Ever since the poet Virgil bequeathed us the phrase “tempus fugit” – time flies – mankind has been officially battling time. It was, of course, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar who tinkered with the calendar, ensuring that the Roman system of measuring days and months kept civilisation on track. Thanks to Julius Caesar, time is not as evenly marked as we think, of course – every four years we have an extra day on 29 February as a result of his re-working of the calendar.
Today, more than ever mankind is battling time, despite all the digital calendars and devices reminding us of our busy schedules and appointments. Recent warnings about global warming have given the world around 12 years to get its act together before it’s too late. The day when time runs out is one none of us ever wants to see.
Unfortunately, when we are battling time, we can only know when it is too late, when it really is too late – when we have missed that deadline, are late for that meeting or flight, or have missed the kids’ school play.
Time is, of course, one of the most important elements of business and commerce – the global Stock Market is governed by time, both in its opening and closing and the timeliness of deals as the market fluctuates. Profit and productivity go hand-in-hand in business, with time underpinning the latter.
However, as well as digital aids to help us manage time, there are also digital distractions – too much time spent on social media, losing track of time playing computer games, or spending an evening online shopping, or browsing holidays or hobbies, can all eat into the daily schedule, often leaving us feeling as though we have wasted time, or even our part of our lives.
It is common to feel, however, that sometimes time goes slowly – usually when we are not enjoying ourselves or are under stress – and sometimes it seems to go quickly, usually when we are relaxed and happy.
Lifestyle gurus now help us make the most of our time, increase productivity and learn to achieve what is called a life-work balance. Darius Foroux has a vast archive of helpful articles on how topics such as how to deal with procrastination or how to improve by 0.1% every day. It seems a minor achievement to aim for, but sometimes a little can amount to a lot, especially when battling time constraints and trying to get the most out of the time you have. You could, however, spend hours reading up on how to save time and improve yourself and your life, but if you reap some benefit, then perhaps it is worth the time doing so.
Going round in circles
The human body has its own time cycles – what we now call biorhythms – which can supposedly affect how we feel and bring about physical changes in the body, emotions and even intellect, according to Wilhem Fliess, a 19th century otolaryngologist. Biorhythms remain a controversial theory, but it has also been found that medication or recreational drugs can produce a change in people’s perception of time – and even speed up the sense of time in the case of drugs like amphetamines, or make time seem to pass more slowly in the case of sedatives or anti-depressants, which slow down the body’s responses. Researchers have also found that, when the core body temperature is raised, our sense of time speeds up – which is perhaps why we feel more active in warm weather and time seems to go more quickly as we enjoy ourselves in the sunshine.
But emotions can also play a part in our perception of time: psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Brandon Smeichel have found that when people suppress emotions, time appears to slow down – little wonder that that business meeting in which you feel like thumping the desk in frustration seems hard to get through, whereas the successful meeting seems like a breeze.
So in a fast-paced global economy, where productivity and profit go hand-in-hand, how can workers harness time to their own needs without having to work 24/7 to make a buck?
Time management is one of the biggest buzzwords of recent years – along with work-life balance. Often it can seem easier said than done, given the demands of work, family, commuting and making some time for relaxation or simply to collect your thoughts for the next onslaught.
Time management is now recognised not only in business, but also in the treatment of depression and anxiety, where workloads and personal commitments can play a role in causing mental health conditions if an individual begins to feel overwhelmed by life.
Chartered occupational psychologist Emma Donaldson-Feilder offers tips to the NHS on time management – here is what she advises for cases of “Stop the world, I want to get off”:
Work out your goals
Work out who you want to be, your priorities in life, and what you want to achieve in your career or personal life. That is then the guiding principle for how you spend your time and how you manage it. Once you have worked out the big picture, you can then work out some short-term and medium-term goals. “Knowing your goals will help you plan better and focus on the things that will help you achieve those goals,” says Emma.
Make a list
To-do lists are a good way to stay organised. Emma prefers to keep a single to-do list, to avoid losing track of multiple lists. Make sure you keep your list somewhere accessible. If you always have your phone, for example, keep it on your phone.
Focus on results
Good time management at work means doing high-quality work, not high quantity. Emma advises concentrating not on how busy you are, but on results.
Prioritise important tasks
Tasks can be grouped into four categories:
- urgent and important
- not urgent but important
- urgent but not important
- neither urgent nor important
People with good time management concentrate on “not urgent but important” activities. That way they lower the chances of activities ever becoming “urgent and important”.
Practise the ‘four Ds’
One study found that one in three office workers suffers from email stress. Making a decision the first time you open an email is crucial for good time management
- Delete: you can probably delete half the emails you get immediately.
- Do: if the email is urgent or can be completed quickly.
- Delegate: if the email can be better dealt with by someone else.
- Defer: set aside time later to spend on emails that require longer action.”
Take a break
It was Charles Darwin who encapsulated the need for taking a break when he said, “A man who dares to waste an hour of time has not discovered the value of his life”. Of course previous generations did not have the pressures of the digital age to contend with, but we all know the pleasure of taking a quiet moment for ourselves when the going gets tough, even if it is just a stroll around the block or a water cooler break.
Balance is at the heart of time management – frantically fill every minute and we risk becoming burnt out, even if we are enjoying ourselves. Squander too much time and we feel lazy, neglectful, under-achieving – never good for self-esteem.
Perhaps we need to return to Ancient Rome, after all – this time to the philosopher Seneca, who made a name for himself without spending hours on social media:
It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.
But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity, we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is – the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.”
As the saying goes, use it or lose it – but being busy doing nothing occasionally might actually be good for the soul, too.