Do You Have A Minute? Ten Tips To Help Us Reclaim Our Schedule

Like string puppets, we’re increasingly controlled by what our schedule dictates.

If we work in a corporation, our schedule can get bombarded by meeting invitations, deadlines and other obligatory impositions we don’t feel we have much control over.

As parents, we have school/daycare schedules to adhere to, play dates, extracurricular activities, etc.

As spouses, we’re affected by our partner’s obligations, whether or not we’re involved, such as work hours, travel schedule, other outside commitments, etc.

As individuals, we also have self-imposed personal commitments of our own, such as medical appointments, gym and/or school, leagues, and so on.

These obligations turns us into people who don’t act but react. It can make us feel like we’re living for everyone but ourselves and it can make us feel miserable because we can feel we’ve given up control over our most precious resource: time. Time scarcity and busyness makes us less of who we want to be. It turns us into our own version of Mr. Hyde by making us rude, curt, impatient, unkind, unloving and selfish. And it’s possible to reign him in by looking at our schedule in a different way.

The Big Lie: All Minutes Are Created Equal

Anyone who says that a minute is a minute, no matter how you spend it is dead wrong. What you schedule in your day has a profound impact on how you feel, and in turn, how productive you are. The greater the time constraints we face on a daily basis, the more fragmented and scattered we are. That’s why we need to consider the drivers that affect our schedule.

Externally-Driven Scheduled Minutes

An externally-driven obligation is one that is scheduled with another party, whether we set the appointment or not. Any scheduled set of minutes—such as minutes set aside for a meeting with one or more people—monopolizes a certain amount of time prior to the actual start time.

The event is a type of anchor we keep in mind that influences the events that immediately precede it. The time that precedes this anchor is usually characterized by the need to pay attention to the time to avoid being late, transit time to and from the scheduled meeting or activity and/or the need to avoid any delays that would affect the parties involved. 

Creativity needs a bit of untidiness. Make everything too neat and tidy and there is no room for experiment. Keep a tight rein on costs and htere is no cash available to try new things or new ways. Cram your days too full and it’s hard to find time to think. We all need a bit of slack to give us the space to experiment.
— p. 35, The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy

This type of scheduled time can also suck up emotional energy, making it difficult to concentrate on getting anything else done prior to the scheduled start time. The emotions we might experience include fear, anticipation, anger, eagerness, confusion/curiosity—especially when the purpose and agenda have not been provided, apprehension, stress/nervousness, pride, etc. Despite knowing this about ourselves on a personal level, we and others don’t give much consideration to the anchoring effect when managing our schedule and making demands on others' time. 

Internally-Driven Scheduled Minutes

Internally-driven minutes don’t have to have a specific trigger/start time, though they can be loosely scheduled in our mental or actual calendars. We want to get them done, but we’ll forgive ourselves for starting a little early or a little late, given there’s really no inconvenience.

Internally-driven minutes allow us to get into flow, they allow us to be more creative and they enable us to be in the moment, all because they lack the type of rigidity that characterizes much of our modern-day obligations. 

[S]uccessful people routinely put themselves in situations where good things are likely to happen.
— p. 96, Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young

Internally-driven scheduled minutes also tend to be more fluid because we can substitute one activity for another based on our preferences and energy level at any given moment.

You can’t expect other people to value your work if you don’t.
— p. 61, Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young

Unfortunately, an increasing amount of our personal schedules are driven by externally-driven uses of our daily minute allotment, which often crowd out our internally-driven activities. Allowing ourselves to be pulled in all directions make us more likely to feel depressed, anxious, unhappy and/or unfulfilled.

Reclaiming Our Schedule

Schedding all external obligation is unrealistic for practically everyone. Appointments are an essential part of how we live our lives. They’re “time contracts” we set up with others—good luck seeing a doctor, a dentist, getting a babysitter or getting a descent hair cut without one! 

But it doesn’t mean we can’t make some changes to how we manage our schedule to free up more of our time to be consumed based on our preferences and energy levels on a given day or week. 

Being rich is not about having a lot of money. Being rich is about having lots of options.
— Chris Rock

The more control we can feel we have on our time, the greater our quality of life and the greater our potential to increase our life satisfaction and our personal contentment.

It is our choices…that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
— J. K. Rowling

How can we improve our ability to influence our schedule? By making more room for internally-driven minutes.

Here are ten tactics to make room for more internally-driven minutes:

  1. Say “NO” to demands on your time
  2. Protect your best hours
  3. Open-end your creative time
  4. Arrive early
  5. Increase buffers between commitments
  6. Decrease or enhance time spent travelling
  7. Decrease the number of commitments
  8. Reduce the time you spend multi-tasking
  9. Reduce the number of scheduled services you use (including TV)
  10. Consume less stuff

1. Say “NO”

It’s important not to let guilt or a personal sense of obligation dictate how we use our time. If we’re asked to do something that we know is not a good fit for how we want to spend our time, we’ll only grow resentful—which itself can chew up minutes as we stew over how “unfair” it is to have to use our time a certain way—and have less time for what we want to do. 

Others, like myself, are too ready to accept the cahracterization that others give us—anoher sign of doubt.
— p. 94, The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy
There is only one success, to be able to live your life in your own way.
— Christopher Morley, journalist

Also, “No” is a complete sentence. There’s no need to justify the decision to others because that conversation can lead to a reversal, which you don’t want. If the price of saying “yes” is not one you want to pay, say “No”. You’re unlikely to regret it. 

Extra tip: The acid test for future obligations is to ask yourself if you would say yes to it today. If the answer is you’re only saying yes because it’s far off in the future, you likely don’t really want to do it. Say NO!

