Do You Manage Your Time Well?

Good time management and realistic goal setting can be two keys to better mental health

May 4, 2021

Time management sounds so adult. But the reality is that in today’s society, being busy can be seen as a badge of honor, and too many of us place value on cramming “just one more thing” into our already jam-packed schedules.

How often have you or someone in your life uttered the phrase “there isn’t enough time in the day”?

That should tell you something.

While it may sometimes be said in jest, too often we are failing to balance the stressful elements of our lives with things that are more mundane or simple—like packing a lunch, washing the dishes, or going for a walk. For many of us, these things can wait until later, but before you know it, the sun has set, it’s time for bed, and the cycle of being busy continues.

While it may feel good to be busy—and, in many cases, needed—too much can lead to serious physical and mental health concerns.

Many of us are struggling, but why and how much eludes us. Are you busy, are you not managing your time well—or is it some of both?

“I work in a high-paced environment where I look at my colleagues and think, well if they are constantly on the go, I should be able to keep up,” said Fiona Mulligan, a 43-year-old health care administrator. “The pace that I have created at work follows me home, so I honestly feel like I no longer know how to have downtime. I feel like I need to constantly produce and that one more email or one more phone call won’t hurt.”

According to Mulligan, her inability to create time for herself and the simple things has led to poor sleep habits, putting off or missing appointments to see her friends, and de-prioritizing the things she needs to stay healthy.

Understanding Time Management

Time management is a structured system that helps you organize projects and various tasks in your life. Everyone has a method that works for their unique situation. Some use calendars and diaries, while others depend on mobile and desktop apps to track their tasks.

Tasks can be broken down into long-term goals, short-term goals, and reasonable milestones. There’s a sense of accomplishment once you hit each milestone, which can boost your self-esteem. The inability to tackle all tasks may indicate ineffective time management, which can negatively impact your self-esteem and mental health.

“We all have things that we have to get done, whether it’s for work, for home, for school, or for personal enjoyment. But it is unrealistic to think we can do all of them at the same time and do them well.” – Dr. Philip G. Levendusky

“We all have things that we have to get done, whether it’s for work, for home, for school, or for personal enjoyment,” said Philip G. Levendusky, PhD, director of the Psychology Department at McLean Hospital. “But it is unrealistic to think we can do all of them at the same time and do them well.”

To help set expectations and not get bogged down in the feeling of having to accomplish everything immediately, Levendusky suggests:

  • Prioritize tasks based on importance and urgency
  • Be realistic about your timeline for completing your tasks
  • Plan ahead

How Can You Tell if You’re Managing Time Well?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to determining if you’re managing your time well. After all, each person has stressors and obstacles.

According to Levendusky, asking yourself a few questions can help shed some light on whether you need to reconsider how you manage your time.

  • Do you ever have the time to have fun or do activities that you enjoy?
  • Are you always in a rush to get somewhere? Are you often late for engagements?
  • Are you too busy to have a social life?
  • Do you always feel pressure and are impatient?
  • Are 24 hours not enough to do all the things you’d like to accomplish?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you may need to think about how you’re managing your time and examine if it’s starting to impact your mental well-being.

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How Does Time Management Factor Into Your Mental Health?

According to research published in the journal Work and Occupations, there’s a direct correlation between an employee’s time management and their engagement at work and other areas in life. Employees that manage their time well are better equipped to handle the stress that comes with the job.

“When you have less time to deal with what’s essential, the stress and anxiety to perform at work can weigh you down,” explained Levendusky. “Those who struggle with time management are more likely to experience stress, sleep issues, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. They may also start to exhibit symptoms of workplace burnout.”

Time management is not only crucial to getting things done on time for your job. After all, you still need to tend to family matters, social engagements, and your health.

Hence, your ability to categorize tasks and manage your time can help mitigate anxiety, depression, and even problems in the quality of sleep you get every night.

Ineffective Time Management’s Impact on Your Mental Health

Poor time management practices have adverse effects that trickle down to every aspect of your life in a variety of stressors. Here’s a breakdown of how time management can lead to physical and mental problems.

Stress

Depending on the intensity and frequency, stress can have both negative and positive effects on your productivity and well-being. How you choose to manage your time can either alleviate or aggravate stress.

There are two types of stress. Eustress is considered a “healthier stress,” which breeds a sense of general positivity, excitement, and satisfaction once the task or project is accomplished. Distress is the leading cause of job dissatisfaction due to improper time management and related factors.

Distressed workers have little time to deal with tasks and life obligations. This leads to unpleasant feelings and fatigue and could even lead to depression.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety can result from the pressure of bad time management habits. Pending deadlines and unmet work quotas can make you anxious. As this pressure keeps on pilling up, it leads to more distress and negative consequences. This dissatisfaction and life imbalance can lead to depression, especially when you feel you never have any time off to relax or decompress.

