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Manage your time more effectively

The biggest hoax we all buy into is that there's too much to do in a day and it's simply not possible to get through it all. You have 168 hours every week to make the most of your life – and seriously, it is more than enough

Woman at work
Image Credit: Supplied picture
Determine how you spend your time and with whom by keeping a time log for a few days.

No time to stand beneath the boughs and stare as long as sheep or cows." When WH Davies wrote this line in his poem Leisure in 1911, he undoubtedly had an understanding of time that is lost on us today. In today's complex world, it is considered far more respectable, not to say intelligent, to say you barely have time to breathe.

It takes a certain amount of courage to stand apart from the crowd and debunk the current belief that time is in short supply. Meet Laura Vanderkam, a New York-based writer and journalist, who does exactly that in her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

The 168 Vanderkam refers to are the total hours in a week. A week in which many of us typically spend hours browsing social media sites, surfing television channels, wandering about in shopping malls and reading trivia. In short, we are willingly caught in a downpour of irrelevant activities that won't leave our mind dry enough for kindling new creative thoughts.

In her book Vanderkam argues that even if we were to work 50 hours a week and sleep 56 hours (eight hours per day), we are still left with 62 hours to do something constructive.

Her idea of optimum time utilisation is that we need to place a value on time in a way that justifies what we do to spend that time. For example, you spend five hours on household tasks and feel no better for it. Wouldn't it be better if you could hire someone to do those jobs so you are free to do something you feel happy about?

In an exclusive email interview with Friday, Vanderkam shares her views on why the popular belief about time crunch is a myth. "The idea of revisiting our understanding of time came to me when I had my first child in 2007. In America at least, women are spending more time with their kids today, even though they're employed, compared to working women in the 1950s and 1960s. How was this possible, I wondered? Because today's mothers are spending a lot less time doing the household chores themselves. I also discovered various time diary studies that show we're not as overworked or sleep deprived as we think, and eventually, 168 Hours came out of that."

Vanderkam's other passion point is to spend time devoted to a low-priced leisure activity. "Personally, I find it more relaxing to go for a walk than read a news article online about something terrible."

All of us, says Vanderkam, have the same 168 hours per week. How we choose to spend them is what makes the difference between a fulfilled individual and a dissatisfied one.

Personal accounts: The 168 hours

How three people manage time and their priorities

A Love for life

Margie Love is a teacher and mother-of-three. Her eldest, Michael, is 22 and her twins Birdie and Kennedy are eight years old. She is married to Dr Don Love, a university professor and they live on the university campus in Sharjah.

Time management is of real importance for Love as every weekday morning, she and the twins make an hour-long commute to a school in Dubai. Love teaches 8th grade science and the twins attend class.

Love feels that although our lives are busy, we "can simplify things and divide our life into sleep, work, and ‘leisure'. But is it fair to say that a third of that is truly leisure? Last time I checked, the bills still needed to be paid, groceries needed to be bought, and commutes still had to be made. That really does not qualify as leisure in my opinion. On the other hand, time can get easily sucked away from us."

She has her priorities drawn up.

"My relationship with my husband is my first priority. We have such a great connection and work so well together and it carries over into everything we do; how we raise our children, manage our jobs, and spend our free time," she says.

Routine does get boring so she has hired help to get domestic chores done. But Love also believes that there are certain jobs at home that the family must do together.

"We live in Sharjah, but I work in Dubai, so the kids and I are gone from 6.30am until around 5pm. Bedtime for the twins is at 8pm, so my husband and I have about three hours of quality time in the evening and I don't wish to spend that time dusting, or cleaning windows. Ironically enough, I do all the laundry and my husband does all the cooking. We could have our nanny do that but my husband loves to cook. We get the kids involved in a few chores as I believe learning to do the chores is important for them."

Love's top priority is balancing home and work life. And making time for the simple pleasures of life.

