We’re all familiar with time management wisdom, but it always seems to involve doing more; So I was delighted to read Stefan Klein’s latest book, Time: A User’s Guide, which explains why we feel stressed by time, and explores our fascinating relationship with time.
Time wasn’t always valued as a commodity. It began during the industrial age, when workers were paid for the hours they worked. In the last 150 years, we have so successfully internalised the value of time that it dictates almost every aspect of our lives. Time awareness has become ingrained, we’re reminded of it everywhere —we just have to glance at our wrist.
Nowadays we’re bombarded with unprecedented amounts of stimuli. To deal with it, we constantly notice, sort and skim information. This rapid pace is exciting, and addictive; our personalised phone ring, or the ping of a new email makes us feel alive. We’ve become used to being available anywhere, anytime, with the result that we are not able to pay careful and sustained attention to any one thing. Ours is a hurry mentality. We believe this is what efficient looks like. But research shows this makes us busy, not effective. And deep down we know it, because it explains those tiring days when we don’t actually achieve anything.
We’d all like to be organised, well prepared and on time. But unfortunately, a good intention is a very weak motivator, which is why most of us leave things to the last minute. Our brain’s executive function is designed to constantly evaluate the most appealing options —we want the fastest gratification possible. Getting down to work on a report is less attractive than getting a coffee, checking headlines or emails. It’s only when time is running short, that we get a rush from focussing on the task, because the reward for completion is closer now than it was yesterday, or last week.
When we can’t manage all our tasks, we feel short of time. This makes us worry, and when we’re stressed, it becomes increasingly difficult to organise time sensibly. When we stress, adrenaline pumps through our system, slowing down or shutting off the brain’s executive function. Without an effective cognitive manager, we become scatty and forgetful. And then realising we can’t think straight really makes us anxious, and we’re in a perpetuating cycle. The problem is not that a shortage of time makes us stressed; it’s rather that feeling stressed makes us short of time.
Time — or our experience of time, is the interaction between our brain and external circumstances. Our sense of impatience or anxiety is determined by our own perceptions. And we do have some control over our experience. So understanding more about why it feels hard to get started in the morning, or to maintain focus on a project, or to unwind in the evening can be more useful than just knowing we need to change it. Perhaps we can learn to improve our rapport with time.
1. Know your own rhythm
Our body clocks are genetic, and affect our blood pressure and digestion, our energy levels and libidos – apparently even our handshake and patience levels. There is a right time for everything; it just won’t be the same time for everyone. Accept that your rhythm may be different from your partner or your colleagues, and work with it. When we respect our natural rhythms, knowing when we’re at our sharpest, we can better schedule our work to suit, and be more productive and satisfied — and healthier.
It’s a curious fact that during the teenager years, our circadian rhythms shift to an evening/night pattern. Recognising this, some US schools experimented by starting school up to two hours later. The results were dramatic; grades improved across the board and absenteeism reduced. The US Congress is considering a bill to reward schools that adopt a more sympathetic schedule.
2. Improve concentration
Being immersed in a project is one of the greatest pleasures, but in responding to outside stimulus, we easily lose touch with our own rhythm. We have become habitual multi-taskers, and it takes effort to turn, and keep, our attention to one thing.
Controlling external interruptions may be easier than managing our internal interruptions. One suggestion is to note down intruding thoughts and ideas, so you can attend to them later.
We need to be able to clearly visualise our goals in order to sustain the attention required to meet them. Then apply the ‘salami principal’ of dividing up tasks into manageable, bite size tasks, so there are multiple opportunities for progress and satisfaction.
3. Reduce stress and increase pleasure
We have an internal see-saw; when stress is up, pleasure is down. Just moving your body will impact on your thinking and feeling —exercise is proven to be one of the most effective ways of reducing stress.
Spend time with people you enjoy and make time for the things that give you pleasure. No one is recorded to have said on their deathbed “if only I’d spent more time at the office”. We complain of not having time to switch off, but it may be that we’ve simply forgotten how to.
Leisure is an underrated necessary and an effective emotional balancer. Sometimes, because we’re not thinking, our subconscious unveils gems —an insight or solution when we least expect it.
4. Decide what is important
We always have choices, yet it’s easy to forget this and be carried along by what must get done. A simple guide is to check what will happen if I don’t do X? The result may be critical, but sometimes the consequence is so minor, we would benefit from letting it go. This moment of consideration helps us to feel in control over our time, and that in itself is a positive, as we manage stress much better if we feel we have some control over events. Research shows that people who don’t feel they manage their own time, are far more likely to experience a helplessness that causes stress, and they die earlier.
5. Savour moments
Cultivate a capacity to notice, to pay attention, to watch and listen. Training our attentiveness helps us stay focussed on the present, which stretches our perception of time and lifts our mood. Because our brains link attention and feeling —like pleasure and curiosity, we are happiest when wholly in the moment.
While we’ve become used to rushing and multi-tasking, it’s clear that we don’t work well under these circumstances. We achieve more when we attend to one thing, and we get more satisfaction and build memories when our attention is focussed. The world is not yet designed to suit the way our minds work, but we can change our relationship to time, as Stefan Klein says, we see it as a resource for organising our lives rather than “as a corset we have to squeeze into”.
So much to do, so little time. We must go slow. – Anon