This morning I was reading an article in InPsych – the regular newsletter of the Australian Psychological Society, of which I am a member.
The article was on ‘time’ and the idea that we should consider time (or the scarcity of time) as an emerging determinant of mental health and wellbeing similar to income, housing, education, employment. A determinant is simply a condition or exposure that has the capacity to alter one’s health. For example, ↑ income, improved housing, ↑ education and ↑ employment are all predictors of improved health and wellbeing.
The article argued we should treat time similarly, particularly as a predictor of poorer mental health:
The argument had a few components:
- Time is finite and every new challenge added to your life consumes that time. Time that is allocated to the challenges of everyday life cannot be allocated to activities that are known to improve health and mental health: sleep, physical activity, healthy eating, socialisation, rest, and leisure activities.
- We feel rushed and pressured when we consider what we want to get done and the time available to us. Those feelings have an immediate impact on our wellbeing.
- We may feel pressure to take on a lot (over-commit) and doing too much has been linked to psychological distress.
- Mindful of limited time, we try to save time by making sacrifices that have wellbeing impacts. For example, we might try speeding up our activities and not savouring them. We might make tradeoffs that have mental health impacts (e.g. reducing our sleep).
To a certain degree I agree with the argument, although I would argue that it isn’t time itself, but our perceptions of time, and the choices we make based on those perceptions that is impacting our wellbeing. Time doesn’t make me tired, lack of sleep does. Time doesn’t make me distressed, but my perception and belief that there isn’t enough time does.
Regardless, the article does invite us to consider our perceptions and treatment of time in the context of our health and wellbeing, and that is a good thing.
It is also a highly relevant topic for students. The modern student is commonly juggling many demands: study, work, work placements, supporting family, friends, teams/clubs, living overseas, volunteering, social media. We hear frequently from students who feel overwhelmed at the amount they need to get done and the limited time to achieve it. Those time pressures don’t necessarily end when they finish study. I’d say most of my colleagues and friends feel the pressure of time. I certainly feel it.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a few methods of framing time and time pressures that can help lessen their negative psychological impact. I’ve not been able to create time yet (I’m working on it in my underground physics laboratory) but I have been exposed to different perspectives on time that help me maximise the time I do have, both at a pragmatic level (use time better) but also at a psychological level (consider time differently).
The ‘reality check’
Societal trends are generally in the direction of us having to work less and have more time for leisure. Lot’s of things have changed to make that happen: technological advances, changes in food production, increases in wealth, changes in cultural attitudes to work. These societal improvements might not help a lot in helping you manage your existing schedule, but it is worth noting you may be privileged with your time, compared to previous generations. Oh yeah, you’ll probably live longer as well.
The ‘terrible scheduler’
The busier one gets, the more likely it is they need to proactively schedule their time. If you feel time poor, but don’t keep a regular schedule/ diary, then this is one simple way to gain some additional control over time.
At its simplest, a schedule is simply a list of things you need to get done, allocated to specific times of the day, week, month and year. Nothing complex, but the act of creating and maintaining/updating and following a schedule gives you a close appreciation of:
- the time you have available
- what you need to get done
- how long it takes to do different things
- your preferences for how you allocate your time
- how good you are at following a schedule
Scheduling your time helps you develop a healthy respect for the time you have and how you use it.
The ‘efficiency maker’
One way to ‘save’ time is to get better and faster at the things you need to do – i.e. more efficient.
For example, you might use inefficient ways of studying which means you are taking longer to learn material than you need. That is why we wrote our “Evidence-based study, exam preparation and writing tips‘ document. Replace ineffective study strategies (e.g. constant re-reading) with more effective ones (e.g. self-testing) and shorten the amount of time required to learn a set amount of material.
Or maybe some of the sacrifices you’ve made in your life to free up time are actually working against you. The most common example of this we see in students is reduced sleep. Students reduce their sleep hours in order to free up time, but the psychological deficits (e.g. poor memory, reduced attention) that come with sleep deprivation mean their waking time is far less efficient.
Another efficiency maker is ‘workflows’ where you develop highly automated ways of doing repeated tasks. For example, you might approach essay writing in the same way each time: analyse question, initial notes, identify knowledge gaps, research & note taking, essay structure, essay content, second draft, edit, submit. Workflows reduce the time taken to do a task, but also the level of cognitive effort required to remember each step.
Finally, one that has worked for me is finding activities that meet two or more objectives. For example, you can use the time required to get from home to uni to read (learning), ride a bike (exercise) or listen to podcasts (relax).
The ‘wonky time beliefs’
I have a belief that ‘I work better in the morning’. If I don’t get work done in the morning, I then find myself excusing slackness in the afternoon. Whilst there might be some truth to the idea that I am a little fresher or more motivated in the morning, I know from experience that I can easily get good work done in the afternoon or evening.
We all develop funky beliefs about ourselves that are connected to time:
- ‘I’m a morning person’
- ‘I’ve only got an hour before my next appointment, so I won’t be able to get much done’
- ‘I can do that tomorrow’
- ‘There isn’t much I can get done in 10 minutes so why bother’
- ‘That is going to take me ages!’
