Peter Cohan: A nation of time wasters

Peter Cohen  
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There are never enough hours in the day are there? Life just seems to be moving at a faster pace than ever before and we have a hard time finding the space in our daily diaries to get everything done. Or do we?

Juggling work, kids and finding some time to relax and unwind without having to rush off shopping seems an impossible task. And when we do get those precious moments to ourselves, new research suggests that it's not a question of a lack of time to do anything, just that we don't make the best use of the seconds, minutes and hours we have available.

A third of us waste time every day – staying in bed, slumping in front of the telly or just sitting around staring at the ceiling and have no idea what to do when the pressure's off. Unsurprisingly, if given the choice of an extra day to themselves, one in ten women would spend it being pampered with beauty products while the guys would head to the gym, to tone those pecs and build up that perfect body. Being fitter, healthier and more attractive are what we all aspire to, but sadly it doesn't happen without some effort being put in – and effort means time, which we don't have.

Pete Cohen, the UK's top lifestyle coach – answers all your questions about getting a grip on time and wrestling back control of your life.


Host: Murray Norton (MN)

Panelists: Pete Cohen (PC)

MN: Hello and welcome to webchats - very good of you to join us. How many times have you heard the phrase 'There are just not enough hours in the day - I wish I had more time'? Apparently we all wish that we had more time. However, having said that, with 70% of us wishing we had more time, we don't even take all our annual leave - at least one in five of us don't anyway. So what do we say to you? 'You're a bunch of time-wasters' that's what we say! I'm joined by the life coach guru himself which is Pete Cohen. Pete - good to have you with us, thanks for joining us.

MN: What is all this moaning about time?

PC: I think we just love to moan. I think we're a nation that loves to focus on what's wrong or what's missing and now we've got something else to moan about which is time. There is some good reason for people to moan about it because we all seem to be in such a rush and the pace of life is so quick that people feel there's not even enough time to take a deep breath.

MN: Lots of people feeling this way and indeed if you're one of those people who feels that way. Some interesting facts and figures came out of the Vodafone survey done recently, which really highlighted the fact that people are feeling snowed under by so many things to do and not enough time to do them. And yet at the same time it's proving that we do tend to waste a lot of our time not doing things - slumped in front of the telly, lounging around in bed. Nice to be able to do that every now and then but we're not doing the things we should be doing.

PC: We're not using our time particularly well. It's estimated that we actually work less amount of hours than we did 20 years ago. The fact is, perhaps we're not working as many hours but people feel more and more pressure. The amount of people aren't taking their lunch hour, people who aren't taking all of their annual leave - it's quite bizarre. We want more time on one side but on the other side people aren't taking a lot of the time that's available to them.

MN: Is it a priority thing?

PC: I think it has a lot to do with fear. I think a lot of people are frightened that they might lose their jobs or frightened about what the boss might think if they do take all of their holiday or they do take a lunch hour. Because you know we are frightened that we might lose our jobs. Fear is very prevalent in society today.

MN: So it's that fear that we've got to keep on working, we've got to show that we're working hard.

PC: Yes, we've got to show that we're good enough. Because I think a lot of people don't actually think they are good enough, people think there's something wrong with them but if they're good at their job maybe it actually justifies their existence.

MN: We'll talk about balance and balance between work and play in a minute. Pankash wants to know: what's your belief in time?

PC: A lot of scientists have battled with that question. When you say time is relative I don't know exactly what that means. What I do know about time is that it's a funny old thing. One moment you could go into a bank and you could be in the queue and one minute seems like an hour. The other side of it is that you could be at a party having a great time and you're talking away, really enjoying yourself and the next thing you know someone asks you the time and it's 2pm and you thought only 10 minutes had gone past. It's amazing the different experiences people have with time.

MN: Hopefully Pankash that answers your question. Let's talk about time for people who've got children, who've got a job. Harriet is certainly someone like that. She's got two children, she works full-time. Her friends all seem to manage having a social life along with a career - how on earth do they manage it? I mean there are a lot of people that will feel like that and probably they feel like everyone else is managing it but they're not.

