It's an all-too-familiar scenario: you miraculously find yourself with a free afternoon and call a friend to ask her to go for a hike (or shopping, or to lunch). Her immediate answer, probably delivered with a stress-inflected screech: "I'm too busy." Too much work, too many errands, too many obligations. Too little time.
Chronic busyness is epidemic in our culture, especially for women. Four in 10 working moms with children under age 18 say they always feel rushed, according to a Pew Research Center survey. And nearly half of working women say their jam-packed schedules leave them with less than an hour a day for themselves. "Many people feel that their time isn't their own," says Lama Surya Das, author of "Buddha Standard Time." "They're just hurrying through their to-do lists."
For some, time deprivation has become a badge of honor. "Busyness validates our self-worth and makes us feel important," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist at University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. "'How are you?' 'Busy!' 'You think you're busy, I'm busy!'"
But behind that badge lurks some nagging questions: Why do we have so little control over our days? Do we really have that much to do -- and so little time for what nurtures and fulfills us? To hear Americans complain (or boast), you'd think we were the most overworked people on the planet. The truth is, we're actually not putting in more hours on the job than we used to. According to the American Time Use Survey, in 2010 employed people worked an average of 7.5 hours per day, a little less than when the survey was first conducted in 2003.
And yet, the manic pace of modern life is all too real. What's changed in recent times is that we cram so much into our days, we feel as if we're constantly slaving away. For many women, there's the dual burden of career and housework (working women spend a half hour more per day than working men on domestic chores). Then there's the full-scale invasion of work into our personal lives and vice versa -- thanks to smart phones and other devices that make it possible to do our jobs anywhere, anytime. In one recent survey, nearly 6 out of 10 Americans said they take work home more than three times a week.
Chauffeuring, chaperoning, cheerleading, fundraising -- those duties that have ballooned with an increase in children's organized sports and other activities -- also eat into many parents' schedules. Add volunteering, socializing, and keeping up with far-flung loved ones to the mix and the result is a staggering, seemingly never-ending list of responsibilities and commitments. "Nowadays there are so many things we can do, so many possible ways we can spend our time," says Harold Taylor, president of Time Consultants, Ltd. in Toronto, and a holistic time-management expert. "The problem is that we often try to do too much." All that incessant activity is taking a toll on our bodies and our health, which can lead to stress-related problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive ailments, and other disorders. The bottom line is: We're burning out, mentally and physically.
It's probably fair to say that most of us would prefer a calmer, more satisfying approach to life. "Managing our time is this generation's biggest challenge," says Carter. "Busyness can't be equated with importance or meaning, and it certainly can't be conflated with happiness. The sooner we recognize that the happier we'll be."
That's why we created this (truly doable) 14-day plan to help even the busiest of the busy rehabilitate their relationship with time. Each day you'll tackle one simple task designed to identify and eliminate your biggest time-wasters and ultimately create a new and improved schedule that lets you breathe, flourish, and do more of what you love. With advice from leading time-management experts and psychologists, you'll learn that it is possible to opt out of the dizzying madness -- without moving to the boonies or flushing your iPhone. As Das puts it, "Time is life. It's up to each of us to choose how we spend it."
Find the extra hour: The first phase is learning and practicing simple strategies designed to make you aware of how you dole out your precious moments.
Day 1: Keep a Time Diary
Jot down what you do today in 30-minute increments, including showering, emailing, meal prep -- everything. Don't wait until the end of the day; chances are you won't remember exactly what you did. Instead, every half hour (or when you change activities), write down in a notebook what you're doing. This may seem onerous and, yes, it takes time, but experts say it's the first step to taming an out-of-control schedule. "Once you know exactly how you spend your time, you can start to think about how to spend it differently," says Laura Vanderkam, author of "168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think." And you may be surprised at what your diary teaches you. Perhaps you didn't realize you frittered away so many hours online or in front of the TV (the average American watches two hours and 45 minutes a day!). Using that information, you can adjust your habits and potentially free up several hours. For a fuller picture of where your energies go, continue updating your log all week.
Day 2: Practice Monotasking
"Ability to multitask" has long been a staple requirement in job classified ads. But mounting research suggests that juggling several things at once is ineffective at best. "The human brain can't fully focus on two things at the same time. That's why we need legislation to make sure people aren't texting while driving," says Taylor. His advice: "Wherever you are, be there. Whatever you're doing, do it. That's how you get quality time, with loved ones and at work." Choose one project and vow to concentrate on it for at least 30 solid minutes. And if someone tries to distract you, which is highly likely -- the average worker is interrupted every three minutes and five seconds, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine -- assess whether they truly require your immediate attention. "If their request isn't urgent, tell them you're under the gun to finish a project and offer to schedule a meeting for later," Taylor suggests.
