How to cope when life is crazy busy crazy

3730650856_13d81ff33a_mRegular blog readers know that, over the past few months, I’ve been having dozens of people log their time for me. Some of these are going in the paperback version of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (out in September!), and some will be going up here.

First up? Lisa Lane. This mother of two boys (11 and 13) said she normally worked about 20-25 hours/week for an outsourced CFO company. She also did the books for her husband’s business (about 6 hours per week) and was taking two college courses at night (10-15 hours, depending on how much she studied). That schedule sounds busy, if doable. But when she sent me her log, she added this cavalier little note: “To put a kink into the schedule, starting Feb. 18th I will be working from 2-6 pm on Monday, Wednesdays at a CPA firm, working 9:00 am until 2:30 pm on Friday and 10:00 am until 2:00 pm on Saturdays.”

Yes, to a schedule that featured, the week she recorded, 30 hours of work at her first two jobs (hereafter “CFO” and “HB”), 14 hours of school, and 13 hours running around in the car, she planned to add another 18-19 hours of work at a place that was 30 minutes away. One of the schedules overlapped, so she had to move a 3-hour shift on Friday from the CFO job to somewhere else in the week, though she had flexibility on that, and that particular client could be handled from home.

“It may be that you give up on me right now, just let me go insane, and revisit my schedule when tax season and my school semester is over,” Lane told me. “I have hired a lady to clean my house every other week during tax season.  My husband is doing grocery shopping and will cook Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays and maybe Mondays.  I still want to meal plan so the family is not eating ramen or Spaghettios every night.  My main concern is that I have food around that I can eat (gluten and dairy free).  I will still do laundry.”

She identified a few problems: “I realize that I use Netflix as a crutch to help me to get to sleep, but end up watching longer than I should.” She also said that “I would prefer not to skip church on Sunday, but not sure how to do all that and get my studying in.”

I told Lane that I liked a challenge, so we chatted on the phone about how to fit in her 60 hours of work and school work without going crazy.

We came up with a few ideas for her:

Keep practicing the piano. Lane and her boys took lessons. When we get busy, things like this are easy to dump, but they are also often critical to one’s sanity. Exercise would be a nice addition. In her first log, she had gotten up early one morning to run, so adding a second run — even just 20 minutes — would help a lot. She and her boys could try to do active things on weekends, too.

Think about travel time. With 13 hours spent running from place to place, she needed to be conscious about using that time to decompress, interact with her children, or listen to something she loved

Give yourself a Sabbath. With 60 hours of committed activities, she wasn’t going to get huge chunks of time off, so she had to recognize when downtime was happening, prepare for it, and enjoy it. She was looking for where to move her Friday CFO work, and she figured she’d plop it on the weekend somewhere, likely after her 10-2 shift at the CPA firm. I suggested, instead, that she get up early and do it from 6:30-9:30 on Saturday morning. That way, when she got home from the CPA firm at 2:30 on Saturday, she was done with paid work until Monday morning. She could get half a day Saturday and all of Sunday off. Sometimes it’s better to batch activities than dribble them out into what could be leisure time.

Savor little breaks. Lane was either working on HB or going to class Monday -Thursday nights. However, she had Tuesday afternoon between the end of work (3:00), and whenever she chose to start working on the books for HB, off. It’s not a huge amount of time, but she needed to seize it as a little respite during her week. She could do some fun activity with her boys — or consciously chill — and start work on the books a little later. She also, at least in theory, had Fridays after work off, too.

Think mini-dates. Time with the hubby was in seriously short supply during the week. The two of them could try to block out 9-9:30 some night for a chat.

Catch up on Sundays. She wanted time for food prep, and this was going to have to happen on Sunday. The good news is that with the schedule we came up with, she had this day off from work, so she could enjoy a different sort of work in the kitchen.

Give up Netflix for Lent. Yes, we all need to relax, but she didn’t have that kind of time in her schedule at the moment. She had to read fiction for one of her college classes, and she kind of enjoyed it, so that was something she could do before bed to wind down instead. The good news is, come April 15, her life would be much more calm, with 20 or so hours of work and travel time freed up. Then she could relax and catch up on her movies.

So how did it go? She sent me a new time log a bit over a week later and reported that “It was a slight failure.” She ended up working more hours than she planned. She chose to spend Friday night with friends, which was a good thing, but she also crashed early on Sunday and “the extra time with work and with friends took away time from exercise, church, and school. My weeks feel like I am borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.” Indeed, the amount of time devoted to school work in her second log had fallen from 14.25 hours to 8.25 hours — not a good long term trend if she valued finishing her program.