"The other day, the kids and I got home late and my husband had a late class so we only had a couple of hours before the kids' bedtime. To make it memorable (and take the focus away from how tired we all were), we roasted hot dogs on the grill, ate by candlelight out in the backyard and played a quick game of charades. Nothing fancy, just good family fun."

Learning to say no helps too, says Love. "Over-scheduling can happen easily. If we aren't careful, we can get bogged down with hurrying from one activity to another and it almost becomes a checklist we have to get through instead of doing things we like to do. But given the circumstances, we do what we can."

Making ‘me' time

Canadian Heidi Rosindell is a developmental psychologist and relocated to Dubai from Cairo due to her husband's work. She says she now has a better handle on her time.

"Everything changed the day I figured out I had exactly enough time for the important things in my life."

It is fine with her that she gets smaller jobs done with hired help. But she doesn't believe all routine work is drudgery. "Life is a long process from start to finish and we can only see this as life starts to pass you by. Often, those who do thankless work do not get rewarded enough."

Rosindell has pinpointed her top five priorities in life - family, travel, art, education and a healthy lifestyle for her and her family. "And I have been making great progress in all areas." She is of the firm opinion people can have the time to do what they want, if they make the time to want what they do. "I think some people just carry on with how life is and grumble instead of making positive changes and outsourcing some tasks to others."

The concept of time management, she says, is ever-evolving. "My time management theory is simple: I make sure I have enough time for the important tasks and people in my life. I try to make positivity a priority in dealing with others and hope that positivity comes back to me naturally to enhance my life." 

A saner existence

Nicholas Panza is an elementary school counsellor who thinks life has become a lot saner since he learned to manage time better. "Through trial and error, I have worked out my priorities in life. However, it is also true that as life progresses, these priorities will change."

Panza protects his priorities fiercely. "Maintaining a social life, sports, working out, exploring the region, maintaining contact with loved ones back home, learning new skills to do better in his career," are top of his list. When it comes to routine tasks, they are, depending on the day "an albatross around my neck or a cathartic activity."

Panza feels good time management is a lifetime skill. "There are always things to distract us from doing what is important."

His believes greatly in the power of planning to make the most of time. "A daily planner is necessary. Procrastination is a common human condition so I try to start with the things I least want to do. That was a great lesson taught to me by my parents. Also, a timer is a great way to get things done. I often play little games, testing myself to see if I can get something done in a fixed amount of time."

His experiments with time management techniques have made his life a lot less stressful.

Time management tips and hints

Jumping from one task to the other can be counterproductive

Stop the time drain

Peggy Duncan, an Atlanta-based international personal productivity expert and computer trainer, says that all of us think we are good time managers but more often than not we lose perspective. "The biggest time management mistake we make is not realising how much time we waste. To stop wasting time, we have to analyse how we're spending it, organise everything around us so we can find it in an instant, prioritise what's most important, create a streamlined system for doing everything we repeat, and invest in and learn the right technology so we can finish everything quicker."

By the way

Duncan has created a time widget that you can download from her website

Duncan suggests the following five-point plan to make the most of your time:

1. Analyse. Determine how you spend your time and with whom by keeping a time log for a few days, including a weekend.

2. Organise. Find a set place for everything and keep it there when you're not using it. Everything around you needs to be organised, from your clothes closet to your computer files.

3. Prioritise. Do the most important work first before you move on to something else. Prioritise everything based on what's more important financially, whether you own a business or have a job.

4. Systematise. If you have to do a task more than three times, you need a system that's well-thought out and streamlined. Eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies.

5. Computerise. Determine the technology that can make your work easier. Invest in the best solution and learn how to use it.

Maintain a time log

If you don't believe you waste time, spend three to four days tracking it in the same way you would your budget. If you spend Dh5, Dh12 and Dh17.50 here and there, it all adds up. By tracking your time, you will:

  • See patterns in your daily workflow. You may find you are spending 45 minutes every morning getting coffee, chatting with co-workers and reading the paper. What important work could you have finished in that time?
  • Become better at estimating how long things take, you will then not cram so much into your schedule.
  • Discover how much you multitask. Instead of staying focused on a project that requires blocks of time so you can think, you may find you are jumping from one task to the next without finishing anything.

