How People Steal Your Time

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been reflecting on how I manage my time. My original expectation was that I would have MORE time, but I started to feel like I actually had LESS. How is that possible? And perhaps more importantly, why? Coworkers and friends shared similar sentiments, which inspired me to examine this feeling more carefully. Time, as in every second of our life, is as precious at life itself. Yet we often end up letting time management become secondary to the management of our money, material goods, emails, social circle, etc.

During the pandemic, our daily schedules have been transformed in various ways. As a personal example, my daily work commute time went from 90-120 minutes down to 0 minutes. That’s 7.5 to 10 hours per week that I suddenly have available for other things. There are still 24 hours in a day (or 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds). My work hours have not changed. But now I have many more options for what I can do during my “commute time”.  Another effect of working from home and going out to eat less is that we spend more time cooking and doing dishes. I am able to help out my wife with chores more often. But this is nowhere near 90-120 minutes of my day.

With my newly discovered free time, I am trying new things and moving around various tasks to see when is the best time to do them. And in that process, it’s important to remind myself of 1 simple fact. Humans are actually very bad at estimating how long it takes for them to do things. The term for this is the “planning fallacy” and you can read more about it here. Just because you are at home, don’t assume you won’t run into obstacles, distractions, and hang-ups where you feel stuck. My expectations for what I can do with “all of this free time”, which I didn’t quantify until now, are unrealistically high. I need to set reasonable goals and continue to refine my schedule, while remaining aware of the fact that other people are still going to impact my schedule.

This brings me to the title of this article: “How People Steal Your Time.” Chances are if you’re reading this, your time and attention is in high demand. When we aren’t occupied with something, we have to make a choice of what to do (or to do nothing at all, which it turns out, is the secret to productivity). The first obstacle in being able to make your choice freely is that most people don’t know and/or don’t care about your personal schedule. Since we’re at home, people are more likely to assume we’re not busy. On top of that, people tend to make at least one of the following assumptions about you during your free time:

1. You’re not doing anything (or anything important).
2. You’re open to and would like their suggestions for what to do.
3. What they want you to do is something you are willing to do.
4. What they want you to do is something you want to do.
5. What they want you to do is something you can do right away.
6. What they want you to do is something you will enjoy doing.
7. What they want you to do is something you will be benefit from doing.

This doesn’t only happen with people. The main problem arises when you realize that advertising and most media makes the same assumptions about you, and is also competing for your attention. Think about how often a friend shares movie recommendations with you. Compare that with how often advertising recommends movies for you to watch. Everything produced for our entertainment or to sell products is designed to grab and hold our attention for as long as possible.

The ironic thing is that by clicking “only share relevant advertising with me”, we actually make it harder for ourselves to ignore online advertising. Now you receive the same amount of ads, but all of them appeal to some aspect of your personal data. It’s like walking through a shopping mall where EVERY store sells things you like, when your original intention was just to go to the bank to make a deposit. A 10 minute errand can easily become a 1 hour shopping spree. We actually benefit from having things we don’t like or don’t care about around us. They’re like the spaces between words, the breaths we take between taking sips of water: we need them.

It’s inevitable that other people, advertising, and media will steal some of our time. But we do have some control over it, and I personally appreciate a moderate level of control over my time.

The best advice I can give is this:

1. Make plans and keep a schedule, especially for reserving time with people who are important to you, and for yourself. Keeping a schedule can actually be liberating, in that you can say: during this time, I will do nothing but BLANK.

2. Make those plans simple and focused. If I make a plan to spend 30 minutes at the park to take 24 photos, write a chapter of my book, and do 100 jumping jacks, I will probably only be able to 10% of each of those things. That will result in me feeling frustrated, unproductive, and probably spend longer than 30 minutes (potentially being late for something else, which can have a domino effect). If I change that goal to taking at least 3 photos, then I will have a goal that is attainable. I get the satisfaction of taking more than 3 photos and not having to rush.

3. Limit notifications and spend time away from your phone. In order to have time without distraction, this is a challenging but important step. Turn off notifications from apps that aren’t urgent. Remove apps from your phone that you only really to see once a week or less. Use your computer to check those, as it easier to limit and be aware of your time on the computer. I have hours planned for when my phone is on silent and put away. If that scares you, start with small increments: 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 1 hour. This will help you stay focused on whatever it is you want to do or whoever you’re spending that time with.

4. Allow the right people to steal time from you. Trust in your family, friends, and mentors. Don’t give all that time to someone claiming to know everything in a YouTube video or random website (like this guy writing this post, acting like some kind of expert). Sometimes my wife asks if I want to take a walk and I go even when I don’t feel like it. After those walks, I’m always glad that I did go. We’re not always the best people to be in charge of our own schedule. So if you’re going to let someone else drive, at least choose someone you know, respect, and trust.

By reading this, I technically “stole” some of your time. Did you read to the end? Did you click on the 3 hyperlinks I included? Did you click on any of the links you saw in those articles? Did you get interrupted while reading by a notification on your phone? This is how your time gets stolen. What you thought might take a few minutes probably took longer than you expected. But I hope, at the very least, you learned something valuable along the way. Thank you for your time.

Do you have any time management tips to add? Feel free to share in the comments below if you like. – AZ