I’m fine with the fact that there’s only so much money. That there’s only so much time? Well, that’s another story. I’m continually struggling to fit in everything that I have to do. Squeezing in that one extra e-mail means I’m five minutes late. The unexpected kid emergency derails my exercise plans. I swear I’m going to get that nagging project started, but Netflix calls. Managing my money is a piece of cake compared with managing my time.
Researchers have found that we tend to jam our calendars because we aren’t very good at estimating the amount of time that will be available in the future. If asked to complete a task today, we might say we don’t have enough time. If asked to put a task on the calendar for next month, we tend to say “sure.’’ Or as Gal Zauberman, now a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in his 2005 study, “ ‘Yes’ was often followed eventually by ‘Damn!’ ”
There’s another reason why it’s harder to manage time. I can get a raise, make a smart investment, cut expenses or sell some belongings and suddenly there’s more money available to me.
Time, of course, is a truly finite resource. I can’t borrow it or stick some in an emergency savings account.
Fortunately, some of the strategies to manage time echo the money strategies that I’ve written about for years.
Know where it goes
“There are built-in situations to be accountable for money. There are fewer built-in situations to be accountable for your time,” said Laura Vanderkam, author of “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.”
Getting paid, paying bills, filing taxes — all of these money events give us at least some idea of what money is coming in and where it goes. But aside from the workplace time sheet, few of us have clarity around our time. Most of us misperceive how much we work, sleep and hang out with family.
Tracking money by recording all spending and saving for a few weeks is a common strategy in financial planning. Do the same with time. Vanderkam prefers the low-tech pen-and-paper approach, but for those of us more apt to track with an app, there are numerous time managers to try. Toggl is the first on my list.
After tracking my time for a few days, I learned that I check e-mail too often and struggle to stay focused in the midafternoon, leading me to rethink when I devote time to big thinking or deadline-driven projects and when I make appointments and break for exercise.
What’s your time worth?
“We need to make harder decisions about what’s realistic and where we should spend our time,” said professional organizer Jan Lehman. She asks clients in the midst of decluttering to calculate a personal hourly rate: “If your time is worth $100 an hour, selling a $25 to $50 item on Craigslist is not worth the time,” Lehman, who owns CantheClutter.com, explains.
Having an hourly rate can also help us decide when to hire out some tasks, such as housecleaning, in order to spend more time with family and friends. This rate can be based on an actual salary, or an estimate based on the cost of hiring out for household tasks. A book that addresses this time vs. money issue is the classic “Your Money or Your Life,” by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez and Monique Tilford.
Prioritize what matters
Financial planners ask clients to share hobbies, list goals and jot down what makes life meaningful to them. This is also a useful exercise in the context of time management. I’ve spent more minutes than I care to admit feeling sorry for myself for not having enough time to do what I want, blaming kid carpools and household chores.
“Parents get so caught up in scheduling their kids’ lives that they don’t schedule their own,” Vanderkam said. So I signed up for a tennis league. The kids still are fed, work still gets done and I’m improving my net game.
“It’s easy to waste time because it keeps going and so you have to actively choose what you want to do with it or otherwise it will go to other things,” Vanderkam said. Take that 168 hours a week, subtract for fixed time expenditures (working, sleeping and other regular tasks and appointments). How much time is left? Bingeing on Netflix for six hours is totally acceptable, but what else has to go?
What if you’re like me and routinely ignore your time road map, intending to exercise but grabbing a beer and the remote instead? Financial planner Scott Oeth has clients set up separate financial accounts for separate goals. “That creates a firewall around those different goals. … It keeps you from stealing from one to pay for the other,” said Oeth, a principal at Cahill Financial Advisors in Edina.
I’ve transferred that strategy to my calendar by scheduling certain hours for activities such as exercise. Sometimes I let work or household management creep into those time blocks, but I’m going to keep testing this time bucket approach.
Have time to talk
Family members may not have the same philosophy or priorities when it comes to managing or spending time. Sit down and talk, weighing the preferences of each family member.
Forget the Joneses. I find myself comparing how I spend my time and the amount that I can accomplish with friends who work less, have a stay-at-home spouse, fewer kids or seemingly need no sleep. Even though I’ve googled “strategies for needing less sleep” on more than one desperate occasion, I have to have my seven or eight hours.
It’s impossible to really know how your neighbor can find time for daily yoga or your friend can run her own business and the school fundraising committee. Similarly, you can’t know for sure if that new car was purchased with money diligently saved or money from mom, the lottery or a high-interest rate loan. And it really doesn’t matter.
Focus on your own choices and what works for you. Keeping up with the Joneses is a poor use of time and money.
Kara McGuire is a personal finance expert and consumer strategist for CEB. Send questions, comments or column ideas to email@example.com.