The Time Of Your Life

Observer Magazine / Guardian Online

by Glenn Rice

Too much to do and not enough time to do it? Time-famine has become one of the greatest stresses of modern life, with serious implications for our health, relationships and wellbeing. Here's how to beat it.

Remember when the usual answer to 'How are you?' was 'Fine'? Now, the reply most often given, by everybody, is 'Frantic'. If there is one experience we all share at the beginning of the 21st century, it's the desperate feeling that there's never enough time. We schedule time in ever smaller chunks - 10-minute slots for meetings, five-minute slots for cooking an evening meal (just check out the number of Meals In Minutes cookbooks on any bookshelf), one-minute slots for reading a child a bedtime story.

Multi-tasking, originally a way to make more efficient use of time, has become another pressure. Doing just one thing at a time is a positive indulgence, so we work on the train, feed the baby while we talk on the phone, have a sandwich at our desks, and do sit-ups in front of the TV.

Dr Donald Wetmore is a time-management guru at Connecticut's Productivity Institute. It's a single decade, he says, that has taken us from 'fine' to 'frantic'. 'Between 1982 and 1989 I taught 600 people time-management courses at the Institute. From 1989 to now, that number rose to 30,000.' And it's no good hoping the next 10 years will be easier as technology finally frees us all from our frenzied existence. 'Innovations don't eradicate previous methods. They simply add other layers of responsibility to our lives.'

How much more can we take? Is it possible to keep up in a speeded-up world without giving up our private lives and personal passions? Actually, yes. Most time-management advice tends to be mechanistic - little tips to help you save half an hour here or there. They can be useful, but they won't do any good if you don't start by examining your own attitude to time, and your own core values.

In his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick coins the term 'hurry sickness' to describe this modern malaise. He points out that although we may be desperate to step off the treadmill, it's also true that we thrive on the speed and adrenaline of modern life. Conditioned to expect it as given, we crave more, but at a price. 'A minute!', barks stressed-out Everyman Homer Simpson at his tub of popcorn. 'Isn't there anything faster than a microwave?!' If you're really ready to begin taking your time back, the strategies below can help. Many of the principles governing effective life balancing and time management are commonsense. Yet how many of these simple axioms do you currently apply to your own time? The answers lie in being honest and proactive, rather than reactive, to the way we see and spend our time. And underpinning them all is the message that your time, like your life, is what you make it.

Dr Wetmore recommends that you start with the basics. 'Take a few minutes to plan your day in advance. Very few people actually do this, although they may make long lists of all the things they want to get done, it's not the same as a realistic plan of what you will do, and how and when you will do it. This can dramatically improve your effectiveness and cut down on wasted effort.' Look at your position at work as just that - a position, not a 'job'. A position from which you can attend to your needs on three levels - social, financial and professional. Keep interruptions to a minimum. 'My phones don't take calls, they take messages,' says John Naisbitt, author of High Tech/High Touch. 'How can I find time for my own agenda when everyone's trying to make me a part of theirs?' One of the best and most powerful ways to take back time and reduce your stress levels, according to Dr Wetmore, is to maintain good relationships with others: 'an often overlooked but uniquely effective method of minimising stress, staying happy and reducing the amount of time wasted on counter-productivity'.

Technology was supposed to free us from time-famine, cutting our workloads, making our lives more flexible, and giving us back time and space to spend on ourselves. Often, it's had the opposite effect. According to Dr Wetmore, 'Five years ago it was assumed that e-mail would make postal communication redundant. Last year, the highest number of e-mails ever were sent, and the highest number of letters too.' Learning to balance the pros and cons of the digital age is vital for achieving control over our own time. John Naisbitt, Nana Naisbitt and Douglas Philips, authors of High Tech/High Touch, offer their advice.

Don't dismiss technology - or take it for granted. It's important to recognise that technology isn't just simply there for good or ill - technology, in this particular instance, meaning consumer technology. It's in no way neutral. You have to appreciate and address the fact that you have a relationship with it. Examine that relationship thoroughly and ask yourself what you really need from technology and what you can do without. Very few people do this. Technophobes pass over its many potential benefits and the rest are seduced on to the endless slope of one upgrade to another without ever really thinking why.

Identify the consequences of technology. What you are being sold when you buy into technology is a promise that things will be easier, faster and better. We often look at technology as a toy, but behind its promise lie unspoken consequences. Not least of these is the way technology shapes our sense of time. The speed of response it now requires from us has contributed to the desire for instant gratification.

We need to lose both our awe and our fear of technology, and see it with clear eyes. With a conscious approach, its true benefits and deficits become apparent. It's possible to estimate how we might apply it constructively in the future. And if you can see where it's going, it gives you much less to feel anxious about in the present.

Time at Work 
Recognise your personal energy levels. According to Jaqueline Atkinson, author of Better Time Management, time management and energy management are essentially the same thing. If you are tired and stressed, stop. 'Identify your personal energy levels. Be realistic about how much you can do. Resolve to work only as long as that permits. You may have to ask yourself, do I want this job, or my health and family?'

