Make Your Hours More Meaningful in 2016

How to make time for practice, meetings and everything else that’s important in life.


This article is from the January 2016 edition of the Toastmaster magazine.

A life is lived in hours, so living a better life means figuring out how to use those hours wisely. What makes this tricky is that time keeps passing, whether or not you think about how to spend it. Fortunately, a few strategies can help anyone be more mindful of time. Try these tips for managing the 8,784 hours of 2016, and you’ll spend more time on what matters and less on what doesn’t.

Track Your Time 
If you want to lose weight, nutritionists will tell you to keep a food journal. That’s because tracking what you eat makes you more aware and leads to weight loss. Likewise, if you want to use your time better, you need to figure out how you use it now. You can track your time, and how you spend it, in a simple spreadsheet or journal, or use a time-tracking app such as Toggl. The exact tool doesn’t matter, as long as you use it.

Try keeping track of your time for one week (168 hours). Record what you’re doing as often as you remember and in as much detail as you think will be helpful. Then add it up. How much time do you spend working? Sleeping? Doing housework? Watching TV? Interacting with your family? The point is not to see how much time you’re wasting (everyone wastes time to some degree), it’s to see if any of your time is spent on activities that are neither meaningful nor enjoyable. That time can be redeployed to other things.

Make a ‘List of 100 Dreams’
We’d all like to figure out how to spend fewer of our precious minutes on annoying tasks. But it’s even more productive to ask ourselves what we want to spend more time doing. Several years ago, a career coach named Caroline Ceniza-Levine shared an exercise with me called the “List of 100 Dreams.” This is a completely unedited list of the things you want to do or have more of in your life. Do you want to give a TED Talk? Write a book? Run a 5k race? Tour wineries in France? It’s hard to get all the way to 100, but you’ll learn a lot about yourself and what you might like by trying.

It’s all well and good to review your work of the previous months, but what’s done is done. It’s more productive to think about next year.

Look Forward
Try two more exercises to make the big goals on your “List of 100 Dreams” attainable. Many people get professional performance reviews toward the end of the year. It’s all well and good to review your work of the previous months, but what’s done is done. It’s more productive to think about next year. To achieve your best results this year, try writing your 2016 performance review now. Think about three to five things that you would like to say you’ve done in your professional life by the end of 2016. As for your personal life, try writing your family holiday letter—those notes that many people send to friends and family in December—now. Writing them can be a bit tedious, but they serve a purpose: They describe what you did throughout the year that mattered to you. What three to five things would make this year memorable for you?

Now, because of the performance review and holiday letter, you have six to 10 goals to focus on. Break each one down into doable steps. If you want to run a 5k race, schedule two to three runs per week. If you want to become a better speaker, set aside time for Toastmasters meetings and for practicing speeches a few times a week. Write everything on your 2016 calendar.

Put First Things First
The phrase “first things first” was highlighted in the classic productivity book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea is that time is highly elastic. We don’t build the lives we want by saving time. We build the lives we want and then time saves itself. When life is full of the important stuff, the unimportant stuff naturally takes less space.

A good way to put this concept into practice is to plan your upcoming week on Friday afternoon. Take a half hour or so and look at what’s on your calendar for the next week. Make a short priority list with three categories: career, relationships and self. What two or three things in each category would you like to accomplish next week? Look over your calendar and block them in.

Use Your Mornings
Whenever people tell me they don’t have time for something in their lives, I share a little equation. There are 168 hours in a week. If you spend 40 of them at work, and sleep eight hours a night (56 per week), that leaves 72 hours for other things. If you work 50 hours, that leaves 62, and so forth. In 62 hours, I imagine you can find two for practicing your speeches and two for attending a Toastmasters meeting. You can allocate three hours to exercise and three for a date with your spouse. But if you’re really unsure of how things will fit, look at your mornings. Mornings are a great time for getting things done. This is time you can have to yourself before the rest of the world’s priorities invade. You can go to a quiet part of the house to read, or go for a quick run on the treadmill. You could have a family breakfast or a coffee date with your spouse. Try turning off the TV 30 minutes earlier and waking 30 minutes earlier to see what else you can fit into your days.

Plan Your Weekends
Weekends are the key to a full life. They offer time to recharge our batteries so we can handle all our responsibilities. Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose weekend time to chores, errands and children’s activities. If you have priorities that don’t easily fit into the workweek, try planning out your weekends by Wednesday. That way, you’ll find space for rejuvenating activities that you want to do, not just the things you have to do.

Minimize the Musts 
Certain activities expand to fill the available space. At work, it’s often checking email. At home, it’s often housework. Managing time better means choosing to spend limited blocks of time on certain activities. At work, try to check your email once an hour (or less frequently, if you can!) By not constantly toggling back and forth, you’ll have longer blocks of time for focused work. At home, try ordering more items online so you don’t lose your weekends to errands. Likewise, try to create a short block of time on weekends for chores. Resolve yourself to the mindset that if it doesn’t happen between 9 and 11 a.m. on Saturday, it’s not going to happen, and the rest of the weekend will be yours.

Try these various time-management tips to get the most out of your year. Make it a productive, fun and meaningful 2016!

Author Bio

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time-management books, including 168 Hours and I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. She lives outside Philadelphia and blogs at