Her solution? “This week, I have a test and am not going to do work for my husband’s business, so I can catch up on studying.  I am probably going to miss my one class to study for the other class as well.  But I will have time to exercise.  Bathroom breaks have become a great reading time for my short fiction class.” She was only partly kidding.

She was using her travel time, however. “While driving, I am going to make that my devotion time and listen to scriptures.  Driving boys to school is being counted as family time and am trying to rub their backs and focus on them before they go to bed at night when I am home.  Thursday night has become my extra night to spend time with Mike.  Friday after school has become the special time with the boys.”

Despite what she deemed her failure (her word, not mine!) she reported that “This study has helped tremendously. … Writing everything out and keeping a schedule has been helpful in keeping me focused during family and husband time, as well as being able to separate functions into their allotted spots.  I did not realize how much time I actually wasted before this project.  When school and tax season is over, there is no reason why I cannot cook healthy, spend more time with kids and spouse, and keep the house picked up and clean while still having me time.”

People often talk about “balance” as a desirable goal. Looking at Lane’s schedule, I’m not sure that “balance” is the word that comes to mind. But sometimes balance isn’t possible for short seasons of our lives. We have new babies or ill partners. We’ve started a new job or have picked up an extra shift for financial or career growth reasons. Rather than pursue balance in any given day, or even any given week, balance over longer periods of time might be possible. Come April 15, and then summer break, Lane might not even know what to do with all her time!

What makes this work is to figure out your non-negotiables. What has to happen to make your life feel doable, even if it’s not balanced? For many people, that’s exercising a few days a week, connecting with a partner for 30 minutes, going to church, or a hobby like practicing an instrument. The key to surviving the storm is making sure those things happen. They don’t take much time but they’re important for realizing that this, too, shall pass. 

Photo courtesy flickr user enanon



14 Responses to How to cope when life is crazy busy crazy


  1. Christina says:

    Whenever I hear of busy people taking time to figure out how to manage their time, I think of a saying an old man once told me, “You’re too busy running beside your bicycle to get on and ride.” It’s always stuck with me, and whenever I feel like the proverbial chicken, I think about how I could take a minute to “get on the bike and ride.”

  2. ARC says:

    I love this post! It reminds me of the “money diaries” Ramit posts (posted? it’s been ages since I read it) at I Will Teach You to Be Rich. But with less snark from the commenters, hopefully.

    Her schedule was making me frantic just reading it. But I’ve got a really low tolerance for crazy busy-ness.

    I loved your idea of setting up her work hours so she has an actual “weekend” even if it’s only a day and a half.

    On a related note, I’m having trouble completing a second full day of time logs. I start out great then forget to track at some point during the day and it’s not something I can easily recreate later. :( I also suck at keeping a food diary, though that is something I can more easily remember, since I’m not eating *all day*.

    • Laura says:

      @ARC – I am a big fan of creating long stretches of time “off,” even if that means crazier days on others. If someone needs to work, on average, 12 hour days, it’s sometimes better to do 7-9, then 7-5, then do 7-7 all the time. In the former schedule, you get some longer evenings, rather than the small bits of leisure in the evenings that can’t be used really well.

      • I will be interning at a professional services firm where people definitely work hard, but several alums have talked about “protecting their weekends” with “weekday compression.” I.e. they are on the road Mondays to Thursdays, and work very long days (12-14 on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday), then they work 6 or 8 hours on Thursday before they fly home. Friday is light day where they catch up on expenses, lunches with colleagues, and then go home at 4 or 5pm. So even though they might work 50 or 60 hours a week, it’s not a 12-hour day every day.

        • Laura says:

          @Well Heeled Blog – yep. People with families who work at such places find that travel days are good for working 14 hours. You’re not coming home anyway, so put in the time then. Then make sure to get home on the days you are around. That’s why it’s best to think in terms of 168 hours, not 24. Or even in terms of a month for people who are on the road, say, 2 weeks, then home for another two.

        • ARC says:

          Yes! I did exactly this when working at a large consulting firm. It was actually pretty easy to focus on work when traveling, because who wants to sit in a hotel room for hours in a strange city at night? (and usually I was posted somewhere non-glamorous, like Butte, MT or San Ramon, CA). So I’d work SUPER long days Mon-Wed, a normal day on Thursday and fly home in the evening, and then I was pretty much done except for some administrative catch up stuff on Friday. I really loved that schedule, though eventually I craved a more “normal” job where I’d actually see my boyfriend (now husband), house, and dog every night!