PC: Yes, because we often compare ourselves to others - it's a very common trait in today's society. We always think 'what are the Jones' doing' we've got to try and do what they're doing. A lot of mothers think they've got to be the best mother they can be and often put themselves under a lot of pressure and I think it's really important for parents to sometimes enter into the world of their children. You know, children love to play and parents often get stressed when their children are making a loud noise. It's funny how often parents will go to their children 'shush - be quiet' and often very young children are just expressing themselves. Often if they hear that enough children will eventually learn to be quiet because that's what they keep being told to do.

MN: So they turn out as very subservient adults that don't actually like shouting very much.

PC: Well they don't like speaking their mind. And one of the things, which may be easier said than done, but would make their lives easier, is to enter into the world of their children because the world of children can be quite magical.

MN: I suspect for Harriet though, who sent the question in, it must be very difficult for her. She's got a social life, she's got the kids, she's a full-time mum... It's about being organised, is that fair?

PC: I think, possibly organising but I think what's more prevalent in today's world is that when people are doing things they're not really doing them - they're doing two things at once. They're worried about whether they're doing the right thing or they're thinking about what they're doing later on. People have the experience of having more time when they tend to be actually 'in the moment' of what they're doing. In fact, perhaps if you get the chance this evening, there's a Vodafone advert on during Coronation Street and it's a 1 minute advert about the life of the Mayfly, which is a fly that only lives for 24 hours. If we only had 24 hours to live you can imagine what we would probably do. We'd probably have as much fun as we possibly could. If an obstacle came our way we'd just find a way to go through it as quickly as possible. Most of us don't live our life like that, we let things get on top of us rather than always looking for a solution or looking to enjoy life as best as we possibly can.

MN: It's about living in the now really isn't it? It really is the now time isn't it?

PC: Living in the now is really what life is all about. If you were to ask people what some of the greatest moments in their lives were, they'd probably all tell you the same thing - the common theme is that they were just 'there'. Whether that was watching the sunrise or the face of their children, it's about being in the now. It's difficult to do that because our minds these days tend to work at a million miles per hour. So many of us are in the past, we're in the future - we're never really here.

MN: Lots of people trying to manage their lives and sending us their comments at the moment. Please keep them coming in. Jessica is one of those who have done that. She's got loads of friends and she gets home from work and she's too exhausted to contact these friends. Just managing a social life when you've got a lot of friends can be quite a difficult thing. Jessica's obviously finding that as well. She doesn't want her friends to feel like she's forgotten them - how is she going to please all of these friends and still manage the sort of hours she's got without being too exhausted?

PC: Technology has really advanced a lot over recent years - it wasn't that long ago we were saying 'in years to come we'll be able to press a button and we'll be able to see someone and talk to them and send them messages...'

MN: It was a bit Star Trek wasn't it?

PC: It was very Star Trek but that time is upon us now and it is possible for people to use technology in a better way. If people feel like they haven't got time to speak to people, I would say one half hour or hour a week, make all those phone calls if you want to keep in contact with people. Make use of what we call dead time. You know the average British adult spends 26 hours a week watching television and we say we haven't got time. Well we've got time to sit down and watch the TV, I'm sure we've also got time to do the other things that we want to do but sometimes we've got to get out of our comfort zones and be prepared to do things a little bit differently.

MN: I suppose those down times are the times that we really should be using and again it's standing in the bank queue (maybe not the best time to make a phone call) but probably on the train or on the journeys, with Bluetooth and hands free you can do all these things whilst you're doing something else almost.

PC: A classic example is, a boyfriend might be travelling on the bus and he can't wait to get home to get the football scores. Well now you can download them to your phone, you can probably even watch some of the goals on your phone. So that's done, you can go home and actually be with your partner.

MN: And not be concerned about 'I've got to switch the telly on and find this out'

PC: Yes, that can be really off-putting to people and often you know one of the things women like is to feel needed and men like to feel important. If a man comes home and he's doing something else, then the woman doesn't feel needed. We can use technology to our advantage.

