How Better Time Management and Sleep Changes Your Life

Man having trouble with his sleep

Key Points

  • Poor time management often leads to less sleep and lower-quality sleep due to increased stress.

  • Better sleep makes time management easier because it improves mental functioning.

  • Good time management and sleep both lower stress and improve mental and physical health.

  • Tips for improving time management and sleep quality include setting realistic goals, making time for breaks, and establishing a nightly wind-down routine.

If you're like many Americans, time management and sleep are two areas of your life that could improve. The CDC estimates that about a third of U.S. adults don't get enough sleep on most nights, and a common reason for that is the feeling that there aren't enough hours in the day. Between work, family, school, hobbies, and everything else, sleep often falls down the priority list.

However, lack of time management and sleep can form a vicious cycle: The less you manage your time well, the less sleep you get, and the less sleep you get, the harder it seems to manage your time. Lack of sleep erodes mental functioning, making time management more difficult. Fortunately, if you turn your habits around, you also create a beneficial feedback loop where all three improve. To learn more, read on.

How Does Time Management Affect Sleep?

Poor time management affects sleep quality for a few reasons. For one, managing time poorly tends to make you feel stressed out — as you probably know from experience. Stress increases your cortisol levels, a hormone that induces wakefulness, alertness, and in large quantities, a fight-or-flight instinct. As the day winds down, your cortisol level drops typically while melatonin, the sleep hormone, rises. If you've got too much cortisol in your system, it's tough to relax even when you go to bed.

Even if your days aren't super stressful, a similar problem arises when you stay active right up till the moment you go to bed. External signals like light, sound, and other sensory stimulants keep your cortisol levels high and melatonin suppressed because all of those signal daytime to your brain. To get better sleep, wind down your activities in the evening, turn down the lights, and enjoy the silence.

Man awake in bed

There's evidence to back up this association between time management and sleep quality. One study of women who were experiencing the first signs of menopause — which often brings emotional and sleep disturbances — found that time management training not only improved their sleep quality but lowered their anxiety and depression scores as well.

Does Getting More Sleep Help With Time Management?

Oversleeping throws off your schedule for the day, so not all sleep is beneficial for time management. However, getting enough sleep regularly helps your brain in certain ways that make time management easier.

For one, there's the role that sleep plays in memory formation. Cornell neurobiology professor Christiane Linster pointed out that students who stay up cramming for exams risk forgetting what they learned the night before.

Linster explains, "Sleep is the time during which information transfers from short-term memory to long-term memory. If you don't sleep, that transfer doesn't happen, and then you don't consolidate or put into long-term storage what you have learned."

Even if you have a written to-do list, memory is essential to good time management. Forgetting small details of tasks often means you have to spend more time going back and making up for mistakes.

Lack of sleep also makes concentrating more difficult, meaning scheduled tasks take longer to complete. You might find yourself chronically running behind schedule after a poor night's sleep, while a good sleep prepares you to tackle the day's agenda.

Finally, lack of sleep lowers your ability to control your emotions, especially negative ones, which impairs the self-discipline needed to stick to a schedule. This has an especially deleterious effect if you're managing your own time and other people's. University of Washington professor Christopher Barnes found in a study that sleep-deprived managers made less effective team leaders because of their bad vibes.

Barnes concludes, "When bosses slept poorly, they were more likely to exhibit abusive behavior the next day, which resulted in lower levels of engagement among subordinates. When the boss doesn't feel rested, the whole unit pays a price."

That lack of emotional control also leads to poor decisions — or an inability to make decisions at all — which further erodes time-management abilities.

Woman sleeping with book on lap

Effects of Time Management on Health

You've no doubt detected a theme by now that poor time management and lack of sleep lead to unhappiness. The effect goes beyond mood: Your mental and physical health both suffer from poor time management. Here's how.

Stress Erodes Mental and Physical Health

A certain amount of excitement keeps life interesting and fun. Researchers call that "eustress." Small spikes of acute stress here and there don't have long-term consequences. However, chronic stress over a long time worsens existing health problems, including heart disease, depression, anxiety, hypertension, and diabetes. Prolonged stress also reduces the immune system's ability to fight off infections. Therefore, the increased stress that poor time management brings makes it more difficult to manage diseases.

Harm to Relationships Is Bad for You

Poor time management harms relationships in two ways. For one, constantly keeping people waiting because you're running behind or having to cancel at the last minute makes it less likely they want to be around you. It sends the message that you don't value their time, which seems disrespectful.

The other problem, as Barnes found, is that the lack of sleep that poor time managers often get makes them meaner. You might not think you're mean, but Barnes found that the managers in his study had no idea how their negativity affected people.

