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The power of time budgets – for work and play

Last updated on
September 4, 2021

In our fast-paced digital world, it often seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to tackle everything we want to do. And when you remove eight hours for sleep and eight hours for work, we’re only left with eight hours for everything else we need to do: exercise, running errands, household chores, cooking and eating, seeing friends, spending time with family, let alone just relaxing. The belief that we simply don’t have enough time in the day is understandable – but it’s rarely true. And if you doubt that, it might be time to start thinking about setting a time budget.

What is a time budget?

First things first – what actually is a time budget? A time budget follows the same principle as a financial budget, which tracks where our money is going. Just like money, we only have a certain amount of time on our hands – and just like money, it makes sense to think about where and how we're going to spend it. When we start budgeting our hours, we can then start using our time more intentionally to ensure we get the most out of it.

Finding out where your time goes

In order to figure out how we want to budget time for our different responsibilities, we first need to know exactly where our time is going. Most of us massively underestimate the time we spend using our phones, for example, and sometimes having that data in front us can be a powerful motivator; seeing that you spend two hours a day idly browsing social media when you think you don’t have time to exercise or read can be a cold, hard shock to the system – but sometimes a necessary one.

So how do we find out where all our time is really going? In finance, making a budget begins with knowing exactly where we’re spending our money, and a financial expert may tell you to track everything you spend money on for a few weeks, examining financial statements, credit card transactions, and recurring payments. For time budgets, the same principle applies: we need to make an inventory of our time and keep a detailed record of how we actually spend our week. Then, armed with that knowledge, we can make the changes necessary to spend our time in a healthier way.

The good news is that tracking your time doesn’t have to be an arduous process, or something you continually need to think about. The rise of automatic time tracking apps means that you can outsource the task entirely – such tools capture the time you spend in different desktop and web apps automatically in the background to create a flawless time audit of your day. Time tracking offers big benefits for employees, helping to achieve greater self-management, self-knowledge and mastery – but it can also be just as instrumental in helping you manage your personal life.

Automatic time trackers provide a complete record of your daily activity

Setting a time budget

1. Review how you spend time

Once you’ve tracked your time and have all your time data in front of you, you’ll instantly have a new awareness of where your time’s really going. From here, you can start to build a plan – or a budget – that solves your time management problems. Carefully examine your time data: can you isolate the distractions and inefficiencies that you want to cut back on? Can you identify wasted hours, and then try to funnel them into worthwhile activities?

2. Identify your priorities and goals

The next step is determining your priorities. Ultimately, time management, and setting a time budget, is all about making time for the things that matter. Just like a financial budget, you outline the amount of time you want to invest in important areas of your life, and then you stick to that budget. We all have lots of things we want to achieve in life, but when we have too many priorities, we’re overwhelmed with options and struggle to focus – and when we can’t focus, nothing can be priority.

To identify your priorities, think about your most important goals and the steps you need to take to achieve them. If you want to become fit and healthy, you’ll need to prioritize exercising and cooking healthy food. If you want to learn a language or write a book, you’ll need to protect space where you can focus (at a time when you’re not cognitively depleted). If you want to improve your relationship with your partner or children, you’ll need to prioritize spending quality time with them.

3. Look at where you can cut back

Once you’ve worked out what your priorities are, you then need to re-examine your time audit – because prioritizing some things means deprioritizing others. Look at all the time you’re spending on activities that don’t help you accomplish your goals, then figure out which ones you can cut back. Sometimes these may seem obvious (e.g. limiting screen time to do more exercise) but often it will involve more harder decisions. If you’re hoping to get a new business off the ground, for example, you may have to scale back on commitments you enjoy, like volunteering, or going for long lunches every weekend.

4. Allocate and refine time budgets

Where a financial budget has spending allowances, a time budget has hourly allowances. Once you know what your priorities are, the next step is allocating how much time you want to spend on them. You can do this in either daily or weekly amounts – e.g. an hour a day for cooking/eating, five hours a week for exercise, etc. – and to help you stick to your time budget, you may want to think about time blocking, and scheduling your day into set, controlled units which you allocate for specific tasks

To take budgeting a step further, review how you do against your time budgets and continually refine them. Automatic time tracking can again help here, letting you effortlessly report on the planned vs. actual time you spent on a specific piece of work or commitment.

Stay disciplined

It may take some effort and sacrifice to get your time budget in order – and you may discover that you’re misallocating time, or get thrown off by unexpected tasks that crop up. But that’s OK. Time budgets aren’t about being perfect with your time – they’re about being aware of where it’s going and spending it the way you want. Unlike money, you can never get lost time back – so putting in some effort to ensure you’re spending it wisely will always be a smart investment.

Most of us already have one massive time budget in our lives already in the form of contractual working hours. We need to be disciplined and respect the boundaries of that professional time budget – ensuring no work bleeds over the eight hours set aside for it each day – to give our personal time budgets a fighting chance.

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