Are You Really As Busy As You Think You Are?

Are You Really As Busy As You Think You Are?

I certainly think I’m busy. I work a demanding (although fulfilling!) job, have an additional side gig, and even take on freelance stories regularly. Because my various forms of work take up so much time, I feel like I have barely any time left for socialising, sleep, cooking and cleaning, let along exercise.

Picture: Christian Mueller/Shutterstock

But I still manage to read and post on Facebook regularly, write personal emails to certain people (while ignoring others), surf the web, watch The Daily Show and listen to a lot of music. How do I manage to fit this all in?

I take my iPhone to bed and waste time on it before I nod off, before getting out of bed, and even during the middle of the night. So it’s not that I don’t have time for things like cleaning or exercise — I apparently prefer to lie in bed killing time on my iPhone. I decided to change my ways using some tips from 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

Why You’re Not as Busy as You Think You Are

But before we dive into the tips, let’s look at why you can actually squeeze more time out of what might feel like an already-packed schedule. Author Laura Vanderkam points out that we all have 168 hours in the week. So when we look at people who are able to “do more” than we do, often it’s simply because they manage their time better.

One of our biggest challenges when it comes to capitalising on time: We don’t really know how we spend it. Vanderkam points out that surveys in which people are asked to recall how much time they spent on certain activities usually get different results compared to experiments that ask people to keep a time diary.

As she puts it:

“We are prone to over- or under-estimate things based on socially desirable perceptions or current emotions. For instance, few of us love the routine aspects of housework … So if someone asks us how much time we spend on such things, we overestimate–by something on the order of 100 per cent for both men and women–compared to the actual numbers recorded in time diaries. In fact, people are so bad at estimating how much time they spend doing things after the fact that their overestimates can lead them to say that their weeks add up to 180 hours–or even more than 200 hours.”

Here’s how I kicked my time-wasting tendencies in just a few days — and how you can send your own bad habits packing.

Get Honest With Yourself


Your Task: Start logging your time. What I Did: I didn’t do an exhaustive search of time-logging apps, but I chose two that did the trick. One was Toggl, which allows you to state what you’re doing, and hit “start” and “stop” buttons to log how much time you spend on each activity. I also used RescueTime, an app that logs your activity on your computer, so if I forgot to note what I was doing in Toggl, RescueTime could always watch what I was doing. Whatever apps you choose, make sure that they help you analyse how you’re spending your time.

What I Found: Just asking myself to log how I was spending my time made me much more conscious of not wasting it. By telling Toggl that I was going to clean up, I stayed focused on the task, instead of getting distracted with checking email. And I was happy to discover through RescueTime that, when I’m at work, I spent the vast majority of my time on what the app calls “very productive” activities.

As for my biggest problem — wasting time on my iPhone — I decided that I would tell my Toggl timer that I was working on “sleep” at bedtime, and then kept my iPhone away from my bed. If I had insomnia, I could read the magazines that I never seemed to have time to read!

Outsource What You Dislike Doing

Your Task: Draft a list of what Vanderkam calls your “core competencies”. These are things that you want to spend your life doing because you’re good at them.

What I Did: She suggests jotting down the following:

  • a bucket list of the 100 things you’d still like to do in your life
  • the things you do best that other people can’t do as well
  • the things you spend time on that other people could do — or do better

From these lists, you can gather what you’d like to be doing, what you should stick with and what you should ditch outsource, ignore or minimise.

What I Found: The good news is that I’m already doing a lot of what I want to be doing, like making my living writing and editing. And I already outsource the heavy-duty cleaning in my home. What I’m missing? Exercise and meditation, which are two things that I keep wanting to do but put off.

I realised that I could find more time in my schedule by cooking less — if I could cut out two hours of cooking each week, that would allow me to do a 15-minute meditation every day. Since I don’t want to double or triple my grocery costs by hiring a private chef, I decided to invest in a slow cooker that would allow me to prepare big dishes beforehand and freeze meal-sized portions.

Change Your Habits

Your Task: In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg writes that habits are formed out of routines, which each consist of:

  • a cue–the trigger that sets off the habit
  • the routine, which is the habitual behaviour itself
  • a reward, which makes the habit worth remembering for the future

For instance, he had a mid-afternoon cookie habit that led him to gain 4kg. In observing his habit, he noticed that he always got a craving between 3pm and 4pm, but what he mainly seemed to want was an excuse to have a chat with co-workers. In order to change your habits, you have to identify each of these aspects in your bad habit. You can do this just by observing your bad habitual behaviour for a week: note what you were doing, what you were feeling and what actions proceeded the urge for the bad habit.


What I Did: I realised that my cue was simply being in bed, procrastinating on either getting up or going to sleep. Part of it was due to the feeling that I wanted to do more — whether that was reading more articles or checking to see what my friends were doing on Facebook. I could literally waste hours “doing” these non-essential activities that don’t help me to progress with my goals.

The solution: I removed the device that allowed me to keep procrastinating — my iPhone. I set a rule not to keep it in my bedroom, and I was only allowed to break this rule for specific reasons.

What I Found: Sure enough, by not having my phone by my bedside, I was able to find time for things that I’d previously put off. I also got out of bed more easily, since I actually did want to check email — but when I was already on my feet.

Your Own Game Plan

Ultimately, how we spend every second is a choice. If you feel like you don’t have time for big priorities, sometimes all you need is a little consciousness to steer your habits in the right direction.

For me, making myself aware of how I was spending my time was the main kick I needed — I realised that I didn’t want to spend hours of my life watching Jon Stewart (as entertaining as he is) on my iPhone. And setting simple rules for myself quickly set my time on a more fulfilling path.

Are You Really as Busy as You Think? [LearnVest]

Laura Shin is the senior editor at LearnVest. She has worked at, and, and, as a freelancer, has had her writing published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and others. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with honours from Stanford University with a degree in Modern Thought and Literature, and she has a master of arts from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. An avid traveller who has lived in Indonesia, visited Italy seven times and trekked in the Himalayas in northern India, she is saving up for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Follow Laura Shin on Twitter: @LauraShin.


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