Chasing Time: Where does Time Go?

As we approach a new year, most of us begin the process of contemplating what New Year resolutions we want to commit to for the coming year.  Although the process we follow as well as desired goals varies, most of us identify resolutions that relate to our time in one fashion or another: more time exercising to get rid of those extra holiday pounds, more time with family, more activities we enjoy instead of sacrificing them for other priorities, or learning new skills to improve ourselves.  According to empirical research, most of us will excitedly commit to our resolutions and lose interest after a few weeks or months.  Obviously, a variety of causes get in our way of realizing our goals, but a large percentage of the abandonment of the resolutions relates to time management.  How often have you asked yourself: “where did the time go?” or conclude “if only I had more time, I could do this?”

Why is time management so complicated for human beings? Most of us as professionals discuss the benefits of managing time with our staff on a regular basis.  Some of the common reasons for attempting to better manage time include accomplishing more, prioritizing the most important things you allocate time to, creating a better work-life balance, and improving performance.  Although most would acknowledge that these are all important, what happens at the point where we try to get the most out of our available time?

A simple quiz provides interesting insight into where our time goes.  How would you answer each of these questions?

  • How much time do you spend working on average per day?
  • How much time do you spend sleeping on average per day?
  • How much time do you spend commuting to work per day?
  • How much time do you spend running errands, being a taxi for kids, cooking, cleaning, or taking care of personal business?
  • How much time do you spend with family and on leisure on average per day?

If your numbers exceed 24 hours, you are not alone. Most of us do not track our time carefully and an even greater number of us are exhausted on a regular basis.  It is no surprise that exhaustion impacts our health and wellness as well as decreases productivity and the level of safety at work.

Bureau of Labor Statistics through the Time Use Survey (TUS) collects similar data on how we spend our time (   Figure 1 captures the results of 25 to 64 year olds on an average work day based on the 2008 TUS survey. How do you compare?

Figure 1: Time Use in Average Work Day for Employed

If you are like most professionals, you actually commit more time to work than 8.8 hours.  If you average ten hours a day, then it leaves 14 hours for all other activities that make up your life.  Although most of us are sleep deprived, eight hours is normally the recommended amount of sleep that a healthy person gains per night.  That leaves six hours for all other activities.  The typical national average for commuting is between 30 and 90 minutes.  Assuming 60 minutes, then five hours are left over for personal business, family, and leisure.      Unless your children are much more efficient than mine at getting ready, eating meals, and doing homework, you can easily spend three to four hours a night on these activities. As a result, when we claim there is just not time for those resolution efforts, it would definitely appear to be the case.

So, what can we do? There are three things that will help with time maximization:

  • Know where you time goes
  • Plan your time
  • Manage your time

Know where your time goes

A first step to taking control of our time is to track and analyze where our time is sneaking off to on a regular basis.  A good start is putting together an activity diary that takes into account what you do in 15 minutes increments for a day.  It is time consuming, but it can be very illuminating.   At the end of the day, total the time you spent on each major activity and highlight or circle those that are critical to your professional and personal life.  I conducted this exercise a few years ago with a group of managers and one employee brought in his results from the previous day and looked a little melancholy.  I asked him what caused his feeling and he half way smiled and said “I found out that I am an executive, but I am basically a professional ‘emailer’ if you look at my work and home time.” His comment helped convince most employees they needed to examine how they allocate their time.  However, the process started with just knowing where time goes on a daily basis.

Plan your time

In the modern world, it is common to use a planner, keep a list, or combine major events on a calendar.  However, how many of us really use it?  I worked with an organization that had sent every employee to time management training, bought very expensive personal planners, and even gave refresher courses in the form of brown bag luncheons.  Their managers were perplexed why employees as well as teams continued to fail at meeting their productivity goals on a regular basis.  In one of the focus groups, I asked the employees how they use the plethora of tools at their disposal.  As the discussion evolved, it became evident that various employees wrote in the fancy binders, but that did not really relate to how they planned their time.  The most common approach was the “seat of the pants.” There were a handful to converts, but most did not use it as a true tool for planning their time.  As a result, employees spent a lot of time being distracted, trying to do too much at once, and never really completing a task.  An important step to success time management is planning how you want to allocate your time in advance.

Manage your time

Once you know where your time goes and you have a plan for where you want it to go, we have to manage it.  One of the biggest management factors is proactive compared to reactive time.  How many times have we heard or even felt like we are “fighting fires” throughout our day?  A key part of managing time involves being able to continuously prioritize, delegate, and evaluate while balancing proactive and reactive tasks.  There is as much art as science to this.  Nevertheless, it is usually one of the key factors that will differentiate a high performer from everyone else.

As you think about resolutions this week, do not forget to think about the time you need to make them happen.

Happy New Year!

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