  3. Nadia says:

    At the moment I am trying to revamp my schedule as a result of doing my time log for a full week and I love seeing how other people have made changes to their schedules!

    I agree with Laura, that Lisa’s week was far from a failure. It is just hard to learn to juggle so many tasks.

    I also agree with Lisa, that I did not know how much time I was wasting before doing this exercise. Before doing this time log I was overestimating how much I was working and underestimating how much time I was spending on leisure. However, I found that the leisure activities I was engaging in (surfing the net, watching non-HBO television shows) did not make me feel relaxed or satisfied. As a result of this revelation, I have now included reading fiction as part of my daily routine, as well as reading and responding to this blog. As a result, I feel much more relaxed, even a bit like a lady of leisure, while still spending significant amounts of time at work and on my long term work goals. More importantly, I am actually including activities that are an important part of my identity (being a reader and writer) as part of my daily, or at least weekly routine. I think it is amazing that simply by changing my mindset I have been able to both increase the amount of time I spend working, while also feeling significantly more relaxed and fulfilled in my personal life!

    I found Laura’s suggestions for Lisa very helpful as far as when to fit in different activities: it really is just about figuring out the optimal time to do things you need to do, therefore giving yourself the time and space in your schedule to do things that are non urgent but important. For example, on some days my teaching schedule is so hectic that I cannot do any meaningful lesson preparation, etc on those nights due to mental exhaustion. That is a great chunk of time I can use to pursue the activities (reading and writing) that I find valuable and that are an important part of my identity.

    This also made me think about Laura’s comment about life being seasonal – it is about finding balance across your life, not just on a daily basis. I agree with this statement and I think it is a useful way of thinking about your time, especially for women, who due to having children definitely live more “seasonal” lives. However, as someone without children, who really isn’t that busy, I was putting off things that were important to me (reading and writing) because I believed that I was crazy busy (my schedule is by no means leisurely, but it does not come close to Lisa’s schedule). Ultimately, if you cannot make time to read on write on a regular basis when you aren’t that busy, can you really say this is a part of who you are?

    At some point in my life, reading fiction and writing on a daily basis may be something that I need to put on the back burner while I attend to more pressing duties (but I am glad to see from Laura’s earlier post that reading fiction is something you can do with children who are still quite young) .
    However, since I am in a seasonally “leisurely” period in my life, I think that it is a good time to establish habits that will enrich my life immensely.

    • Laura says:

      @Nadia – wow, sounds like you’ve figured out a lot! I do think that we make time for what is important to us, and the truth is, life can always be busier. We often think we’ll have more time in the future to do things, but it’s always possible we’ll have less, too…

  4. Arden says:

    Yay! Thanks for this post. Lisa Lane is certainly a busy person! I agree with manipulating time to have a “weekend” albeit 1.5 days. I’m working towards scheduling big chunks of time per task (1-2 projects/day) as opposed to short bursts of time on many projects (6+projects/day).

    I’m on day 3 of working on a time log. I have to say that even logging it is making me utilize my time better although I still have those dead zones of internet surfing, etc that isn’t providing me either value or pleasure.

    Although I only have a 30 min commute – that is 5 hours a week. The CD player in my car died eons ago but I could set up my ipod through a converter I was given for Christmas 5 years ago. I may even look into gettting audiobooks to listen to. There is a little action energy there but it will be worth in the long run.

    Still have the rest of the week to go!

    Keep the examples coming! Any chance of uploading the spreadsheets? Or maybe even having a common area to share spreadsheets? I would bet we could learn a lot from how others structure their time. Just a thought….

    Arden

    • Laura says:

      @Arden – yes, keeping track of time really makes you aware of it! The act of observing something changes the thing being observed.

  5. When I was starting my dissertation, my mother told me that I had to not work one day a week or I would go crazy. She was (and always is) right. I find when I do work beyond because of a crunch time, I waste more time later recovering my brain, just like Boice finds in his studies.

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie- I’m trying to enforce a no-work zone on Saturday most of the time for myself. Reading doesn’t count, but I need to not write and not think about work. Otherwise I never relax.

  6. Cara Marcano says:

    I think she is doing too much. Sabath sounds good. Non negotiables good. mini-dates I’m not as big a fan of though better than nothing… time managing your love life …

  7. WG says:

    A very interesting read. Thanks!