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There’s never enough time, is there? You work, you sleep, you schlep the kids to all of their activities, you fit in a meal here and there, and you might even find time to get to the gym. And yet, everywhere you turn, there’s some time management or work-life balance expert like me telling you that you can do more. It’s insanity, isn’t it?
Actually, no. Even though time is the only one of your four resources that is truly non-renewable, you have more time than you think. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at some data.
The Facts About How We Spend Our Time
Sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and conducted by the United States Census Bureau, the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) has been conducted since 2003. The survey’s data set now includes information gathered from over 170,000 interviews. The study measures the amount of time people spend working for money, providing childcare, volunteering, eating, socializing, and other activities. It even tracks time spent on childcare while doing something else, on the off chance that you might sometimes change a diaper while on a conference call.
The insights you can gain from the survey about how we spend our time are pretty fascinating. For example, in 2014, the average day for Americans ages 15 and over included about 8.8 hours of sleep, 5.3 hours of leisure and sports activities, 3.6 hours of work, 1.8 hours of household activities, and 4.5 hours of other activities, like eating and drinking, going to school, and shopping.
That probably doesn’t sound like your average day at all, does it? Well, don’t fret. Remember that those averages include teenagers and lump all seven days of the week together. If you’re curious, for example, about how this data might look different for working parents, check out this chart.
Working Parents Have 168 Hours in Our Weeks Too
Let’s break it down a little bit. The data above from the 2014 American Time Use Survey says that, on an average non-holiday weekday, the average American between the ages of 25 and 54 who works and has children under 18 living with them spent 8.9 hours working and 7.7 hours sleeping. That works out to an average of 44.5 hours of work and 38.5 hours of sleep per work week. This is quite close to the figures arrived at by time management author Laura Vanderkam, as reported in her books, I Know How She Does It and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.
So if a career-loving parent spends 44.5 hours working and 38.5 hours working, that leaves 37 hours for other activities — and that’s not including the weekends. So why do we always feel like there’s never enough time?
First of all, let’s not forget commuting times. For reasons that are far too boring to discuss here, the American Time Use Survey doesn’t really capture commuting in its massive data set. However, data from the US Census Bureau and the National Household Travel Survey suggests that the average commuting time for Americans is 50.8 minutes (0.85 hours) per day. That subtracts 4.25 hours, leaving us with 32.75 hours. In that amount of time, the average person could read War and Peace.
And you have to eat, don’t you? OK, the ATUS says we average about an hour a day of eating and drinking, so now you’re down to 24.75 hours in your weekdays. You might not get through War and Peace, but Anna Karenina is a distinct possibility.
That’s more than a full day of time in your weekdays when you’re not working, sleeping, commuting, or eating. When you break it down like that, it doesn’t seem like so much of a time shortage, does it? In fact, if you were a fan of the ’80s rock schmaltz of Styx, you might say we have too much time on our hands.
But it doesn’t feel that way, does it? It feels like we’re barely able to fit in time with our families, time with our coworkers, time with ourselves, and time in our communities. Some days, it feels downright impossible, as if every single moment is taken up with work or family obligations. So what’s going on? Is something (or someone) stealing these 32.75 hours away from us?
What’s Stealing Your Time?
I find that many of my clients think that what’s stealing their time is down time — hanging out with friends, conversations with coworkers in the break room, walking to the coffee shop down the street for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
But that’s not it.
You can’t be productive every waking minute of every day. In fact, research shows that our bodies’ energy waxes and wanes in cycles of approximately 90 minutes throughout the day (this is known as ultradian rhythms), just as it does while we’re sleeping (this is known as circadian rhythms). As Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project has pointed out repreatedly, for optimal performance, we need to alternate periods of energy expenditure (e.g., knocking things off our to-do lists) with periods of rest and renewal.
Remember our time management quadrants? Activities that provide much-needed rest and renewal — quality time with friends, connecting personally with coworkers for a few minutes, taking an mid-afternoon break to walk to your locally-owned coffee shop — fall into quadrant #2. Rest and renewal activities are not urgent, but they’re important. They’re the health foods of time and energy management.
No, the thief of our time is something much more insidious.
The Junk Food of Time Management
Building in high-quality rest and renewal to our days is like eating fresh fruits and vegetables when we’re craving cookies and chips. There’s an urgent voice in our abdomens and our brains that says, “Give me fat and carbohydrates!” In fact, this is most likely to happen when we’re stressed and depleted, when our bodies starts sending our brains signals that we’re in mortal peril. Evolution has taught our bodies and brains that stress means two things: (1) we need quick energy, and (2) we don’t know when we might get our next meal — so we dash off to the vending machine for a bag of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. That’s not just me, is it?
