Take Back Your Time

How to Regain Control of Work, Information, and Technology

Jan Jasper

St. Martin's Griffin

Take Back Your Time
1
Get Ready to Change Your Life
Our two greatest gifts are time and the freedom to choose—the power to direct our efforts in the use of that time.
—STEPHEN R. COVEY

 

 
A few decades ago, experts predicted that technological advances and higher worker productivity would bring us a four-hour workday. Studies were begun to prepare the nation to cope with an expected excess of leisure. Researchers worried that the surplus of free time would lead to widespread boredom. This is as quaint to us today as a 1950s science fiction movie. We’re feeling more time pressured than ever before, and it seems to keep getting worse. Complaints about not having enough time are as ubiquitous as gripes about traffic and the weather.
We are exhorted to recycle, exercise at least three times weekly for cardiovascular health, floss daily, choose the best long-distance phone company, and remember to use the discount florist coupons offered by our frequent-flyer plan. We can choose from an almost infinite number of TV channels and watch virtually any movie, new or old, in the comfort of our homes. We can have all types of cuisine prepared and delivered to our door. (Remember when your takeout choices were limited to pizza and Chinese?) We quickly get the latest information about health or investments from the Web.
In 1970 in his book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler predicted that we would become slaves to an overabundance of choices, thereby inhibiting action, increasing anxiety, and creating a perception of less freedom and less time. If anything, he understated the truth. We have opened a Pandora’s box of too many choices, and we’re paying a big price. Economist Juliet Schor notes that smarter machines and better-educated people bring more options and higher expectations. New technology reduces the time it takes to do tasks but increases the number of things we expect to do and have. Schor calls us “rich in things but poor in time.”

Why Do We Feel So Stressed?
Author Jeff Davidson says that five factors are contributing to our feeling squeezed for time: population growth, the knowledge explosion, mass media and electronic addiction, the paper-trail culture, and an overabundance of choices. “Frequent-flyer programs, investments, long-distance telephone service, medical insurance, retirement options. The choices mount, the rules and regulations take longer to read, and are harder to understand.” He explains, “The faster we’re able to travel or to gain new information, the greater our expectations regarding what can and needs to be accomplished in our lives. We all seek to do more … . A day is still twenty-four hours, but it seems to shrink in the face of more to do or greater expectations about what has to be done.”

While women no longer spend hours doing laundry by hand and preparing meals from scratch as their grandmothers did, they now return from the office to a second shift at home, which may include caring for aging parents in addition to the children. Downsizing has led to increased workloads and stress for the survivors—often one worker ends up doing the work of two. Many people are forced to work two or more jobs to make ends meet.

 
Technology: The Good News and Bad News
Technology has proved to be a double-edged sword. It has brought flexibility unimagined even a decade ago. Laptop computers and fax machines enable many people to work at home a day or two a week, avoiding the commute. Yet the same technology has eroded our personal time. That daily commute offered transition time between home and work. Only doctors and firefighters were on call on the weekend. Now our commute is interrupted by the ringing of our cell phones, and the weekend is no longer a work-free zone due to pagers and laptops. Employers and clients know that we can stay in touch from anywhere, and many of them expect it. People used to go on vacation to get away. But now, even on an ocean cruise, you can’t get away—we have high-frequency radios that can send E-mail to the middle of the ocean. People on vacation in a foreign city find themselves looking for cybercafés to check their E-mail.
A March 1997 Money magazine survey found that, given the choice between taking cash or time off in exchange for working overtime, 64 percent of Americans would definitely choose the time. Americans are sleeping an average of six and a half hours per night, one full hour less than they feel they need. Many people cannot remember what it’s like to feel well rested.
If you can relate to this, if you never have enough time, this book is for you. If you’ve read lots of time-management books and attended numerous seminars but are still suffering, this book can help you. If you feel like you’re drowning, I understand. My clients often say this when they first call me for help. If you fear that your situation is worse than anything I’ve ever encountered, and that you’re truly hopeless—sorry, I disagree. After ten years of training busy people how to function more effectively, I don’t believe anyone is hopeless. If you’re willing to examine where your time is going, clarify your priorities, and apply the strategies in this book, relief is on the way!
Why Is Managing Life So Difficult?
Why do so many intelligent, successful people have trouble managing their time and organizing their lives? Partly because we are not taught how when we’re growing up, and what we are taught often backfires and causes more problems than it solves. For example, everyone has heard the maxim, “You should handle each piece of paper only once.” Sounds good. Only problem is that it’s dead wrong. Another myth: “Files should be arranged alphabetically.” Maybe, maybe not. An alphabetic filing system in some cases will cause serious problems. Another piece of common wisdom: “Neatness is important.” Not necessarily! People with neat desks often have ineffective work habits. The worst example of pointless tidiness I’ve ever seen is the method used in some offices to store incoming mail and faxes according to the date of arrival: Five folders for mail, one for each day Monday through Friday, and five more folders for faxes, again sorted by day of arrival. Standard wisdom? Yes. Effective? Far from it.
Another reason that intelligent, successful people have trouble managing their time and organizing their lives is that the world has gotten much more complicated. Even people with an innate knack for organization are hard-pressed to handle the complexity of life today. What worked ten years ago is not adequate now.

