We're not squeezed for time, we're just not managing it properly

Because being busy is a badge of honour now, we underestimate the number of hours we have to ourselves, says Áilín Quinlan.

We're not squeezed for time, we're just not managing it properly

WE ARE time-poor. Being busy is the new religion. Our days are crammed with chores, from work to childcare, cooking to cleaning. The ability to multi-task is prized.

What’s your typical day? Are you constantly trying to catch up? Do you yearn for more hours?

An American academic, John Robinson, says we have more free time than we think — we’re simply not managing it well. Time-wise, we’re doing better than our parents and grandparents — we’ve gained five hours more free time per week since the 1960s, says US time-management expert, Robinson, who has been studying the topic for half a century.

We have more leisure because we do less housework, we’re retiring earlier, not as many of us are marrying, and we’re having fewer children, or not having any, says Robinson, professor of sociology and director of the Americans’ ‘Use of Time Project’ at the University of Maryland.

“One of the things that has made more time is women cutting back on the household chores, from about 30 hours a week in the ’60s to more like 16 or 17 hours a week now,” Robinson says.

Free time goes in cycles in the different stages of life. Spare time reaches a peak of 40 hours a week for teenagers and young adults, before dropping to 30 hours for working parents with young families — and again rising through the ‘empty nest’ stage, before peaking at 50 hours in retirement.

Working mothers have the toughest deal, according to Robinson’s research: married women with children have up to ten hours less free time a week than single, childless women of equivalent work status.

There is also evidence of gender inequality, with men enjoying up to five hours more free time than women, while employed women have four hours less than employed men. Employed women also have ten hours less down-time than non-employed women.

For most of us who have jobs and babies or young children, time management is forgotten — there are so many small chores that you’re always late and you never seem to catch up.

For the first eight years or so of my children’s lives, I was permanently exhausted — initially, a full day’s work was followed by bottle-making, nappy-changing, dinner-making, the next day’s baby-bags, bedtime — and, to cap it all, a broken night.

Later on, it was still busy: work, homework, dinner and school lunches.

The chores never seemed to end. I was permanently behind and permanently shattered. Ten years later, however, I have become much better at managing my time — but with two self-sufficient teenagers, life is inevitably more manageable.

But, says Robinson, we under-estimate the amount of spare time we have.

“US numbers show that we have a total of about 39 hours free time a week, which is way more than what people think is the case.

“They’ll generally estimate about 18 hours a week — there’s a bit of a Pinocchio factor going on with people,” he says.

One of the factors contributing to this insistence on our personal busyness is that being busy has become a status symbol.

“Everyone has this feeling that they are too busy to do things — to tell people you have time on your hands is to admit your life is not going anywhere,” Robinson says.

The Irish seem to maintain a relatively healthy work-life balance — 2013 figures from the OECD show that just 4% of us work more than 50 hours a week — compared to 40% in Turkey, for example — and we put in 1,664 hours a year, which is lower than the OECD average of 1,749.

However, in terms of leisure and personal care, we lag behind slightly. The average free time works out at 14.8 hours of the day, which is devoted to personal care, eating, sleeping and family and leisure pursuits.

However, the survey also found that nobody in the OECD spends less time commuting than the Irish, which benefits our work-life balance.

Washington Post reporter and mother-of-two, Brigid Schulte, took on the challenge of finding her 30 hours of free time a week — she was always behind, always late, and always rushed.

Yet, she reported, she learned that it was possible to minimise constant multi-tasking and make more time for herself and her family. By focusing on her time, she controlled the urge to squeeze in ‘yet another thing’ — instead, she taught herself to enjoy a little more time with the children or a few more minutes in bed.

We’re not making the most of our free time, says Robinson, who blames watching TV, on which we spend half of our free time.

“I would say that the way we’re mismanaging it is the TV,” he says.

There’s a good reason why we have difficulty managing our free time, says occupational psychologist, Patricia Murray.

We’ve become dependent on a very structured day, throughout our school and work lives, and, as a result, tend towards passivity in managing our free time.

Murray, who has worked on the development of policies and pre-retirement courses, says 90% of her job is about changing people’s perception of time after decades in a highly structured work environment.

“People become very passive about time — they act as if time is the boss, rather than the fact that they are time’s boss.

“There is an element of learned helplessness,” she says.

“The more structured a time system you’re in, the more difficult it is to transition to an unstructured lifestyle.

“Society has stripped people of their ability to use time properly.

“The idea is that being busy is good and busyness is good, but busyness is not necessarily good,” Murray says, adding that, sometimes, it disguises issues we don’t want to face.

But we need to use our free time more ‘mindfully’ — because it can affect our work performance, says organisational psychologist, Dr Gill Walker, who works with international and Irish corporations.

Because they’re too tired or too busy, many people tend to ‘switch off’ from the opportunities offered by time away from work, and just slump in front of the TV, or check out their messages on Facebook — but that’s a big mistake, she says. Managing your energy is an important as managing your time, says Walker — your energy levels determine how much you can get done.

If you use your free time to engage in stimulating activities that increase your energy levels and make you feel good, it creates what is called the ‘happiness advantage’.

“Psychologists have found that when people are in a good mood, they are more productive, more energetic and more creative — so if you do something you like in your spare time, it gives you more energy and puts you in a good mood and makes you more productive,” Walker says.

Maybe you’re energised by catching up with an old friend, or perhaps you get a buzz from rock-climbing, DIY, walking or baking — but whatever it is, the challenge will stimulate and energise you far more than slumping in front of the TV with a bar of chocolate, Walker says.

Downtime is important, says business psychologist, Dr Joe McAree. “It’s critical to our productivity,” he says, pointing to top athletes who know what they want to achieve at peak performance.

“They build towards that, but what is important is the rest time in between.

“In business, too, we need to be able to value down-time, rather than be on a top performance level all the time — the down time is important for recovery.

“It gives you a chance to celebrate the success of what you have done and build up to the next challenge.”

Part of that, he says, is learning to appreciate and savour the small things around you during your down-time.

“It’s very important to be as present as you can,” Dr McAree says.

How to manage your free time to help you become more productive and energetic:

* Engage in activities you enjoy which stimulate and inspire you, and require concentration and focus — for example, rock-climbing, chess, writing, baking, DIY.

“You are investing in your psychological capital or energy which leaves you with more energy and feeling good about ourselves,” says psychologist Dr Gill Walker.

* A rich and fulfilling social life stimulates us and makes us happy — so catch up with an old friend and enjoy a good natter.

* Spend your free time having experiences rather than with products. Doing something with the kids leaves us happier and with better memories than retail therapy or spending time on the laptop.

* Find a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives, for example volunteering. Engage in something that gives you a sense of being part of something bigger

* Be mindful about how much time you spend on technology and be aware of its addictive nature: “There is a very strong link between using technology late at night and not sleeping well,” warns Walker.


1. Take a 24-hour weekday period, for example the previous day, and work out how much free time you had after subtracting the time spent on the essential chores and necessities.

These include activities such as work, family and household care, commuting, doctor visits, sleeping, dressing, showering.

2. Look at how much time you spend socialising — through a hobby, fitness activity, going to church, or club membership. Add in time spent on media — television, radio, internet, etc.

3. Make time circle with ‘wedges’ of time spent on necessities and on leisure. If you want to change it, for example to increase time on a hobby, reduce time spent on another activity.

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