Managing your time and your life

Lewis Pulsipher

"Time = Life, therefore, waste your time and waste your life, or master your time and master your life." Alan Lakein

I'm writing this as a guide for new college students, who often lack sufficient experience to manage their time, and as a result struggle in school. Time management is a skill you can learn, and it can save you a great deal of frustration and heartache.

Reality check: my wife says, as long as a new college student takes care of their health, doesn't get pregnant or get someone else pregnant or ill with STDs, and does well in school, for the time being nothing else really matters. And I suppose there’s much truth to that, though friends of the person might not think so! What good time management can do is help make this much easier to accomplish (especially doing well in school), and leave more time for other things you might want to do or might enjoy. And good time management helps you avoid some big problems.

The Problem

When someone says to another person, "I've been too busy to get in touch with you" or "I don't have time for that" or "I couldn't find the time to reply", it almost always means, "I did something else that was more important to me than you are". The person speaking often doesn't want to admit this to themselves, let alone to the person who's feeling neglected, but it virtually always comes down to it. Anytime you say "I don't have time for that" you mean "it's not important enough for me to take the time". Of course, inaction speaks as loudly as words. It may in fact be a failure of time management, but it still amounts to "I have failed to spend any time on you". You may have intended to do something, but you didn’t; for millennials, sometimes intention seems to be an adequate substitute for action, but in the business world in general and to older generations, actions count for far more than intentions.

As an adult, you're responsible for how you spend your time. So you've made a decision, even if not consciously. If you "lose track of time", that's also your failure, and ultimately your responsibility.

If you don’t recognize and accept this responsibility, then you’ll almost certainly fail to manage your time, and you’ll suffer for it in the adult world (you may get away with it when you’re a “kid”).

You can have two people with similar capabilities and interests, and one will struggle because of poor time management while the other will do pretty well because their time management is pretty good. It really is an important skill, and one that many have not learned during high school.

What can happen if you fail to manage your time properly?

         You’ll almost constantly feel that you’re short of time (no, that’s not how “everyone” feels!)

         You’ll suffer the “squeaky wheel syndrome” and your not-in-your-face friends will suffer the effects of “out of sight out of mind”

         You’ll neglect friends and possibly hurt their feelings or even lose them as friends

         You’ll get a reputation for being unreliable–because you will be

         You’ll do less than you could and enjoy life less than you might

         Intention vs. Action

         “Just enough to get by”

         And in extreme cases, you’ll fail at school or lose your job or lose your “significant other”


         Find a balance amongst the “three pillars” of life

         Set long-term and short-term priorities

         Recognize that short-term priorities sometimes override long-term ones

         Establish particular times to do things (such as studying), so that you won't forget/neglect

         Refuse to do certain things (such as read email or go on Facebook) except at established times

         Keep track of how you're spending your time, what you're devoting your full attention to

But the first solution of all is to recognize that you establish a minimum time for each kind of activity, then allocate your remaining time among them (or give up some activities). Do NOT say “I’ll devote all my time to this one thing (person, job, other task), except what I leave for other things.” If you do this, all but that one thing is likely to be neglected in practice.

The extreme of this is the person who is so “devoted” to one thing (person or activity) that they never seem to have time for other people, activities, friends, and relatives. Whenever there’s a conflict for attention, that one thing automatically wins. And everything else suffers.

If you don't consciously try to manage your time, then you'll unconsciously manage it, and unless you don't have a lot to do, you'll likely make a hash of it. Kids often poorly manage their time because they don't actually have responsibilities and don't think it's important; adults do.

Setting Priorities, and doing it right: Balancing your life amongst the “three Pillars”

You can’t manage your time unless you decide what’s important. The key to time management is setting priorities. If you try to do "everything," of course you'll have many failures. Not everything can be done, and not everything can be important, or equally important. People who are really living ALWAYS want to do more than they can. If you don’t consciously decide what’s more important, how can you know what you ought to be doing?

(This is the key to supervision, to personnel management, as well. Employees expect the supervisor to set priorities. If he or she doesn’t, how can the employees know what to do? But many supervisors are failures.)

Time management requires a "Big Picture" perspective. What's important in your life? Priorities must forge a balance amongst:

         your livelihood

         your significant other and immediate family, and

         your hobbies, friends, and extended family

These are the "three Pillars" of a happy life. An excess of anything is "too much", though it must be said that the only one of these necessary for survival is livelihood (when that is a job).

"Livelihood" will be a job for most adults, but could for younger adults be school plus job, or just school.

The second entry is your boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, or spouse, and your children or others who depend heavily upon you.

