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Time management and Mental Health

By Brad Æon

Managing timePeople often ask me how I got into doing research on time management. I usually tell them, abashedly, that back in college I wanted to get good grades so I could go to grad school and become a researcher. But that’s a lie. The real reason why I took up time management is because it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. A few years ago I had my fair share of mental rough patches. For some reason I had sought solace in self-help books, but they didn’t help a bit. That’s when I started reading up on time management. It changed my life. At first I didn’t know why. But now that I’m doing a Ph.D. in time management, I think I do: it’s all about structure, order, and living a purposeful life.

Researchers can assess whether your time is structured by asking such questions as a) do you know what you’re going to do this evening, when, and for how long? b) Can you give us a ballpark of how many hours you’ve spent on various activities this week? c) Do you follow a schedule? and d) Do you have routines? The ability to structure your time is a critical time management skill, one that can dramatically reduce your stress, give you a sense of purpose, and boost your happiness. There are at least three reasons why structuring your time can perk up your life.

First, time structure creates predictability. According to sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel, we humans have a primal fear of the future when we don’t know what’s going to happen. When the future is blurry, anything can happen, and “anything” is too ominous a word for us to stomach. But schedules, says Zerubavel, help us deal with that anxiety by structuring an otherwise shapeless future. Schedules, to a certain extent, help us predict the future by creating it. If we plan our day ahead, there’s a high chance that our day will go as planned. Even if it doesn’t, we can still re-adjust our schedule and adapt it to our environment; the more accurate our schedule, the more predictable our future. And when our day, week, or month becomes more predictable, there’s less reason to worry about it. This is why a recent study has shown that when people who constantly worry about work start to schedule their tasks ahead, they tend to stop thinking about work when at home. The explanation? Having a schedule reduces ambiguity about future work.

Second, time structure gives us a sense of purpose. A lot of people fear that managing their time will cramp their spontaneity. Let me tell you something: spontaneity is overrated. When we leave our weekends and evenings unplanned, more often than not we end up watching TV or aimlessly scrolling down Facebook pages—hardly what one would call edifying activities. By failing to structure our time, we relinquish control; we let our time be tossed around by external events, other people, and our own whims. But when we manage our time, we strive to invest it in things that matter to us, things that we find valuable and pleasurable, things that bring us happiness and purpose, things that give us more bang for our time. As roman philosopher Seneca put it, “our lifetime offers ample scope to the person who maps it out well.” So it should come as no surprise that, according to research, people who structure their time are more likely to have a sense of purpose in life and are less prone to anxiety and hopelessness. In the same vein, unemployed people who structure their time enjoy better mental health compared to those who don’t, according to a study. This makes intuitive sense, and we’ve had an inkling of this since back when we were kids, reading stories about people stranded on an island—the first thing characters like Robinson Crusoe do is usually to find a way to structure and keep track of time so they can infuse their marooned lives with a modicum of purpose and sanity.

Third, time structure empowers us. The pop rock band The Script sang it best, “Time flies but you’re the pilot.” The idea that you can own time underlies most of time management philosophy. After all, the very purpose of time management training is to show you how you can master your time. It’s not mere hot air — study after study after study has shown that time management training helps people feel more in control of their time. And when people feel more in control and manage to stay on top of things, they’re much less stressed out and more satisfied with their lives. And the more you realize you are in charge, the more emboldened you become to defend your time against people who want to snatch it from you, and the more you live your life on your own terms.

Predictability, sense of purpose, and empowerment — three things that can do wonders for your mental health. Three things that are largely attainable through time management. It doesn’t take a lot to manage your time. It certainly doesn’t take state-of-the-art apps. A clock, a calendar, and a paper to-do list will do. Time management is, above all, a mindset; not a tool or a technique. It’s a way of seeing time—and life—as valuable and amenable to structure and order. The happiest people I know tend to manage their time exceptionally well. The most miserable people I know tend to have breathtaking time management issues. It’s a tough skill to master; I first tried my hand at time management years ago and I still have a lot to learn, even while doing a PhD on the topic. No one will ever be perfect at managing time, because there is no such thing as perfection in time management—there’s only what works best for you. The only way to know if you’re good at it is to ask yourself whether you’re happy, healthy, and fulfilled in life.

Brad Æon is a Ph.D. researcher at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. He studies time management, time scarcity, and temporality.