Too many relationships, too little time. Family, extended family, friends, acquaintances, current colleagues, old colleagues – with each passing year you accumulate more people in your life. It is only natural that some ‘filtration’ of all of these people occurs as you proceed in life; but an unconscious or passive filtration process is frequently insufficient.
When I talk to stressed-out, time-starved clients; the one theme that consistently emerges is people – people as stressors, or people as time-stealers. If I might be so bold, I suggest that you need to get a handle on this.Anthropologists tell us that there are typically about 30 people in our social circle that we really care about – presumably this relates to the size of an extended family in a cave setting. Who are your 30 people? The people that you spend time with or spend time thinking about or talking to on the phone (if they are abroad, for example.) Take your time and build your list.

You may not have exactly 30 people. Anything from 20–40 is fine. If there are more than 40, you need to really think before you include them – a helpful visualisation tool is to arrange everyone on a four-tier stepped pyramid:

  • The top step holds a maximum of four people – the wonderful, marvellous, energising people in your life.
  • The second step holds eight – they’re great people, just not quite as important to you as those up at the top.
  • The third step holds twelve.
  • The fourth holds a maximum of sixteen. (Don’t feel you have to completely fill this step.)

Rank all your relationships privately and objectively; without fear of guilt or judgement. Hugh Kingsmill famously said, “Friends are God’s apology for relatives,” so assign people to a step on the basis of how much they genuinely mean to you – not on some familial or societal expectation of how much that relationship should mean to you.

The trick is to do the ranking AFTER tracking the amount of time you spend on the various people in your life over the course of a month or so. If you closely note time spent on face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and the various written forms of communication, you can quickly build a picture of who you are giving time to in your life. In stressed-out clients, I keep seeing startlingly consistent results – way too much time and headspace being given to emotional vampires and ‘friends from way-back-when’ with whom you have nothing in common any more; far too little time left for the ‘copper-tops’ with whom you share humour, energy and ideas. The Pareto Principle looms large – yet again.

In order to effect any change, you need to become conscious of the root cause of the problem. If too little time is your issue, this exercise (albeit harsh) can be very liberating.