The third entry, which might be called “the rest of your life”, involves hobbies, your friends near and far, and your extended family, perhaps not so much your official relatives as people you’ve chosen to be part of your extended family.

So what happens when someone fails to forge a balance amongst these three? Unless you're pretty young, you've probably known people who failed to forge a balance, who devoted so much time and attention to one of the "three Pillars" that the others suffered severely in the long run.

For example, you may know someone who seems to "live for work". If he thinks he needs to do something for work, all other commitments go by the wayside. Boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse feel ignored, as do friends and extended family. In extreme cases the "workaholic" ends up divorced, or more or less disowned by friends and extended family, because he can’t balance work with the rest of his life.

You may also know someone who is so "devoted" to his significant other, or to his children, that he has "no time" left for friends and extended family. The time is there, it's just that the person wants to spend it all with the significant other (or lets children eat up all his time).

Where "livelihood" is school, this too might suffer to the point of flunking. It's less likely that such "devotion" to a significant other leads to a loss of job, because we all have to eat.

It's quite common for teens to react this way with their first boyfriend/girlfriend, or the first one at college where they can spend almost all of their time together (in high school they tend to be much more separate because they live in different places and because parents enforce a separation).

As for the third pillar, there are people who devote so much time and attention to a hobby--hmmm, video games?--that they neglect the other Pillars. I've known at least one person who lost his job because he played video games when he was supposed to be working. Or there’s the stereotypical male who spends all his non-work time with his male friends, to the disgust of his wife (and kids). And within the three parts of this third pillar, someone can devote so much time to one that another is grossly neglected.

In the long run, if you let this "imbalance" happen for too long or in too extreme a form, you may ultimately come to hate whichever of the three pillars you devoted far too much time and attention to, blaming the person or persons or tasks for your own time management failure. For example, the person who is "overly devoted" to a girlfriend, having lost many of his friends and extended family because of it, may come to hate that girlfriend because she has "caused" friends and family to leave him. The real reason was a failure of time management, a failure of balance, but the guy may not want to admit that to himself, so he blames his girl.

On the other hand, you may come to dislike the people or activities you neglect. You may convince yourself that it is somehow the fault of those persons or activities, so you can make the excuse that you “don’t really care about that stuff/those people anyway.”

Setting priorities “from the bottom up”

What has usually happened here? The problem is often that the person fails to set priorities “from the bottom up,” and sets them “from the top down.” That is, they decide to devote all their time to one thing, except what they leave for the others–and then they don’t actually decide how much time to leave for the others. The “others” are almost always shortchanged in this situation, and the person is constantly trying to devote time to more things than he can possibly have time for.

You need to set priorities from the bottom up, beginning with the individual people and activities you want to pay attention to, and ending with your #1 priorities (livelihood and significant other, usually). Allocate time to the lower priorities first, and consciously decide how much time that should be. You’ll still devote far more of your time to your #1 prioritie(s), but everything else will be taken care of. If you find after making this determination that your #1s don’t have enough time , then don’t try to “cheat” on the rest; instead, cut something out.

After all, let’s say you acquire a new boyfriend or girlfriend (not having had one in the time before). If you spend a lot of time with that new significant other, you are most likely going to have to give up something else that you used to spend a lot of time on, don’t you think? You’ll probably be better off completely giving up something that isn’t very important to you, rather than trying to shave time off of everything else only to find that neither you nor (where people are concerned) your friends are happy with the result. You might need to read fewer novels, or stop playing World of Warcraft, or kayak only one weekend a month instead of three, or take one fewer class, or stop working that second job, or all of those things, to help make time for your new friend.

If you think you can continue to accommodate all your other activities and friends when you get a new significant other, or when you start a job when you previously weren’t working, or when you add any very time-consuming activity to your agenda, then you’re in cloud-cuckoo-land! And dissatisfaction or worse will result.

Time management involves making decisions, not “trying to get by”. You won’t do anything well when just trying to get by, believe me. Children think they can somehow get by; adults know better.

A few more comments about long-term priorities

Good health is a given long-term priority, because it's hard to function well in life if you're ill. But some people ignore their own health! You may know someone who “worked himself into illness”. Don’t do it!

Your long-term priorities are likely to involve your "chosen family" and your relatives. Chosen family will be some of your relatives that you particularly care for (recognizing that some people don't get on well even with their own parents and siblings) but also especially good friends and people you've "added" to your family by choice. (For example, I have come to love my oldest friend’s daughter as though she was my granddaughter; to me she is as much a part of my extended family as my official relatives, moreso than many.) Relatives will be "the rest" of your actual relatives. If you think thatwhen you marry you acquire a whole set of relatives, some of these may become your chosen family (as my sister and step-sister have chosen each other even though they never actually lived together as part of a family). And many may not. It gets even odder for divorced people--usually they keep the chosen family amongst their former relatives, but the rest fall away.

