Lizzie flies through her front door, still chatting on her phone about a presentation she did earlier at work. As she drops her briefcase and a bag of groceries in the entrance hall of her apartment, her three children descend on her, each with information about their day. She puts her hand up to indicate she's on her mobile, mouthing, "Not now, darlings, Mummy's on the phone working.."
By 8pm she still hasn't had time to talk to her children properly. They have a quick evening meal together but Lizzie has work to do, and as soon as the plates are cleared, she trawls through her emails and reads an urgent report. She can finally relax at 11pm, but her children aged 11, 15 and 17, are asleep after going to bed feeling short-changed by their mother.
"If I had money for all the times I've said to my kids that I don't have time, I'd be a millionaire by now," laughs the 37-year-old company director. But her laugh is hollow because it's filled with regret that she's missing out on precious time with her children. "I just can't see any way round it," she admits. "I sometimes wonder how I got so busy and I fantasise about having more time - a few hours a day would be such a luxury, but I can't see any way that will happen. If anything, I'm getting busier and there are more and more demands on my time now."
Lizzie isn't alone. With mobile phones, emails, and fear over job cuts because of the global recession, we could now work all hours every day of the week. We're bombarded with things to do, people to see and places to go. Even our social lives are packed full of activities. If our diaries aren't full months in advance, we think we're underachieving - and we end up feeling like the proverbial hamsters on a wheel.
According to time-management author Allison Mitchell, it is possible to sort out our lives so we're back in control of our time. Then, when we have precious free time, we can choose what to do with it - if anything. "The first thing I would advise people is to be clear about what they want more time for," says Allison, author of Time Management for Manic Mums (Hay House). "Most people say they would use an extra hour a day for exercise or sleep. There are some who have big goals like climbing a mountain or writing a book, but if they're busy, they shelve those dreams because they can't see themselves getting any time to work on them."
Allison says jobs expand to fill the time available, yet if we put a limit on the time we spend on everyday things, we could claw back several hours -if not days. The secret, she says, is in the planning. "Let's compare our days to going shopping," she says. "If you go to a supermarket without a list, you put all sorts in your basket, then you have to transfer it to a trolley and you get home without the milk you wanted in the first place. But if you go armed with a list, you get the things you need.
"Likewise, if you start your day with a plan of what you want to do or achieve, you're much more likely to get it done. It's like putting what you want to do into the shopping basket of your life and it works," say Allison. "Once you know what you want to do, diarise it and plan what you need to get it to happen. If you want to go to the gym then sort out childcare or pack your gym clothes. Or tell your PA where you'll be, and you're more likely to go.
"Where possible, set time limits. If you're writing a report, filling in your tax return, cleaning the bathroom or looking at holiday possibilities on the internet, plan in advance how long you'll spend on the tasks. Otherwise you could still be working on them three days later."
Setting time frames
She recommends keeping a time log to see exactly where our time goes on a daily basis. Many of us watch more television than we admit to.
Following a link on the Internet leads us to another and before we know it, two hours have gone by. Emails are great time-savers, yet they can be enormous time robbers too.
They should be touched once and either dealt with, deleted or delegated, not revisited 25 times until we decide what to say as a means of a reply, says Allison.
Most of us waste precious minutes every day looking for discarded mobile phones, missing socks, or rummaging through mounds of paperwork looking for the bill that needs paying. "Systems need to be put in place for the things we do and the things that happen every day," continues Allison. "Have a concertina file with a space for each day of the month and file paper such as bills to be paid and invitations for children's parties, so you know where things are when you need them. Hang your keys in the same place, and have a rule in the home or office that if you use something, you put it away. If someone in your family uses something regularly, such as football gear, keep it in the same place. Children can have a routine of coming home from school and getting their school clothes ready for the next day.
"In the workplace the average executive wastes an hour a week looking for papers. If there's a system, you'll be able to put your hands on anything at a moment's notice," Allison says. So, once we have the smaller things sorted, what do we do about those big projects?
"Break them down into bite-sized chunks," says Allison. "If you want to climb Mount Everest, make a note of the things you need to do beforehand such as reading a book on climbing, buying some equipment, joining a club and training. Once it's broken down, decide how much time per week you will dedicate to the project, write in your diary, then do it. Our brains are wired in such a way that once we've started something, they want us to keep going. If you take a small step towards something, the brain gives you the motivation to continue."
For more information on Allison visit her website www.manicmums.com
Begin right away
Start managing your time better with these rules from Allison Mitchell.
1. Learn to say no. Practise saying no in front of a mirror to start with - it's harder than you think, but it will save you doing so many jobs and favours you never wanted to do.
2. Outsource some jobs. Look at your schedule and see what other people can do for you. Maybe you could have a takeaway one night a week and cut down on cooking, or hire a cleaner or a gardener. Shop online and get your groceries delivered.
3. Group jobs together - if you're going to the shops, slot some other chores in to do en route. Cook meals in bulk and freeze enough for two more meals. If you have several birthdays coming up, buy all the presents in one go. Multitask and do the ironing while you watch TV, or go for walks with your friends so you're exercising, socialising and walking the dog at the same time!
4. Set some boundaries between work and home. Have a mental marker that signifies the end of work - it could be the taxi or Metro ride home, or your front door, or you might like to get changed out of your work clothes to signify that work is over and this time is now for your home and family.
5. Plan some trips into your year ahead to add some splashes of colour to your life. The years went slowly when we were children because we had new experiences every day so intersperse your year with exciting activities like a trip to the races, or to an arts festival, or a shopping trip somewhere new.
Save an hour a day with these tips from success coach, author and speaker Arvind Devalia
1. Check your e-mails no more than three times a day. If you're constantly hitting the send/receive button, you could spend all day reading and replying to e-mails. If it's urgent people will call you.
2. Reduce the number of e-mails you receive by unsubscribing to newsletters. Bunch the ones you want to read together and tackle them in one go. Limit your websurfing to the immediate task in hand.
3. Focus on one job at a time and finish it before starting a new task. Cut out all distractions while you are working on the task. If you work at a computer, make sure there is no unnecessary paperwork around that could distract you.
4. Clear your workspace and home of all clutter. You'll be more focused if you have some order around you.
5. Batch all your phone calls together in one go. Don't respond to any unscheduled phone call or any other interruption.
6. Sleep less! If you wake up early, get up! See if you can train yourself to need less sleep. If you exercise and eat well, you may be able to manage with an hour's less sleep.
7. Watch less television. Limit your TV watching to a certain amount of time per day or per week and stick to it. Record programmes so you can watch them without adverts.
• Arvind is the author of Get The Life You Love (www.GetTheLifeYouLove.com) and Personal Social Responsibility (www.PersonalSocialResponsibility.com). For details of his blog and forthcoming webinars on time management, go to www.ArvindDevalia.com/blog