MN: Okay, so it's about using the technology. One thing that people will say is that it's the technology that's getting in the way of me having enough time. Is that because they're not using it effectively?

PC: Most definitely. You can give people something and they'll use it to extremes but it's about finding a balance, it's about making the best out of things that are available to them. Like the ability to use your computer anywhere you are and have these things where you can go online anywhere - that's there to help you. It doesn't mean you have to take it on holiday and use it every single second of the day. Finding a balance with everything - moderation in everything, including moderation! It's just a tough thing.

MN: Well, yes, it's a difficult thing to balance out. Just talking about that - this work/life balance/time. I'm guessing as a life coach that you get more questions about that, more problems that you have to solve about that, than anything else?

PC: In this Vodafone study, one of the bigger statistics is 80% of people said they admire people who have a good work/life balance. We all want it, because our lives are out of balance. We tend to live life in extremes. I'm often doing work with people or in organisations because the organisation knows that people are out of balance and they know that when people are out of balance they're not being as prolific and they're not performing as well as they possibly can.

MN: Good question that's come in from Helen. She manages to balance her work time and the time to tidy up the flat and keep it tidy, but her flatmate (he) doesn't seem to manage his time very well and doesn't get round to his share of the chores. Maybe he's trying to duck out of it but his excuse is that he doesn't have enough time. Obviously he's not managing his time very well - how does Helen explain to him how to manage his time better?

PC: Well Helen, one of the things that maybe you need to know, which you probably know already, is that women tend to be very good at multi-tasking - they tend to be good at doing a number of different things at any given moment. And the reason why women are good at that - I think it's a part of our genes if you like. When we were living in caves thousands of years ago, women would probably be cooking, looking after the children, there might be the threat of attack, so they had to be good at focusing on any number of things whereas men tended to be good at focusing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else.

MN: So when we want the football results and we're just focusing on that, it's just one example of that?

PC: Yes. What she could do is give him one job, and perhaps make it the most difficult job of all. You never know - give him one thing to do and he might do it. Give him loads of things to do and he might just think 'oh, that's too much - I'll do it tomorrow'.

MN: It's that whole 'I've got too many things to do so I won't do any of them' thing.

PC: Yes, and it's something that a lot of people have - they feel overwhelmed by the amount of things they have to do so they don't do anything. Some people on the other hand feel they've so many things to do, that they do all of them.

MN: Is the pressure on you, as a life coach, to be perfectly organised at all times?

PC: Yes, it's finding a balance. I think the hardest thing in life is to take care of yourself. I've spent most of my life, well, my working life, looking out for others. If you do that, you tend to go to the back of the queue. What I've had to learn over recent years is that if you really want to be effective in anything you do - take care of yourself. Because when you feel good, you can often help people, just by doing nothing.

MN: Okay, so it's time for you just to look out for yourself - for some priority time for yourself?

PC: Yes. You know, we're not brought up to be selfish but it's important for people to look after themselves because no-one's ever going to look after you, really, the way you can look after yourself.

MN: And I suppose it's the old - when you're on the plane and the oxygen mask comes down - fit your own first before trying to fit anyone else's?

PC: Exactly - otherwise you're going to be useless.

MN: Good question from Ingrid - she wants to know: She's a working mum, it's half-term, should she spend some of her spare time to herself or should she share it with the kids. Here we go, this is it - sometimes you need to be a bit selfish in order to be selfless. She feels guilty at the moment, spending 30 minutes logged on to this and asking the question! A lot of guilt comes in doesn't it, about spending time for yourself?

PC: Guilt is a very common thing which a lot of people have. It's a waste of time. If people added up the amount of time in a day they spend feeling guilty or anxious or stressed, for a lot of people it's a very large amount of time and one of the questions people need to ask themselves if they want to change is 'what are you going to do instead if you're not doing that, because you're going to have a lot of time on your hands?' As far as kids go, you know your kids aren't going to be kids forever. Before you know it they'll be grown and up and they'll be gone. So I suggest while your kids are there, and it's half-term, spend as much time as you can with them, enjoying being in their little world. People love surprises and spontaneity and sometimes it's difficult for children to be as spontaneous as they'd like to be whereas parents can show their children that the world is still a magical place.

