When I dive into time coaching clients’ schedules, I consistently discover that people misdiagnose themselves as having a “productivity” problem when, in fact, their bigger issue is an overcommitment problem. When they have committed to more external projects and personal goals and obligations than they have hours for in the day, they feel the massive weight of time debt. One of my coaching clients suffered from a huge amount of false guilt until he realized he had the unrealistic expectation that he could fit 160 hours of tasks into a 40-hour workweek.
Effective time investment begins with accepting the reality that time is a finite resource. This acknowledgment frees you to make choices about what you will and won’t do so you can invest more in what’s most important, feel good about what you do and don’t get done, and still have disposable time left to relax and enjoy yourself. As one of my time coaching clients put it, “I’ve realized there’s only X amount of time, so I need to invest in my priorities and understand that when I choose one activity, I’m not choosing another.”
The single most important factor in feeling like a time investment success or failure is whether or not your expectations of what you will accomplish align with how much time you have to invest. The following time investment formula provides a mathematical way to understand the relationship between your expectations and your actual time budget. Once you have this data, you can then determine exactly what you need to do to get to a balanced budget in which you have enough time for what’s most important.
Time investment success
(External expectations) + (Internal expectations) ≤ 24 hours — (Self-care)
Time debt stress
(External expectations) + (Internal expectations) > 24 hours — (Self-care)
Look at the successful side of the time investment formula. On that side, there’s one fixed value, the twenty-four hours in a day, and one variable, the amount of time needed for self-care. For the purpose of this exercise, “self-care” is the most basic of wellness activities you do on a regular basis: sleeping, eating, and personal grooming, that is, showering, brushing your teeth, and so on.
Here’s an example of this breakdown:
- Sleeping—seven hours
- Eating—one hour
- Personal grooming—two hours
- Total—ten hours
On a piece of paper or electronic document or note, add up the hours you need to spend on sleeping, eating, and personal grooming. If you want to do so, you can include more self-care categories, but make sure that you limit these values to only the necessities in order to get the most accurate tally of your available time per day.
Once you have quantified the “fixed expense” of self-care, subtract it from twenty-four hours to come up with your daily time budget. There can be some variability in this number from day to day, but you want to determine your sustainable baseline.
Example of a daily time budget
24 hours — 10 hours = 14 hours
After you’ve calculated your time budget, total up the time costs related to your external and internal expectations. External expectations include commitments to others, such as spending a certain amount of time at work or attending family events; internal expectations are commitments to yourself, such as wanting to exercise or read. Here are some potential areas to consider:
- Pet care
- Related homework
- Recurring meetings
- Leadership/committee responsibilities
- Personal development
- Hobbies, side projects
- Prayer, meditation
If most of your commitments recur daily, then the values for expectations in each category of your life can be based on a twenty-four-hour day. For example, you may put down nine hours for work and two for hobbies or side projects.
If you have a fair amount of variance from day to day, it may be more effective for you to craft a weekly time budget. To come up with your weekly time budget, multiply your daily time budget by seven.
Example of a weekly time budget
14 hours x 7 days = 98 hours
Then, figure out the weekly time cost for your internal and external expectations. For example, allocate forty-five hours for work to reflect the fact that, on average, you invest that much time in the “work” category each week—both in and out of the office—and only five hours for side projects.
Take time to write down your numbers for each category of your life and then total them. If you’re unsure how you spend your time, look back at your calendar or planner. If those don’t provide an accurate enough reflection of your time allocation, write down your expected time allocations for the upcoming week.
Now comes an important moment of truth: it’s time to determine how closely your expectations align with the reality of your time budget. Plug your time costs for external and internal expectations into the left side of this formula and your calculated daily or weekly budget into the right side of the formula.
(External expectations) + (Internal expectations) ____ (Time budget)
Then fill in the blank between the two sides with a “>,” “<,” or “=” sign.
If you’re like most people, you’ll end up choosing the first of the three options—the greater-than sign—because you’ve made more external and internal commitments than you can realistically keep. This has created a lot of guilt and stress for you in the past. But now that you’re aware of what’s happening, you can adjust for the future.
This post is adapted from the Harvard Business Review Press bookHow to Invest Your Time Like Money.