Reader time makeover: Adding exercise and writing to an incredibly full life

img_2037Whenever I poll audiences about what they'd like to spend more time doing, exercise almost always comes out on top. Push a little bit more, and people mention other activities that at first glance seem different, but broadly fall in the same category: writing and other creative activities, brand-building opportunities such as blogging, and so forth. These activities are all important but not urgent, as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would put it. They also tend to be done for our own benefit, rather than for bosses or family members, and so they tend to fall to the bottom of the to-do list unless they are scheduled in. I also find that people fall into certain mindset traps that close off possibilities. We think things need to happen daily at the same time (that's the 24-hour trap) and we think high quality activities require a lot of time (maybe I'll start calling that the 'perfect time' fallacy).

Rethink these mindsets, though, and a lot of time opens up. Or at least some time, and in an incredibly full life, that might be good enough.

This past summer, I asked blog readers to submit time logs so I could run some more reader makeovers here. Among the respondents: Gillian, a full-time physician and mother of four kids, ages 9, 6, 3, and a baby. She lives in Westchester and works in New York City, which adds a commute to her time. She drives on the four days per week she starts work early. On the day she starts later (Thursday), she takes Metro North and the subway.

She sent me her time logs, which showed an admirable amount of time for relationships of various sorts, given her professional commitments. She had family dinner at least 3-4 times per week, tried to carve out one-on-one time with all her kids, and she and her husband went out either solo or with friends at least once a week. She went to church most weekends and she taught Sunday school. There was even a book club in there!

So what was missing? As with my audiences, Gillian told me she wanted to exercise more. "I see this as both a personal and career issue," she said, as her particular specialty involves working with patients on weight loss. While on maternity leave with her baby in the spring, she ran or did yoga 5-6 times a week "and I felt great." Back at work, though, the only exercise she did regularly was a walk/run with a friend on Saturday mornings.

She also said she wanted to write more, including posts for her practice website, and other medical writing. This brand-building would be helpful for her career. But, "right now writing has no home in my schedule so it rarely happens unless I am under the gun."

The tricky issue for Gillian was that the low-hanging fruit was long gone. She had already outsourced most of her housework. She ordered most household items via Amazon Prime. Because she sometimes started seeing patients at 7 a.m., with the associated prep prior, she was up at 5 a.m. That meant that doing anything else in the morning was going to be tough. To wake up at 5, she had to be in bed at 10, if not before. This required winding down by 9/9:30 — not long after the older kids had been put to bed, and in any case, her evenings were often already full with her various social activities and church functions. Weekends tended to be consumed by family things.

However, she was doing some activity on the exercise and writing front. The Saturday morning workout with a friend was a good start, and on one early log she sent me, she'd done some medical writing during the baby's nap on Sunday. She just wasn't doing as much as she wanted, and the weekend nap was always in danger of going to something else.

She was correct that these things needed a home in her schedule in order to happen. Given her very full life, I thought she needed to accept that these homes would not be daily, and these homes might not be incredibly big. But they would exist, and often when we are doing things regularly, we make progress, and that makes life feel sustainable. It also sometimes creates the momentum and motivation to find other time slots that can be converted to high-value activities.

On the exercise front I had two suggestions. One was to find two other spots for a regular workout. If Saturday could happen, Sunday could happen. It was just a matter of looking at the weekend schedule and making a workout as much of a priority as the various kid activities. Then she could also add something in on Friday. Looking at her schedule, she got off relatively early on Fridays. She'd sometimes do errands, or do one-on-one time with the 3-year-old, which was perfectly fine, but probably didn't need to consume all the time before the older kids were out of school. She could work out after work, possibly in Central Park (she was close enough), and start the afternoon schedule 45 minutes later, and get both.