How to draw up a time log

1. Create a form that captures all relevant information. Create columns for the time spent, the activity (include whether the activity was planned or not and how much of a priority it was on a scale of A being most important to D), and, if interrupted by someone, who was it?

2. Record the time you spend on all activities, including interruptions.

3. Group similar actions at the end of each day (or tracking period) to determine the percentage of time you spent on each type of activity.

4. Analyse your findings and think through the changes you'll need to make.

Case study

Duncan provides the time management chart she created for one of her clients

Name: Maurice St Claire (name changed)
Job: Business development manager
Family situation: He's also a single parent of two school-aged children and is on a limited budget
Problems: He was always late for meetings, work, etc. Always tired and stressed, his schedules were all over the place
Solution: Applying my Make Work Easy methodology, I asked him to keep a time log 

His key findings included:

  • Didn't start his day early enough
  • Needed to prepare everything for the next day the night before
  • Had too many back-to-back meetings with no time built into his schedule to get work done
  • Checked email too many times a day
  • Spent too much time looking for things
  • Was interrupted too much
  • Spent too much time on unimportant work, including surfing the net
  • Watched too much TV at home 

Here is what Maurice's old work schedule was like:

Arrived at work later than desired. Had breakfast and read the news at his desk.

Checked email, surfed the net. Phone calls. Meetings back-to-back. Email in between meetings when possible. Allowed people to interrupt him all day. 

Early afternoon
Lunch. Checked email, voicemail. Back-to-back meetings. Customer visit with outside sales rep. Allowed people to interrupt him all day. 

Late afternoon
Checked email, surfed the net. Back-to-back meetings. Let people interrupt him all day. 

Early evening
Project work. Checked email. Checked voicemail. Let people interrupt him all day. 

Late evening
Still trying to get some work done before heading home. 

Here is the revised work schedule drawn up by Peggy Duncan.

Reserved for important project work (he thinks better in the mornings). Does not multitask and stays focused on the work to completion. No emails, phone, etc.

Maurice prioritises his projects based on what's closest to his financial goals. Project finished or at a good stopping point before moving to something else. He'd streamlined a lot of his work so he was spending a lot less time on everything. He'd also taken classes in software he uses every day and is amazed at the time he's saving.

Checks email and voicemail, and does not multitask while doing any of this. He's more organised so he can find answers faster, and he uses email software to flag for reminders and other tips to speed up the work and help him remember everything. With better processes and trained staff, he's seldom interrupted. 

Gets up earlier with everything prepared the night before. Has time to eat breakfast at home. Checks the news online or listens to it during his commute.

No more morning meetings. Now reserved for important project work. He also does not schedule external meetings on Mondays and Fridays. 

Early afternoon
Lunch. Checks email, voicemail and does not multitask. Keeps all his notes in one place.

Meetings but insists they start and stop on time and have a clear objective - and he only goes if he needs to be there. He also builds in time between meetings to check email and voicemail. Customer visit with outside sales rep. Reserves this for priority customers. 

He brings his lunch to work more often and takes a walk in the park. Lunch is prepared the night before. 

Late afternoon
Schedules time for work that isn't as big a priority. And now he's more organised he finishes everything much quicker and feels confident delegating more. 

Work is on time. The day is certainly showing its results. 

Early evening
He's had a productive day. He's getting home early enough to cook decent meals for the kids. Sometimes on the weekend, he'll cook enough food for the week. He's watching less TV because he realised there was a lot he wanted to learn. He and the kids prepare for the next day. 

A fruitful day that leaves him satisfied he had done his work with efficiency and also had the time to unwind and relax with his kids. He looks forward to the next day instead of dreading it.

Inside info

Visit where Vanderkam suggests making a spreadsheet to log your hours - or even your minutes -for a week