MN: So the advice there I think is: spend some time with the kids and don't feel guilty about it. Enjoy it - embrace it.

PC: If you are going to feel guilty about it, just enjoy feeling guilty or just don't bother - do something else, feel good.

MN: Michael Jones-Leek with a question: some top tips for maximising the time that you have available, other than reducing the hours that you sleep? He just doesn't seem to be able to fit it all in. A lot of people do this don't they - cheat on the sleep?

PC: Sleep is really important and research has shown that the hours between 10 and 2 are the most productive times for people to sleep. If you put a whole lot of people on a desert island what you'd probably find after a short period of time is that people would go to sleep when the sun goes down. That's when our bodies naturally regenerate. Getting good quality sleep is very important, as opposed to perhaps not sleeping very deeply. So I'd always plan to make sure that you get plenty of sleep. It sounds very obvious but prioritising your life, thinking about the things that are most important to you - make sure you focus on those things.

MN: So, don't cut back on the sleep - any other top tips for saving time?

PC: Well I think, again with technology you know, you can use dead time to get all your emails done, make all your phone calls, and maybe put lots of time aside to do the things you really enjoy.

MN: Talking about lack of sleep, there's a great question that has come in here. This is from Barry in Walthamstow. He says "I find myself lying in bed at night worrying about all the things that I haven't done. Should I get up earlier, or rest more to feel more energised? Should I get up there and then to do those things?"

PC: Well you know it's a funny thing. A lot of people have that thing where they can't sleep and it's because they're going over and over things in their head - they're not in the now. They're thinking about what they did today, and whether it was enough and it just goes on and on, a million miles a minute, a million thoughts a second. If you were trying to go to sleep and you heard this voice outside going 'what are we doing tomorrow, we're doing this, we're doing that, blab la bla' you probably couldn't sleep. But we can control that voice, and one of the things we can do is slow that voice down. So you hear the voice in your head at a much slower pace. It's amazing what you can do. People waste so much time talking inside their own head. You know they say the first sign of madness is talking to yourself. Well if that's the case every single one of us should be locked up because we're always talking to ourselves! But we can shut that voice up.

MN: I'm guessing that the other thing we can do, and I've done this, you can write yourself a little memo or send yourself an e-mail, so it's there for you tomorrow and you can get it out of your brain now - is that a way round it?

PC: That's one of the things I do, I will make notes to myself, on my phone, to remind myself to do things. Because otherwise I forget. To be honest with you, the older I get the more I forget things. And then I worry about what I've forgotten because I think it was something important. I'm not the best person with time management but I appreciate that if I manage my time better then there's more time for me to do more of the things I want to do.

MN: Okay, so it's making some more of that time. Let's talk about the technology. Peter has just send a question: he spends a lot at work, including weekends and he's not even getting the chance for a lunch break some of the time. Should he tell his boss that he's working too many hours and he's having to come in at the weekend just to catch up or should he slog on and try and cope with it?

PC: It sounds like he's not coping with it. It's really easy for me to say what he should do. The danger is that he turns up to his boss and says 'look - I need to take my lunch hour' and the boss says 'no - you're off'. You need to be careful but the key is for someone like himself, to think 'when am I most prolific, when am I at my best?' Because most of us are at our best when we have time to switch off from what we do. That's one of the reasons people smoke. They're so busy working working working, then they say 'I really need a break' and then they go outside for a cigarette and they forget work just for a moment because they've taken a deep breath. I'm not advocating cigarettes, because there are 2000 toxic chemicals in every cigarette. Cigarettes don't relax people - breathing deeply does. So, if you're not going to get a lunch hour, you can go out for 5 minutes. You know, move your body around, and take some deep breaths. Change your physiology, it changes your psychology. No rocket science.