Three work outs a week is not bad at all. But she didn't have to stop there. I suggested she think beyond formal exercise and just look for opportunities to regularly get more walking into her days. That's something she'd probably help her patients do, and she could too. She was already doing a reasonable amount of walking that wasn't captured in her log. Her town in Westchester is quite walkable, and she'd walk from the subway when she was doing the train commute. One option she could add: parking slightly farther away from work. If she was normally parking somewhere that it took her 5 minutes to get to her desk, and she found a place to park that was 12 minutes from her desk, that would be an extra 14 minutes of walking per day, or close to an hour a week. Given the nature of commuting, it would likely be brisk walking too. And honestly, it might not require finding an extra 7 minutes on each side. It takes some time to drive that extra bit in Manhattan, and we often lose bits of time here and there in the cracks. Breaks during the day could likewise be used for taking a quick stroll (vs. web surfing - though of course I always like when people read my blog as a break at work!)

As for finding time to write, I thought her best option might be turning her Thursday Metro North commute time into writing time. She often read during this time, but she had some time to read at night too, whereas she was too tired to write at night. She could get a solid 30 minutes both ways, and if she knew that she would be devoting 1 of her 168 hours to writing, she could start planning for what she would do with that time.

She liked both ideas. She tracked two more weeks later in the fall. "Both were a little atypical, but I am starting to realize there is no typical week," she told me. She was semi-successful in implementing these changes. Writing on the train had not happened the weeks she tracked, because she began running into a colleague on the train, and would use the time to chat about work issues. But that would change as he was soon going to be taking a different train. She also said that in previous weeks she had used train time to write "and it worked well."

Exercise was happening more consistently. She was getting two more workouts into her routine as suggested: generally a walk on Sunday (her mom had been visiting for a while so she walked with her) and on Friday afternoons after work. She had tried to add a Tuesday workout (this was also generally an earlier day) but that had not happened as consistently. What had worked: She found some extra places to park that were about 10 minutes from her office so she was getting 20 extra minutes of walking in on those four days. She liked the walk enough that she pondering getting off the subway one stop earlier on Thursday mornings too. When we emailed again a few days after she sent me her new log, she noted that she had tried it and it had worked well. "I find it perks me up a bit to have a brisk walk in the morning especially on the days when I start seeing patients at 7 a.m.," she said.

Of course, in a life as full as hers, this time did not just magically appear. There were trade offs. "It is a little tough some afternoons when I am heading home to add in the 10-15 minutes to walk to the car," she said. "I am often trying to get home for some activity I have to take a kid to and it can be a bit stressful to feel like I am trying to stretch time, but I haven't been late for anything yet and I think I just need to get used to it."

I'm curious if anyone else has tried any of these strategies for fitting time to exercise or write into their lives. Please let me know in the comments!

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31 Responses to Reader time makeover: Adding exercise and writing to an incredibly full life


  1. SHU says:

    Hmm.

    So if this were ME (not saying this advice is generalizeable), I would look for another job or try to modify that job or move closer. I personally prioritize exercise and I agree that there just isn’t any realistic way for her to get it in most days.

    If my schedule precluded me from working out or having essentially any time to myself, something big would have to change. Not saying she should quit, but some sort of modification is on order. I know it’s pricey to live in NY, but is it worth it to not exercise regularly – something that could potentially have life-changing impact? I feel like once minimum standards are met (reasonable housing, schooling for kids, etc) time has to win out over money. In medicine there are jobs where you can still make a good living -not be super-rich, but be very comfortable – and have more time. I think she would need to really search deep within and see if that kind of trade would be worth it.

    • @SHU- I value exercise highly too. However, one problem with writing these makeovers is that people can’t see the spreadsheets themselves, or know the totals for various categories. So I’ll add this: her work hours are fairly reasonable for a physician — think 40-ish. The commute adds time of course, but my quick calculation is that it doesn’t put it over 50 by much, if it does. If one is sleeping 8 hours a night – that leaves the 62 hours for other things each week. She is involved in helping with kid pick-ups, kid appointments, kid sports, plus various community activities, volunteering — things I suspect many physicians might not choose to do. In other words, my advice is generally to take exercise time out of that time (e.g. family and community time), not out of work time. I don’t think work itself is the culprit in creating limited time for other things.

