Human beings own, use and lose many things such as money, power and knowledge. But we can earn money again after losing it, lose and then regain power, forget some information and then re-learn it. Time is different. It has the unique characteristic that we are given each portion of it only once. To use it well requires the precision of a master-jeweller, the care of a loving mother and the will-power of a courageous warrior. Properly made use of time may earn us happiness in both worlds: squandered, time can gather for us stress, failure and regret.
In one of his sayings, Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace. pointed to the human tendency to forget the value of things we possess. He said:
‘There are two blessings which many people lose: Health and free time for doing good’ (Canan. 1988). And in the Qur’an (70.19) God declares that man has an impatient nature. Starting from this guidance, and informed also by contemporary scientific observations, we can identify four fundamentals as the basis for any successful time management scheme.
Just as a roof and walls can only work if built on secure foundations, so also techniques for time management work only if the individual understands and implements these fundamentals. Otherwise, they either do not work at all, or not for very long.
The opening of the Quranic chapter ‘Time’ teaches the value of time most eloquently. God swears by the passing of time that human beings are in a state of loss because we are continuously spending from a treasure given to us only once. This realization is the first step towards time-consciousness. Time consciousness is being sufficiently aware that lime is the stream in which all our struggles for achievement take place. Without time, no other resource can he put into use for gain, regardless of how vast it may be. Once this realization occurs, we can begin to take the necessary steps to utilize time as a wise investment.
The first of those steps involves carefully analysis of how we are currently using our time and what we hope to achieve in our ‘life’ time. Organization and planning provide the road-map for successful time management. Two important terms in this context are effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness is to do the right (i.e. productive. useful) things: whereas efficiency is to do things in the right way (i.e. expediently. economically) (Covey. 1994). To plan for effectiveness as well as efficiency, we must hear in mind certain traits of human nature. First of all, we should realize that, from an efficiency perspective, no two time periods are the same. The same person can be more or less efficient depending on his state of body, mind and consciousness as well as external factors. The road to increased efficiency passes through increased effectiveness combined with the techniques of time management. The reverse is to try to increase efficiency without paying attention to the big picture that is, our life goals and the principles which guide us.
Another important human trait is our sense of urgency and the corresponding tendency to attend promptly to any situation marked ‘urgent’. Unfortunately we often respond with urgency to work-related pressures but fail to recognize any urgent mark on our spiritual and moral self-development. By assigning an urgent mark to such important issues, we can put our sense of urgency to good long-term use (Hobbs. 1987).
Finally, we should develop our will- power for the implementation of time management principles. Gaining control of our lives requires that we take responsibility for our actions. Ultimately, each individual decides on whether to make use of valuable time or to let it be wasted. We have a tremendous freedom of choice where time is concerned. It is up to us to use it wisely.
When time management is mentioned, some people are quick to respond dismissively saying: ‘Time management is for those who have the freedom to plan their time.’ or ‘My schedule is filled with things over which I have no control’. But we can test the legitimacy of these claims by asking: I) How many hours do we spend in front of the TV each week? 2) Do we regularly sleep past sunrise? 3) How much time do we usually spend eating? 4) How do we utilize ‘spare’ time while waiting for appointments or public transport or stuck in traffic? 5) How much time do we spend in idle conversation’?
Honest answers to such questions may reveal that many of us indeed have a hidden treasury of time in our daily lives which we do not make the most of.
Although not everyone may be as free to plan their time, everyone can make better use of whatever they have. Some of the methods we will discuss for effective use of time are new concepts, while some are based on age old wisdom. We will also emphasize the elements of lifestyle which were exemplified 1400 years ago by Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and later found to be very effective from a time management perspective.
Psycho-biologist E. L. Rossi explains in 20 Minute Break (1991) that humans have 90-120 minute cycles forming what is called an ‘ultradian rhythm’ which most of our key mind-body systems follow. At the end of each period, our mind-body sends us signals (such as yawning, day-dreaming, loss of concentration, diminished energy, performance errors, memory problems, hunger and emotional swings) which indicate that we need a break. Often however, we ignore these signals and push ourselves to continue working. If we ignore these signals for long the results are stress, fatigue and a host of psychosomatic illnesses. When these signals occur, we should take a 15 to 20 minute break to change the nature of our activity. Washing the hands and face, or doing light exercise is helpful. Also, closing the eyes for a time closes the source of the largest data input to brain. For the Muslim, prayer provides a great opportunity. During wudu (the washing in preparation for prayer) and prayer attention is focused on God’s presence, which, along with the rhythmic body movements of the prayer promotes relaxation.
