Without people, time does not exist. Time is an invention of humans, so as much as it seems inseparable from the world we live in, it is actually only inseparable from humanity.
I have now spent the last 8 months observing and documenting my own use (and abuse) of time, and I keep running up against something over and over: the impact that other people have on our time.
We like to think that by carefully setting up our minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years that our time is all ours. One could even argue that we only give time to other people when we choose to, and therefore all of it is in fact ours. But I am finding this to not be the case.
Because shit happens.
People are late meeting us for lunch. People walk slowly, blocking the sidewalk you need to get where you are going. People make plans with us only to break them at the last minute. People drop by, stop by, call, text, email, tweet on their own timescale, interrupting us from whatever we had planned.
Sometimes these are beautiful happenstances, like running into an old friend on the street and deciding to skip your next stop in favor of catching up over coffee. Other times these are annoying distractions, like someone quitting their job suddenly leaving you holding the bag. And then there are the scary distractions, like having to drop everything to take a child or partner to the emergency room.
No matter how much or how carefully we plan our time, it is just not all quite ours to do with as we please. Thinking about time as something we can wrangle entirely will surely lead to the feeling like it is being ripped out from under you at least a few times a month.
Over the last 8 months I have collected the following 8 heuristics for keeping as much time within our own control as humanly possible.
Turn off needless notifications. Seriously do it now, I will wait.
There is nothing more obnoxious and distracting than a phone that won’t stop buzzing telling you everything from “you have a new follower” to “your favorite brand is having a sale on hoozie-whatzits.” I am now 8 months into not having ANY notifications on my phone or computer enabled and I can tell you that it is a gorgeous, wonderful and quiet world I have built for myself.
Don’t believe this matters? Ask the Journal of Experimental Psychology “Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance.”
You are most likely NOT on call for saving lives or anything else. And if you are, leave on those notifications during those times. The rest of them can be turned off. There is no reason for all the urgency we have forced on our psyches. I cannot quite quantify the time that this simple 5 minute task has saved me over these 8 months, but I can say that I will never go back to allowing software to steal as much time and focus as I was allowing it to before. I can also warn you that the withdrawal is real. So don’t be surprised when you experience phantom buzzing or the onset of mild depression from the realization that the world will not stop without you constantly being notified of changes to it.
Don’t take your device to bed with you.
I used to be a person who browsed first thing in the morning, and last thing at night. I stopped this behavior about 6 months ago after realizing how much it affected my schedule. I could get stuck in a rabbit hole of social media before I had even left my bed. The next thing I knew I was rushing to get my morning stuff in before the real start to my day. Same thing with nighttime. I could fall into a hole that would make my bedtime push out by an hour or more. Between that and the pretty well proven fact that the blue light emitted by our phones can negatively affect sleep patterns, I say there is NO reason for a device to be in your bed. Number 1 objection I expect here: “But I use it for my alarm” — to which I say simply: GET AN ALARM CLOCK.
Start & stop checking the internet at a certain time each day.
Some of the worst night’s sleep I have had this year have been based on checking the internet just that one more time right before bed. It is like a bomb waiting to go off. Opening the inbox or your social media streams just one last time might be the trigger that explodes right in your face. Things that could wait, and often should wait until the light of day can keep you up all night or give you nightmares. Or on the positive side, you can get so excited about something you see in there that it is hard to sleep. So set a time to stop checking the internet and stick to it.
Same advice on the other end. The worst way to start your day is checking the internet. It’s like leaving your whole mood for the day up to that same ticking time bomb. In my experience, setting an internet start and stop time makes checking the internet more like an experience you can look forward to and prepare mentally for. I can say my life is better for this small change. I can also report that no one has died waiting for my responses a few extra hours.
Don’t be late, be early.
Being early is something I was always told was good practice for job interviews, but I have applied this to my whole life for years now. I hate being late, it makes me feel stressed out and guilty. By planning to be early, I am almost never late. Because shit does happen. But if you have that extra few minutes of flex time, you can calmly know you have room to maneuver through whatever comes at you. Also, no one will ever be mad at you for being early. You will never miss something because you are early. You cannot say the same about being late.
Don’t agree to meet up with people who are always late.
If we have an appointment to meet up and you are more than 10 minutes late one time, I will totally give you one more chance. After that, if you are late we are never meeting up again. Everyone is a little late once in a while. But in my experience only perpetually late people are more than 10 minutes late twice in a row.