2. Protect Your Best Hours

‘I do therefore I am’ is more real than ‘I think therefore I am’.
— p. 87, The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy

We all have particular times of the day when we’re most productive and creative. If at all possible, we need to avoid booking meetings or time-constrained appointments during this time and leave these for times when we don’t tend to get into a flow state. Guarding our best performance hours will increase both our work and personal satisfaction on a daily basis.

3. Open-End Your Creative Time

Whether we’re morning people or night owls, we can make better use of our thinking and creative time if we can leave it open-ended. To do our absolute best work, we need to be able to lose all notion of time and of ourselves and that means we need to ensure we aren’t interrupted by the needs or others or by time constraints. For example, if your best time is first thing in the morning, and you tend to get into flow for a few hours at a time, do your best to give yourself three hours to ensure you don’t worry about the clock at all. Example: my best time is 6 - 11am. On days I want to produce creative work, I block off 2-4 hours of this time and make sure that my first commitment after this time is nearby, if at all possible, which eliminates the stress related to time and location constraints. 

4. Arrive Early

Arriving early to any destination reduces the amount of time we spend looking at the time and stressing over whether we can just do “one more thing” before leaving and still make it on time. It reduces the stress and worry associated with unforeseen delays.

Getting to a function or appointment early enables us to relax, use the time buffer to our advantage to reply to email, check voicemail, make a grocery list, or whatever doesn’t require a great deal of time and attention but is still something you want to get done at some point during the day, without preventing you from being ready for your next commitment.

5. Increase Buffers Between Commitments

Having a buffer between tasks makes our schedule more realistic and allows for the natural breaks we need during the day, whether we want to use them or not: bathroom breaks, meals, follow up activities, confirmations and communications. 

Buffers enable us to stay in the moment and be more engaged and involved in the activity in question because it allows us to take care of what might otherwise cause us to be preoccupied: time scarcity.

6. Decrease or Enhance Time Spent Travelling

The more time we spend commuting the greater the number of variables we’re likely to face: traffic, accidents, car trouble, parking, weather, etc. This non-value-add actvity has a significant negative impact on our quality of life: it’s stressful, wasteful and often expensive. If traffic is a schedule hog for you, you might want to consider a few options to change your situation.

Options to reduce travel time: 

  • substituting driving time for video calls, 
  • living close to work & recreation activities, 
  • teleworking and 
  • flex time.

Options to enhance travel time: 

  • car pooling to reduce time spent driving and spend more time with other people, 
  • audio books and podcasts to help make the time commuting more productive and enjoyable, 
  • using public transportation allowing you to use your commuting time for other activities, such as tying up loose ends, reading, listening to audio books or podcasts, getting specific non-location-specific tasks done, etc., 
  • moving to active commuting—walking, biking, roller-blading, etc.

7. Decrease the Number of Commitments

Sometimes we are spread too thin, even with the things we do want to do. Just as taking on things we don’t really want to do can lead to dissatisfaction, so can taking on too much of the things we like. We can feel scattered, tired, over-committed and ineffective. Getting real about how much we can take on and what we care about most can help us make more room for what matters, both in time and attention.

8. Reduce Time Spent Multi-tasking

We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.
— p. 7, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by R. Pirsig

First, we need to get over the myth that we can successfully multitask when it comes to thought-based activities. Yes, we can walk and chew gum at the same time but that doesn’t mean we can produce good work and respond to constant interruptions in the form of email, IM and social media notifications. Our brains don’t work that way. We need focus and attention to be at our best. If you think you can focus on two things a once, just think of the insufferable guy or gal who constantly checks his/her phone while having lunch with you. How acceptable was the conversation? Would it have been of higher calibre sans smartphone? Enough said.

9. Reduce The Number of Scheduled Services Used (Including TV)

People with money but no time are ready meat for those with time but no money, as long as they have something useful to offer…
— p. 43, The Hungry Spirit by Charles Handy

We like to think we’re saving time by getting others to do things for us but we often fail to consider the time cost involved in using these services. Every personal service appointment we need to keep is an achor that requires time minding the clock to ensure we’re not late, travel time to and from, and the appointment time itself. 

It can be frightening to consider how much time can be eaten up in a week for even the most reasonable of service commitments. Simply reducing the frequency of the appointments or eliminating a few appointment categories can free up a tremendous amount of time.

Optional appointment types that are relatively new for the mainstream: dog groomer, manicure, pedicure, car detailing, waxing, facials, massage, botox & other anti-aging treatments, various new age therapies, personal trainers, hair care (other than hair cuts), spa appointments, various types of coaching, live or special TV shows and events, etc.

10. Consume Less Stuff

Stuff sucks up a lot of our time. The more stuff we have or want, the more time we need to spend making money to buy stuff or spend time on/with stuff: read up on what stuff to get, buy stuff, use stuff, transport stuff, maintain and repair stuff, clean stuff, take stuff out and put it back, replace the stuff, and sell or otherwise dispose of stuff—many of which may require service appointments (delivery, service & repair calls, storage & retrieval). 

The less stuff we have and want, the more time we have at our disposal. As an aside, if we really want to use a greater variety of stuff, renting stuff can be a good alternative to buying because much of the stuff-related activities and expenses can be eliminated with that shift alone.

Go ahead. Take a minute. You deserve it.

I’ve been cutting some strings for a while now (see previous posts here, here and here). The benefits I’ve gained from increasing the percentage of my calendar that’s internally-driven motivate me to guard my time even more ferociously. I don’t always get it right, but the occasional deviations serve as a good reminder to pay attention to how I allocate this precious resource called time. 

Here’s to making the best use of each and every minute we have available, no matter how we choose to spend it, be it creating, relating, loving or loafing. 

Image credit/copyright: Sira Anamwong/

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