Time is Ticking: How to Make the Most of Your Minutes

Time Ticking

You can’t turn back time, but you can take it back. Here, we look at a few small, but significant, changes you can make to reclaim your time. Photo: Blasius Erlinger/Getty Images

I think most of us would agree that the way we interact with our interconnected, hyperlinked world is not only stealing our valuable time, but making our already frayed-around-the-edges attention spans even worse.

When this magazine launched 15 years ago, the Blackberry was the most popular smartphone in Canada, but early adopters were already lining up to buy their first iPhones. By 2020, Statistics Canada reported 84 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and up owned a smartphone, 43 per cent checked it every 30 minutes and 47 per cent even used it while watching TV. By late 2022, Canadians were spending an hour on social media and more than six hours online every day. 

If you’re looking to reclaim your time, and reverse that lack of focus that always makes you feel like you’re in a rush, we’ve got a few small but significant changes to help you get there. You can’t turn back time, but you can take it back. 


Stop Wasting Time


When time slips away, it’s often a passive drift rather than an emphatic choice. Think of the last time you picked up your smartphone, began swiping and, when you looked up, 90 minutes had elapsed. Left to our own devices, we seek out the gratifying acknowledgments of likes and views, or anxiously refresh the constant drip of news, also known as doom-scrolling. Modern technology reconfigures time, but there are ways you can reject the internet’s dominant role in your life, according to Cal Newport, a computer-science prof at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The bestselling author of the 2019 book, Digital Minimalism, says we need to think carefully about the role technology plays in our lives and make it support our needs, rather than accept what tech companies make us think we need. 

Finding a more measured relationship to our devices is less dramatic than a complete digital detox, but more challenging. Reclaiming your brain starts with setting priorities and boundaries. To stop being a hostage to constant connectivity, first gauge how much time is being eaten up by checking your daily usage with a program like Screen Time (on Apple and Android phones), which even Apple CEO Tim Cook says he checks “pretty religiously,” adding that his philosophy is, “if you’re looking at the phone more than you’re looking into somebody’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing.”

Many apps, and features like the Stay Focused extension for Chrome, help set time limits on social media use. And, if you fill idle moments with compulsive phone-checking, put something else where the phone would be, like a paperback or a magazine.


Do One Thing at a Time


 Sounds intuitive, right? Yet we don’t, according to Stolen Focus, British journalist Johann Hari’s examination of humankind’s inability to pay attention. In the book Earl Miller – a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – says even moving between apps on our smartphones contributes to cognitive degradation, something he calls the “switch-cost effect.” The brain can only produce one or two thoughts in the conscious mind at once, but we have fallen for an enormous delusion. He says the average person believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time, but neuroscientists found that when people believe they are multi-tasking, “what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment to moment, task to task – and that comes with a cost,” Miller says in Hari’s book. “You have to remember what you were doing before, and you have to remember what you thought about it.” The evidence shows “your performance drops. You’re slower. All as a result of the switching.” So, stop half-watching a TV show while checking your phone and texting. Close out socials and email when you’re working. The good news is attention span can be recovered: Just pick one thing and do it.


Turn On, Tune In, Time Out


Leaning out, quiet quitting – or whatever we want to call reclaiming our time from unreasonable work expectations – there’s been a cultural reckoning around work-life balance and lifestyle priorities. The phenomenon was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and coalesced around California artist and writer Jenny Odell’s 2019 bestseller How to Do Nothing. Her popular field guide to getting off the hamster wheel examines creativity, the attention economy and time as a capitalist commodity, as well as the problem with productivity culture. Resisting hustle culture and clocking out is now a paradigm shift touching older generations.

In her recent follow-up, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Odell critiques time-management self-help books and considers the conspicuous consumption of leisure, for example, where “elements of slow living, disengagement, and self-care have become favoured products in the new ‘experience economy.’” Not everyone needs to behave like an influencer. Think about that before you post the unplugged selfie on holiday.


Smell the Roses 


In her 2023 book, Enchantment, bestselling British writer and podcaster Katherine May says the last decade has filled us with a growing sense of unreality. “We seem trapped in a grind of constant change without ever getting the chance to integrate it,” she writes.

May’s solution to that malaise is “small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory,” she writes. “It relies on small doses of awe, almost homeopathic: those quiet traces of fascination that are found only when we look for them.” Be it a short walk through a city park or a day of hiking, exposure to nature is one way to recalibrate concentration and attention.


Give Unscheduled Time More Meaning


Which would you rather have: an hours-long text chain or unhurried live conversation? In Hanging Out, Sheila Liming’s manifesto for meaningfully reconnecting in a disconnected age, the professor of professional writing at Champlain College in Vermont says digital devices strip our connections “of the experiences and the particularities of place. What gets lost, along with those particularities, are deeper shades of connection, intimacy, and meaning,” she writes. 

Humans are a social species, and spending time with friends is one of the best things to do for well-being, and unstructured time together is essential. Put the phone face down, Liming suggests early on, “Or better yet, throw it out the window.” She’s only partly joking. “Take off your coat. Pull up a chair. Grab yourself a beverage. Hang out for a bit.” She’s not against technology (and doesn’t wade into the analog vs. digital debate), but says it needs to be put in its place. To have the slack to meander and follow your curiosity means your perception of the passage of time will radically slow down.

Taking control over how you spend time is the next best thing to creating more of it. Because time is a precious commodity – and it’s always later than you think.

A version this article appeared in the Oct/Nov 2023 issue with the headline Time is Ticking, p. 28.


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