Being late should be renamed “time stealing” — when someone texts or emails to say “Sorry, I am going to be 10 minutes late” they should have to say “I am going to steal 10 minutes of your time” — it is rude and selfish to be late when it is preventable. It is also incredibly insulting to the person or people you are making wait. I have been particularly shocked by how many people are late to appointments where I am being asked to do them a favor or give them advice. This behavior is the surest way to be ignored in my inbox forever more.
If you have a good friend, colleague or partner who is always late, tell them how it makes you feel and how it makes them look to other people. It is shocking how oblivious people can be to this small personality tick of selfishness. Lateness is often a sign of deeper issues, so help them through whatever is leading to that perpetual lateness.
Estimate tasks, especially the ones you are avoiding.
In my opinion, estimation of time is a skill set that people don’t apply to their life often enough. I have had the fortune to work primarily in consulting settings and have gotten pretty good at estimating how long things will take as a result. But this is a life skill, not just a work skill.
Because mole hills often resemble mountains before time has been applied. People often put off hard, complex, emotional or monotonous tasks for fear that they will “take forever” when in reality most tasks do not take forever. It seems that anxiety is often a productivity killer, more so than the task itself. Anxiety eats time AND leaves you with the same to-do list day after day.
In my experience, the easiest way to get over this anxiety hurdle is to start with a baseline reading. Set a timer for yourself and say: I will spend the next 15, 30 or 60 minutes on this task to see where I can get in that time. By doing this, you can estimate how much time something will actually take and better plan for it in your schedule. I have found that usually when I actually dive in and tackle the task at hand, it takes far less time than my anxiety led me to believe. Once you know how long it will take, put it on your calendar and stick to it, like you would a meeting or appointment. If you find yourself still pushing it off, break it down into sub-tasks and try again.
Don’t multi task
Multi tasking is the most sure fire way for everything to take longer and feel harder than it actually is. It is amazing how quickly time can pass when we are bouncing between things and paying attention to more than one thing at a time. If you don’t believe me, google it. You’ll find a treasure trove of resources railing against multi tasking.
There are many ways to avoid multi tasking. One is turning off your internet while you work on other computer tasks. Another trick is leaving your devices in another room while you tackle analog tasks. Timers are also helpful for digital or analog tasks. Set a timer for 30-60 minutes and at the end of that time, allow yourself a few minutes to wander through the internet or whatever other distraction tasks are on your mind.
Your work will be better and take less time to do, I swear. Also if you are one of those people sitting in a restaurant or cafe with a friend or partner, multi tasking by checking your device while they try to talk to you, know that you are lucky to still have that friend or partner, and they may realize at some point that they deserve better. Put the device down, look them in the eye. Try it, you may find you actually like each other more for it.
Create routines to anchor habits you want to put into your life
This is advice I heard for at least two decades before I actually took it. I left it for last incase you need two decades to put it into practice.
I used to be a person who left everything about my personal life and self care up to the moment and day at hand. Everyday was like a snowflake, which I thought was good for me. I was wrong. There is a remarkable improvement that happened to me when I started adding routine to my life. All of a sudden I was the person I had always thought I could never be.
Once I strung all the little habits together, I was shocked how little time I actually needed to fit basic self improvement tasks into my schedule daily. The trick is the sequence, without an established order the task list seems impossible to fit in. Also the time between things deciding what to do next and avoiding the harder stuff becomes a total time killer.
The other trick is adding one habit at a time. So start with something you actually do everyday, like getting out of bed. We all do that right? Then add one thing. My first addition was drinking a glass of hot lemon water. Then I added 15 minutes of yoga. Then I added writing morning pages. Then I added breakfast (seriously I was 32 before I found the joy of eating breakfast consistently.) Then I added meditation. And suddenly (actually, many months later) I am the woman I always thought only existed on Pinterest boards and lifestyle blogs.
Routines can be set daily (like the ones I mention above) but they can also be helpful to think about setting weekly or monthly. Play with your repetitive tasks and see how much you can get them to adhere to a set routine. I have finally started grocery shopping at the same time every week and it alone has saved me hours and hours of wavering and worrying about when I would get to the store.
I always thought routines would be boring, but I have found the opposite. Routines leave you with the time you need to be spontaneous.
One other note on routines: Stop shoulding all over yourself. If you want to implement something into your routine, do it. If you just think you should, then prepare to struggle. Changes to something as personal as routine require us to truly want them in order to stick.
I hope that the above advice have been helpful to read. Just remember, none of this advice will keep shit from happening. Instead my hope is that these practices will give you a head start in not taking such a hard hit when it does.
Now go steal back as much time as you can and spend it with the people and hobbies that you love.