You might know this feeling. It’s December and, in the spirit of reflecting, your inbox is full of year-end time saved emails. “Congratulations!” you read. “You’ve saved 100 hours this year!”
It should be cause for celebration. 100 hours is a huge amount of time, right? But what if you’re confused about where those hours went?
If you work hard to save time but still find yourself busy and wondering where the time saved goes, don’t worry; it’s totally understandable. Research has shown that many of us feel like we’re just too busy. In a 2016 study, 52% of Americans reported that they are usually trying to do two or more things at once. Equally concerning, another study said 60% of Americans said they at least sometimes feel too busy to enjoy life. The US isn’t alone, however. Another study found that seven out of ten Brits think their lives have become “too busy” in recent years.
So when we see those year-end summary emails, how can we capitalize on those hours we save? What thoughtful steps can we take in this upcoming year to ensure we’re maximizing the benefit of the time saved?
“Infinite world” is a term coined by time management writer Tony Crabbe. He uses it to describe the shifting, non-stop river that is our digital lives. It’s therefore helpful to compare the present with the world our ancestors lived in. Our ancestors’ work was built on finite foundations: a limited number of crops were harvested in a limited time window. Our lives nowadays look very different. For modern knowledge workers, there’s no limit to the number of emails in our inboxes and our work is continuous, not seasonal.
Our predecessors had to start their work as the sun rose and then stop before the sun set. They couldn’t rush the seasons and thus certainly couldn’t “get ahead” in the way that we can in a digital age. Today, though, such a thing feels possible and it means that lots of us feel we could always be doing more. The fact that we could be working makes many of us feel that we should be. We think this even while knowing we are finite beings, with limitations to our output simply from being human.
Living in this digital world of infinite potential doesn’t need to feel overwhelming. In fact, it can be the very lever that releases you from your “but I could do more” mindset. Yes, you could do more. You could work every waking hour and take every opportunity and you would still think you’re capable of more. But something has to give eventually, so take some time to work out what your priorities are and what’s realistic in terms of output; focus on all the wonderful things you will achieve, not everything you won’t. Then, at the end of each day, taking a moment to reflect on all the things you have completed can help you close out the workday feeling accomplished.
Being able to set appropriate boundaries is a vital part of a healthy life. Boundaries are vital for happier relationships with ourselves, with our loved ones, and with our work too.
Some of these work boundaries need to be physical. Many of us have grown used to working from home, but a lot of us could still improve our WFH setup. This should include flexing our creativity skills to separate our work and personal space clearly. It’s not just a helpful practice, it’s a fun one too! Set up a dedicated desk or “desk area” and ensure it’s tidy before and after use. Often we feel like we’re losing precious work time because we face at-home distractions during our workday or our free time is disrupted by desk-mess that sucks us back into work. Keep your mind clear and calm by organizing your space and thank yourself after.
Even when we absolutely love our team, we need boundaries with our co-workers too. First and foremost, make sure your team knows what your work schedule looks like, especially if you’re working part-time or asynchronously. Add your working hours to your email footer or Slack status to help set expectations for your response times. You will be surprised by how much ease it creates for you and your team members! Alongside that, make sure you’re confident in saying no to requests you can’t tackle. If you’re freeing up hours in your schedule only to fill it up with someone else’s work, you’re going to feel busier than ever. Oftentimes your colleagues are only asking you as an option and they won’t mind you saying no in the slightest.
Technology has done incredible things for our lives, but our humble human brains struggle with establishing healthy tech boundaries. This is an area that most of us are relatively new to thinking about, so don’t worry if you find things tough! Lots of us check our work emails when we’re meant to be off the clock, which can stress us out unnecessarily. Instead, try asking for or investing in a work phone. Alternatively, set a daily alarm to remind you to delete work apps from your phone at 5 pm. Your friends, family, and mind will thank you in less time than you’d think.
Tech boundaries matter at work as well as home. Social media has been shown to be hugely addictive to our brains and many of us check in on our feeds at work without even realizing. Limiting your scrolling avoids any multitasking-stress we outlined above, and it frees up valuable time we could be using more wisely.
Lots of us would hate to admit it, but we secretly love saying that we’re busy. Psychologist Jaimie Bloch has described how we receive a dopamine hit every time we tick off a task on our list, and that rush can be highly addictive. Chasing that dopamine leads us to overload ourselves, taking on more so that we feel accomplished when the day’s done.
This all links into the idea of “Workism”, a term defined by writer Derek Thompson as “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.” We might not like to admit it, but for many of us, our work is linked to our self-worth. This means that showing that we’re overloaded is a way to prove to ourselves we’re in demand.
There are much better ways to invest in our self-worth. Looking after our bodies and our minds with self-care sends a clear message to our brains that we are valuable and our time is too.
Hopefully, we’ve inspired you to reframe the way you think about saving time. And if you do the work to make some time savings, you should indulge in the joy that comes from spending time that would have otherwise been spent working.
Here are some ideas of our favorite ways you could spend your saved time:
- Exercise – try yoga, go to a kick-boxing class, meet a friend at the tennis court
- Spend time with your family doing something new
- Go outside! Visit somewhere cool where you can hike and chat with friends.
- Read a book that’s been on your list forever
- Catch up with a co-worker, if your day at work has finished earlier than planned
- Start that creative project! The world needs your Harry Potter podcast.
- Teach yourself something you’ve always wanted to do.
- Research shows that many of us feel like we’re doing too much at the same time, so year-end summary emails can feel stressful to read
- This perception is fuelled by the fact that knowledge work isn’t constrained to the daylight hours or yearly seasons our ancestors knew
- Working from home can make it challenging to recreate an office we can walk out of, like a traditional workspace
- We also feel busy when we say yes to co-workers, instead of a respectful no
- Technology has helped blur the lines between our work hours and personal lives
- Many of us are addicted to the feeling of being busy, even without realizing
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