“You can always find time to do what you want to do—if you’re willing to give up something else. Life is a series of trade-offs.”
—Barbara Hemphill

Despite constant talk about how pressed everyone is for time, I contend that few people really live as if their time mattered. Most people spend more time planning their vacations than thinking about what they want to do with their lives. The way we use time is a combination of habit, the expectations of others, the influence of consumerism, and paralysis caused by too many choices. Few people use their time deliberately. We squander our time doing things because we’ve always done them, because other people do them, or because we’re “supposed to” do them. We spend time buying more and more stuff, then spend even more time maintaining all the stuff. This is a mistake—we can always get more stuff, but we can never get more time. Once that really sinks in, it changes everything.
Trying to do too many things causes us to feel overwhelmed, even depressed. Most of us are familiar with “the faster I go, the behinder I get” syndrome. According to John P. Robinson, director of the Americans’ Use of Time Project at the University of Maryland, the sheer number of options available to fill our time is overwhelming, whether we actually chose to do them or not. He calls this “overchoice.”
Radical Time Management
My approach to time management begins with clarifying what matters most so you can decide what to stop doing. There’s no point in getting more efficient at doing things that don’t need to be done. If you think this through first (discussed in Chapters 1 through 3), you’ll get maximum benefit from the time-management tips that form the bulk of this book.
For example, if you’re serious about wanting to get in shape by joining a gym, you must first free up some time for it. Just buying a gym outfit and joining a gym won’t do it. Unless you make time—and this may mean cutting back on TV or socializing, or working fewer hours—it’s nothing but a gesture. Many people make a resolution to begin an exercise program, but they don’t cut back another activity, so—not surprisingly—they don’t get to the gym. Unless you can figure out how to function without sleep, you can’t just keep adding things to your life. Something has got to go. Even if you won the lottery, this wouldn’t change. Sure, not needing to earn a living would free up lots of time, but you’d have a new problem in its place—you’d have even more options to sort through. The most overwhelmed and frustrated people I’ve ever known are those who can afford to have and do everything.
Fuzzy priorities and an unwillingness to say no are what get you into trouble. They lead you to start things you can’t finish, attempt too many things at once, and make promises you can’t keep—all major sources of stress. Maybe you can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once. Your first step is to start making conscious choices about how you’ll spend your time and what you’ll say no to. Then, with the hundreds of practical, tried-and-true strategies in this book, you will reclaim hours every week. What you do with that reclaimed time is up to you. You may just want to get out of the office at 6:00 P.M. instead of 9:00. Perhaps you want to play tennis regularly, watch your children grow up, or putter in your garden. Or you may be leading a fast-paced life and love it, yet you’d enjoy it more if you could get enough sleep.
Are You Fed Up? Great!
Anyone can learn to regain control of his or her life if there is sufficient motivation. The more fed up you are with the status quo, the better your prognosis—you’ll be more willing to make the necessary changes. But it won’t happen overnight. First, you make the commitment. Then you start making different choices and learn more effective ways to do things. You start to see results and get excited, which gives you the motivation to keep going. You experiment and fine-tune. Before long, time management, planning, and being organized become second nature, just like brushing your teeth. If you have a history of being “all over the place,” don’t despair. While you may not turn into the opposite extreme, you can modify your habits enough to get the results you want. With motivation and the tools in this book, anyone can regain control of his or her time and life.