Day 3: Stop Reacting
The workday begins. There are 50 unread emails in your in-box. You roll up your sleeves and dig in, one by one. Two hours later, you've answered them all. But wait! Twenty-five more emails have arrived. Your whole day could be spent just like this, responding to messages, no matter how trivial, as soon as you get them. "Instantaneous reaction is the least productive thing you can do," says Kenneth Zeigler, a time-management expert and CEO of Zeigler Learning in Huntersville, North Carolina. "You'll just be putting out fires all day long." Worse, you may end up taking unfinished business home. Adopt these rules: Don't answer low-priority emails first thing in the morning; instead, make progress on a key project, then check your in-box. Set specific times to check messages -- once an hour or even less often. Finally, be choosy about which ones deserve your time. Reply to urgent emails (say, from your boss) when you see them and leave less important ones for the end of the workday.
Day 4: Delegate Something
Handing over work can be difficult, especially for perfectionists who worry that no one else can do it quite right. But delegation is "one of the biggest time-savers there is," says Taylor. "It frees up your energies for more important tasks, allows you to plan more effectively, and helps relieve the pressure of too many jobs, too many deadlines, and too little time." Start by asking yourself which tasks are most essential to your work. Focus on those and then farm out other duties that need to get done, but don't need to be done by you. At home, give other family members those chores you enjoy least and feel less attached to doing yourself. And do your best to rein in your inner control freak: If the delegate isn't doing the job exactly as you'd like, don't step in and finish it. Instead, offer constructive feedback so they'll nail it next time.
Day 5: Stop Dawdling
To procrastinate is human. It's also one of the greatest points of conflict in our contentious relationship with the clock. Dillydallying doesn't just waste precious hours of your life -- it burns up valuable emotional energy. Ever notice how avoiding a task makes it seem even more daunting, and makes you feel more nervous about it than if you'd just sat down and dug right in? Choose one project you've been particularly dreading, either at work or home. And just get started. If you're feeling reluctant, examine that. "Ask yourself, what am I really avoiding here? And why am I avoiding it? Look for a pattern in your behavior," says Marc Lesser, a Zen teacher and founder/CEO of ZBA Associates, a management consulting company in Mill Valley, California. "Often people who procrastinate fear failure. Just being aware of this is the first step to change."
Day 6: Schedule Spontaneity
That may sound ridiculous -- but for most of us, planning to do nothing is probably the only way it will ever happen. "If you want freedom in your life, you have to schedule it," says Taylor. For example, spend Saturday morning running errands and block off the afternoon for impromptu time. Decide what to do with it on the spur-of-the-moment. Das recommends spending free time in nature to get back in tune with the rhythms of the earth. "For most of human existence, the sky, sun, and moon served as our only calendar," he says. "Becoming more in sync with natural time can help you let go of anxiety." Whatever you do, appreciate the freedom of not needing to be anywhere other than where you choose to be.
Day 7: Sketch Out Your Days
"Our time and energy -- our lives -- are precious and worth having a budget for," says David D. Nowell, a Worcester, Massachusetts-based neuropsychologist. "Something is going to happen every day. What I want for people is for them to decide what it is. Nature abhors a vacuum and will plan your life for you if you let it." To plot out the coming week, use an online scheduling tool such as iCal, Outlook, or Google Calendar, or a good old-fashioned notebook planner. For every day, block out nonnegotiables such as sleep, work, commuting, and meals. "It's just like with money, first you have to pay your bills. Look at the necessities first and then the things you really want to do," Taylor says. Now add elective activities such as exercise, volunteering, and social events to your calendar -- and make sure you give them at least as much priority. Taylor adds: "You have to put yourself and your personal life into your planner."
Set a new agenda: This week, you'll focus on maintaining a calmer schedule that includes giving you time for what you love.
Day 8: Trim One Thing from Your "To Do" List
A common mistake: jamming your day full of activities you'll never get to, leaving you feeling rushed and frustrated. "Many people create unrealistic plans for themselves, which just sets them up for failure," says Zeigler. "Time management is not about doing more things in less time, but fewer things of greater importance in the time we have." To streamline your schedule, Nowell suggests, look at every appointment and ask yourself two questions: Do you enjoy it? Does it fulfill a life purpose? You should be able to answer yes to at least one of those questions. "For example, dinner with in-laws. Fun? No. But it's important to your relationship. Getting your teeth whitened. Fun? No. Fulfill a purpose? Maybe. If you're not sure, take it off your calendar," Nowell says. "Be ruthless. Your schedule should be for exciting, soul-nourishing relationships and experiences."