But because we know that fat and carbohydrates are not the fuel our bodies really need, because the more complex parts of our brains know that we’re not actually in mortal peril, we make healthier choices. We grab that Ziploc bag of raw veggies out of our lunch boxes. We take a bite out of an apple. We throw a handful of nuts in our mouths.
Now it’s time to apply the same lessons to how we spend our time. Feeling stressed, depleted, challenged, or even a bored, our brains tell us they want novelty. They want a break. They want change. So we hop over to our email inboxes or Facebook or YouTube or Netflix or any other favorite internet diversion and we disappear. We get lost for five minutes or fifteen minutes or an hour — clicking, flicking, scrolling, perusing, replying, filing, chuckling, sneering — until we snap out of it. If we’re lucky, we run into something like this:
But here’s the thing. When we snap out of it, do we feel refreshed, renewed, and revitalized? Alas, no. We might have had some moments of amusement. We might have swatted some gnats in our inboxes. We might have made a brief, superficial connection with a friend. But we didn’t renew our mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual energy. If you’re like me, you came out of that YouTube wormhole feeling a little dazed, a little disoriented, a little guilty — and no better prepared to dig back into that challenging problem you were working on before Jimmy Fallon and Paul Rudd made you scratch your head and wonder, “Why?”
This response to our bodies’ requests for time out is the junk food of time and energy management. It’s neither urgent nor important. It’s pure quadrant 4 stuff. It’s the equivalent of that bag of Famous Amos cookies that I find so irresistible when I’m stressed. It masquerades as the rest and renewal that we truly need to replenish our energy reserves, but it doesn’t actually deliver. If anything, it actually contributes to further depletion of energy and leaves us feeling more drained than before. Just as it’s easy to reach for that bag of cookies when we’re feeling stressed, it’s easy to reach for Facebook when we need a break, but it isn’t important, it isn’t urgent, and it doesn’t help us.
Time and Energy Management Health Foods
So what’s the alternative? What are the raw veggies, fresh fruits, and nuts of healthy of time and energy management? When we think we’re craving another check of our email or another viral video, what can we reach for instead that will leave us feeling renewed and won’t leave us feeling robbed of our time?
As with most questions worth answering, the answer to those questions is: it depends. When it comes to replenishing mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual energy, the right answer is different for each of us, and varies based on the situation. Consider, however, this guiding principle: When you’re tempted to opt for quadrant 4 activity, choose instead quadrant 2 or quadrant 3 activities that will reenergize you and/or leave you feel like you accomplished something.
Quadrant 2 Alternatives to Time and Energy Junk Food
When you’re tempted to consume the time and energy junk food of activities that are neither urgent nor important, here are some quadrant 2 — not urgent, but important — alternatives:
- Take a walk
- Meditate or breathe
- Straighten up your workstation
- Hit the gym
- Drink some water
- Talk to a friend
When we choose quadrant 2 instead of quadrant 4, we feel like we have more time because we have more energy.
Quadrant 3 Alternatives to Time and Energy Junk Food
Sometimes, the alternative you need isn’t a break, but a sense of accomplishment or progress. In that case, you can choose from quadrant 3 — not important, but urgent — alternatives:
- Work on a detail-oriented project that doesn’t require a lot of brain power
- Run an errand
- Schedule a meeting or appointment
- Call that customer you’ve been putting off
- Knock some low-hanging fruit off your to-do list
When we choose quadrant 3 instead of quadrant 4, we feel like we have more time because we’re getting things done that are bugging us.
Choose Time and Energy Management Health Foods
As with any behavior change, switching from time and energy junk foods to time and energy health foods isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen quickly. It requires intent — the desire to make better choices and have more time — and persistence — the fortitude to keep trying it for a long time, even when it’s hard.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t start today. Today, don’t try to change anything about what you do. Instead, just try to notice what you do. Are there particular times of day when you reach for time and energy management junk food? Are there certain types of work that drive to you make those choices? Just try to notice today what triggers your quadrant 4 behaviors. And how do you feel when you indulge in those quadrant 4 behaviors? Awareness is the first step toward change.
You don’t have to instantly transform yourself into a time and energy health nut, immediately eliminating all quadrant 4 from your diet. Start slow. Pay attention. Be kind to yourself. And watch the shift happen.
P.S. A word about the word “American”: In the beginning of this article, I used the term “American” to refer to residents of the United States. However, I’m aware that residents of Canada, Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, Venezuela and many other countries are, geographically speaking, also Americans. I apologize for this bit of linguistic imperialism and would love suggestions of other terms to use to refer to United States-ians.
P.P.S. A word to my international readers: In this article, I refer to the American Time Use Survey, but time use data for many other countries (including Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan, and others) is available. Check out this link for information on time use studies from around the world.