What Does It Mean to Be Organized?
Organization is a close cousin to time management. I see them as two sides of the same coin. Being organized, though, suffers from some unflattering misconceptions. Let’s debunk them now.
First of all, organization has no inherent connection with neatness, as Stephanie Winston, the country’s first professional organizer, points out. Organization has no connection with cleanliness. It is not related to being perfect. (In fact, perfectionists waste a great deal of time striving for perfection in things that aren’t worth the effort.) Organized people usually tend to be neat—but not always. Many neat people have terrible work habits.
A client of mine had just fired her secretary, Jane, who’d always kept her office spotless yet continually lost and forgot things. We looked in her files and found that she’d created a new folder for almost every single piece of paper. When Jane was asked to buy a picture frame, she jotted a note, dropped it into a new manila folder that she labeled “Buy Frame,” and filed it in the B’s. Yes, she was neat—but very ineffectual.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is my friend Karen, who is too embarrassed to let me see her messy closet. I asked her, “If you have to go to an important meeting, do you show up wearing a flattering suit? Or do you frantically try on one outfit after another, finally find one that’s passable, and arrive late for your appointment?” She replied, “Oh, that’s never a problem. I take care of my clothes. If something needs dry cleaning, I take it right away, and I get rid of anything that no longer fits. I can get dressed in just a few minutes.” I replied, “I don’t see any problem. Don’t fix what isn’t broke!” As far as I’m concerned, Karen is organized, despite the appearance of her closet.
If being organized conjures up images of uptight, anal people who have their receipts in alphabetical order, relax. That’s not what I’m talking about at all. Having your receipts in alphabetical order generally serves no purpose. (See Chapter 10, “Effective Filing,” for why.) Organized people may not have spotlessly clean homes—they have better things to do.
A Means to an End
Whatever you want more of, good time management and organizing tactics will get you there. David Allen, a personal productivity consultant, says he’s the opposite of a control freak. “I love being spontaneous. I love having the freedom to follow my hunches. That’s hard to do when you have 473 things gnawing away at you. The reason to get disciplined and organized is not just to be disciplined and organized. It’s to clear the decks so that you can operate with a broader vision.”
So why all the misconceptions about what it means to be organized? It’s partly because we were not taught about effectiveness when we were children. We were taught to be neat and clean, and we resented it. We were told to clean up our rooms as a reprimand, even a punishment. This is appropriate for children. But if, as an adult, you are still driven by the child inside who believes that keeping clutter around means freedom, you will have a lot of self-defeating habits. The feeling of freedom that clutter brings is only temporary. In the long run it makes you feel very stressed out.
Another residue of childhood is the feeling that being disciplined means having no freedom, as if discipline and freedom are mutually exclusive. While it may feel this way to a child, it’s hardly the case for an adult. Self-discipline enables you to set your own goals and devise a strategy to reach them.
Time management and organization are not ends in themselves; rather, they’re means to an end. Learning these skills will not turn you into an anal person, nor will it destroy your creativity. On the contrary—it will free you to be more creative and more spontaneous, with time to do things you never before had time for.
How to Use This Book. Mark sections that strike a chord, discuss them with a supportive friend, and perhaps start a notebook of ideas. There are no hard-and-fast rules. The right way is whatever works for you. So if you’d like to regain control of your life and, along with it, a new sense of freedom, read on.
TAKE BACK YOUR TIME. Copyright © 1999 by Jan Jasper. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y.10010.