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There was a time, not so long ago, when I was busy, busy, busy. At least I thought I was.

I told people I worked 60 hours a week. I claimed to sleep six hours a night. As I lamented to anyone stuck next to me at parties, I was basically too busy to breathe. Me time? Ha!

Now I work 45 hours a week and sleep close to eight hours a night. But I’m not getting any less done.

About the Author

[Vanderkam] Mark Bennington

Laura Vanderkam is the author of “168 Hours” and the forthcoming “All The Money In The World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting And Spending” (Portfolio, March 1). Ms. Vanderkam lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

My secret? I started keeping track of how I spent my time, logging how many hours and minutes I devoted to different activities such as work, sleep and chores.

I soon realized I’d been lying to myself about where the time was going. What I thought was a 60-hour workweek wasn’t even close. I would have guessed I spent hours doing dishes when in fact I spent minutes. I spent long stretches of time lost on the Internet or puttering around the house, unsure exactly what I was doing.

I’m not alone in this time fog. If you believe results from the American Time Use Survey, done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other studies, plenty of Americans have faulty impressions of how they spend time in our “too-rushed-to-breathe” world.

We all have the same 168 hours per week — a number few people contemplate even as they talk about “24-7” with abandon — but since time passes whether we acknowledge it or not, we seldom think through exactly how we’re spending our hours.

We also live in a competitive society, and so by lamenting our overwork and sleep deprivation — even if that requires workweek inflation and claiming our worst nights are typical — we show that we are dedicated to our jobs and our families. Being “busy” and “starved for time” is a way to show we matter. Put another way, it makes us feel important.

[0214subway] Getty Images

 But if you think about it, complaining about a lengthy to-do list is not only boring, it’s a sad hook for one’s self-esteem. Owning up to how we spend our hours gives us more control of our time, and ultimately, of our lives.

Here’s how to do it:

Keep a time log. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you may have tried keeping a food journal. Sure, you’re eating grilled chicken for dinner, but the eight M&Ms you grab from the receptionist’s candy jar add up, too.

Like tracking meals, tracking time keeps us from spending it mindlessly or lying to ourselves about what we do with it. Write down what you’re doing as often as you remember for at least a week. Add up the totals. Checking Facebook five times a day at six minutes a pop adds up to two-and-a-half hours in a workweek — curiously, the exact amount of time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends we exercise.

Be honest. While Americans claim to sleep six to seven hours per night, time logs show we sleep more than eight. One study tracking people’s estimated and actual workweeks found that those claiming to work 70, 80, or more hours were logging less than 60.

Ask yourself what you’d like to do with your time. Claiming to be busy relieves us of the burden of choice. But if you’re working 50 hours a week, and sleeping eight hours a night (56 per week) that leaves 62 hours for other things. That’s plenty of hours for a family life and a personal life — exercising, volunteering, sitting on the porch with the paper, plus watching TV if you like. Set goals — maybe three hours of exercise and swapping out two hours of TV for reading — and see where in your 168 hours you could make that happen.

Change your language. Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.

February 28, 2009

Learn to love your diary and you will discover how much you can get done in just 10 minutes.

By Kath Lockett.

A lot of valuable work time is wasted through procrastination, i.e. putting off doing the work facing you and not prioritising tasks properly. It (almost) goes without saying that people are often smarter about putting off tasks than they are when they finally do them.

Procrastination can also make the culprit look extremely busy. If you feel as though you are constantly on the telephone, shifting papers over a messy desk or continually tapping away at your laptop, it is easy to start believing that there simply isn’t enough time to get everything done. You may start with the intention of getting some real work done, but then the emails roll in, meetings have to be rushed to, the message-bank is full and there’s just no time left. Despite this, most people tend to overestimate how long or how complex a task is going to take, especially if it’s one they dislike or have been delaying.

The simplest thing a procrastinator – or anyone who struggles to find time to tie up loose ends – can do is to make friends with their diary. A diary is more than just a place for scribbling down meeting times; it should also be used to block out chunks of time to do your own work. Book yourself the first hour of the day as an appointment. Treatthis hour as respectfully as you would any meeting with your boss or an external client and stick to it.

Don’t waste this hour lingering over your first coffee or losing yourself in emails. Don’t check your email in-box at all until you have planned your first hour as six, 10-minute, quick-and-dirty chunks. It is surprising what you can achieve in 10minutes.

What takes far longer is thinking up excuses for not doing the work, re-reading papers and documents without taking any action and putting them back into the in-tray.

Forget multitasking (or should that be called multi-distracting) and use 10minutes to focus on one task at a time and get it finished before starting on the next one. These are often the jobs that people enjoy the least, so by doing them first you are getting them out of the way and everything on your plate will be more enjoyable. After a few days of these hour-long self-appointments, you’ll find that you’re in the groove of getting the little-but-important stuff done and feeling much less stressed and anxious about your workload.

Here are some of the things you can achieve in 10 minutes:

* Draft a response to a letter.

* Find the information sought by a colleague.

* Return several phone calls.

* Clear your desk by filing or disposing of documents that don’t need action or reading.

* Leave at least three informative phone messages – i.e. your name, job title and unit, any information you can pass on, and the best time and number to call you back on.

* Photocopy, post or scan an important document.

* Delegate a task to a trusted colleague.

* Respond to three urgent emails.

If these 10-minute tasks are done one at a time without worrying about the next job or straying into reading non-essential emails, you will find that your first hour at work will be a very productive one.

Note that responding to emails is listed as the very last task on the list. Emails are a necessarily evil and there may be some urgent ones requiring your attention, but they can also cause too many temptations to forget or put off doing other tasks by getting lost in reading non-essential messages, re-reading old emails or getting bogged in reply-forward discussions that seem to include the entire office as participants.

Kath Lockett is the author of Work/Life Balance for Dummies, published by John Wiley & Sons, rrp $34.95