Be realistic in defining yourself. Atkinson likes to tell what she calls 'a true, cautionary tale. A small business owner's marriage and health were dissolving. His bank manager suggested he pay himself less and hire an employee. He refused, because he defined himself by what he earned. If you realise work is most important to you, acknowledge it, at least to yourself, if not necessarily to your family or partner.'

Be realistic in your expectations. Most psychological pressures in the workplace come from unmet expectations, says Dr Wetmore. 'Many small disappointments grow into one big one. Lowering your expectations - to real rather than low levels - allows you to focus much better on the reality of what you can achieve.'

Aim for an appreciation of working processes, not just results. '"You are what you achieve" isn't necessarily true but still hangs over from the 1980s when it was paramount,' says Atkinson. 'Don't ask yourself relentlessly "what have I achieved?", but "did I enjoy the process of doing it? Did I learn from it?" This alleviates guilt and anxiety over work. A positive approach to processes produces a higher standard of work, more quickly than focusing only on the end result.'

Tailor the quality of your work to the time available. 'Perfectionists balk when told, "make it good enough,"' admits Jaqueline Atkinson. 'Yet PC printers offer "fast", "good" and "best" options. Why? Because excellence is not a prerequisite for all tasks. Realise that good enough is still good, increasing productivity and free time for other tasks.'

Time at home 
Soporific pursuits can bring you down still further. Slumping in front of the TV (or doing similar pursuits that aren't really satisfying) creates lots of 'dead time' and usually ends up making you feel more tired - and just as time-pressured - as before. Is it such a good idea for a stressed, tired person to subject themselves to the evening news? Many time-management experts identify 'vegging out' with the TV as a major cause of lost time, fatigue and dissatisfaction. Atkinson recommends that you simply record what you want to watch and set aside specific time to watch it in a block. Or put the TV away in a cupboard, so you have to make a conscious effort to get it out.

Satisfy your inner needs It's easy to let the thoughts and effects of work overbalance into home time. At the end of the day take an opportunity to buy back time for yourself, says Atkinson. 'It's a shame that the term "hobby" has such nerdy connotations. It's extremely unlikely that work gives you what you need to satisfy your innermost requirements, so having an occupation that does is a prerequisite for achieving that balance. When people ask me why I enjoy patchwork I tell them simply, "because of the juxtaposition of colours".'

Sorry, you still have to vacuum the carpet. Wilfully managing your time allows you to do a great deal more with your life. Sadly, this doesn't translate into no longer having to do the housework. 'We all have routine tasks and responsibilities to attend to,' says Atkinson. 'But if you've accepted that pre-planning is essential, it's easier for you to recognise the optimum time for attending to the nuts and bolts of home life. Understand that it's the accumulation of small daily victories that enhance our sense of self-worth. Be self-disciplined, do the work at a pre- governed time, and you'll find that beating the housework counts among them.'

Time alone/relaxation 
For so many of us, time alone is either a luxury we can't afford or something we fear and try to avoid at all costs. Either way, we almost never get time completely to ourselves. And yet it can be an enormously powerful way to get back a feeling of owning your own time, destressing and balancing the pace of your life.

'There's no set requirement or method for spending rewarding time alone,' Atkinson says. 'A person's basic need for time alone is based on the individual's need for stimulation. The trick is to relax properly, not necessarily just do nothing.'

You can do so at any time with meditative and relaxation techniques that can be put to good use in just a few moments, even if you don't have the time or inclination to keep your own company. Psychotherapist Sue Vaughan includes this Yogic breathing exercise for 'when your head feels muzzy and your nerves are jangled' in her book Finding the Stillness Within in a Busy World. Try it at your desk. Ignore any sideways glances.

Alternate Nostril Breathing Exercise. Sit with your back straight, with your neck and head in a straight line. Shoulders slightly back but relaxed. Breathe steadily and easily. Try to get the incoming and outgoing breaths the same length. Observe the natural rhythm of your breathing. Now press the left nostril closed with your thumb and inhale through your right nostril. Remove your thumb and close your right nostril with your forefinger and exhale through your left nostril. Without changing fingers, inhale through your left nostril. Change fingers, exhale through the right. Inhale through the right and exhale through the left, and so on.

Feel the fear and do it anyway
What if you recognise the need for personal space and to relax but are uncomfortable with the idea of being alone? The fear of loneliness manifests itself in many ways. According to Vaughan, 'There is a constructive and destructive side to the fear of loneliness. Unexpressed, it can flow into behaviours designed to avoid rather than release it. The constructive side to loneliness can be that it serves as the impetus and motivation to look within for your inner resources; to find the stillness in the whirlpool.' It can be overcome, she says, by making friends with yourself. Stop criticising and belittling yourself. Treat yourself kindly and politely as you would another, and recognise that flaws of character and making mistakes are normal. 'The lesson that loneliness can teach us is that when it occurs in our lives, we have the opportunity of looking within. It is then that we can discover all the resources we need. We can become our own person, aware of the strength as well as the peace and serenity we hold within ourselves.'