Internal rhythms can help, but keeping track of time is a skill that must be learned and practiced.
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.
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.
Sharpen your working memory
The cognitive skill of holding several bits of information briefly in memory is key to many everyday challenges: following instructions, making choices among many options, completing tasks, shifting smoothly to new demands and returning to an interrupted task with a minimum of downtime and delay. Of course, faced with many choices and even more demands on our time, the ability to shift among tasks, sometimes known as multi-tasking, is a stern requirement. Working memory is a skill that varies greatly from person to person. It is measurably weaker in many, including those with schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, who have problems estimating the passage of time at the level of minutes and hours. The close association suggests that working memory and reliable time estimation are closely related.
“Time awareness has to be connected with being able to retain in one’s mind the things that are in progress and upcoming — and right there is the connection to working memory,” says Dr. Eric Saslow, a UCLA pediatric neurologist who works with patients with cognitive deficits and learning disabilities. “Until recently, people never thought of working memory as something that could be modified; they saw it as something more akin to hair color or eye color,” he added. But in recent years, neuroscientists have come to believe that working memory is a skill that can be taught and sharpened — with potentially broad benefits for everyday function. Several computer and video games on the market target working memory as if it were a muscle that can be strengthened with regular workouts.
You also could probably tone your working memory muscle for free by regularly challenging yourself to hold in mind short lists of things — shopping needs, to-do items, names of new acquaintances — for several hours, lengthening the list a bit as you get better. In a burgeoning field of brain-training programs, one developed by Dr. Torkel Klingberg of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute focuses on improving the performance of working memory specifically, and boasts clinical trial evidence of its effectiveness in doing so. Torkel’s Cogmed QM program has won growing support among clinicians in the U.S. as a treatment (either alone or as an adjunct to medication) for patients with ADHD and for those with stroke damage. More than 100 clinicians — including UCLA’s Saslow — now use it. But it is also marketed as a means of sharpening working memory in the healthy.
The five-week program, available as a software package through specially licensed psychologists and physicians, costs $1,500 to $2,000. It monitors a player’s performance level and pushes him or her to improve in each 40-minute session. An online brain-training program called Lumosity also has shown promise as a means of building working memory, as well as other cognitive skills that slip with age and illness. And UCLA neurologist Dr. Gary Small, author of “The Memory Bible” and of “iBrain,” teaches “memory Bootcamps” that help build and sustain working memory.
Break down tasks into smaller chunks
On average, studies find, we misestimate the passage of time by 15% to 20%, according to Buhusi. That means you might spend 48 minutes to 72 minutes completing a task you had estimated would take an hour. Breaking that task into six 10-minute segments should not, mathematically, cut your misestimate. But experts agree that even for people without attention disorders, it is easier to sustain focus for the duration of a shorter task than it is on a longer one. And that greater focus is likely to lead to efficiency.
Those who work with patients who have ADHD call this “chunking” tasks, and say it is a crucial strategy for time management, as well as for overcoming inertia and overload. Dr. Martin L. Kutscher, author of several books about living with ADHD and co-author of a forthcoming book titled “Organizing the Disorganized Child,” says that for many who struggle with time-management problems, it’s necessary to break down to-do lists into small, manageable increments and to map out a day — or at least a designated “work” portion of the day — in half-hour increments. It’s equally important to look back over one’s estimates for the completion of task chunks and gauge their accuracy, Kutscher says.
Work space should have not only a clock but also a kitchen timer, he says, to aid in that reality check. When such misestimates are corrected, tasks stand a better chance of getting done on time.
Pay attention to your body’s clock
Would you consider your rumbling stomach a reminder of a lunch meeting? Mightn’t that 4:30 p.m. energy trough signal it’s time for an invigorating walk around the block or hike up the stairs? Our internal rhythms can be powerful cues to keep us on track — if we listen to them, experts say. But sleep — one of circadian rhythm’s most insistent demands — may play the most important role in keeping us in charge of our time. Researchers have consistently found that getting sufficient rest — for most about eight hours nightly — makes sensory perception sharper, attention more focused, reaction time swifter, and time estimates more consistent.
Humans’ circadian rhythm ticks entirely separately from the internal clocks that influence our unconscious sense of “timing” or allow us to estimate the passage of minutes or hours. Patients with damage to their suprachiasmic nucleus — the region of the brain in which the circadian clock resides — can still count passing seconds and minutes and hear, see and respond to tiny time gaps that help us make sense of the world. But trying to cheat our internal clock — most notably out of adequate nighttime sleep — can wreak havoc on our ability to focus attention and engage in higher-order reasoning. Good timing, as well as accurate estimation of time’s passage, rely on both to work optimally.
Many of us who don’t jet across time zones and have never worked a swing shift nevertheless mess with our internal clocks every weekend. Those who stay up late and sleep in more than a couple of hours past their usual sleep schedules on weekends, Kutscher says, “reset their clocks over the course of the weekend . . . they give themselves jet lag.” As they return to the rigors of the workweek, “the first thing to go is executive function” — the self-control, attention and planning necessary to track and use time well.
Make time visual — go analog
Our omnipresent cellphones and pocket organizers all show the time. How, then, could we lose track of passing minutes and hours? Easily, says Kutscher, who treats the pathologically disorganized. The digital organizers so many of us carry can be the salvation of the forgetful and the time-challenged by reminding us of appointments, due dates and obligations, Kutscher says. Though they can be a key part of the self-help arsenal for those who lose track of time, they do little to make time management more accurate or realistic, or to see ahead more than a day or two. They are no substitute for a good old-fashioned analog clock or watch and a large multi-month calendar, he says.
“Time is a very ethereal, abstract issue, especially for people with attention problems,” Kutscher says. For these people, the visual image of, say, 15 minutes on an analog clock or watch is much more concrete than a static display of numbers on the face of a cellphone. Kutscher recommends that his patients rely on analog watches and kitchen timers for planning and monitoring task completion. He is a particular admirer of watches — marketed largely to those with disabilities — that on the same face presents the time and a task-timer that narrows down to zero.
The same principle of making time visual prompts Kutscher to recommend that in addition to their daybooks and electronic organizers, patients write their large-scale plans on maps that allow at least a whole month at a glance. Daybooks and electronic organizers are great at showing us the schedule for our day, but aren’t as good at letting us see and plan the separation of due dates, deadlines and staged-tasks — those involving complex preparation. “Anything you can do to make time physical helps,” Kutscher says.