3 Things Budgeting Taught Me About Time Management

A major part of my job involves working with college students to help build up their time management skills. Time management is something that everyone struggles with at various points in their life, and it’s also something that many of us are never explicitly taught. Yet it’s super important! Because of this, I wanted to spend some time on the blog talking a bit about time management this week.

I’ve always been pretty naturally good at managing my time in the traditional sense. I can get a lot done, manage multiple projects, prioritize tasks, and have a good sense of how long things will take me. I love a good to-do list and I live by my Google calendar.

However, there’s a danger to this myopic view of time management that’s focused purely on productivity. If that’s our only view of time management, we can fall into the trap of focusing too much on quantity rather than quality and we can easily lose sight of the bigger picture – and finite nature – of time.

For example, in my last year of college, I was working four part-time on-campus jobs, taking classes, writing a thesis, and was the editor of the school paper. On paper, I was a time-management wizard! I passed my classes, wrote a thesis I was genuinely proud of, and our school paper even won an award that year.

That may sound like I had quantity and quality covered, however, juggling all of that also meant that I spent a lot less time with my friends in my final year on campus, turned down more than one party I wanted to go to, and didn’t spend any time focusing on what my plan after graduation would be. I felt stressed and exhausted most of the time, and barely saw my cousin/best friend who had moved across the country to the same city as me (and who now lives back across the country and I haven’t seen since…I’m not even sure??).

I don’t really believe in regrets, but if I could go back and do it over I would quit two of my jobs so I had more time for the things I missed out on.

When I started budgeting, I also started learning a new way to think about time management. See, when I was able to get a clear picture of how to make my money line up with my actual priorities, desires, and dreams, it helped me also think more critically about how I needed to shift the ways I was spending my time so that it also lined up with those priorities. 

So here are the 3 time-management lessons that budgeting taught me:

1. Set clear priorities and allocate your time accordingly.

When I budget, I first go through and cover all of my bills/obligations. Once those required categories are covered, I get to decide how I want to allocate the dollars that are left based on what my priorities are. Right now, those priorities are funding our travel budget line, saving up for an exciting next step, and investing.  

Using zero-sum budgeting – which relies on clearly identifying your priorities and aligning your money with them – has helped me translate this way of thinking to my time as well. Sure, large chunks of my time are already accounted for with work, school, sleep, and the basic chores of living – but how do I really want to spend those leftover hours that are mine to decide what to do with? What are my priorities for my time?

Lately, I’ve been answering that question a lot more intentionally, and as a result, I’ve been spending a lot more time with friends and family, reading for pleasure, and cooking – and a lot less time in front of the TV and on my phone.

Something that I remind myself of often (both when it comes to how I use my time and my money) is that saying yes to one thing always means saying no to another. If I buy this thing now, it means I’ll have less to spend on travel. If I decide to watch one more episode, it means I’m going to get an hour less sleep tonight.

Knowing that this equation is always in play reminds me to identify and name the tradeoffs. Once I name the tradeoff, I can make an active choice about if it’s acceptable to me.

2. Budgeting my money and planning out my time aren’t constricting – they help me do what I need and what I want.

There’s this myth that budgeting is no fun and leaves you feeling constricted. However, when you’re budgeting based on your values and priorities, budgeting actually allows you to have more of what’s important, build the life and experience you want, and eliminate that no-fun financial stress. Having a clear map for your money means you get to do the things you really want to do, while also covering your bills.

Sometimes there’s a similar myth about scheduling your time, that it can constrict you and eliminate the fun of spontaneity. I used to buy into that. The first few vacations my wife and I took together, we didn’t plan anything other than where we were going and where we were staying. We figured that when we were walking around, we’d stumble on all sorts of fun stuff to do and didn’t want to be locked into an itinerary.

We spent most of those trips wandering around trying to find a place we could agree on to eat. Sure, there were great moments, and we stumbled on a cool thing here and there, but looking back on those trips, they could have been so much better with just a little more planning.

This lesson really hit home in 2019 when we took my brothers on a 5-day trip to Ecuador. We were both used to taking longer trips when traveling, so 5 days felt like not enough time. We wanted to visit three different cities/towns and wanted to make the most of the time we had. For the first time, we really planned out our trip ahead of time and had a pretty tight itinerary filled with travel, specific areas of the towns we wanted to explore, booked activities, recommended restaurants, etc.

Even though that trip was short, it was jam-packed, incredibly fun, and still relaxing because we didn’t have to spend half of our vacation figuring out and agreeing on what we wanted to do next. That trip converted me from the spontaneous travel camp to the planned travel camp (still leaving a little room for surprises) and our trips have become infinitely better because of it.

In my day-to-day life, this looks like me planning out my weekends and days off work so that I’m able to make the most of the time I have. I usually keep a note on my phone with a list of what I plan to do that weekend in the order I plan to do it in.

This makes sure I get the stuff I need to get done and also that I’m making time to do the things that I want to do as well. For example, this was last Sunday’s list:

3. Momentum builds – do a small thing today.

Closely related to time management is the issue of procrastination. Investing offers a clear lesson in the importance of starting early. The momentum that builds thanks to compound interest is an inspiring message about the impact of small actions taken consistently over time.

When I first started getting interested in personal finance, I was really motivated, and I used that motivation to take a lot of small steps quickly that have been paying off ever since.

I spend 15 minutes every day checking my budget, reconciling transactions, paying any bills that aren’t automated, and assigning new dollars to jobs. This small 15-minute habit has dramatically improved my life in so many ways and has really shown me the momentum that comes with developing small habits and routines around the things you are hoping to improve or accomplish.

I’ve tried to harness that lesson in other areas of my life as well. If I want something, what small actions am I taking today to help make that a reality? In the past, I’ve had the tendency to overthink things, while never quite getting to the point of doing or dedicating the time, space, and energy to make it happen.

The thing is, it often takes less energy than we think — and motivation and momentum will follow us once we just start.

If you want to read more, read for 15 minutes every day before bed. If you want to have a better relationship with a friend who lives far away, have a 10-minute phone call twice a week so you don’t feel like you have to carve out 2 hours to catch up. If you want to start working out but can’t consistently drag yourself to the gym in the morning, what’s a 20-minute workout you can do in your living room each day?

Your time is valuable – not because it’s an opportunity to be productive, but because it’s an opportunity to do something that brings you joy or fulfillment. So how will you allocate yours?

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