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As part of HumanaNatura’s article series on the tools of personal empowerment, I’d like to introduce you to the technique of mapping time.
Mapping time is a fairly simple process that can provide rich insights into the underlying structure of our daily lives. It can reveal how well this often unconscious or only semi-conscious structure of time allocations aligns with our values, priorities, and goals.
As a true form of mapping, time maps can help us better see and understand the overall landscape and contours of our lives, as well as new opportunities for exploration and change. These opportunities include our potential to makes new choices and alter our uses of our time each day, to more effectively and directly create and live the life we want.
The overall process of personal empowerment, when pursued in the context of optimizing the health of our lives, is the essence of what HumanaNatura calls natural living. For more on this topic, see the article, “Understanding Personal Empowerment,” in the HumanaNatura library or review the Natural Living section of the HumanaNatura natural health program.
The goal of natural living is to remove conditioned, irrational, and unconscious cycles of health-reducing behavior and thinking from our lives, and to replace them with new personal patterns, ones of our own choosing that more directly align with and foster our natural requirements for health and well-being. In this sense, natural living is the pursuit of our health in a broader sense – to include opportunities for new personal growth and freedom in our lives.
Clearly irrational and unhealthy cycles in our lives, ones that do not serve us in our pursuit of growth and freedom, include drug dependencies, a variety of psychological addictions and fixations, dysfunctional relationships and habits, obviously unhealthy attitudes and life choices, and other patterns of behavior or thinking that quickly come to mind and are difficult to explain against the standard of our health.
Other cycles that compromise our health and well-being, that limit our growth and freedom, can be much deeper, more pervasive, or far subtler presences in our lives. These cycles can be harder to see and examine, and in the end, break. Here, the use of personal empowerment tools and the conscious practice of natural living can greatly aid us in the process of self-examination and conscious choice. Together, they can open new possibilities even in seemingly intractable areas of our lives and create profound and lasting positive change for us and those around us.
Mapping Our Own Time
Among the many self-empowerment techniques available to us through modern psychology, mapping time is one of the simplest and, because of its simplicity, one of the more useful and powerful. It is a great tool for people just beginning the task of personal discovery and transformation that is natural living.
To dispel any sense of mystery about this tool, mapping time is just what the name implies: periodically listing out, or mapping, how we spend our time in a typical day or week. With commitment and practice, the results can be quite revealing, making us far more conscious of our behavior patterns and their implicit priorities. Mapping our time can reveal low-value uses of our time and recast other uses in a new light, helping us discover and change areas of our lives that do not align with our values and goals, and quest for greater health.
An easy way to begin mapping your time is to pick a few upcoming days, especially ones that should be typical for you, and plan in advance to keep track of how you spend your time on each of these days. Some of us have more varied schedules and will need a higher number of days to create a composite map of a typical day. Others have more regularized schedules and even one or two days may suffice to create a representative mapping of our time. If this is you, be sure to consider and map your weekday versus weekend patterns, so you have enough information to create an accurate portrait of how you spend your time in total.
Whichever personal schedule best describes your life today, a good way to map each day is in 15-minute intervals. It strikes a good balance between too much and too little information. In this approach, you will set out to account for all 24 hours of each day in quarter-hour blocks, using pen and paper or a spreadsheet. Your map should include the time you spend sleeping, eating, doing chores, socializing with friends, working, commuting, doing hobbies, in leisure, and whatever other activities occur in your day.
The goal in mapping time in this way is to capture the entirety of how you spend your day. At least every hour or two during the day, except when sleeping, carefully note how each 15 minutes interval was spent. If you do more than one thing in an interval, capture the key two or three items for later review. Try to use identical categories for recurring items so you can more easily add up the time devoted to them later. By the end of the day, or by the beginning of the next, you should have a complete map of how you spent the day, in ninety-six 15-minute intervals.
Once you have a mapping of one or more representative days, and may have insights just from scanning the list of entries. In this direction, the next step is to carefully categorize your time allocations, so you can see more clearly the patterns of how you spent your time on the days tracked. In categorizing your time allocations, it’s important to make sure you have enough categories (typically 7-10) to capture the breadth and diversity of your major daily activities, but not so many categories (more than 15 as a general rule) that you cannot see the key patterns emerging from your time map.
We all have a certain amount of incidental activities that cross many of our time intervals and do not fit well into a major category – phone calls, rest breaks, hallway conversations, whatever. You will need to consider if these activities can be allocated into one or more common categories. You can and usually do have a miscellaneous category, but we often get better insights if we explore and categorize if we can what is in our miscellaneous category, especially if it spans more than 30 minutes of a typical day.