Many successful people, inventors, businessmen, scholars, have managed to fit many lives’ work into a single life-time. The vast majority of successful people rarely sleep past dawn. They know the value of being awake and doing work especially during the hours around dawn. Physiologists point to the same fact in connection with the bio-rhythms of the human body. Certain hormones are secreted periodically during more or less fixed parts of the day. Hormones like cortisol, which give the body high awareness and focusing power, are secreted during early morning hours (Chafetz. 1994). Studies suggest this is the best time of the day for planning and organization, and for generating new ideas and tackling conceptually difficult problems. This period is also best for fast acquisition of new facts or information. When coupled with repetitions during afternoon, memorization of these new facts in the hours around sunrise is most effective.
Many famous thinkers are known to have slept briefly at noon. This response to the body’s natural need for a short break boosts mental and physical performance significantly in the afternoon. Eating a heavy lunch and trying to suppress bodily signals with coffee has the opposite effect. Ultradian rhythm-conscious companies set aside special rooms for their employees to take a short nap. It is interesting to note that a noon nap was also one of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace (Canan, 1988). Experts advise us to avoid boring tasks during this period. If one is unable to focus or do useful mental work, one should concentrate on physical/spatial tasks instead.
Mental alertness which is at its lowest point around noon and early afternoon, rises again during late afternoon and early evening.
Studies indicate this is the best period for long term memorization. Students with work which requires memorization should plan their study time accordingly. Body temperature is at its highest between 5 and 7 p.m. This means that this period (1 is the best time of day for physical exercise. Aside from improving one’s general health, doing physical exercise also helps those with sleeping problems. The period after 7 p.m. is effective for mental work. This period lasts about three hours and, unless adversely affected by a heavy dinner, the mind usually stays pretty alert at this time.
Poet and scholar Ibrahim Hakki of Erzurum in Turkey writes in his poem. The Nights’: O eye! Why sleep’? Let’s wake up at night. Observe the beautiful stars at night.’
Nights provide the best period for uninterrupted thinking and reflection which connects the creature with he Creator. Reflection helps us refresh our understanding of the purpose behind our life and plan accordingly.
Night-time is also interesting from a physiological standpoint. From approximately I to 3 a.m. hormones that slow down the body processes are secreted. During sleep, the brain rehashes the matters it had been exposed to during the day and especially those which occurred just before sleep (Chafetz. 1992). Hence, sound advice for those who want to live a disciplined Iife is to read or think about things that will help to shape the future before going sleep.
Said Nursi said: ‘If people do not have goals, or if they behave as if there were none, then their ego takes over. They become selfish and self-centred, feeling that the world revolves only around them.’ Modern research confirms that people who have goals in their personal, family, business and social lives and organize themselves around these goals are more successful (Hohhs.1987). Writing down these goals and ordering them according to importance helps in their realization.
Delegation is among the most important skills busy people need. Assigning jobs to qualified people rather than doing them ourselves is the first step. Although this seems simple it involves suppressing one’s inner urge to say, I can do this better’. For delegation to succeed, the person to whom the job is delegated should be chosen very carefully, qualified and eager to do the job, and he or she should be provided with the necessary resources to complete the job (ibid.).
Rigidity is one of the most common errors in planning (ibid.). There are many factors in our lives over which we have no control. In every plan there should be room for unexpected events. Flexible empty slots should be left between any two scheduled activities. If one ends later than expected or the other starts earlier than expected the plan will not be disrupted. By doing small ‘floating’ tasks (such as reading), one can effectively fill unexpected gaps.
Also, projects which are too large to handle in a single session should he divided into sub-projects. Otherwise, despite their importance, such large projects are likely to remain on the ‘to-do’ list longer than they should.
Have you ever wondered how some people manage to he on time for every appointment’? Or how do some students manage to catch every class and deliver every assignment on time’? People who achieve this goal have a simple principle: ‘To be on time, try to be in time.’ In other words, finish work before its due date and arrive early for appointments. Being on schedule has additional benefits as well. Fulfilling a responsibility satisfies our inner conscience. This leads to further effectiveness in using time because our trust in ourselves is strengthened. A positive outcome encourages us to achieve more.
‘Bring yourselves to account before you are brought to give account’. This reminder to review our daily activities and assess how we made use of our time is advice on how to achieve success in the life hereafter, as well as a foundation of an important time management principle. We should ask ourselves the question: ‘Did I spend the gift of time that was given to me in a responsible manner?’
