make time work for you

If you behave like a doormat, you mustn't be surprised if people wipe their shoes on you

Time management has to be one of the most under-developed skills of modern Western man and woman. There seems to be an inverse correlation between the rise in average incomes and the time available to spend them: if you are poor and not in paid work, time can hang miserably heavy; if you are employed, particularly if you have dependent children or parents, the chances are that life feels like a video jammed on fast-forward.

Just because time is invisible and intangible, it should not be regarded as invincible. We experience time subjectively through our senses. Hypnosis and meditation cause time to stretch or shrink in our perceptions; daydreaming, or even just normal cognitive processing can do the same, depending on how we think - laterally, creatively, logically, or not at all. Clocks and watches help to structure the day, but their value is mainly symbolic. So as individuals we can stretch time, or at least our perception of it, by changing our attitudes and behaviour.

My watch stopped working four months ago. It may have been something to do with the fact that I had inadvertently left it in the pocket of my denim shirt, which then went into the washing machine. It had a great deal of sentimental value, and I resolved to replace it within days with an identical version so that the giver might not notice the loss. I failed to do so, and as time went on, I found that I did not miss any purpose it had seemed to serve.

My recently acquired self-employed status was probably the main reason for not missing the watch. I get up, take breakfast and newspaper back to bed, do some work, cycle to the gym, work out, then buy some food; come home, do a bit more work, connect with the wider world by phone, fax and e-mail, do some more work, go to bed. If I need to know what time it is, I look out of the window of my office-cum-spare bedroom up at the sky, and down at the pedestrian and motorised traffic. Its volume and character usually tell me what I need to know.

When I was an employee, most of my waking hours were spent in work, or work-related activity such as worrying about it. Self-employment has given me several extra hours a day because I no longer commute, so most days I have more time and energy to work and also to do more than simply work. As a result my mental clock now has slowed to a more "normal" and natural speed.

If you really want to create more time in your day, you will almost certainly find a way. You will do it by delegating, resisting temptation and generally sharpening up your act. If you behave in a business-like manner, people are more likely to find you a person with whom they wish to do business. That means they will be more inclined to respect you and to negotiate with you rather than just dump on you; your stock will have risen. If you behave like a doormat, you mustn't be surprised if people wipe their shoes on you.

You may have to spurn invitations to pubs and restaurants; to teach your children how to make their own sandwiches and flask of pop; to ask your spouse to take on more of the chores. You may find it useful to leave your credit card at home so that you are not seduced into wasteful and unjustified shopping, or expensive lunches with colleagues. Don't go near shops unless you know that you need to buy something. Friends, bosses and family may have to cope without your agreeable and accessible presence.

Master the art of saying "No" - always with a smile, of course - or if you cannot utter such a word, try "Maybe!" Failing that, change the subject.

Remark upon the dazzling nature of the other person's tie, dress or power suit, or egg-stain thereon. Flattery is a great diversionary tactic to deploy against anyone who is making excessive demands upon your time, particularly at work. It softens and dissolves over-assertiveness. It can wrongfoot or confuse the recipient of the compliment, thereby giving you valuable seconds to seize the initiative and explain gently and sweetly why your services are already more than oversubscribed; or make them laugh, which always makes people feel good. Bosses don't like upsetting people who make them feel good: there will almost certainly be plenty of other people in the office for them to pick on who don't fall into that category, and probably never will.

Don't automatically assume that you need an assertiveness training course. They can be incredibly intimidating and expensive. All you need is a mirror to try out the new confident you, and some trusted friends to practise on.

If your working environment is lousy, and your colleagues even lousier, cut your losses and find a more agreeable way of earning a crust. You can and will do it, if you resolve to do so. The point is this: it really is up to you how you spend time. Use it or abuse it as you will. It's yours for the giving, or the taking Judy Jones is co-author of `Getting a Life: The Downshifter's Guide to Happier Simpler Living', published by Hodder and Stoughton on 20 February, price pounds 9.99.

Tomorrow: How to take on the world.

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