- ‘I don’t feel like doing it right now‘
Even just the simple ‘I don’t have time’ diverts our attention away from problem-solving the task at hand and gives us permission to avoid thinking more about it. This leads to amusing situations (at least in my own life) where I find myself saying ‘I don’t have time’ whilst simultaneously sitting on the couch, eating chips and watching TV.
Our beliefs about ourselves, in relation to time, have real-world obvious behavioural implications. Procrastinators constantly put off doing stuff until ‘later’ which leads to last minute panics and high levels of distress. Try identifying your faulty time beliefs.
Many factors contribute to us saying ‘yes’ to everything and finding ourselves horribly overcommitted. It could be curiousity, a sense of obligation, difficulty saying no, fear of missing out, concern that our CV isn’t comprehensive enough, enthusiasm, desire to be liked or something else entirely.
Regardless of the reason, we end up in a situation where, even if we made significant efficiency improvements, or big sacrifices in other areas, we simply couldn’t complete all the tasks we’ve agreed to do.
This has a number of negative flow-on effects:
- you’ll be stressed out and unlikely to enjoy any of the activities
- you might disappoint people or let them down
- you won’t have the time required to work in-depth on some of the projects – everything gets done superficially
- you won’t have the necessary time to rest and rejuvenate so more likely to burn out
Preventing overcommittment requires you to put a significant PAUSE between hearing about an opportunity and indicating your willingness and availability to take the opportunity.
During that PAUSE, you need to consider the time and effort requirements of the opportunity and whether your existing schedule can support it. Get used to saying something along the lines of ‘That sounds like a really cool opportunity. Can I get back to you soon after I’ve assessed whether I can fit it in or not?‘
The ‘poor prioritiser’
You can’t treat every potential task or activity in your life as being equal. Some things are just more important to others. They may be important because they are necessary for survival (e.g. job to earn money to have food and shelter), or they may be important because they are consistent with your core values – who you want to be, the life you want to lead.
Prioritising will mean that some worthy activities will be put aside and this can be uncomfortable. But I find that this is usually balanced out by being able to expend your time and effort on the tasks that are most important to you.
So how does one prioritise? This may sound a bit dark, but I like the ‘memento mori’ idea. Memento mori means ‘remember that you will die’. Reflecting on the finite nature of a life helps me think about what I want contained within that life and is what I am working on consistent with that.
If contemplating death isn’t your cup of tea, what about a simple list of everything you do and scoring each one on a scale from 1 (not important at all to me) to 10 (most important to me)? Just reflecting on the ingredients of your life currently and the importance of those ingredients might get you part the way towards prioritising the most important tasks and working out where you want to allocate you precious time.
The ‘easily distracted’
We all lose time to distractions. Don’t feel bad if halfway through this article, you checked your social media or stared blankly out the window. I know that during the process of writing this blog post I have checked email, written emails, eaten, checked my phone, read the news, listened to music, made phone calls, had an impromptu meeting and a bunch of other random shit just to distract me from writing.
Removing all distractions from life is unlikely, but you can reduce the time lost to them. Create a study space that doesn’t contain other distractions. Switch your mobile off during study periods. Set a timer and only allow yourself distractions after 30-40 minutes of work. Look for little hacks to help you focus on the task at hand, and not the million of other meaningless tasks that will attempt to steal your attention. You’ll find countless hacks online that people use to try and cure distraction.
The ‘goal setter’
We tell people to set goals because it gives them something to work towards – a kind of motivation.
But setting goals also helps you chunk time more effectively so you feel like you are achieving more with the time you have.
Say you set aside 9am-12pm one morning for ‘study’ but don’t define it any more precisely than that. There is the significant risk that the lack of clear guidelines on how to use the time might make you more distractable, or use the time less efficiently.
Now consider setting aside the same time (9am to 12pm) but instead of just ‘study’, you list 3 very specific things you want to get achieved in that time (e.g. read Chapter 7, write a paper outlines, do the online quiz). You are more likely to focus during that time because of clear goals.
It doesn’t just have to apply to a few hours. You can start the day, or the week or the month or even the year with clear goals on what you want to achieve, so that you are more focused in your allocation of time.
Barring either a) traveling close to the speed of light or b) downloading your consciousness to a non-biological substrate, you have a finite amount of time to get the shit done that you want to do. The pressure of time and its implications can weigh on us, but there are ways to try and lessen the impact and make the most of the time we have. I’ve covered a few in the article above. Some relate to skills we can develop (e.g. scheduling, goal setting, prioritising, workflows). Some involve correcting irrational or unhelpful beliefs about time and productivity. Some involve acceptance and gratitude for the reality that compared to our ancestors, we have more time to play with (live longer, less work, more leisure). Time does not have to be your enemy. Time can be the thing that allows you to make the contribution to the world that you want to make. Embrace it.