How to regain control of time when life gets busy

February 8, 2016


Busy careers, family commitments and heaving social lives, a generation of women are stretched to breaking point. Stylist reports on how close we are to snapping


Words: Kate Faithfull-Williams

You’re busy. Flat out. Stretched to the max. In fact, you’re probably doing some heroic multitasking in order to read this right now: texting a colleague to say you’re stuck on a slow train; emailing a client to show you’re dealing with their query; booking a last-minute grocery delivery and wondering if it’s too late to cancel tonight’s yoga class because you don’t have time to relax.

Amid this frenzy, it’s no real surprise to learn that this is the week when nearly half of us (41%) who made a New Year’s resolution will give up our well-intentioned pledges. But it’s not necessarily a lack of willpower that means we can’t sustain our resolution to cook from scratch or keep up our commitment to see more of our friends. For the most part it’s due to time; or rather the lack of it. In fact, women are being pulled in so many directions that we are on the brink of snapping. Time-management experts believe we are entering a time poverty crisis.

A recent study on ‘me-time’ found the average 30-something British woman gets just 17 minutes a day to herself. That means she is spending the other 943 minutes of her waking day on everyone and everything else. In a separate report, 56% of adults surveyed said their free time had diminished to the extent that they only experienced quality time with their partner when on holiday.

Back in 1930, global technological advances and Britain’s booming economy were such that forerunning economist John Maynard Keynes predicted our generation would only work “three hours a day” if we chose to work at all. Sadly he was wildly wide of the mark. An Oxford University paper has discovered that, over the last 40 years, women in the UK have lost three hours per week of free time and Stylist’s 600-strong reader panel has revealed that while we would like to spend 61% of our time doing activities we enjoy – planning weekends away, going to the cinema, pursuing a hobby – the reality is that only 32% of our day is actually our own. Stanford University lecturer Alice LaPlante’s report on wellbeing reveals, “Time, not money, is your most precious resource” yet in reality, our free time is shrinking fast. We are so rushed that psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman from the University of Warwick has even found that the average pavement walking speed has increased by 10% in just 10 years.

Where did it all go wrong? Though we may be richer and have more freedom than every generation of women before us, we have still been plunged into a state of extreme time poverty. There simply doesn’t seem to be enough free time to achieve our goals and live the lives we work so hard for.

All work and no play

Of course, work occupies most of our waking hours, with 38% of Stylist readers feeling that, due to the competitive job market, our careers take up too much of our time. Since the late Nineties, presenteeism – or being at your desk first and leaving the office last – has become increasingly common, often creating a culture of fear about daring to clock off on time. And perhaps with due reason; according to Kim Weeden, professor of sociology at Cornell University, presenteeism has earned over-workers about 6% more than their counterparts. Yet busyness in the business world has reached epidemic proportions and its effects on our mental health and wellbeing are beginning to take pernicious effect. “In the last year, we’ve experienced a surge of successful women seeking help for a range of stress-management issues, from anxiety to insomnia and depression,” says Neil Shah, director of The Stress Management Society and author ofThe 10-Step Stress Solution. “There is a pattern that the more successful we are, pressure grows and time shrinks.”

Even flexible working, heralded as the concept that would improve wellbeing through adaptable hours and out-of-office working, is now being shown to have the opposite effect. Professor Gail Kinman, an occupational health psychologist from the University of Bedfordshire, cites a study by the British Psychological Society that revealed: “Flexible working is agile in so far as it expands to fit the time we have, creating office hours that never end and eating up our free time.”

It’s not ideal for colleagues of flexi workers either. According to a survey by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, 35% thought that people who work flexibly create more work for others. And then of course, smartphones, which were supposed to free us from our desks, have instead created an ‘always on’ culture, where we are virtually at our desks even at 11pm when we’re actually at home on the sofa and supposed to be enjoying some downtime. Technology doesn’t so much enable us to get more done, but forces us to work more, and faster. Many of us answer emails on our commute, so adding an extra 54 minutes, on average, to either end of our working day while 60% of smartphone users are connected to work for 13.5 hours or more a day. Suddenly, a 9-5 working day feels like a luxury.

In addition to stretching our work hours, technology is piling on the psychological pressure in terms of how we spend our rare free moments. With 24/7 access to our friends’ – and strangers’ – images of time spent skiing a black run in Courchevel, creating picture-perfect homemade sushi or getting dressed up ready for the latest Secret Cinema, it’s not hard to see how snuggling under a blanket to read a book seems like a potential waste of precious free time.

