Do You Have a Time Budget?

Anyone in business knows the importance of a budget. Even if it’s a simple, one-page spreadsheet of your expected revenue and outgoings or your day-to-day costs of business to give you targets for revenue generation, iterations of budgets are essential to know ‘where you’re at’ in your business.

But fewer people budget for time, and even fewer budget their time taking into consideration their personal and business needs… And by ‘needs’ I’m not talking about the required time to create products or services, develop new business, or drive revenue…I’m talking about your human needs — activity, sleep, relaxation, creativity…and fun!

Having a time budget is a great way to refocus on what is most important for you. It takes you out of the rat race for a moment and forces you to step back and objectively analyse your life and whether it’s conducive to you living with the passion and purpose you desire.

I have often discussed with mentoring clients the need to understand your available time and use that as a metric for how many hours one should work, and therefore how much someone (as a health or fitness practitioner or other self-employed businesspeople) should charge. Instead, we usually default to charging what others do, or even what we ‘think’ is the right number. This has been starkly evident when working with successful yet burnt-out mentees who are struggling to make money (or in some cases to make ends meet) despite having large numbers of clients and a stacked schedule. Sure, in some cases the business needed to work on its efficiency and/or reduce unnecessary costs, but in almost all cases, they also needed to increase their prices. Most people freak out at the thought of increasing prices and losing customers, but that of course is what we want! If you are working too long on any given day, and you’re risking burn-out, the simple equation is to increase costs until you have lost enough customers (and yet increased overall revenue) to be working the right amount for you.

This takes us back to the concept of time-budgeting because unless you know what you want and need to be doing in your life, and unless you understand what you can reasonably do within your work to maximise your effectiveness without burning out, you simply won’t be aware that you are slipping into over-work and it is all too easy to increase your revenue by simply working more (and more…and more).

One of the ways to start the process or time budgeting is outlined in my (soon to be updated!) book Time Rich Practice. This involves evaluating how many hours you can work in any given day or how many clients you can see in a day depending on the circumstances of your work, how many days per week you can realistically work to also have a great work-life balance, and how many weeks per year you will work. Then, by working back from the total amount of hours, and your required revenue to not just survive but thrive (tools for calculating this are in the book) you will have an idea of how much to charge and have also worked out how many hours you should ideally be working.

But of course, your income is not the only driver of how much you should work or how much you should charge for that work. As humans, we tend to overestimate our capabilities (Illusory Superiority) and underestimate the time (and work) required to complete tasks (the Planning Fallacy). Therefore, even our best attempts at delineating our time and effort can fail if we don’t also use some other metrics for our time budget.

Evidence from the scientific literature should underpin how much we ‘should’ work, sleep, or play, notwithstanding a large amount of variability between individuals. This seems like a common-sense approach, but we tend to overlook the evidence in our modern society that lauds overwork and under sleep and dismisses the valuable role of both relaxation and play in driving creativity and purpose.

According to the National Sleep Foundation of the US, which convened an expert panel to evaluate optimal sleep times, the recommended amounts of sleep for various ages are [1]:

  • 0–3 months: 14–17 hours per night
  • 4–11 months: 12–15 hours
  • 1–2 years: 11–14 hours
  • 3–5 years: 10–13 hours
  • 6–13 years: 9–11 hours
  • 14–17 years: 8–10 hours
  • 18–64 years: 7–9 hours
  • 65+ years: 7–8 hours

The European Working Directive suggests that based on the evidence, people should work fewer than 48 hours per week and research suggests that benefits of working on mental health begin with as little as 8 hours of work per week and there is little variation between this number and up to the recommended maximum of 48 hours but excessive working hours are linked to reduced health and societal (especially family) outcomes. [2]

So, it’s clear that work is important for mental health (and therefore overall health) but the amount necessary for benefits varies widely up to a maximum of just under 50 hours per week. In-line with observations of human nature like the Planning Fallacy mentioned in the previous paragraph, we also tend to work more, even if we think we have a ‘normal’ 40-hour work-week. In the United States, people average 47 hours of work per week and 40% of workers report that they work at least 50 or more hours per week.

Research also suggests that productivity falls off a cliff after 50 hours (per week) and the ‘sweet spot’ might be far less than the maximum that we can withstand to preserve health, and might be closer to 30 hours. In a fascinating article summarising both research and anecdotal evidence in Inc., Jessica Stillman delves into the optimum working day. Some of the key points are:

  • Elite performers tend to work in ‘blocks’ of less than 4 hours (usually with several breaks within that larger block)
  • Many ultra-successful people (Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, John Le Carre, Alice Munro, and others) work for roughly two 90-minute periods in the morning then another 1–2 blocks of 2–3 hours later in the day
  • Hunter-gatherers typically ‘worked’ 3–5 hours per day.

It’s also interesting to consider work hours alongside common (though inexact) metrics of productivity like the Pareto Principle (80–20 rule). The Pareto Principle involves the idea that 20% of our inputs, customers etc lead to 80% of our results or outcomes. This also implies that optimum productivity can be found somewhere around 20% of inputs, including time. So, perhaps we should consider allocating 20% of our time to work?… or even 20% of our waking hours…

If we were to allocate 20% of our time (overall or waking respectively) this would give us a work-week of between 23 and 34 hours, or around 4–6 hours per day in a 5-day work-week, which is remarkably similar to many top-performers in history and harks to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Work and sleep make up the biggest components of our allocated time but of course, there are other things equally important for health. Some of these (like meditation) can be performed as daily habits and take up little time and don’t necessarily require allocation within a time budget. Others like exercise and activity can also be approached this way but it is useful to have an idea of the ‘minimum effective dose’ of exercise.