MN: Take some small little breaks often.

PC: Yeah. If you've got a problem taking a lunch hour, get up every hour and take a walk for 5 minutes. Clear the air, get some fresh air.

MN: Lots of questions coming in which are all to do with technology. I guessed we'd get to technology because people blame technology and people thank technology for losing them time or gaining them time. Where do you stand on this?

PC: Technology is wonderful the way it's moved. I think e-mail is wonderful, mobile technology is fantastic - they way you can send someone a text message from the other side of the world. The fact that you don't want to speak to someone and you can send them a message. The fact that when your phone rings you can see who it is and if you think you don't want to speak to them, you can turn it off. With everything in life there's a positive and a negative. It's finding balance with that thing. Just like people have a problem with finding balance in their work, people struggle to find a balance with technology. But you know - use it. People probably don't even know how much more they can get out of their technology.

MN: We've actually got some of the technology in front of us. The latest phones from Vodafone. You can see people in this, you can talk face to face, and you can do the whole thing.

PC: With this, for example, with the new 3G capability, you can be a mother or a father and you're working away and your kids can be going to bed at night and you can look at them and they can see you. That makes a big difference I think. You're not there but it's like you're there in some way and that's just one thing that you can do.

MN: That's one way of using technology. Jason has two questions: "Hi Pete - do you think our lives are getting increasingly more stressful and if so, do you not think technology will hinder our ability to relax and put our daily chores of the office behind us?"

PC: Again it's a double-edged sword isn't it? It depends whichever way you want to look at it. You have the ability now to take your work with you wherever you go. Of course managing that is a challenge isn't it? You can have your office at home. These Blackberries are brilliant - you can have your emails sent to you without having to go online. You can keep on top of things. But it's finding balance with all these things because the danger is that you never turn it off!

MN: Ah, that's the other side of the coin isn't it?

PC: That's about some form of self-discipline. We talk about being spontaneous, and this Vodafone study shows that people like the idea of being spontaneous but with your mobile phone now you could be spontaneous to go online and send your girlfriend some flowers or book tickets for the cinema.

MN: And you can do that while you're commuting can't you?

PC: It's a wonderful thing but it's a question of how you use it. The fact is, technology is here to stay. We've got to learn how to use it to our advantage as opposed to having our lives ruled by it.

MN: If on the other hand you're on a romantic weekend break to New York and you've got this thing out for an hour, checking up on the office emails, that's out of balance isn't it?

PC: Whether we like it or not, we all need balance. We all need time to rest, to switch off. That's what human beings rejuvenate from. Football players don't play 12 months of the year - they need time off so they can come back to it refreshed. Sometimes it's best to go away from work, leave it behind so you can come back to it fresh otherwise you come back and you've never left it, because you took it away with you. Every day you were on the phone, checking your emails… Use things to your advantage, always look for balance. Moderation is the key.

MN: So it's about using this at the right time, it's about making sure you switch it off at the right time too. S.C. wants to know: "the Blackberry or the 'Crackberry' means we can't escape emails wherever we go. I can't stop myself checking them, even on holiday. Is technology a help or a hindrance?" It's the same question over and over again.

PC: Human beings all have the capability to be slightly obsessive-compulsive. I remember Jim Carey the comedian saying we're only ever one moment away from madness. You could be shaving and stick your tongue out and shave your tongue off. We all have the ability to go too far with everything. It's a question of 'are we going to let our emotions get the better of us?' It's our emotions, it's the voice in our head going 'got to check it got to check it, we've got to stay on top of things' all the time. And then the brain doesn't know that's right or that's wrong - it does what we've programmed it to do. And we need to possibly change our programme so we do things in a different way.

MN: The second question from Jason, which I think is a very, very interesting question, is: "Given the choice - more holiday time or more cash?"