Poor Sleep Quality

Digital business transformations have streamlined operational procedures and given employees more flexibility. You can work from anywhere, but this also means that you can work at any time. As a result, many working individuals are missing those essential hours of quality sleep.

A report by the CDC suggests that sleep deprivation could be just as severe as alcohol impairment and may also lead to other health issues.

Burnout

If you’re constantly battling to maintain a balance of working, socializing, relaxing, self-care, and sleeping, then you might become burned out. Burnout appears most often as:

  • Fatigue (lower engagement with tasks and reduced energy levels)
  • Higher susceptibility to illness
  • A cynical or overly pessimistic outlook on work and life
  • A mental detachment from work

One major problem with burnout is that many see it as an inability or unwillingness to perform or attribute it to other circumstances or conditions. Also, it’s hard to diagnose at the onset. As such, it can be difficult to realize that you’re burned out.

“Looking back, I think I met all the criteria of burnout. Although my colleagues perceived me as being on top of things and well organized, I was really just hanging on by a thread,” said Mulligan. “I started sleeping with my phone under my pillow so that I could respond to emails if I woke up in the middle of the night, I felt like I was constantly on call and on edge, and my normal rosy outlook on life became much darker.”

Busy vs. Bored

Bored boy with head on hands and parents in background

So many of us feel these extremes. Is one worse than the other? The key to finding balance may be acceptance.

Bored boy with head on hands and parents in background

Gain Control Over Your Time

While it may seem overwhelming at first, there are many simple and effective methods for managing your time. You can use a combination of the following tactics and tools to achieve successful time management—and better mental health as a result.

Setting SMART Goals

Setting goals and writing them down on paper is an often-overlooked time management strategy. Every task is broken down into the following criteria:

  • Specificity: Sparing no details in what you hope to achieve
  • Measurable outcomes: Setting a reasonable matrix for each task
  • Relevance: Factoring how each task plays into a bigger picture
  • Achievable results: How to achieve the desired results with the resources you currently have
  • Time-consciousness: Setting clear deadlines for the tasks

The Eisenhower Box/Matrix

Once you have your SMART goals laid down on paper, it’s time to use the Eisenhower matrix to prioritize specific goals. It got its name from Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used this method back in the 1950s to create economic resurgence after World War II.

Here’s how it breaks down tasks based on urgency:

  • Priority 1: What’s most urgent and essential? Deal with this immediately.
  • Priority 2: What’s urgent but necessary? This can be scheduled.
  • Priority 3: What’s critical and unimportant? This can be delegated or outsourced.
  • Priority 4: What’s not urgent or important? This should be eliminated.

By laying out what’s most urgent and important, you can start to remove the unimportant things from your life that are zapping your time, energy, and health.

Boy on dad’s shoulders with sister watching
Proper time management can help you improve your physical and mental well-being

Pomodoro Method

The Pomodoro—“tomato” in Italian—Method has you work at 25-minute intervals, followed by a break that lasts for 5 minutes. These breaks during more intensive periods of work can help reduce physical and mental strain while also serving as reminders to stay fueled and hydrated. After four 25-minute intervals, it’s advised to take a 30-minute break to rest and recharge.

The name comes from a popular kitchen timer that is shaped like a tomato. Why is a “pomodoro” 25 minutes long? The creator of this method learned that 25 minutes is the perfect burst of time to be productive without feeling mentally overtaxed.

5 Positive Effects of Time Management Strategies on Mental Health

  1. Having better time management improves your self-discipline, which enhances your competency and chances of getting a promotion and boosts your self-esteem.
  2. Managing your time better can reduce your likelihood of experiencing burnout, as it ensures you have more time to rest and deal with other things that can cause mental, emotional, or physical distress. With plenty of time to attend to your work, you’re less stressed and anxious.
  3. By planning your time out in chunks, you can boost your productivity and engagement. When you prioritize your tasks, there’s less time for other worries to weigh you down.
  4. As the saying goes, “time is money.” While money can’t buy everything, being more productive can “earn” you more time to spend on things you enjoy, such as hobbies, time with loved ones, or even catching up on sleep.
  5. With better time management comes greater job satisfaction. A greater sense of accomplishment can lead to better self-esteem, better self-worth, and better working relationships with others.

Time Management Is a Learnable Skill!

We’ve barely scratched the surface of how time management can lead to better productivity and mental health. At its core, time management is all about balancing priorities. It’s also as important as taking time to rest, play with others, and get some quality sleep.

With just a few small changes, you can start taking your time back and feeling more balanced, refreshed, and happy.

For Mulligan, taking the advice of Levendusky and setting SMART goals has not only vastly improved her ability to balance the priorities in her life but also allowed her to regain control over her days.

“Each morning, I look at my to-do list and set priorities, building in time for breaks and knowing that I need to be realistic about what I can accomplish in one day without stressing myself out,” said Mulligan.

“I am always going to have a high-stress job, but I don’t need it to take over my life the way I allowed it to previously. Balancing time will always need to be a skill I work on, but it’s important for both my professional and personal success.”