Woman sleeping in bed

Having good relationships makes you not just happier but healthier. Research has found that people in committed relationships have longer lifespans and even heal faster than singletons. People with good relationships also experience less stress overall, making them less likely to have stress-related illnesses.

Haste and Lack of Sleep Make Accidents More Likely

Though driving while intoxicated gets the worst press, driving while rushed, distracted, and sleep-deprived also leads to many accidents. When you're hurrying, you often take risks on the road that you wouldn't otherwise. Sleep deprivation, as noted earlier, decreases concentration and increases poor decision-making, which also bumps up the likelihood of accidents.

Poor time management also tempts people to multi-task, sometimes in dangerous ways. If you feel like you can't go anywhere without taking phone calls or answering emails simultaneously, you're a road hazard to yourself and others.

Time Management for a Healthy Lifestyle

After all that, you're probably convinced that time management is good for you — and so is sleep. It's so much easier said than done, though, isn't it? Fortunately, developing time-management systems has been the interest of many people trying to maximize their time. You have several options to mix and match into your perfect time-management routine.

Identify and Address Underlying Issues

While poor time management tends to aggravate existing mental health problems, it's sometimes a symptom of them as well. If you keep trying and failing at time management, you may have undiagnosed attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with ADHD typically live in the present and have trouble remembering the past and planning for the future, which makes keeping a schedule more difficult.

Depression and anxiety also complicate time management, leading to indecisiveness and reduced motivation. You might also have a specific fear around a certain task that makes you keep putting it off. For instance, maybe you don't clean out the garage because of the spiders or rats that could be lurking there. Whatever the reason, it's best to address these issues upfront with the help of a healthcare professional.

Senior woman asleep

Clarify Your Goals

Setting realistic goals for your day, week, year, or lifetime is key to time management. One popular method of determining goals is the SMART system, which is an acronym for:

  • Specificity: Make your goal as precise as possible.

  • Measurable: How do you know when you're achieving the goal — or making progress?

  • Achievable: Be honest with yourself and stick to goals you know you can hit.

  • Relevant: How important is it really?

  • Time-bound: Set a deadline. Again, be honest with yourself about how long you need

The R part of the system helps you set up the T part, because you set the timeline according to what's most important to accomplish. If you're unsure how long you need for a project, try breaking it up into smaller tasks that are easier to estimate (this also helps with the M part). When determining deadlines, also make sure to give yourself some breathing room.

Give Yourself Time for Breaks

Driving yourself continuously through long work stretches often leads to stress and burnout. Therefore, schedule yourself time for periodic breaks.

One popular approach to this is the Pomodoro Technique, in which you set a timer for 25 minutes of work, then take a five- or 10-minute break before another 25 minutes. The 52-17 Rule is a longer-scaled version, which advises 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of downtime.

Man sleeping

Which one you prefer — or if you prefer a schedule of your own devising — depends on how your brain works and what kind of task you're doing. Sometimes being "in the zone" without interruption produces better work, especially in creative fields (your Snooze team can report that this often happens for writers). However, periodic breaks often help clear your head, especially if you hit a mental roadblock.

Such breaks also benefit your body. If you're doing sedentary work, the break is a good opportunity to move around and avoid stiffness. If you're doing physical work, a rest break helps prevent injuries.

Create a Sleep Routine

If you want your time-management practice to improve your sleep, you need to carve out a time for sleeping and an evening wind-down. As noted earlier, stimulation right before bed makes it more difficult to fall asleep.

To schedule enough sleep into your day, first, calculate your sleep time — it's 7 to 9 hours per night for most adults, but personal experience would tell you how much you need to not feel sleepy the next day. Then give yourself about 20 minutes to fall asleep before bed and at least half an hour before that to wind down. The last period includes:

  • Turning off (or down) any unneeded lights

  • Turning down the temperature (ideal sleep temperature is low to mid-60s)

  • Putting away electronic devices with glowing screens

  • Minimizing noise

Apart from those basic principles, tailor your evening routine around whatever relaxes you: reading, meditating, playing a (non-video) game, doing a puzzle, etc. Many sleep apps offer a range of options like soothing music, guided meditations, audio bedtime stories, stretching guides, and the like. Also, check out Snooze's guide to what to do when you can't sleep for ideas on how to hasten slumber.

Man sleeping face down

Time Management and Sleep Improve Your Life

It's true that "be better at time management" is one of those New Year's resolutions that people often break because it has an "eat your spinach" vibe. However, time management is like any other habit, good or bad — the more you do it, the easier it is to keep doing it. If you stick with it long enough to reshape your habits, time management really helps de-stress your life, improve your sleep, and give you more energy to do what you want.

Don't procrastinate anymore — get started today!

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