Does this sound familiar? You make a New Year’s resolution, like learning a new language, reading more books or playing an instrument. You’re really excited at the beginning. You even go out and buy books or sign up for lessons. But then life happens.
You get busy at work, you have to take care of your kids or elderly parents, and before you know it, the month is over and you’ve barely made a dent.
Worse, you feel more and more like your resolution conflicts with your daily life. Every day you try to fit in time for it feels like an extra burden, which increases your sense of time pressure. This is one of the most experienced — but rarely talked about — aspects of New Year’s resolutions: they squeeze your time.
Because this keeps happening year after year, it might be helpful to understand why.
How we think about time
It’s no secret that people don’t think about time very rationally — we often fall prey to cognitive biases that distort our perception of time. And two such biases play a big role in our unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions.
First, there’s the fresh start effect. This psychological phenomenon makes people see the beginning of a new year (or a new semester, month or even week) as an opportunity to distance themselves from their past failures.
It does this by resetting people’s mental accounting of time, making them believe that they can start anew and do better this time around (“new year, new me”). As a result, people become a lot more motivated and confident, which makes them want to take on more challenges and become their best selves — perhaps to a fault.
Then there’s the dreadful “yes … damn!” effect, a bias that makes people wrongly believe they will have more time in the future than right now. This is the cognitive bias responsible for why so many of us agree to future activities like agreeing to be on a committee (“yes”), but then regret it when time comes because we realize we don’t have the free time we thought we would (“damn!”).
Around New Year’s, it’s easy to convince ourselves that time will be on our side, especially since we still have a whole year ahead of us. But as time goes on, this delusion quickly becomes apparent.
Is there anything we can do about this? Interestingly, the authors of the “yes …damn!” effect noted that it’s hard for people to “learn from feedback that time will not be more abundant in the future because of the irregular ways people spend their time … they perceive that activities that compete for their time today are irrelevant to those that will compete in the future.”
In other words, we don’t learn from our “yes … damn!” mistakes when our days aren’t structured and predictable. We can’t learn our lessons when there are no apparent patterns to how we use time — lack of structure makes us time-blind.
In a sense, failing to structure our time is a bit like living in a messy house. The clutter makes it hard for people to clearly see the furniture and appliances they own. Just as people make resolutions they don’t have time for around New Year’s, messy homeowners get tempted to buy things they don’t need (or don’t have space for) because they don’t know what they already have.
The solution? Structure your time.
Try time management. It is an essential tool to establish structure in your day-to-day life. When your days are more structured and organized, you can get a better, more realistic idea of how much time you have to take on new commitments.
An organized schedule cures time blindness — it’s much harder to over commit when you can see your time structured and laid out in front of you.
Time management also helps you make time to acquire new skills. We often forget that anything in life takes time. That’s why the first step toward getting better at something is learning how to make time for it. And that’s exactly what time management does: it gives you time to work on the things that are important to you.
So this year, instead of making new resolutions that will take you more time, resolve to learn a skill that will make you more time.
Time management will allow you to carve out time for all the things you want to accomplish this year and for many years to come.
Brad Aeon receives funding from federal and provincial research grants.