You can neglect your chosen family, and hope they'll understand, but it will be harder on them if you don't explain why you're devoting much less time to them, and even then they may not like it. In other words, you can take them for granted (parents are used to being taken for granted by teenage and 20-something children), and that may work out or it may not.

When you suddenly realize (or are reminded) that you've not been in touch with someone that you love for a long time, or haven't devoted your full attention to them for a long time, then you know your time management has failed.

Recognize that short-term priorities sometimes override long-term ones

When you know your long-term priorities it is much easier to set your short-term (week by week, day by day) priorities. Often people will have one or two overriding priorities, one professional (their job) and one personal (their spouse or boyfriend or someone of that nature). That means these priorities are going to get the largest chunk of your time. What you cannot do is let those priorities override everything else, especially unscheduled demands from those priorities.

Why? Imagine Joseph says he’ll go to lunch with a friend, then Joseph’s significant other says, “no, go to lunch with me”. If Joseph thinks, “she is my #1 long term priority, so that’s where I’ll go”, then he’s probably made a mistake.

You have to judge how important your significant other’s need/desire is. What’s more important, being reliable to your friends, or doing what the significant other wants at the drop of a hat? Yes, there may be times that it’s important enough to change your plans, but if you do that on a regular basis, after a while your friends will regard you as unreliable, and if it keeps up, they won’t even try to arrange lunch with you any more.

What I’m saying is, your word that you’re going to do something is an even higher priority than your #1 long term. Many people don’t have the same spouse throughout life, certainly not the same boyfriend/girlfriend, but you have only one reputation; if people come to doubt your word then that’s very, very hard to recover.

Whatever you do, tell the person who “loses out” why it’s happening, don’t just blow off one or the other!

Allocating time. I’m going to repeat something because it’s so important. Recognize that you establish a minimum time for each kind of activity, then allocate your remaining time among them (or give up some activities). You can determine "what's the minimum time I need to deal with each of these important things, e.g. to keep my friends and family satisfied, and to do my 'job'." Then what's left over can be allocated. If you try to allocate all your time to one thing and find a little time to do the rest, then you've doomed yourself: you'll feel like you're stealing from that one thing, yet everything else will be neglected (and if “else” is people, they'll feel that you don't think they're important, even though that's not your intention).

Even married people cannot spend all their time together, in most cases. And they probably wouldn't if they could, because an excess of anything, even one's spouse, is too much over time.

Remember, adults take responsibility for their actions. Children makes excuses (most commonly, “I don’t have time”).


One way to help ensure you spend as much time on those less-than-#1 priorities is to schedule times. For example, "I'll set aside Sunday from 1-2 to talk with Tom." Then instead of constantly putting off what you intend to do, and not doing it, you have a time to do it and are much more likely to get there. It helps you match actions with intentions.

But this assumes you can set a schedule and stick to it. On the other hand, if you can't do that, your efforts at time management will be much more difficult.

The best way to control your time when you’re short of it is to schedule it–establishing particular times to do things, so that you won't forget/neglect. Schedule time to do homework, to study, to be with your significant other, to meet with friends or talk with those who are far away. You can leave unallocated times, of course, but the more you schedule times, the more likely you are to follow through and actually do what you intended to do.

Further, refuse to do certain things except at established times. For example, don’t take any phone calls between such-and-such times. Don’t monitor your email (certainly, don’t have a notifier going off to tell you every time a message comes in!)

DO NOT allow interruptions and distractions. If you try to do email and Facebook and talk on the phone while studying, you’ll do all inefficiently and make many mistakes. And you won’t get the studying done. Serious “multi-tasking” is a sure way to screw up, and if you’re smart you’ll only multi-task when it isn’t important. Ask yourself, do you want your surgeon to be IM-ing people while cutting on you? Do you want your lawyer to be reading his email while working on the exact meaning of your big contract? No, serious multi-tasking is for people who are doing unimportant things so that they don’t mind screwing up.

Keep track of how you're spending your time, what you're devoting your full attention to. If you don’t know how you’re spending your time, how can you change your habits when you’re not following your plan? It’s SO easy to forget something or someone, to not even realize that you’re doing so, if you don’t keep track in some way.

“Just enough to get by”? Surveys indicate that many young people are inclined to “do just enough to get by”. If this means you spend as little time as possible on each task, then it might help you manage your time. But if you want to do things well, it clearly isn’t the way to go. Further, the “just enough to get by” attitude lends itself to taking lots of time to do as little as possible, and that’s the kiss of death if you have big time management problems.

