The Clock Is Ticking: 3 Ways to Manage Your Time Better
Life is short. Are you using your time wisely? Leslie Perlow, Arthur Brooks, and DJ DiDonna offer time management advice to help you work smarter and live happier.
Should you be reading this article? Or are you wasting time that would be better spent on something else?
Time pressure—the struggle to get everything done within the limited hours we have—seems to have become more acute for many people since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. While working from home brought greater flexibility, such arrangements often blurred personal and professional boundaries and created a never-ending day for some people.
We asked three Harvard Business School faculty members to offer insights from research that can help people manage one of the most valuable and limited resources better: our time. Here’s what they said.
Leslie Perlow: Consider where you work, not just when
The pandemic has brought on many changes with respect to how people can use and manage their time, some of which are positive while others are negative. Work today requires people be even more intentional with how they use their time. It also requires teams and organizations to think collectively about how people are using their time. It matters where people are, vis-a-via others on their team; there are benefits of being in the office when others are there, too. At the same time, there are costs of working remotely when others are in the office together without you.
“OUR RESULTS SUGGEST HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO BE INTENTIONAL ABOUT WHERE YOU WORK, BUT ALSO TO BE AWARE OF HOW THAT AFFECTS THE OTHERS ON YOUR TEAM. ”
Salvatore Affinito and I spent six months studying this at a biomedical research institute. We measured employees’ daily work locations using building-badge swipe data, as well as various work and work-life outcomes via biweekly surveys. We found that each employee’s individual outcomes—such as their own learning, productivity, and well-being—were significantly influenced by where their colleagues worked at a given point in time, rather than just by where they themselves worked.
Our results suggest how important it is to be intentional about where you work, but also to be aware of how that affects the others on your team. It is important to be aligned on when you are together in the office, and when you are working over Zoom—wherever you each choose to locate yourselves on that day. The goal should be to encourage employees at all levels in the organization to focus on their interdependencies, not just in terms of what work they are doing with others, but also from where they are doing it. This is important, given that we are in an era in which options for how, when, and where people spend time are perhaps more varied than ever before.
Leslie A. Perlow is the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership in the Organizational Behavior Unit.
Arthur Brooks: Reduce meetings to be happier at work
The pandemic changed the way we manage our time in many ways—unfortunately, some of these are negative. The worst case is the expansion of time-wasting, unproductive work meetings.
Meeting time is up since the move to hybrid and remote work. The number of meetings required of employees has risen by 12.9 percent on average since the pandemic began. And according to Reclaim.ai., a calendar-app company, the average full-time, white-collar American worker spends 21.5 hours a week in meetings. This is bad for job satisfaction, given that 46 percent of respondents to a recent poll said they would prefer to do almost anything else, from watching paint dry, to a root canal, to a trip to the DMV.
“FEWER AND SHORTER MEETINGS ARE ONE OF THE BEST WAYS WE CAN IMPROVE TIME MANAGEMENT FOR GREATER HAPPINESS.”
Meetings can lower job satisfaction for several reasons. First, when employees perceive meetings as a waste of time, job satisfaction declines, which then leads to a general fall in happiness. Second, pointless meetings also generally increase fatigue (pdf) and our subjective sense of our workload. Third, according to brain wave research, back-to-back meetings lead to a slow build-up of stress. Finally, people tend to engage in “surface acting” (faking emotions that are contextually appropriate) during meetings, which is emotionally draining and correlated with the intention to quit.
There are ways to fix this. In one study by Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab, researchers showed that when participants had short breaks between mandatory meetings, their brainwave patterns showed positive levels of frontal alpha symmetry, which correlates to higher engagement and less stress. An even better solution is to create meeting-free days: Scholars writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review suggest that productivity and workforce engagement are maximized at four meeting-free days. But if some meetings are necessary, one productivity expert says that 25 minutes or less is ideal, based on the optimal amount of time for people to focus. At the same time, management scholars recommend seven or fewer people in a meeting, to keep individual effort high.
Fewer and shorter meetings are one of the best ways we can improve time management for greater happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks is a Professor of Management Practice and coauthored the upcoming book Build the Life You Want with Oprah Winfrey
DJ DiDonna: Life is short, so consider a sabbatical
The pandemic was a forced sabbatical from routine life for most people. The silver lining of such an abrupt departure from our normal ways of living was a rare opportunity for perspective on how we had been living, and a chance to live in different ways going forward. Similar to our research findings about those who take sabbaticals, we learned three things about how we spend our time:
- How we spend our time at work is more adaptable to our needs as humans than we’d assumed. Now that we’ve witnessed how adaptable our businesses (and employees) are to exogenous circumstances, it’s up to us to retain that flexibility and priorities for our lives outside of work.
- A change in our physical surroundings is powerful, if not irreplicable. A peer reviewed study on Israeli faculty found that those who took their sabbaticals abroad had significantly more positive personal and work outcomes than those who stayed put.
- Duration matters. Participants in our study of non-academics on sabbatical reported that it took much longer than they’d have thought to disconnect from their work identities—six to eight weeks—so that they could begin to enjoy themselves more fully. There’s no substitute for extended time away from work, and it requires intentional planning and boundary-setting.
But the most important lesson from the pandemic on how we use our time: life is short, precious, and unpredictable. If you’re passive about making time for what matters, you’ll likely be forced out of routine by something (likely negative) outside of your control. Or as someone we interviewed for our research succinctly put it: if you don’t take a sabbatical, a sabbatical takes you!