      • SHU says:

        Ahh! Okay, that changes things significantly! I was envisioning that she worked far more hours (as many do).

        Maybe it would help to show totals (work, family time, exercise, sleep) at the bottom? Maybe even a graph 🙂 ?

  2. smh says:

    I mostly agree w/SHU: there are many, many good things involving other people in this schedule.

  3. ARC says:

    I love these!!

    I have done the ‘park farther away’ option. I already park in a lot that’s a good 10 min walk to my office, but tried another one that’s 20 min away and really liked it. (Bonus because I could listen to more of ‘Hamilton’ on my walk!) The only issue is building in the travel time if I need to be somewhere at the end of the day (or need to leave mid-day for something). I think I am probably overly stressed about “losing” 20 min of work time to walk and just need to get over that.

    So interesting that SHU (and others) prioritize exercise so highly. Obviously I know I *should* do more to make it so but it has never crossed my mind to make it anywhere near as important as work time, family time, etc. Hmm, need to noodle on this some more.

    • SHU says:

      maybe I’m an outlier. but I feel like (@*&@# when I don’t exercise and it truly makes me a happier healthier (both physically and mentally, I think) person. I also do think that our bodies were designed to move, and being sedentary is really just not good for us in the long term. I do put it right up there with work and family. I also run so it’s pretty efficient (can get a very significant workout in 45 minutes!) and tend to be happy to sacrifice some sleep (ie, sleep 7 or 7.5 hrs instead of 8) to make it happen. It is actually hard for me to imagine feeling okay without some kind of regular physical activity – so I am guessing it is very individual. And perhaps genetic- my parents are both addicted to walking miles every day so maybe I get more of an endorphin boost than others do.

    • @ARC – yes, the fact that the car is farther away at the end of the day can be an annoying aspect of it – or if a group decided to go for lunch and you needed your car. But for people who don’t inherently like exercise, brisk walking is probably the best option out there, especially if it’s just built into your day. People who live a 15 minute walk away from the train they take to work are going to get at least 15 minutes of brisk walking in per day. The majority of people are just not going to do it otherwise.
      I’ve become aware of this in my own life. When I lived in NYC, walking was part of daily life. Now it just isn’t. I have to consciously do it and of course it’s always easier not to. I walked my son to preschool daily in NYC — about a half mile round trip. There was no car option, so walking it was. My daughter’s preschool is half a mile away and yet we never walk her, because the car is an easier option.

  4. Susan says:

    I once heard Dr. Sanjay Gupta (60 minutes, etc.) say that he did one set of repetitions with weights between each patient so that by the end of the day he got a pretty good workout in. I thought that was brilliant and bought a bunch of free weights that I keep behind my desk. I am a teacher. Sometimes I do a set of reps during each 5 minute passing period. I can do this at every passing period and then get a workout in. Other times I will eat my lunch in 15 minutes and then do 15 minutes with the free weights. This is so much more convenient than going to the gym. Plus I think that it makes me a good role model too. I find 15 minute work-outs online to mix it up. I also listen to a TED talk or Podcast if working out at lunch.

    • @Susan – that is smart. Lots of strength training activities can be done in little bits of time — plank poses, push ups, or squats while something heats up in the microwave, that sort of thing. Just as long as it is done consistently!

  5. Jennie Evans says:

    I tried parking farther, but I found I was stressed too much at the end of the day to appreciate the walk. It became more of a chore and I want to enjoy my exercise. My most stressful time is between 3:30-4:30. Although thanks to a better school pick up schedule this is improving, I still feel rushed. I get most of my walking in during kids activities. At soccer practice, me and other mothers walk laps around the field. Usually, due tot he number of kid activities, by Friday I have already gotten in 2 or 3 good walking sessions. Then I workout more strenuously on Sat. and Sun. I get to workout and visit with friends which is doubly great.