In other words, in most cases if you want to use time efficiently, you have to resolve to do the best you can with the time you have, not to “slough off”.

To finish, let’s now describe the effects of time management failure:

You’ll almost constantly feel that you don't have enough time.

Everyone sometimes feels that they don’t have enough time. But when your time management is failing or non-existent, you’ll almost constantly feel like there are other things you should be/need to do, a nagging sense of unease. (That is, if you care about your friends; otherwise, maybe you don’t notice a thing.)

This feeling is not necessary. And good time management will, most of the time, stop it from occurring.

You’ll suffer the “squeaky wheel syndrome” and your not-immediately-present friends will suffer the effects of “out of sight out of mind”

The classic failure of time management is the "micro-manager". This person cannot set priorities, and wants to know everything that's happening under his supervision (probably so that “nothing can go wrong”). What happens in practice is the manager is so busy keeping track of things he or she shouldn't bother with, that as a result only those who are right in his face, immediately present or phoning or otherwise demanding the supervisor’s attention, get the person's attention. Others get forgotten. This is the origin of "squeaky wheel syndrome". The “squeaky wheel gets greased.” The one who demands attention, gets it, and others don’t. So people learn to do things to get the attention of the manager. Those who patiently wait with the idea that they'll be taken care of in their proper turn, won't. They are "out of sight, out of mind". So some of them learn to become squeaky wheels.

 "Out of sight, out of mind" Most people, when confronted with time management problems, tend to unintentionally follow this homily, devoting very little time to those who are at a distance compared to those who are immediately present. This is related to “squeaky wheel”, the persons and activities nearby are “in your face” while the distant ones are not. If you’re not keeping track and understanding what you intend to do, you’ll probably devote even more time to those nearby, and less to those at a distance, than you intended. (While you probably intended to devote more time to those nearby, that is typical, the proportion ends up being even more in “favor” of those nearby.) The question is, is this the way you want to run your life? Some people are happy enough with this, but it will be hard on their distant chosen family and relatives.

(This is one of those old phrases, the opposite of it being "absence makes the heart grow fonder." For women it tends to be "out of sight out of mind" in general, for men it tends to be "absence makes the heart grow fonder. At least, that's the way it used to be, now the tendencies may not be so marked.)

Most people, when confronted with personal time management problems, tend to unintentionally follow this homily, devoting very little time to those who are at a distance compared to those who are immediately present. If a person is not keeping track and understanding what they intend to do, they'll probably devote even more time to those nearby, and less to those at a distance, than intended. The people at a distance get "squeezed out" of the schedule.

You’ll neglect friends and possibly hurt their feelings or even lose them as friends

Remember, if you say “I don’t have time” on a consistent basis, it means “you’re not worth my time”. Part of time management is leaving enough time for the little things such as your not-so-close-friends and relatives, if you don’t want to give them up.

You’ll get a reputation for being unreliable–because you will be

If you try to devote almost all of your time to one thing or person, your friends can be unhappy with you. But if you keep overriding short term priorities for your major long-term priority, then you’ll become known as unreliable to everyone other than that single person or task (and that person or job may take you for granted because you’re always available at short notice!). Many of us have known people who seem to “live their work”, who will break any arrangement/engagement to do something for work outside of normal hours. At some point, that person’s friends don’t bother to invite him anywhere because they can’t rely on him. See the section about not letting long-term priorities override short-term ones.

Intention vs. Action

For millennials, "intention" can be an ameliorating factor ("well, I intended to"), but for older generations, and in the real world generally, it's actions that count, much more than intentions. It doesn't help the starving animal that you intended to feed it, if you don't; it doesn’t help the person whose car broke down, if you intended to change the oil but didn’t; it doesn't help the neglected friend if you intended to call, but don't. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." If you want to successfully manage your time you must recognize that action is what counts, with intention far behind.

You’ll do less than you could and enjoy life less than you might

Poor time management leads to frustration, both for you and for your friends and co-workers/fellow students.

And in really bad cases, you’ll fail at school or lose your job or lose your “significant other”

Foul it up enough, and you’ll be like those folks who screwed up in their first year of college, and then joined the army or got menial jobs. One of my students (27 years old) said he came into work after gaming three days. And they’d fired him, because he was supposed to be at work. He’d lost track of his priorities.

How to get control of your time and your life by Alan Lakein, is one of the "original" time management books, $7 at Amazon (it's a little book). It was written decades ago, but virtually all applies to today.