout modern mantras like, ‘you have as many hours in a day as Beyonce’ don’t help either.
The common assumption seems to be that if you can just shave a bit of time off here and there, or learn to multi-task more efficiently you will stretch the 24 hours you’re blessed with and finally get a chance to work on that passion project, overdue to-do list or simply catch up on some much needed shut eye. But according to time management expert, Laura Vanderkam, it’s this exact belief that’s getting us in trouble.
“We don’t build the lives we want by saving time,” she told the crowd in her TED talk, ‘How to gain control in your free time’. “We build the lives we want, and then time saves itself.”
If that seems as infuriating as rice milk, don’t worry. It’s actually very profound.
Take this example: after doing some in-depth research and studying the behaviour of extremely busy women for 1001 days, Laura found that while all of the women had ‘no time to spare’, when it came to dealing with an emergency, time just happened to appear. In one instance, a participant had to unexpectedly fix a water heater which leaked into her home. It took her seven hours to fix.
“I’m sure if you had asked her at the start of the week, “Could you find seven hours to train for a triathlon?” I’m sure she would’ve said what most of us would’ve said, which is, “No – can’t you see how busy I am?”
But those seven hours were created, nonetheless.
“We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it.”
According to Laura, what we want to prioritise for the year should be equivalent to that broken water heater – we should look at it like a non-negotiable task that must be done.
Let’s experiment shall we? Laura uses a similar proposition: think of the task you’ve been putting off for a while. Let’s say vacuuming the inside of your car, hypothetically. If someone offered you $10,000 to do it, you would be able to find time in your week, wouldn’t you? Because all of a sudden, in the face of a huge cash injection, a clean upholstery while you drive is your key priority, isn’t it? And that’s why you’re not a victim of time. You’re a victim of prioritising.
Here are some key things Laura outlines in her talk to help you refocus and treat time better:
Remember: time is a choice
That ‘time’ that you desperately crave is a choice and if you don’t have, ahem, time for it, it’s probably because you’re not making it a priority. When you pick up your phone for a sneaky Instagram scroll or get stuck inside a Netflix binge vortex (no judgement, we’ve all do it), start to see that as a conscious choice you made to do that activity. I don’t have time’ often means, ‘it’s not a priority’. If you think about it, that’s really a more accurate phrase to describe this situation. Start to be accountable for the time you spend on things that aren’t really your true priority.
Get real with how much time you do have
“There are 168 hours in a week… That is a lot of time,” Laura explains. “If you are working a full-time job, so 40 hours a week, sleeping eight hours a night, so 56 hours a week, that leaves 72 hours for other things.”
Those ‘other things’ are up to you but it’s important to start by figuring out how much added time you have in your week after you’ve accounted for your non-negotiable tasks (cooking, sleeping, working, commuting etc.) Then work backwards.
Performance review your future self
Before adding ‘time management’ extraordinaire to your life resume, you have to figure out what your goals really are and what you’re trying to prioritise your time for. Laura suggests giving yourself a review at the beginning of the year, as if you’ve already achieved your top three to five goals for the year.
Even better: perform a monthly or quarterly life review, where you can keep checking in on your results. It’s a lot easier to get back on that horse when you’ve only fallen off it for a month (as opposed to seven).
Go small, to think big
Once you’ve come up with your appraisal, break your core goals down into doable steps, per week or per month and jot them in your diary before the week even begins, that way they’re already in there whether you feel an inspired or not. Try also breaking these down into three main categories: career, relationships and personal. It’s all very well to want to do more of your side project but realistically, it will be hard to take that away from date night – just try and account for it ahead of time.
Watch Laura’s full TED talk below.