“I know I should get to the gym every day but I don’t have time.” “I’d love to read to my kids every night but I don’t have time.” “I’d really like to get together with friends but I don’t have time.” “I know I should volunteer more but I just can’t fit it in.” “I’d work on the hobby I love but I don’t have time.”
Time. Time. Time. It’s such a common lament. I hear it every day — from my clients, from my friends, from my adult kids, from myself. The clock seems to be the enemy of all that is enriching, delighting and nurturing. Caught up in what we think we have to do, we put the things we most love to do, even things we need to do for our own physical and emotional health, at the bottom of the list.
The result? Our health suffers. Our relationships suffer. Our kids grow up without the family fun and nurturing they deserve. Hobby supplies get relegated to the back of the closet. We give up on dreams.
Sound familiar? Are you in charge of your time or has it become in charge of you? If you want to take more control of your time and your life, here’s a 7-step program for getting there.
7 Tips for Making Change
- Stop making excuses. You have the same number of hours in a day as everyone else. Look around. There are people you know who also have demanding jobs, families, and mental health issues who none the less are living more satisfying lives than you are. Yes, I know. There are people who seem to have more energy or need less sleep or who are not burdened by anxiety. But the fact is that there are people much like you who are living more balanced lives than you are. The first step to making any change, even a change in your use of time, is to take responsibility for however you are contributing to the problem.
- Set goals: Make a serious list of the things you would do if you had more time. Keep it real and realistic. Yes, you might fantasize about saving the world or making a cool million. But more realistic ideas are to make time to do some charitable work and to gradually increase your income. You might want to find a final cure for social anxiety that keeps you isolated. But a more realistic goal is to identify and take a first step toward getting back out into the world. Star the 3 things on the list that are most important to you. Those are your immediate goals.
- Keep a time diary for two weeks: Before bed each night, write down how you spent each hour of the day. Write down what you were doing and how you felt about it. Did you really have to do it? Did you want to do it? Are there things you could have done differently so you’d have more time for the things that most matter to you? If you find you can’t look back and remember a whole day, then take out your diary several times a day and fill it in. Yes, I know this is tedious. I know that it is hard to take time to keep track of your time. But if you are serious about making a change, this is where you start. As a bonus: Researchers have found that as soon as people start tracking any effort to change a habit, whether it is weight loss, smoking cessation, daily exercise, or anything else, there is improvement. Being aware is the first step to making change.
- Examine your data: Look at your patterns and choices in your time diary. Is there a difference between how you say you want to spend your time and what you are actually doing with it? Are there demands on your time that you really, really wish were not there? Are there practical reasons (low-income) or emotional issues (depression) that are getting in the way? Take notes. Think hard about what you are discovering.
- Make a plan: Studies show us that making a plan and taking even a step or two makes us feel better about ourselves. Go back to those 3 goals. Identify one or two new choices you can make right now, this minute, that will move you closer to being more in charge of your time and your life. Do take real limitations into consideration but don’t make them bigger than they are.
- Get support: It’s human nature: People generally stick to making changes if they feel accountable to someone else. Find a partner or a group. Check in regularly. Be a helper as well as a help-ee. Too anxious to meet with others? Use one of the forums here at PsychCentral as a starting point. Too little time for checking in? Really? Maybe committing to a daily or weekly check-in is the first step toward taking charge of your time.
- Track your changes: Someone once said “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Move from thinking about making changes in how you use time to doing it! Before bed every night, review what you’ve done or not done. Give yourself lots of credit for every small victory. But don’t scold yourself if your old habits caught you yet again. Just think about what you can do tomorrow to get back on track.
Change is difficult. We are all capable of staying in our uncomfortable but familiar ruts. It’s important to remember that anything that is important takes the willingness to be uncomfortable for a while and the commitment to stick with it. You can do it.