Try the Time Diet!

Try the time diet

In recent years I’ve realized that the most precious commodity I own — more than money or possessions — is time. I’ve also had to admit that I’m essentially a disorganized person who, left to myself, will fritter time away, daydreaming or drifting from one thing to another with little discipline. A remedy for such sloth? The time diet.

You may never have heard of it, but the time diet is a powerful waste-loss program! I believe that if you join me on the diet you’ll get hold of your priorities and bring some discipline (and joy) back into your life. Like me, you probably love the sense of accomplishment that comes with mowing down a “to-do” list and meeting your goals — and even having some time to relax at the end of the day.

No diet is easy, however. When I first tried out the time diet a few years ago, I went a bit overboard. I planned every activity down to the minute, and while the whole idea here is to “cut the fat” from your schedule, you have to leave yourself a little fudge room. Otherwise the clock becomes your task master and you wind up feeling guilty 24/7. So give yourself some grace. Work in a few soft parameters that enable your schedule to flex at the edges.

Here I offer you five minutes’ worth of advice, born of experience both good and bad. I trust that reading this will be a good use of your time!

Priority order

First, create a general “to-do” list in priority order. Decide which things must be done sooner and not later, and which items could be left undone. A good question to ask is, What tasks or people is God calling me to? For students, studies should be near the top. For Christians, devotions, service, outreach and family should also be up there. If your list gets too long and detailed, it may be overwhelming, so try to limit yourself to ten or fifteen vital items. There is no need to do everything! Choose a finite amount of work. Sanity is a virtue. There is no credit in God’s sight for doing more than his bidding. May I repeat myself (thank you)? Don’t try to do it all. Keep your list manageable.

As you accomplish tasks and cross them from your list, you can add other items that are important to you. So your list always has about a dozen or so things on it.

Now, select from your to-do list the things you need to do today and tomorrow — such as writing a paper, spending time with a friend, exercising, preparing a Bible study, — and transfer them to a simple time grid. You can do this in a word document, electronic calendar, or the old fashioned way — yikes! — on a piece of paper.

Some examples

Here’s how it might look if I were a student planning my week ahead:


  • 7:00 roll out, shower and dress
  • 7:30 devo
  • 8:00 breakfast

Wait, stop! Before I go further I should clue you in that it takes me longer to get ready in the morning than I like to believe so, admitting that, I’ve planned in some extra time. I love to tell myself little lies like, “I can roll out of bed, jump in the shower, toss on some clothes and read a few Bible verses in twenty minutes, no problem.” Maybe in extreme circumstances I can do that, but the whole point of my diet is that I’m taking time for the things that I truly value — in this case, preparing emotionally and spiritually for the day, which means I can’t begin in a frantic rush. For me, 60-90 minutes is necessary to get body and mind moving, and to get centered on God.

  • 8:30 meet Jessica
  • 9:30 study in library
  • 12:00 lunch
  • 12:30 group project
  • 2:00 rest, hang out
  • 2:30 check email, reserve piano room for tomorrow
  • 3:00 soccer practice
  • 5:00 rest, hang out
  • 5:30 supper
  • 6:30 library to study calc
  • 9:30 rest, hang out, check email
  • 11:00 study, read
  • 12:00 bed

Note (in bold) that I’ve built some fudge time around my main responsibilities. From 5-6:30 p.m. I know I’ll be tired from soccer practice, so I’ve given myself some space. Then the key is to make sure I land in the library right at 6:30pm and pound out the homework for three solid hours.


  • 10:00 shopping
  • 2:00 practice piano
  • evening: call Mom
  • other: homework, scholarship application, gaming with the guys?


  • evening: visit international house

I like to plan ahead two or three days, with lessening specificity as I go along. It’s handy to know, for example, that my scheduled date with the piano on Tuesday means I’ll need to swing by the music department on Monday and reserve a practice room. If I don’t write it on my schedule, however, I’m likely to forget, and Piano and I will never even get acquainted.

What about interruptions to my carefully laid plans? Disruptions always come. Many are necessary and provide opportunities to serve others or make a new friend. It’s also a chance for me to exercise grace with myself and simply re-write my time diet to reflect a new reality. I thought I had three hours to study, now I’m down to two. If two is not sufficient, something else will need to get cut or moved. That’s life.

Make it real

I love my time diet because it forces me to be honest about my priorities. I claim to value certain things, but if I never make room in my schedule for those things, my claim is simply false. Unfortunately, I often value whatever appears in front of me more than I value my supposed priorities. I value unstructured spontaneity more than I value volunteering at a kids’ program or visiting a sick friend or writing a thank you note or leading a ministry meeting well.

In fact, when you really get down to it, I am lazy. I make bad decisions on the fly — in the heat of the moment — about how to use my time. I rationalize quickly that I really “could” watch this game on TV rather than study. And with no schedule to tell me otherwise, I cave in to whatever moves me at the moment. Glued to the couch while the game is played, I can’t tear myself away, and then feel guilty and a bit panicky afterward. I know I should have been hitting the books! So I simply resolve in my mind to stay up a little later tonight. Maybe I do that a few times for a few weeks and then I complain to my friends and professors that I am overwhelmed with class work and other responsibilities. I miss deadlines, let people down, and feel burned out. But I am not above rationalizing all this as “the life of a student,” and perhaps I feel I’ve earned the right, due to circumstances beyond my control, to blame everyone but myself.

A good friend might gently challenge my excuses, but usually not. We tend to enable each other’s small lies by failing to confront them, thereby reserving the same excuses for ourselves, should we need them later. That is, sadly, a dysfunction of our community.

But how different things are when I plan ahead, thoughtfully and prayerfully. I schedule myself to carry out the activities that reflect my true values. And when I actually follow through on these plans — perhaps slowly at first, as I adjust my own “free spirit” to a more intentional, disciplined existence — I find that I accomplish much. I live wisely. I find joy in doing things well, and I seem to gain the trust and respect of others.

Most importantly, my use of time reflects what I believe to be God’s priorities for my life. Yes, my understanding of God’s will is imperfect, but minimally I am “scheduling” myself to love and serve God in my studies, my ministry activities, and of course in some guilt-free relaxing along the way!

So trim your waste. Recover your sanity. Try the time diet!

— Rick Mattson is InterVarsity’s North Central Regional Director.