Day 9: Embrace Imperfection
"I tell my clients, 'you'll never get every single thing done. The day you die, you'll have 30 emails sitting in your in-box, you'll have unopened mail,'" says Taylor. Rather than staying late trying to wipe your list clean, realize just how impossible that is. "It's important to see perfectionism as a form of unhappiness," says Carter. "By definition, a perfectionist is someone who is never satisfied, either with their performance or other people's. You can pick up so much time and energy knowing that nothing can ever be perfect. A component of living a happy life is seeing that sometimes a B-plus is good enough -- and that it's incredibly important to celebrate the A's."
Day 10: Be a Little Selfish
For at least a half hour (longer if you can swing it), do something you enjoy that you rarely make time for. That could mean reading for pleasure, a phone call to a friend, a yoga class. Whatever it is, get into the habit of scheduling you time at least once a week -- no matter how many responsibilities you have. "You may believe you don't even have time to eat breakfast or take a walk, but think about it: It takes a lot longer to correct problems caused by not taking care of yourself than it does to prevent them," Carter says. Self-nurturing is especially important for working moms, a group that's particularly prone to skimping on it. "Emotions are incredibly contagious," says Carter, who blogs about time and parenting issues at raisinghappiness.com. "When we're feeling relaxed and happy, our children pick that up. It's also important to model coping skills. Life is only going to be busier for our kids. If we find ways to manage stress, our kids will learn how to do it, too."
Day 11: Replenish Your Energy
Tear this out and give it to your boss: Putting in long hours doesn't make workers more productive -- and it may hurt the company's bottom line. According to the Harvard Business Review, bank employees who participated in an "energy renewal" program increased year-over-year revenues more than a control group did (13 percent in loans; 20 percent in deposits). The employees did exercises such as taking breaks in 90- to 120-minute intervals throughout the day; defusing negative (and energy-draining) emotions through deep abdominal breathing; and focusing on "sweet-spot" activities that gave them feelings of effectiveness, absorption, and fulfillment. For example, one executive who hated doing sales reports handed them over to someone who loved that task. Practice one or more of these exercises yourself. By staying energized, you'll whiz through work and chores -- and still have enough stamina for exercise and quality time with loved ones.
Day 12: Respectfully Decline
Every day, the people in our lives demand some of our time and energy. While helping others can be admirable and rewarding, saying yes to every single request, no matter how burdensome, is a sure way to lose traction on fulfilling your own needs -- and an easy recipe for stress and resentment. "Buddhists have a name for acquiescing to others' unreasonable demands: 'idiot compassion,'" says Das. "You have to know when to say no." Practice setting boundaries both at work and at home. For example, Carter created a rule that her two daughters, ages 8 and 10, could only participate in one sport or activity each. "My kids thought I was mean at first," she says, "but I want us all home by 5:30. Family dinner is more important for our sanity than ballet. Moms need to make rules for themselves around anything that makes them feel too crazy busy."
Day 13: Do a Technology Cleanse
Unless you're a total Luddite or live off the grid, you probably spend a chunk of every day mindlessly scanning status updates, emails, and texts, and bouncing back and forth between computer programs and web pages. That kind of constant "media multitasking," as experts call it, is taking its toll. In a Stanford University study, those who considered themselves chronic media multitaskers made more mistakes, could remember less, and took longer to complete tasks than infrequent multitaskers. So give your brain a break: power down all the devices, sign off Facebook, refrain from tweeting. And note throughout the day how you feel -- probably more calm, rested, connected. You may decide to take mini tech breaks every day.
Day 14: Reignite a Passion
Novelists, rev up your dormant laptops. Painters, excavate your easels. Today's task -- the task of a lifetime, really -- is to spend a little time honing a talent or pursuing a hobby or long-term project. Set aside at least an hour if you can. And think about ways you can carve out time more regularly to devote to this pursuit. "If you don't put it on your calendar, I guarantee you, it will never happen," says Vanderkam. Don't have a hobby? Use this time to experiment with activities that feed your spirit and intellect. That may sound like a luxury if you've got a heavy burden of family and work duties -- but try seeing it as a critical component of your overall wellness. "To a large extent, engaging in activities that are meaningful to us is an important part of mental health," Nowell says. "And scheduling time for them in our lives is an important adult responsibility."
We spend so much time slogging through life's "musts" -- must commute an hour each way, must crank out that annual report, must hire Mario the Magician to entertain twenty 5-year-olds -- it's easy to lose track of what we truly want and value. Nowell suggests taking this three-step approach to reconnect with what's most meaningful to you.
1. Remember Feel-Good Moments
"I ask my clients to tell me about specific times in their lives when they felt great, really glad to be alive and to be themselves," Nowell says. "It could be a big milestone or something small like eating a juicy peach." Think of different events that occurred -- last week, last month, last year, two years ago, 10 years ago, from childhood. Nowell suggests not only recalling the details of the event, but also how you physically felt while it was happening. "I'm convinced that our values are located in our body," he says. "Some people say they feel their shoulders loosen or an opening in their sternum when they're happiest."
