In my talks -- especially to professional women's groups with a 30- and 40-something demographic -- I've started throwing out a question: It's Saturday. Your husband (or partner, or parents) suddenly announces that he/she/they are going to take your kids on a field trip and will be back later that night.
In other words, you have the day to yourself to do whatever you want.
So what are you going to do with it?
I'm always intrigued by how many people need to ponder this question for a while. They enjoy the pondering -- some call it a dream scenario -- but it's a dream scenario because they view it as unlikely. We may have more time than we think. Legitimate studies of parental time use find that even parents with young kids have around 30 hours of free time per week after the demands of work, family, and chores are accounted for. The problem is that this time often appears in bits, 20 minutes here and there, and is "contaminated." The kids are watching a movie...but could come bother you while you read. They're at soccer practice, but will be home at some point. They're asleep, and so you can't really leave the house. If you're in the midst of building a career and raising a family, truly uncontaminated free time requires a lot of advanced planning. It doesn't drop from the sky.
But I still like this question, because it forces us to think about what we'd like to do more of with our time. What do you really enjoy? What little pleasures do life's responsibilities sometimes crowd out?
I experienced this scenario a few weeks ago when my husband -- atoning for a bad week of travel -- woke up on Saturday and announced that he'd be taking the kids to the Bronx Zoo. We live in Pennsylvania. I knew I had about ten uncontaminated hours once they were in the car at 9 a.m. Not wanting to waste the time, I planned some anchor events: a long run, some writing on the back porch, and two leisurely shopping trips. I rarely do any sort of recreational shopping any more. I order everything online, or zip through stores grabbing what I need because I have some number of small children with me or waiting for me at home. Lingering in the stores was lovely.
As I was pondering this leisurely day, though, I recalled the opening scene from 168 Hours. Theresa Daytner, mother of six and owner of a small business which then had 12 people on the payroll, goes for a hike on a Thursday morning. She wanted some uncontaminated time and so -- in the midst of more responsibilities than most of us -- she simply took it. I work for myself, too. I could go shopping in the middle of the day sometime if I so desired. I could write on the back porch (heck, that's even my job!) I could go for longer runs. Even the corporate types at my speeches often have personal days in their benefits packages. Many of us could take a day or two to smell the flowers here and there.
We just don't.
I'm not entirely sure why. In my case, I probably worry that self-employment requires so much self-discipline to stay focused that once I start hitting Neiman Marcus on a Tuesday morning it will all fall apart. But the good thing about asking the Saturday question is that once you have an answer, you at least have an image. An image can sometimes become a goal. And a goal can sometimes become a plan. A plan for creating at least a little uncontaminated me-time in a busy life is a good step toward creating the life you want in the 168 hours you've got.
What would you do with a free Saturday (or Sunday)?
As a side note: If you travel a lot for work, hotel time can also be uncontaminated me-time.
Photo courtesy flickr user Project GreenBag