How to Be a Temporal Millionaire

03/05/2012 01:08 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2014

Given the choice between being a money millionaire and a temporal millionaire, I'd choose the latter.

Working as the editor-in-chief of a website about money has taught me about how to manage my dollars better, and has made me aware of how tough life can be if we don't have a handle on our finances. But a far more valuable asset, in my opinion, is time. Unlike money and most other resources, we can never create more time, nor can we get back what we have lost.

I first heard the phrase "temporal millionaire" in Professor Robert Levine's book A Geography of Time. In it, he notes that we are each allotted the same amount of time, yet some people seem to be perpetually running out of time, while others seem to have all the time in the world. He referred to the latter group as "temporal millionaires," and he vowed when he was young to try to become one of them.

As soon as I heard that, I was hooked. I vowed to be one of those, too.

Time is my most precious commodity these days. I'm a single mom to a child with severe special needs, and I have a demanding full time career, along with a social life filled with many relationships that I value. Finding the time to feel successful and fulfilled in all of these areas -- leaving plenty of down time for myself -- is the challenge of most of my days.

People always agree that time is more valuable than money -- even those who are focused on fixing their finances. But I don't often see people acting on this belief. They'll haggle with customer service for half an hour over a $10 fee, or spend hours mindlessly going through social media on the internet, or years in a job or relationship that stopped being fulfilling long ago. In my experience, people don't take a proactive approach to how they spend their hours and days, yet look up years later wondering how they got to a certain place (whether in work, relationships, or with themselves).

Here are some ways to start thinking about how you spend your time, to increase the wealth of time in your life:

1. Find your ideal level of "busyness." Just as people have different standards of lifestyle (some want a mansion and a Mercedes, others a farmhouse), everyone has a different ideal schedule. While some get energy from a busy, back-to-back schedule, others (like me) prefer lots of free, open time, particularly time to myself. Don't get caught up in "keeping up with the Joneses" when it comes to your time, either -- comparing schedules of who did what over the weekend, who is busier (which in our society can be a badge of worth) -- means you are living your time to impress someone else, not to fulfill yourself.

2. Allot some time each day to whatever is important to you.
Time can be spent as a chunk, and in pieces. There is a reason we can't exercise for 10 hours straight on one day to make up for a few weeks of sitting around. If something is important to you, sometimes the quantity of time you spend on it is less important than just spending some amount of time on it every day. This is how habits (and hence, values and priorities) are built. Start with five minutes, then 10, and then increase your time commitment as you go along.

3. Identify your non-negotiable time. Make a rule that identifies something that makes you happy and keeps you balanced -- and protect that time. For me, it's having 15 minutes to decompress and write in my journal before bedtime every day. For a friend, it's getting to cook one homemade meal a week. Make this time something that makes you slow down and savor, because that increases happiness. Making this very clear to yourself will set a great barometer for knowing when you're too busy, because you'll start to see this time slip away for other things.

4. Pick a goal -- and work backwards. If you want to have a great marriage, write that book, or start your own business, you need more than positive thinking -- you need to invest time to make it happen. No one would set a goal of finishing a marathon, and then not put in the time to train. So if something isn't happening for you, as much as you've wanted it to, ask yourself whether you've invested the proper amount of time in it. A common one: people often wish a certain relationship was better, but don't invest the time in making it better.

5. Don't try to achieve more than two things a day.
When all else fails, this is my go-to rule that works every time. Faced with an open afternoon, sometimes I can get paralyzed with all the choices I have and how much I can get accomplished. There's an old saying: "When you ask for everything, you get nothing. But if you ask for a few things, you might actually get them." Simplification is always a good thing when it comes to our lives. Better to do two things well (and feel happy and relaxed doing them) than 10 things harried, stressed and half-way.

The best promise of time? There's always tomorrow.