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Tips for better time management

Internal rhythms can help, but keeping track of time is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

March 09, 2009|Melissa Healy

Eric Crayton, a Los Angeles school bus driver honored for his on-time performance, is a man of the clock. The 39-year-old L.A. resident says he's always been "a time person," having learned from his mother the value of planning, an early bedtime and punctuality. The students he drives to and from school could set their clocks by him.

Ten years ago, Crayton spent his first couple of paychecks for bus driving on a Swiss watch -- equipped with a second hand, as required for all L.A. Unified school bus drivers. He wears his timepiece 24/7, but considers himself a pretty good judge of time's passage even without it. He can feel when he's a few seconds ahead -- or behind -- on his daily rounds, he says. And he's attentive to other cues -- the position of the sun, the sight of the guy who emerges from the doughnut shop with his cup of coffee at exactly the same time every day -- to keep himself on track.

To demonstrate, Crayton recently took a guess -- just over seven minutes -- at the length of his shower (it's the only place he doesn't wear his watch), then timed himself.

He turned off the water at seven minutes, 25 seconds.

The internal clocks that govern our behavior at the most basic level have been honed over millions of years of survival in primitive conditions. Humans share with virtually all animals the ability to recognize the imminence of nightfall, to mark the passage of a day, or to attend to cues that signal the passage of a month or season.

These processes are governed by circadian rhythms buried deep inside the brain's hypothalamic region, where basic bodily functions such as metabolism, appetite, sexual arousal and readiness for sleep and waking are cued.

Evolution also prepared us to make split-second judgments about how fast an oncoming car -- or a hungry lion -- would reach us if we continued to saunter across a street, or a field, at our current pace. As language became important to our survival, we likely evolved an ability to detect tiny pauses in speech that give our communications meaning and nuance. These are operations conducted beneath the level of conscious thought.

But pulling a steak off the grill at the four-minute mark, getting through a to-do list in the two hours you have before your next appointment, keeping track of time during such engrossing activities as shopping or surfing the Web -- these feats take conscious effort, practice and attention to one's overall cognitive health. There's nothing automatic about our ability to track and manage time effectively.

Although Eric Crayton may have been born with a few strengths that make his distinction as "a time person" more likely, his ability to estimate accurately the passage of minutes and hours is a learned skill. A few tricks and strategies can help us internalize an appreciation for time's flight, researchers say.

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Learn to rely on routine

The more you routinize the things you do every day, the more realistic are your estimates of the time it takes to do those things. Whether it's emptying the dishwasher or checking your e-mail, set a time for the task, follow the same patterns and strategies as much as possible, and take note of the time required. This not only makes time an explicit part of your daily routine; it also hones your conscious time-tracking skills. An added benefit: With practice and attention to time, you may pick up speed and develop better strategies for getting tasks done.

Routine helps keep Crayton on schedule. Sometimes, traffic snarls require him to depart from his well-honed route. But when the route between points A and B changes, it helps to know exactly when he's due at points C and D so that he can get back on track. When our tasks are ordered in predictable succession, they're more likely to get done at the expected hour.

Such predictable days aren't possible for everyone. But taking advantage of the routine parts of our days can help us use our time more efficiently and keep track of time spent doing novel things.

Catalin Buhusi, a neuroscientist at the Medical University of South Carolina, calls this practice "behavioral timing," and it's a timing mechanism that some researchers think is at work throughout the animal kingdom.

Much timing throughout the animal world can be attributed to circadian rhythms. But the 24-hour cycle of day and night fails to explain how, for instance, bees are often observed returning to a given flower at precise intervals only a couple of hours apart. Some time-perception researchers believe that bees and other animals might have foraging routines that make their comings and goings as predictable as a clock. In this case, Buhusi says, "your timer is yourself -- your whole body," engaged in a routine task.

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Sharpen your working memory

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