2. Look for Trends
Once you pinpoint 10 to 20 happy moments, you'll start to see a pattern. "These are the specific ways in which pleasure grounds itself in your body. That's how dopamine, the neurotransmitter of reward and motivation, shows up for you," he says. "Certain themes might keep coming up -- those are experiences you value. Some people realize they want to be at the head of the class, others want to be part of a team, others want predictability, others want adventure. What you experience as meaningful may not be what I experience."
3. Listen to Yourself
Now consider ways you can achieve more of those feel-good moments in your life. Perhaps you were passionate about dance as a child but stopped as an adult. Try signing up for a class. Maybe your happiest experiences were with friends and family, but now you travel a lot for work. Finding more time for loved ones -- or searching for a job that can keep you closer to home -- could significantly improve your quality of life. The key is to pay attention to the insights you've gained, Nowell says: "At a deep level, we each know what is right for us. If we are willing to listen to ourselves, and if we are willing to commit to our own unique way of being present and engaged and motivated, then we are really 'managing' our time."
You give a lot of thought to what you do every day. Time management experts say it's just as important to think about when you're doing it. While every individual has her own unique body clock and daily energy patterns to consider, here are some basic rules to keep in mind when you're planning your weekday schedule.
Unless you're a night owl, devote time first thing every morning before work and family duties kick in (an hour if possible) to activities that nurture your body and mind, such as exercise, meditation, or writing. Later in the day, there's a greater chance that something unexpected will bump personal time from your schedule.
Consider this prime time for productivity. And that doesn't mean sending lots of emails or sorting through the junk on your desk. "Schedule what matters most in the morning," says Zeigler. "Tackle the difficult tasks when you're at your best each day."
Whether you work at home or in an office, it's all too tempting to eat lunch at your desk. Though staying glued to your chair may make you look like a workhorse, it will just wear you down and make you less efficient. Give yourself a true lunch break.
For most people, this is when energy takes a nosedive. Instead of trying to do your most creative work, switch to a lower gear: "When you're pooped at the end of the workday, it's a perfect time for checking email, organizing, cleaning your desk, and other rote tasks," Zeigler says.
Whenever you stop working, do just that: Stop working. "Create a mental separation between work and home," Zeigler says. Unless your job makes it impossible, turn off work gadgets and focus on family, friends, or however you spend your evenings. "Commit to your personal life and life will improve," he says.
Shut down your computer and TV at least two hours before you go to bed. The light from these devices can disturb sleep -- and being constantly connected to them can perpetuate that "working all day" feeling. Disconnect and allow yourself to get the rest you need and deserve, so you can feel your best the next day.
It's a total zoo out there -- here's how to create your own personal oasis of calm, even when you're surrounded by chaos.
Arrive on Time
This may sound counterintuitive, but being punctual can actually make you feel like you have more room in your schedule. Whenever possible, show up promptly for appointments, including (and especially) work. Notice how taking a more leisurely approach impacts your state of mind, says Lesser, author of "Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less." Do you feel more relaxed and better prepared? Are you more energized and ready to deal with your day? Are you less stressed out? "When you're not running late, it changes your relationship with time," Lesser says. "You feel at ease, not rushed or worried." But remember, when you get held up, try to relax. Lateness happens.
Master the Art of Waiting
Trapped in a 100-person grocery store checkout line moving at a subglacial pace? Sitting on the highway in bumper-to- bumper traffic? Stuck at the airport? "Life is full of delays and interruptions," says Das. "Fighting the idea of traffic won't get you there sooner." So, turn on the radio. Practice a one-minute meditation. Or take a few moments to just notice what's around you. "While you're waiting for something else to happen, your life is still your life," Das says.
If It Doesn't Deserve a Reply, Don't Give It One
Be critical about responding to the barrage of messages you probably get all day via phone and computer. "It's important to recognize what part of social media is enervating and enlivening and what part is not," says Das. "Resist getting drawn into other people's arguments or dramas, and don't feel obliged to respond to annoying or negative messages or tweets. Setting healthy boundaries takes a little discriminating wisdom and awareness."
Live at Your Own Speed
Try strolling down a busy street at rush hour while crowds shoulder past you -- it's hard not to pick up your pace. "We're wired to tune in to social cues," says Nowell. To stay cool amidst chaos, he recommends setting an intention every morning. "Remember who you are and what you want from your day," he says. As you're out in the world, reengage with your intention through moments of mindfulness. "Commit to establishing anchors during the day," he says. "When you're in the bathroom or stuck at a red light, take 60 seconds to reconnect. Feel your hands, the weight of your body on your heels, drop your shoulders a little. Take a deep breath. Then head back into the fray."