From as far back as 1970, Swedish economist Staffan Burenstam Linder saw that those who were busy during their working hours would want to make their downtime equally as productive. In what he called ‘simultaneous consumption’, we now find ourselves meeting friends for dinner, eating maple-glazed salmon and kohlrabi, looking up what kohlrabi actually is (a variety of cabbage), chatting about an article we read in The Week and posting a selfie on Instagram all while listening to the tinkle of a piano in the background and wondering if we should also be booking tickets for the latest theatre production.

Linder correctly predicted that our leisure time would gradually feel less leisurely, particularly for those busy, successful people who should be best placed to enjoy it. Today, we are the living, breathing, one-hand-on-our-smartphone product of economic progress: what Linder referred to as a “harried leisure class”.

“The trouble is, as you get richer, you attach more value to your time, so it feels scarcer,” says Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, and the author of Happiness By Design: Finding Pleasure And Purpose In Everyday Life. “This attitude heaps the pressure on that small window of time to perform.” Seventeen minutes a day – the average spare time we have – is just not enough to achieve everything we want, or think we should want to do. Worse, allowing work to seep into all areas of our lives, brings with it a whole raft of physical and mental health concerns. “There is physical evidence that refreshing emails first thing in the morning or taking calls after office hours raises your blood pressure and spikes your stress levels,” says professor Kinman. “If you keep picking at work, worrying about it, your systems never really go down to baseline so you don’t recover properly. You don’t sleep efficiently, which compromises your immune system.”  

The tyranny of the to-do list

Being stretched so thin outside of work only leaves us free to get on with the rest of life’s endless to-do list. A recent Mumsnet survey found that women do twice as much housework as men, even when both partners work full time. And 59% of women are responsible for the majority – if not all – of the household chores even though doing the laundry and cleaning is our least favourite way to spend our time, ahead of work and commuting.

Wait, there’s more. Women shoulder the burden of ‘emotional labour’ too, the term coined by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, to describe the time and energy spent on making life run smoothly. “Organising weekend get-togethers, remembering the birthdays of my husband’s three godchildren, answering his mother’s phone calls when he’s mysteriously unavailable… emotional labour is endless,” explains Madeleine Allett, 35, a renewable energy developer from Blackheath. These concerns may not be materially valued by society, but are the essential glue that holds friendships, families and relationships together.

Academic studies have repeatedly proved that effective antidotes to this level of stress are taking exercise and spending time with friends: ironically though, Stylist readers identified these as the top two activities compromised due to lack of time. Just 15 minutes of exercise can boost our energy by 65%, according to the journal, Psychotherapy And Psychosomatics, friendships are vital to mental health: friends not only make you happier because of the things you do together, but also because they make you feel like you matter, says a study in the Journal Of Happiness Studies. Yet, we don’t have nearly enough space between travelling to work and making a miniscule dent in our email inbox for either. The result? A worrying 96% of women feel that, when there’s not enough free time, anxiety increases, with a whole gamut of negative emotions including “feeling like you’re existing rather than living” (51%) and “stressed” (56%).  

Finding new solutions

In short, we’re stressed and exhausted. When asked what you’d do with an extra two hours of time in your day, 51% of you simply replied “relax”. Lack of time is stopping us from developing personally, from discovering and pursuing what makes us happy. Rather than feeling in control of our lives we increasingly feel pulled in all directions, with our own priorities not getting a look in. But hope is not lost. A new wave of time management experts are examining how we prioritise our lives and how we can take back control of our days.

Greg McKeown, business consultant and author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less, highlights what psychologists call ‘decision fatigue’ as a cause of stress: the considerable leisure opportunities we have open to us today have led to an inability to prioritise what truly makes us happy. His ‘essentialist’ philosophy – “an essential read for anyone who wants to regain control of their health, wellbeing and happiness,” according to none other than Arianna Huffington, “Is not,” he says, “about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done… how to live by design, not by default.” He advocates focusing your attention on fewer goals and saying ‘no’ to anything that deviates from them. After seeing his diary fill with other people’s meetings and realising he had no time to focus on his own projects, Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, started turning down meeting invites and scheduling up to two blank hours in his diary every day – no phone calls, no meetings – so he could get things done. “If you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will,” says McKeown.

In my new book The Feelgood Plan, performance coach Dalton Wong says the key to wellbeing is dedicating a quarter of an hour to looking after yourself. “Take at least 15 minutes a day to put yourself first,” he says. “It’s only 1% of your day: it’s worth dedicating that time to looking after number one. You could make yourself a nourishing breakfast, take a walk in the park, call your best friend, have sex, you choose. Looking after yourself will improve your home life, work life and whole life.”

Human beings have never had so much access to so much information so easily. It’s no wonder we’re being stretched in all directions and getting caught up in everyone else’s lives while failing to prioritise our own. As McKeown says, “The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.” Now is the time to discover what is truly valuable to us and ensure that’s what we spend our precious moments doing.

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