• Time management is considered essential skill when it comes to productivity, but what if there are more important reasons to manage your time?

  • Therapist Amy Barnes offers 8 questions to ask yourself to manage your stress levels

It is accepted wisdom that effective time management is something we all have to be better at if we want to achieve what we want to achieve in life. The fact that the day is divided into hours, minutes and seconds means time is already cut and diced and is a ‘something’ to be parcelled and allocated. The day becomes a series of slots. We could say that our prevailing approach to time is to treat time as a commodity. In some contexts, time is so precious that it acts as a currency and someone’s importance is measured by the amount of time spent with/on that person. 

Way back when, the vision of automation and computerisation was for tasks to be done by machines more efficiently so that we are released to spend more time doing things that are more value-adding and to enjoy more leisure time. What happened? How did we find ourselves in a situation where so many of us feel there is not enough time in the day; where rushing from one thing to the next is normal, as are extended working days and weeks; where at every moment, if we are not doing something or looking at something via our smartphones, we feel mildly panicked.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase ‘cash rich, time poor’ was coined at the beginning of 2000s. So it seems things have not changed for at least 20 odd years, probably more. Added to this picture is the rise in mental health issues of which stress and depression regularly feature. In an interesting article ‘Don’t Burn Out: How stress attacks your body, and how to fight back’, published in the New Scientist in June 2017, the author described how chronic low-grade stress can lead to chronic inflammation and this in turn, may lead to other diseases and conditions such as depression. The article suggests the difference between acute inflammation and chronic inflammation may lie with an ‘off switch’ which when triggered, releases resolvins. These resolvins clear up cytokines and in doing so, our bodies can return to normal state and we are saved from going down the chronic inflammation path. 

Two points stood out for me: Firstly, the process from low-grade inflammation to chronic inflammation is hard to detect. Secondly, no-one as yet knows for sure what and how the off switch is triggered. My perspective from working with people through their bodies is that this article signals a call for us to direct our attention towards much earlier moments in the stress process so that we are better placed to pro-actively reduce the chances of stress building up over time.

Putting these twin tracks of ‘time management’ and ‘stress’ together led me to the thought that maybe what we need to manage is not time per se but what is happening in me when I am in each and every time slot. By being more connected to how we are experiencing ourselves in what is happening in the moment and by being more aware of how I am, I can take action sooner rather than to wait until we are already on the maladaptive path. I am calling this ‘in-time management’. 

What does this type of in-time management involve? I propose the following questions we can ask ourselves:

1. What is going on right now?

This is an invitation to bring our attention more fully to the immediacy of what is here right now. It includes where am I? It is surprising how some of us pay no attention to our surroundings. Yet very often, our surroundings distract and support us if we are more aware of the environment and its vibes.

2. What am I doing?

Good question! Again, by playing back to ourselves exactly as they are, I am bringing attention and awareness to what I am doing. It might be that I am not doing anything – maybe sitting here (again) in (another) boring meeting (going nowhere) with (invisible) people dialling in (from wherever they are).

3. How is my energy level?

An essential indicator. This question brings your attention to your body-mind and your primary sensations- which offer data, intelligence and wisdom.

4. Where is my energy?

Is it on what I am doing? Chances are, if you are going through this list, your energy is wanting to go somewhere else or it has already gone.

5. How am I feeling?

Check your body. Is there any part that is tired, sore, alive, buzzing, impatient etc. It could be a missed picture. Include your emotions – happy, sad, bored, dull, angry, zoned-out. 

For instance, right now, writing this article, I am absorbed. My fingers are very much alive and merrily dancing across the keyboard. But my EYES, my eyes feel like BRICKS. Heavy, tired, burning. My neck is stiff, tight, sore. I need a break.

Anything other than fully alive and humming means whatever you are doing is already ‘not working’ for you in some way.

6.Why am I doing this?

Since time is so precious, why have I chosen to do this, in this way, with this time? I would challenge stock answers such as ‘because I have to’; even when we have to, we have choices – however limited. 

7. What do I need?

This might have already popped out in previous questions. But some of us are so used to keeping calm and carrying on that we have to make a point of asking ourselves – what do I need? Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy, in their book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working suggest five main areas of needs: survival, sustainability-body, security-emotions, self-expression-mind and significance-spirit. For those familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this is a similar but different take on needs. Ensuring our needs are met, even partially rather than not at all, can help refill the tank.

8. How can I make it work better for me / us?

Exploration and examination of the above may lead to re-negotiations, adjustments, creative solutions and giving ourselves permission to try things differently. In the health and fitness world, we are already seeing this type of movement-fitness: trainers are now advocating 20 minutes of HIIT or plyometrics as more effective than spending hours on the treadmill. 

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, advocates we do better when we are completely focused on what is in front of us, free of distractions and giving the task / situation / problem / person our fullest attention. Adjustments might be a quick break, doing something different for one or two minutes; or, doing things at a different time, breaking things up into smaller chunks, delegating, stopping, focusing for a shorter time or longer time, playing to our advantage by going with our natural circadian rhythm. There are so many ways to feel more in control of how you use your time. 

Amy Barnes is a verified Welldoing biodynamic massage therapist in London

Further reading

The burnout danger zone and how to prevent it

How to ADHD: 4 organisational tips I wish I had learned sooner

4 morning habits for a productive day

Why rest isn't a waste of time and how to do more of it