    • @Jennie – sideline exercise can definitely work (unless you’re chasing a toddler!) I’ve gone for runs during swim practice. I’m pondering how best to use time during evening wrestling practice now. 6:30-7:30. The gym is 15 minutes away, but it will be dark so running outside might not work so well. Or I’ll find a coffee shop nearby and work.

      • Jennie Evans says:

        My toddler days are through, but my walking around has benefits with my older children. They never know exactly where I am so they are on their best behavior and can’t nickel and dime me for concession stand money. My oldest has a new girlfriend and my middle has a candy addiction.

    • Ana says:

      I was thinking the kid activities could also be a good time to do that writing (again, unless she is chasing a toddler). This is when it’d be worthwhile to get a sitter for the younger kid, so she can watch the older kid but also work. My son notices that I came to watch him do karate, and doesn’t mind that I have my laptop out, finishing up notes because I have to leave work early to do that.

  6. Ana says:

    I think exercise is also similar to your advise about reading, in that if you find something you really enjoy, you will find the time to do it. Otherwise its easy to make excuses, or convince yourself that other things are more important. “Health” just isn’t a good enough motivator for most people—over the years I’ve used some combination of vanity/mental health/camraderie/competitiveness/wanting-desperately-to-be-alone to fuel a regular exercise habit.

  7. Ruth Williams says:

    Laura, dark isn’t an excuse not to run! If it’s a relatively safe area, running in the dark is a great option – in fact, I prefer to run EARLY (4:00) in the morning or in the evening after dark. Very relaxing and private – great for thinking things through. I have highly reflective shoes, hats/visors, shirts, and a CHEAP little LED lamp that clips to the hat/visor brim.

    • @Ruth- as I think about it, there may be sidewalks in the area. Definitely something I will look into, because it would be good to use that time.

      • Zenmoo says:

        The trick is to make sure you’ve got a bright headlamp so you can see and be seen.

  8. Katherine says:

    All through the spring and summer, inspired by “What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast” I managed to get up at 6.30, incredibly early for me, and do 20 minutes on the exercise bike, listening to improving audio books almost every morning before the kids woke up. But this is just so much harder now it is dark in the mornings. I am trying to embrace Winter, feel hygge for it etc but as far as getting up early in the morning is concerned March can’t come quickly enough, when it will be light again at 6.30. And it hasn’t even got that cold yet here either.

    • @Katherine – I hear you. If it’s any consolation, I don’t take my own advice about doing great things before breakfast. I have my coffee before breakfast these days, and that’s about it.

  9. Sarah says:

    I’ve started volunteering to take my son to basketball practice on Tuesday evenings, which is conveniently located at the Y so I can work out while he practices!

  10. Christine says:

    The exercise question is timely for me because I’m really making a push to fit more in as well (or maybe that’s just everyone). I’m doing more workouts that are 15-30 minute chunks, which definitely aren’t perfect – but it’s something. It’s not something I particularly enjoy, but I know I need it and it works better with a plan.

    Pre-kids I would get up and do a gym workout before work, but that went by the wayside – in part, because the baby/then kids would hear me up, wake up, and I’d be left dealing with it while trying to rouse my husband to take over…. then either I’d be too late to get a worthwhile workout in, or he’d be up early and severely annoyed (neither of us are morning people, but he’s way worse). My new plan is a 30 minute workout at home 3 weeknights, and then something a little more fun (outdoors walk, or a lane swim) on the weekend. Of course I always mean to do it and then it’s pushed aside by other tasks, and next thing you know it’s 11 p.m. So I’ve asked my husband to take over 30 minutes of some task that I typically do in the evening so I can ignore it and start/finish the workout (either clean the kitchen up after supper, fold laundry, do bedtime, or just keep the kids away from me for 30 minutes – haha). We’ll see how it works!