PC: You know I've done a lot of work on happiness and what makes people happy, I designed this equation which was broadcast in 27 countries around the world. Before it came out we were looking at what makes people happy and we interviewed lots of people who were millionaires and what came out was that lots of people who were millionaires weren't happy and some of them even had so much money they didn't know what to do with it. It's not necessarily having money which gives a better quality of life. Often what people say gives a better quality of life is having the time to do the things they enjoy. And it's the doing that they enjoy. It's not having a bigger house or more cars that makes people happy, it's what they do with their time.

MN: Having said that, the clocks are going back shortly; it's almost as if we get less time. We don't, we just get more darker time.

PC: People live their life by the clock. I suppose to a certain extent we have to with work, some people have to be at work at a certain time, they have to leave at a certain time. They have to pick up the kids at a certain time. Try doing the opposite some time. Taking your watch off, if that's possible and not living by the clock. Living in the moment, living in the now.

MN: It's interesting because that particular subject has come up in a question from Marcus Hamilton-Mills. He wants to know, with the fewer daylight hours over the winter, are there any tips for making the most of the daylight hours? You can't get out in the garden when you get home from work for example. It's almost like you have to shuffle your life around in a way, to make sure you fit those things in.

PC: Well you have to adapt. The reason human beings are still here is that we have adapted. You can't stop change - whether you like it or not winter is upon us so we have to adapt. You can moan and you can say 'oh I need sun and my life's terrible…' Nothing's ever going to stay the same and the key to enjoying life is to enjoy the changes because nothing ever stays the same. It's like with phones - this phone isn't going to stay the same - before you know it there'll be another one that does things even better. Just enjoy what's going on in the moment, enjoy life.

MN: The last question is from Louise from Henley. She wants to know: "I enjoy doing various activities outside of work including a voluntary job, but I find it impossible to say no to people when they ask of my time" How on earth do you say no to people nicely? Because they'll probably feel you're being a bit off-ish.

PC: I can't speak for Louisa because I don't know her, but what I do find is that a lot of people feel like they're walking through a field and loads of balls are being thrown at them and they have to try and catch everything rather than choosing what it is you choose to do, rather than trying to do too much. Because often if you do too much you never do a great job of what you're doing and there's never any time for you. So it's really important to prioritise. My Dad has always said "if you're going to do a job, do it properly or don't bother doing it at all" and that still stands. A lot of people don't want to say no because they're afraid of letting people down. They think 'if I say yes to them and yes to them and yes to them - maybe they'll like me'. But even when we do lots of things for people, often we still feel that void, like there's something missing. Don't do things for other people, do them for yourself.

MN: Louisa I hope that answers your question. Do things for yourself and don't feel guilty about it. I said last question but we've just got one more and George wants to know - if you had 3 top tips for time management, what would they be?

PC: I suppose the first one has got to be prioritise. If your time is taken up with lots of things, put some time aside each week for yourself. The second tip is try and enjoy what it is you're doing. Whatever it is, even if it's the most mundane thing like ironing or washing. There's a book called 'Zen and the art of ironing' or something, it's all about how to get lost in what you're doing. The third thing is, don't give yourself a hard time if you don't meet all of your expectations - just do whatever you can.

MN: Hopefully that's made people feel a lot more relaxed. Hopefully you didn't feel guilty about spending the last 30 minutes with us - thank you very much indeed for doing so. You mentioned an advert earlier on and you said this really epitomises everything we've been talking about?

PC: I saw the advert today and I'm not a great fan of adverts - I've got SkyPlus and I cut them out, but I saw this advert and I suggest that if people get a chance tonight, watch it in the adverts of Coronation Street. It's 1 minute long and it's all about the life of the Mayfly which is this fly which only lives for 24 hours. I think if we only lived for 24 hours we wouldn't waste our time thinking about time management, we've got to do this or we've got to do that, we'd just look to have as much fun as possible. So if people get a chance tonight to watch it - check it out.

MN: Pete - thank you very much for managing the last 30 minutes with me. It's been a great pleasure. Thank you very much for joining us on webchats. May you manage your time as well as you can and live in the now, and we'll see you next time on webchats.

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