The Rules Of Time

Time management is a misnomer — you can’t really manage time. You can, however, manage yourself and the way you use time. Executive, teacher, doctor, student, stay-at-home mom (or dad), artist, builder, unemployed – all have the same number of hours in a day. It’s how they – and you and I – use these hours that makes a difference in our lives.

Although you can’t manage time, there are some rules of time you can use to better understand how you can use time to your advantage. These rules aren’t written down anywhere — in fact, I made them up. But they have been helpful to me in my own attempts to manage my life and time and I think they are worth sharing. Here they are in no particular order.

You Cannot Save Time, You Can Only Use It

Unlike other resources, you can’t save or store up time for later consumption. You can only use Now. I confess that I have trouble doing things now. I frequently come upon something that I must do or want to do, yet I mistakenly think “I’ll get to that later.” (As I saw on a t-shirt the other day: “I put the ‘Pro’ in Procrastination.”)

A way to address this kind of thinking is to use this rule of thumb: If you can do it in 2 – 5 minutes, do it now. If it will take longer, add it to a master list of tasks from which you work. [For a full treatment of this productivity process, download The Zen Of Productivity.]

Brian Tracy, author, writer, and an expert in personal and professional growth and productivity, suggests that you make this a mantra: “Do it now. Do it now. Do it now.” Periodically during the day, or whenever you’re about to start a new activity, ask yourself: “Is this the best use of my time right now?” Not everything that is urgent is important and not everything that is important is urgent. Only by consciously asking and answering this question can you tell the two apart.

Time Is Relative (And not just the way that Einstein meant.)

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute,” said Einstein, “and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.” This sense of time standing still is a hallmark of “flow”, the state of being one enters when engaged in an activity that engages one’s interests and abilities to the highest degree.

Flow activities are not necessarily pleasurable. In fact, there is little emotion involved. But they are highly gratifying.

There are as many different ways to get into flow as there are people on the planet but the aspects of flow are the same, regardless of the activity. These are the components: The task is challenging and requires skill. The task requires concentration. We have clear goals around the activity. And we get immediate feedback. We have deep, effortless involvement. We have a sense of self-control. Our sense of self disappears. Time stops. [Seligman]

According to the research from Positive Psychology, being in flow increases resiliency and builds up psychological resources for the future. Flow activities are not necessarily “fun” but they are immensely gratifying and add to our well-being.

You have the capability to speed up or slow down time. Spend time in merely pleasurable pursuits and time goes by quickly. Spend more time in the activities that bring deep gratification and flow and time slows down. And the future begins to look much brighter.

Multitasking Is A Myth

People use the term “multitasking” to indicate that they are being efficient by doing several tasks “at the same time”. However, research increasingly shows that multitasking is counterproductive.

It takes more time to switch between tasks than it does to complete one task, then a 2nd, then a 3rd, etc. The fact is there is no such thing as “multitasking”, if we mean concentrating on several things at the same time.

During multitasking, processing jumps from one task to another, so quickly it seems that all tasks are being processed at the same time. In reality, the processing is jumping from one task to another. And the “jumping” part, the switching between tasks, requires some amount of time.

Computers do this very rapidly . . . the brain is a lot slower. This is especially true when the brain is faced with multiple tasks with different sets of “rules”.

For example, in one test, a person is shown sets of two numbers. Each set is either red or green. If the numbers are red, she has to pick the digit that is numerically larger. If the numbers are green, she has to pick the digit that is in the larger font. MRI studies show that when the person sees green, the brain has to stop and retrieve the rules for the “green” task. And when she sees red, the brain has to stop and retrieve the rules for the “red” task.

So when the brain has to switch between, say, texting on a cell phone and driving a car, crashes are more likely because the car can travel quite a distance in the half second or so it takes for the brain to switch between the two tasks.


There is an exception, though — chunking. Chunking is the combining of two tasks, but it isn’t multitasking. Multitasking doesn’t work because it involves multiple activities competing for the same resources, such as reading e-mail and talking to someone – both primarily mental tasks.

Chunking, on the other hand, is doing two things at the same time, but two things that require different parts of you. One task is physical, e.g., driving the car. And one is a mental task, e.g., conversing. It could be walking on the treadmill and listening to a recorded book. Or doing the dishes and talking to someone on the phone.

What are some tasks you could chunk? Driving time is an excellent time to listen to a book or catch the news. So is exercise time. Or doing household chores. This is often a good way to get some of those less-than-urgent tasks (which are frequently mental tasks) taken care of.

Reduce By Adding.

In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor relates an experience with a client in Hong Kong, where he was conducting a training session. The man said that he worked “all the time” but it still wasn’t enough — he was falling further and further behind in his work. After hearing him describe his work day, Achor realized two things: (1) His client was working all the time. (2) His client was almost never working. [Achor]

The difference lay in the tasks the man was performing. While he was “at” work, much of his time was spent checking e-mail, catching up on the latest news at, checking his stocks and investments. In between, he might get 10 – 20 minutes of actual work done before a new e-mail or one of the other distractions caught his attention.

The solution? Make it harder to get to these distractions. Achor had his client remove all his shortcuts, disable his e-mail notification, and change his home page from CNN to a generic page. We humans naturally gravitate to the path of least resistance. By taking the distractions off the path, he found it easier to do his actual work than to engage in the other activities. By adding to the amount of effort it took to get to these unimportant tasks, he reduced distractions.

Achor describes this concept as “the 20-second rule”. [Achor] If you can lower the barrier to positive change, sometimes by as little as 20 seconds, that can be enough to help you form a new positive habit.

Of course, sometimes it takes more than 20 seconds to make a difference (and sometimes it can take less), but the principle is the same. Use the path of least resistance by making the desired behavior easier to do than the undesirable behavior you want to give up.

Time Management Is Self-Management

As I read over the list, I see that this is definitely more about self-management than pure time-management. But my premise still stands. You don’t manage time — you manage yourself and how you use time. Use these suggestions and you can become a master of your time by becoming a better manager of yourself.

Excelerated Simplicity™ — freeing yourself from unnecessary complexity — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of flourishing and well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010

Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press, 2002

rules of time

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