    Right now I’m doing little videos like the Tracy Anderson method, cardio on the rebounder, etc.

    • @Christine – that sounds like a good plan, as long as it happens. As you noted, evenings are easy to lose!

  11. Kim from Philadelphia says:

    Susan, I can barely catch a breath between seeing patients- let alone have time for some reps. Not sure what kind if schedule Sanjay Gupta had as a neurosurgeon!

    • @Kim – good question 🙂

      One thing on physicians’ schedules I’ve seen in logs is that some people are aiming to get out the door by a certain time — for instance, leaving at 5:30 to go relieve a nanny or pick up kids at after care. Other people are not. (of course, some people might want to do that, but have no control over things like procedures that go long). I have no idea about Gupta’s schedule but when people do have hard stops, they tend to pack the schedule tighter, use any cancelations or spaces for note writing or making up time so the later visits aren’t running late. If that’s less of an issue, then taking short breaks here and there is more possible.

  12. Rebecca says:

    Hi, first time commenter, but I really enjoy reading your blog! I’m a mother of three and a physician in a small private practice. I’m fairly introverted and like my reading and knitting time too much to spend precious free time exercising. But, several years ago I began using a tread desk at work and I absolutely love it. If I’m in with a patient I obviously can’t use it but any reviewing of charts, writing notes, returning phone calls I do while walking. Some tasks I have to walk at a leisurely pace for but others I can walk briskly. It worked so well for me that now all the doctors in our office as well as support staff use tread desks also. And, an added bonus is I now look forward to my note writing time! I thought that patients might find it strange, but most people think it’s a great idea and ask me about it for themselves at their work. Anyhow, this is my solution to getting movement into my day in this time crunched life stage.

    • @Rebecca- thanks for reading, and thanks for commenting! If a treadmill desk works for you, that’s a great solution. And I love the side effect of it sparking conversations with patients.

  13. Lily says:

    Setting a clear goal might also help to feel like you’ve achieved something, rather than an uneasy sense that you should be doing more exercise (which yes, is probably true for most of us). Fitbits are great because they turn ‘more walking’ into a measurable goal of 10,000 steps and you get that sense of achievement at the end of the day. I’m currently doing an 8 week couch to 5k program (I used to run half marathons but it’s been a while…) It starts at 25mins per workout, and ends at 45mins – including warm up and cool down – three workouts per week. Because I just run out my front door, around my neighborhood and home again, I can change, squeeze in a workout, and change again in less than an hour. It’s great to tick off the runs each week, and I’m improving rapidly.

    • @Lily- as you can imagine, I’m a big fan of clear (but reasonable!) goals. People feel guilty about things like exercise because any given open moment could, in theory, be used for it. And could be used for infinite other things too. But if you say I will exercise 3x per week for an hour and here is where those 3 hours can regularly happen, and I will get 10,000 steps per day on the days I do not exercise, that removes a ton of the guilt. And would probably be just fine in terms of functional/health-boosting fitness.

  14. Denise says:

    With 3 kids I find it hard to make it the gym, and I feel guilty! Last spring I started joining colleagues for lunch time runs. It is really fun and has made a difference in my stress levels. I am slower than everyone and try to be OK with that. I still look at workout magazines and think I should really make time to get my butt to the gym, truth is I don’t want to be there on the weekend! Would rather walk with the kids.

    • @Denise- runs with colleagues are also a great way to bond that doesn’t require out-of-work time (e.g. happy hours). Smart idea!

  15. Ingrid says:

    I’m a big fan of the “Goals” feature of the google calendar app. You can simply say what you want to be doing (ie “running” at the gym 4 times a week, if you want morning/afternoon/evenings & then the app schedules it into your calendar for you. For me it was much easier to tell myself to get off my butt & go to the gym if it was already in my diary, something about the mental preparation I suspect. It did mean I was often going to the gym at 10pm but at least I was going & I often find that evenings otherwise get swallowed in low yield activities…

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