This is a topic I’ve had floating around in my mind for a while, and it was brought to the forefront last week by my mother-in-law, of all people. She stayed with us for a few days to mind our toddler while we went away, and I couldn’t help but notice that she did multiple tasks around the house that have spent days or weeks – even months – on my to-do list.

I often use my son as an excuse for not getting things done, because being a mother to a toddler is very time-consuming. But clearly, that doesn’t fly. My MIL managed to not only keep him fed and happy during his first 24 hours without me, but she weeded the garden, planted herbs, moved potted plants into more or less sunlight, tidied and cleaned areas of the house, repaired items that required stitching, did some washing, and drying, and the folding…

Now, she is renowned for being a go-getter, so it wasn’t surprising that she managed to get so much done in a short time while looking after a little human. But it did get me thinking: is my inability to tick off my to-do list an issue of poor time management? Could I get more done if I reprioritise and put my mind to it? What would happen if I made a conscious decision to spend my time more wisely?

The concept of time investment

We can’t escape the fact that time is limited; we can’t get it back. Business owners know that time is money. And parents know that time is precious. But as the saying goes…

we all have the same number of hours in our day as Beyoncé.

While many would argue that we don’t all have the same resources as a multi-millionaire, the idea is that we have the potential to achieve stardom if we use our time right.

I listened to a great podcast for freelancers about time-saving tips with Kate Christie from Time Stylers. Kate chatted about looking at the use of time as an investment, rather than your minutes being something you must manage. Kate’s theory is that we invest our money for the greatest returns, so why not our time as well? And she suggests considering why you are doing something in terms of the value it brings – or doesn’t bring – through specific costs lenses:

Financial cost – especially as a freelancer but also as an employee or a business owner, think about the financial cost of a task in terms of your hourly rate. When you apply your hourly rate to whatever you’re doing, ask if that task is worth it. Kate had a great example where she took an hourly rate of $50 and applied it to the task of scrolling through Facebook for an hour a day. Over a year, that’s a total of $18,250 of your time. Worth it?

Opportunity cost – with limited time in our day, we can only do so much. We know this and often write to-do lists to try to prioritise our tasks. But the inevitable happens. So, if you’re doing something mindless, again like scrolling through Facebook, consider what else you could be doing with this time and if that opportunity is more worthwhile.

Emotional cost – this is about the feelings you get from, or about, doing a task. Does gardening make your heart sing? Great! Does the thought of ironing make you want to curl up and cry? Not so great, but at least you get a sense for the emotional cost of the task. The emotional cost can be an important consideration for parents who have to make decisions about being with their kids or doing other things (a post for another time, I think).

Physical cost – this one might seem straight-forward – does a task aid or hinder your physical health? But there is more to it. Apart from the obvious physical effects of some tasks, like sore knees from kneeling in the garden, or RSI from (you guessed it) scrolling through Facebook, some tasks can take a toll on mental health, but the connection isn’t always easy to spot. And some responses can manifest in ways that aren’t immediately identifiable, such as the physical reactions to stress and anxiety.

Value time like money

Kate summed up her reasoning behind changing our mindset from time management to time investment like this:

“We consciously approach the growing of our wealth with an investment attitude. You’re going to put money in the bank that has the highest interest rate. You’re going to borrow money for your mortgage at the lowest interest rate. You set yourself financial goals, and budgets and have discussions around investing our money for the greatest possible return. That’s the way we have to start thinking about our time. It needs to be invested for the greatest possible return, not managed.”

Invest my way to time wealth

Because I work freelance, have an hourly rate and need to ensure I’m getting the most out of my minutes, I’m going to give the cost lenses a go. I’ve written them on a post-it and stuck it above my computer. Next time I’m aimlessly scrolling through Facebook, I’ll consider if it is the best investment of my time. Sometimes it might just be, but chances are it’s not worth it / there’s a better option / I don’t need the emotional rollercoaster of my feed / my thumb needs a break.