The following are considered crucial to health according to US, NZ, and Australian guidelines:

  • Performing at least 2 sessions of weight-bearing exercise per week
  • Being moderately active in other activities for at least 2 ½ hours per week (preferably >5 hours per week)

It has also been suggested that there are ‘tipping point’ benefits to health from doing >7500 steps per day in addition to the performance of higher-intensity exercise.

Once time has been allocated to work, sleep, and exercise, the rest is…well…up to you! In my experience both for my routine and in helping clients to manage their health and lives more effectively, when we make time for rest, recovery, and play by allocating time more effectively and being maximally productive within that time, we tend to discover a lot of the passion, purpose, and creativity that we were previously lacking.

There are however some ‘time killers’ that can take over our newly freed time. Most prevalently now is excessive use of devices and addiction to social media. While light-to-moderate use of social media provides mental health benefits, excessive use can increase depression and anxiety, affect sleep, and waste time!

Mobile phone screen time has increased more than ten-fold in the last 10 years, and we now spend well over 3 hours looking at our phones each day. Reducing the use of social media and limiting screen-time has been shown to significantly reduce depression.

To avoid the temptation to overuse social media or screen devices, and maximise your time-effectiveness, check out these tips: https://cliffharvey.com/how-to-live-a-nearly-ad-free-existence/

We default to mindless scrolling on social media or purposelessly watching television (as compared to watching a specific show) because we often don’t know what we could be doing within that new-found time. Typically, though, there are many things that we want to do but they are not clear and present in our minds.

How many times have you sat in front of the TV for hours only to realise later in the day that there was something you hadn’t done, that could have been done had you not been sitting in front of the box?!

A tactic I have used, and that many of my clients have used to great effect is to write a list of some of the things that you LOVE to do. Then display this somewhere prominent or (as I have taken to doing) have a list in your task app on your phone that you can refer back to. In those moments in which you feel anxious because you ‘don’t know what to do’ (and when you might be tempted to default to scrolling or watching mindless media) refer back to your list and you’re almost certain to find something of immense value to you that you could be doing.

For example, my list includes gardening, working on my bonsai, painting, playing a board game with Bella, playing with the dog, doing a short yoga session, going for a walk, going to the beach, playing music, writing, and much more.

These are the types of things that all of us tend to say that they don’t have time for, and yet, if we spend more than 3 hours looking at things on our phones and many more hours watching television (that we weren’t even that enthused with), how honest is that appraisal? And how much more could we get out of life by doing things that we actually love rather than doing things that simply strip our valuable time away from us?

Another great tactic is to commit to stopping and breathing and taking a few moments (or even do a short mindfulness meditation) to consider why we’re anxious, to reset into the moment, and then to decide powerfully and purposefully to doing something that we love, at that moment.

Of course, we also need time to occasionally veg out, and that’s not a problem at all. The key is to have that type of ‘Netflix and chill’ time on purpose because you need to be distracted and to not ‘do’ anything else, not to default to this because you forgot what you really want to be doing…

The budget below is taken directly from my budget spreadsheets. Within these, I have a sheet for my personal (financial) budget, sheets for our business budgets, forecasts and updates, AND my time budget…because time is our most important asset and currency! It includes my optimal sleep time (7.5+ hours per night), work (set at 20% of my waking time), time allocated to activity, which includes ‘active’ exercise of wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, and weightlifting, along with incidental activity like walking the dog, and doing chores, and the balance to ‘discretionary’ time, which is everything from hanging with family, to painting, playing music, writing poetry, gardening, or watching TV (of course, you might want to allocate time specifically for any of these things in your budget).

I understand that not everyone can allocate their work hours and the ideas within this article are most applicable to entrepreneurs, the self-employed, and creatives. However, many of the key points from this article can be applied by anyone. We can all be more circumspect with how we spend our time to maximise the time and energy we have available for the things that are most important like friends, whanau, and our creative pursuits. We are also undergoing a sea change in the way that we view work and with many people working semi-full time, working remotely, and having more flexibility with project- and task-focused work (as compared to ‘punch the clock’ time-drive work), there has never been a better time to start to work towards allocating time in the ways that serve each of us best.

With all that considered, the ‘perfect’ time-budget may not always be achievable. You might have a job in which you simply have to worm longer, or week-to-week, things might change, but that’s OK. The time-budget is a target and a concept. It provides something to aim for and it is a reminder that it is all too easy to slip into work for work’s sake and unproductive work-time.

Cliff Harvey’s latest book, The Credo outlines 8 simple virtues to create a passionate, purposeful life. He combines these with examples, commitments, and exercises to help you integrate the concepts into your life to be happier and healthier.

Read The Credo

Take The Credo — Online Course

1. Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, Albert SM, Alessi C, Bruni O, DonCarlos L, et al. National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health: Journal of the National Sleep Foundation.1(1):40–3.

2. Kamerāde D, Wang S, Burchell B, Balderson SU, Coutts A. A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being? Social Science & Medicine. 2019;241:112353.

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