Time for Change

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Clients give me all sorts of excuses for why they don’t reach their goals. One of the most popular is “I don’t have the time.” Lately, I’ve started believing them.

The High Cost of Change

When we repair a car or renovate a kitchen, we understand that these activities have costs. Mechanics and contractors give us their schedules and prices. In our own lives, we often fail to make a similar estimation when we resolve to upgrade, renovate, repair or otherwise change ourselves. Without deeper reflection, it’s easy to assume that strong commitment is all we need, and the rest will naturally fall into place. Commitment is a great down payment on change, but resolve alone won’t foot the entire “bill.”

Most change requires many resources: commitment, patience, knowledge, support, and in the end, cold, hard cash. However time may be the most neglected of the resources for change. And unfortunately, it is often in the shortest supply.

Are We There Yet?

Part of the reason people fail to budget time for change is that there’s great uncertainty about how much time change actually takes. While late-night infomercial hucksters promise us rock-hard abs in eight minutes a day, Malcolm Gladwell writes in his book Outliers , that to reach the highest levels of performance across a wide range of skills requires 10,000 hours of intense concentration on the task. Somewhere between eight minutes and 10,000 hours lies our actual cost of change, but zeroing in on a realistic figure is difficult.

Where Does the Day Go?

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How easy it is to be busy all day without really knowing where we’re spending our time! Assuming we set a goal, come up with a realistic time budget, we may still come up empty when we run out of day before we’ve “got around to” our goal. For many, a sinking feeling descends on them when they recognize that 100% of their time is already committed to something else.

Make Time or Steal It

Confronted with the realization that “there is no time,” some people resort to theft, if only from themselves. College students represent a great case study. Consciously or unconsciously, many students spend time they need for assignments somewhere else, then on the eve of an exam or due date, find themselves “stealing” sleep in order to make up the deficit. Multitasking is another way of stealing time out of one task to get another done. While many multitaskers are proud of their abilities, research shows that for the vast majority, multitasking takes longer than doing each of the tasks serially and that the quality of what’s done while multitasking is greatly diminished.

Count all the “Expenses”

When people find themselves out-of-control in their financial lives, it is rare that they have a good handle on their expenses. Similarly, when time is an issue, it’s rare that someone would know with any precision, where they spend their time. While Internet banking and financial websites like Mint.com have brought clarity to personal finance, the world is still waiting for the app that lets us effortlessly track our time. Until we get that app, the best way I’ve found to understand “time expenses” is to track oneself throughout the week on an hour-by-hour basis. Unlike money, where income and expenses can vary, with time we are all gifted with the same 168 hours each week, so to make our time budget balance, we have no choice but to work the expense side of the equation.

Big Rocks First

Stephen Covey has a wonderful metaphor for budgeting time. If you think of your week as a large glass jar representing your week and various objects representing all the things you could be doing with your time, the important, the frivolous, and everything in between, then your job is to get the things you care most about into the jar, and thus into your life. Only by putting in the most important “big rocks” first are we sure of getting them all in before adding the pebbles and sand representing less important uses of time.

Covey extended the metaphor to say that putting the rocks in first allowed the less important things to flow around, and so there was time for everything. I wish I was as optimistic as Covey on this point. In my life and the life of my clients, the moment of decision comes when long-standing but less-important commitments give way before the need for change. Most people’s lives are already jam-packed with activities, some important, some less so. Until we’re ready to sacrifice the good for the best, change will have to wait.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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