Time is our most precious resource. The ways that we spend our time determine how happy and successful we are as people. But for lots of us, our time isn’t easy to manage, and we find a lot of it slipping through the cracks. Where does it go, and how do we get it back?
It’s strange when you think about time as a resource, because you notice a few things. First of all, it’s the one resource we’re all forced to “spend” at the same rate. It’s the one resource that no amount of money, power, or good deeds can buy back, and it’s the one resource that everyone will run out of someday.
In some ways, it’s easier to understand the economics of time than it is the economics of actual money—and that works in our favor. This week, we’re taking a look at where all the time goes, and in so doing, figuring out how we can manage our own time better.
Economic Thinking, Backwards from 24
Time is a finite and scarce resource, but it’s a nicely controlled one thanks to our calendar. We know that every day on that calendar has 24 perfectly-sliced hours. So to examine the economics of your time in a day, work backwards from 24.
Hopefully you sleep 6-8 hours per night. You probably have a routine for self-care. Most likely, you have a job which requires a certain number of hours during specific times. You need to eat at least two or three times a day. Add it up and we’ve already accounted for the vast majority of the day—so taking account of your own time will be similarly easy to start.
Here’s where it gets tricky: what happens in your intervals of freedom, when your time isn’t spoken for? Never mind the random errands and obligations—in the time that you control as you own, what do you do? This is where time is likeliest to disappear: when we have “free time” or “time to waste,” when we find ourselves happy not watching the clock.
This isn’t all bad; sometimes our brains need a break. Sometimes, too, the best things in life are already in front of us, and just stopping to enjoy them is the right thing to do. The problem is when people don’t respect their own time, when they lose opportunities just because they didn’t manage that freedom properly.
Habits Make or Break You
One trait common to many accomplished people—entrepreneurs, writers, scientists—is that they are creatures of routine. They are consistent in their behavior, and these consistent behaviors—habits—are part of the reason that they are successful.
According to legend, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was known in his town of Königsburg for his walks—always along the same route, at the same pace, at the same time. People set their clocks by his walks, and they knew he had fallen ill when he didn’t show up as usual. Doubtless his walks were part of his thinking, the mantra of solvitur ambulando trained on metaphysics.
A century later, William James, widely considered the father of modern psychology, spoke at length on the power of habit:
Our virtues are habits as much as our vices. All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual—systematically organized for our weal or woe.
Even better, James got straight to the point on why habits matter for everyone:
The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation.
If you have good habits, keep them. If you have bad habits, try to think of plans to break them. Bigger picture, ask yourself: if I could decide the routine of my own life, where it followed a cycle of my choosing, what habits would I need to make for that?
You Won’t Have Time Unless You Make Time
Who here, if asked, would say that their lives are busy? Everyone. Literally everyone. But there are degrees of busy. Some people are legitimately hair-on-fire busy (picture an entrepreneur with young children), while others of us still make time for junk TV and occasional binge drinking. We all say we’re busy when we really mean, “I have a good idea of how I’m spending all my time.”
We use “busy” as an excuse. It’s a reason we can’t come to things. Because we know our time is precious, we sometimes get greedy about it and decide to stay home. But half of life is showing up, as others have recounted before. It takes time to show up, time you have to decide to spend. And you won’t have time unless you make time.
Next time you get invited to something, ask yourself what it really costs you to go. Then ask yourself what might happen, taking into account the full range of opportunities—and surprises—that the outside world has to offer. Try to make saying “yes” a habit and see where it takes you.
Be Quick But Don’t Hurry
This was UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s big piece of advice to his players. Be quick but don’t hurry. It’s a good mantra for anywhere else.
Unpacked slightly, it means, “Spend exactly the amount of time that the task deserves, no more and no less.” It’s efficient, but it respects time; you’ll notice he didn’t say “do everything faster."
This seems like a healthier way to evaluate your own time as you spend it, and it makes it easier to distinguish good waste from bad. Take, for example, your morning shower. You could be clean in five minutes or less, but you might need five more minutes for the steam to fully wake you. Those last five minutes are waste, but they serve a purpose for you. Be quick but don’t hurry—spend your ten minutes in the shower. Just don’t zone out and stand there for half an hour. If you didn’t need those 20 extra minutes, it was actual waste. There’s a difference.
The point of time management, after all, is not to make yourself into a machine. It’s exactly as the name suggests: to help you manage your own time better, and thereby, to feel more control over your life and more direction towards what you actually want.
Sure, there’s no way to buy more time. But you can earn some of it back by looking in the pockets you hadn’t checked in a while. You find it five, ten, twenty minutes at a time if you think to look, and like anything, it adds up faster than you imagine.