Once you work through this categorization process, which may take a bit of time and prove iterative, you should arrive at a relatively short list of categories and, by adding up the time spent in each, a clear sense of how you allocate your time across each category in a typical twenty-four hour day. Many people like to create a pie chart of their time as a visual aid, drawing out their activity categories and the percentages of time allocated to each category.
A reminder to be sure you have mapped representative days, or a mix of days that are representative in total, and that weekend time is included too. If you have very different weekday and weekend patterns, as many people do, you can decide if you want separate maps for each pattern or to weight and proportion your time into a single map that represents a typical week.
If your days are especially diverse, an alternative is to map an entire representative week, perhaps in 30-minute intervals to cut down on the amount of work to create your map, and then proceed with categorization as I described.
“As Is” Versus “To Be” Time
With your first time map in hand, with a list or graph of your categories and time allocation percentages of how you spend your time today, you can begin the processes of examining, and ultimately re-mapping, your time.
In this part of the time mapping exercise, you must be honest but compassionate with yourself. Your map is a rough representation of your life and use of your time today. If you are like the rest of us, after the first time through you probably are looking at a mix of intended and unintended time allocations, some familiar uses of your time and some that may be surprising or revealing to you in some way.
Begin by asking yourself if you like the way you are allocating your time. What areas to you like the most and the least? What areas are healthy and unhealthy, desirable and undesirable, important and unimportant? What areas would you most like to change? How well is your time allocated in ways that are consciously-chosen, in a way that is satisfying as you reflect on your map? If you are like most of us, you will see several areas where you want to take immediate action, especially when just beginning the work of self-examination and conscious living.
As you continue your review of your time map, focus in on blocks of time you would like to change the most, first and above all others. Is some of this time you want to change but feel you cannot today? Perhaps there others blocks that you want to change and know you can, even right away. Give yourself time to think carefully about your map, what it reveals about how you spend your time and what you most want to change and can change. Review your map in several sittings over the course of a week or more if you want to. Spend quiet time alone or in dialogue with close friends to help get a full perspective on your time map and the categories of your activities. If you feel the need, seek the input of a counselor or coach.
Extra effort evaluating our time maps is usually a worthwhile investment, in that the insights we have from them and the commitment to action we develop may become much deeper than with a shorter review. Often, however, even during the process of mapping our time itself, we can have personal insights and find compelling motivation to act to change our time allocations right away.
Ultimately, where you need to end up is with a “to be” map for your time in the immediate future, and perhaps one for the longer-term too. Your “to be” map is a chosen and more ideal re-weighting of your time allocation in each of your categories, and may involve time in an entirely new category. It is usually helpful to list out your categories, with your current and planned time allocations, to use as a reference when planning and monitoring change.
The final step in time mapping is planning and monitoring actions to re-allocate our time. Though you may have already made immediate changes in your time allocation based on the previous steps, I would encourage you to create a formal plan of action to achieve the time reweighting you want. Often, the act of planning leads to new insights and helps you see opportunities to move to your new time allocation more quickly or creatively.
There are different approaches to action planning to re-map our time. One is to formulate a “realistic” new time allocation and then plan concrete steps to implement change in our lives to arrive at this allocation, listing out specifically what we will do less of and more of to achieve our planned time reallocation. Action plans often include specific actions or goals for 1, 3, 6, and 12+ months. Many successful action plans also focus in on no more than 2-3 high priority actions, whether for right away or a defined time period. And our best goals are usually SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound).
An alternative approach to re-mapping and planning is to formulate a truly “idealistic” time allocation. This types of time map tends to be a bit higher level and more aspirational, but can help us more clearly articulate our deepest and innermost values and wishes. If we use this approach, it is best to work carefully through the multi-stage planning process I described before, planning out immediate and achievable goals for the above time intervals, and consciously leaving others that are not immediately actionable in our 12+ month time period or in a “parking lot” for reconsideration. In planning for our long-term ideal, it is important that we not lose sight of the short-term, and change we can make immediately or soon, so that we achieve early gains and learning, and build momentum and greater clarity for the long-term.
Either approach to action planning can work fine, especially if you commit to repeat this exercise periodically. It is probably always unrealistic to think that we will completely illuminate our uses of time and envision our ideal time allocation the first time we map our time, or plan all of the right steps in our initial action plan. More likely, our ideal life vision and plan will emerge and take shape over time, changing and maturing as we grow and work to re-make our lives healthier and freer, and have fresh insights into how we spend our time and what we really want.