If people check themselves regularly with this question, they will not have unorganized lives. A technique suggested in this regard is to keep a ‘classified’ activity-log (ibid.). In such a log, the time spent on every activity is recorded along with the type of activity and its importance. By logging time spent watching a nonsense movie, or chatting hours on an irrelevant topic, we become more aware of how time can he squandered for no benefit. It is important to distinguish activities which may be classified under ‘leisure’ hut are little more than a waste of time, money and energy, and the different class of leisure time spent for some benefit which is real enough hut hard to define. For instance, spending time with one’s family members or visiting a good friend are entertaining and important, as such activity helps to build and sustain relationships.
Another litmus test to help keep priorities in check is: ‘Do I need this or don’t want it?’ By not acting spontaneously when the mood strikes, hut rather following a carefully thought out plan, we can save time that would have been spent in unnecessary activity. For example, by analyzing whether to go shopping or not, we save the time it would have taken to travel to the store(s), the time it would involve to make the decision on which item to purchase and of course, money.  Along these same lines, like any other device. TV can be used both for good or had. It is important to carefully evaluate our purpose in watching and programmes should be selected carefully. TV can control those who do not control the on/off button.
Ebu’l Vefa Ali Ibnu Akil, an Islamic scholar said: ‘I try my best to shorten the time I spend on eating. For instance, I prefer ground tirit (a kind of baked food) to bread because the former takes less time to chew, In this manner I can allocate more time for study and writing’ (Canan. 1985). By eating less we gain in many ways. We save time in meal preparation and in the time it takes to eat. We also save or rescue the time which is usually spent inefficiently after a heavy meal. Since blood-flow concentrates around the digestive system after the meal, the brain gets less blood, so mental activities suffer. The signs of sleep after a heavy meal are an indication that the brain is not getting what it needs, so it tends to minimize its activities. A guiding principle for eating more moderately is ‘to stop eating before we feel full’, according to the Prophetic saying.
Concentration is key to efficient study and work. If the student is distracted, little work is achieved. An hour of concentrated work may lead to solving an important problem or understanding a tough matter. In order to strengthen our will-power in this regard we should refrain from factors which distract our concentration, be in an environment which reminds us of work or study, observe the periods where our mind (body) is awake and work during those hours to get the maximum benefit from time spent (Fry, 1994).
We always hope for God’s blessing and acceptance for our work. When we do our work with the best of intentions and enjoy it, this further encourages us to do more. In other words, we find the reward for the work within the work. The reverse is also true. If we cannot concentrate and thus, cannot achieve, we do not enjoy the task and have no motivation. In order to avoid this pitfall we should heed the words of a prominent poet: ‘Hopelessness is such a quicksand, if it grabs you it sinks you. If you grab your will power you will realize what you can achieve’ (Ersoy. 1993).
Waiting is a part of our lives. Most of the waiting we do is a result of another’s negligence, a traffic jam or a miscommunication of appointment details. In such cases, we can turn waiting lime into a gain. The simplest precaution is to always carry reading material. If we make this a habit, a significant amount of reading can be accumulated over time. Most public transportation is suitable for reading. An alternative is to write down words on cards if learning a new language or to carry a portable tape player to listen to useful recordings.
Deadlines play an important role in our lives. A report to be readied by a certain time, an exam to be prepared, a project our boss assigns with a note of ‘urgent’ all shape our schedules. Human beings have a tendency to attend to what is urgent, even if it is on someone else’s agenda, and not their own. Urgent and possibly unimportant tasks imprison our attention and energy. Reading a book for spiritual refreshment, meeting valuable friends, or spending quality time with family members can be put off just because they are not urgent. Since there is no boss or teacher to press us for these activities, we can easily ignore them (Covey. 1994).
We can turn this tendency to our advantage by making appointments with ourselves for enrichment and enjoyment (Hobbs, 1987). We should set deadlines for these important tasks or their sub-tasks and set up appointments with ourselves to finish one piece at a time.
As in every aspect of effective use of time, this requires the full use of will-power. If we fail to make the appointment with ourselves there will be no boss, colleague, teacher or friend to remind us. There will only be our inner conscience.
Much more can be said on this important topic. We would like to re-emphasize the importance of the four fundamentals of time management: realization of the value of time, time-consciousness (awareness), understanding human nature, and utilization of full potential of will-power. The individual techniques and methodologies of any system of time management are not themselves enough for success. They are bound to be successful to the degree they are backed up by sound adherence to these fundamentals.
We conclude with a prayer : ‘May He who has given us the precious treasury of time guide us, so that we make the best use of it in His sight’.
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