My Own Mapping
As an example of this exercise in practice, I can relate my own experiences of mapping time. When I first began my time mapping, I almost immediately discovered something about myself that I knew and yet didn’t fully appreciate. This insight dawned on me and became quite tangible over the course of several days, and led me to make a near immediate and quite positive change in my life.
In my first time map, what I noticed was that I spent a great deal of my waking time (well over 25% including weekends) in what I characterized then as “recreation.” We all know and most of us have some amount of this time in our lives. It includes our many common forms of leisure – various pleasant, semi-satisfying but usually not skilled activities we may do alone, or with friends and family, to pass time and amuse ourselves. Recreation is usually not goal-oriented activity, other than filling time and escaping boredom or stress. Some amount of recreation, some empty and unpointed time, is of course inevitable and healthy in any life.
But we all also know that recreational activities can sometimes be trivial activities, and even self-trivializing ones. Recreation involves activity that is meaningless and often quite predictable – time that does not engage or require us, time when we escape from rather than face into our lives and need for action in them. In an affluent society especially, recreational time can grow to fill large tracts of our time and places in our lives. It can preoccupy and lessen us in what are often empty and meaningless uses of time. When excessive, this “down time” often and unconsciously keeps us from more important activities we may consciously struggle to find time for.
While pleasant, recreation is also rarely fulfilling and we may even seek more recreation from the low feelings of fulfillment it engenders, leading to a downward spiral of health and vibrancy in our lives. Recreational activities can involve unhealthy content as well, compounding the problem of excessive and compounding leisure. In truth, we can easily and unwittingly become locked into vicious and quite irrational cycles of recreation and leisure, consuming our time and creating barriers to a more engaged and engaging life, just as we can with many other behaviors that make sense only in small or infrequent amounts.
Excesses of time thus wasted (relative to the standard to pursuing our goals) inevitably give our lives a bittersweet, aimless quality, one that is familiar and widespread in contemporary society, and that we may be enmeshed in ourselves without realizing or attending to it. With excessive leisure and other empty habits, we may sense in our own thoughts that we have reached a plateau in our lives, that we are not growing and developing as we once did – and as we always can and should, if our goal is healthy and vital life.
In my case, over the course of several weeks, I was able to re-map my time, consciously reducing my “recreational” category from 25% to about 5% of my waking hours and increasing time spent on activities more closely aligned with my values and goals, and especially my health. For me, these new activities were part of a quite specific and gradually evolving personal action plan: experimenting with healthier forms of eating and exercise, beginning educational rather than party vacations, more time reading, improving my work skills, and developing a more health-oriented circle of friends. Although it took time and was a struggle at first, my life changed significantly and quickly in both day-to-day feel and overall speed and direction. I had a fairly big pay-off from re-mapping my time.
The impact of these early changes, and the sense of empowerment and focus they brought to me, was significant and unexpected. I began to change in ways that was noticeable to others, and soon needed to further clarify my ideal time map and refine my long-term goals. After about nine months, I again consciously mapped my time and planned a further re-allocation to better create the life I wanted for myself, to be more fully the person I wanted to be. It was, in fact, in this second re-mapping, right on the heels of an archeological learning vacation in Greece, that the idea of HumanaNatura was born.
I now formally map my time about once a year, but make informal assessments of my use of time quite often, even daily, and always find fresh insights and areas for change. It may interest you to know that the number of my activity categories has declined as I have gradually created greater focus in my life and use of my time. Today, I have only five categories, leaving aside sleeping and a small amount of miscellaneous time: 1) learning & teaching, 2) health advocacy, 3) hiking and exercise, 4) building and community development, and 5) supporting friends and family.
Through much greater, but only gradually developed, awareness of both my values and time allocations, my life is now much simpler and more focused in many ways, but also richer too and quite broad enough. I allocate my time where it most counts, to me and to the things I want. You may find this happens to you too, even if your ultimate categories are quite different than mine. We are all fingerprints, with the same basic shape but endless and intricate variation as we examine ourselves more closely.
With this simple technique of mapping time available, and now I hope demystified, perhaps you too will be able to map and re-map your time to create the more ideal daily life and long-term personal direction you want. Perhaps you will have immediate insights you can act on, some “ah-ha” moments, setting up positive change in your life and building momentum for ongoing, iterative, and healthy change throughout your life.
In time, and after mapping your time a few times, perhaps you will achieve a surprising new life that is healthier, growing and freer, more satisfying and fulfilling, and a better expression of who you really are.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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