Defining time to navigate a new life

4246961572_4c0018b542_mFor the past few weeks, I’ve been running time makeovers here on the blog. First there was Lisa Lane, from whom we learned How to cope when life is crazy busy crazy. Then Jamaal Myles brought us Productivity for spontaneous sorts.

Today’s makeover features Deanna Lanoway, who lives in Winnipeg. She manages a large Canadian national research program, which means she has employees and co-workers crossing 4 time zones. She works from home some of the time, and from a remote office some of the time. She also recently separated from her husband, with whom she splits custody of their two children. Their custody arrangement works on roughly a 2-week cycle: he has Mon-Tues, she has Wed-Thurs, and they alternate Fri-Sat-Sun. So while it works for many people to manage their time on a 168-hour basis, Lanoway needed to start thinking in terms of 336.   

Navigating a separation isn’t easy for anyone, and “understandably, my 2 children suddenly need far more personal attention, so in addition to the standard commitments of sports activities and lessons, I also need to give each of them one-on-one time to talk whenever they are with me,” Lanoway reports. She was also trying to take care of herself: “Self-care is a big priority in my life; less than a year ago I took time away from work to nurse and care for my sister as she died — leaving me with many spiritual questions and imperatives.” She was trying to write a book about this time with her sister, and “regardless of whether it is published, completion is a major goal, although I do not seem able to carve out the time for it.”

Lanoway logged her time for a week and sent me her schedule. She was naturally using some of her job’s variable nature to work longer on the days she didn’t have her kids, and less on the days she did. She was also filling some of the time she didn’t have her kids with exercise, getting together with friends, and other fun stuff (there was a spa appointment in there!)

In other words, she was edging toward a good schedule. She just needed to codify a few things in order to assure herself that they were happening, and life was (somewhat) in control. For instance, she could officially block out the nights she had her children, so she knew she’d be available to them then if they wanted to talk. It’s not that you can “schedule” time to help a child cope with family trauma, but consciously spending that time together would make more interactions possible. She could schedule regular activities with friends (exercise classes, book club, a volunteer gig, etc.) on non-kid days. That way, she’d know that time was filled and wouldn’t be thinking (as much) about missing her children.

If she wanted to write the book, she also needed to figure out a regular time that could happen. Those of you who’ve been around here for a while will not be surprised that I recommended first thing in the morning. Lanoway’s time log had her waking up before 6 most mornings anyway. The problem was that she was using this time to check the weather (it’s Canada, it’s winter, it’s cold!), check email, take out the recycling and other things that didn’t need to be done at peak-focus time. She could find a writing accountability partner to keep her on track.

Lanoway wrote back that her therapist also wanted her to take a class and was pushing yoga really hard, probably for its calming properties. She had an acquaintance in mind who could be her writing partner. And she decided to create a master schedule for her two week custody cycle, so she had a general sense of what she should be doing at any given time.

She sent me the master schedule, and I must say, it was quite a work of art. She’d designated Monday evenings for working late as needed. Tuesdays, she hit yoga class at 7 p.m. (finding a class at that time required making 6 phone calls to studios). After yoga, she scheduled in grocery shopping time. “Realizing I am missing groceries at the time when the kids rejoin me (Wednesdays) can sometimes lead to stressful shopping, frantic and expensive choices on Wednesday at 4 p.m.” Thanks to the master schedule, that would not happen. She blocked out some early mornings for writing, and some (when she didn’t have the kids) for hikes or skiing. She blocked out Wednesday 4 p.m. – 10 p.m. for kid availability time, and “Kid Choice” activity time on weekends after their sports. She even emailed several friends to tell them which Fridays she was officially available for get-togethers.

So the question, of course, is whether the master schedule worked. She tried it out for a week, and had a few observations:

First, “Although having a plan made it more likely that I’d dedicate time to myself and what I know is important to me, it also made it much harder to live with myself when I failed. I slept in one day and the guilt was overwhelming.”

Second, mornings really were her best time. This was good to know — she needed to be careful to protect that time for high value work. The problem? Writing in the morning was turning out to work against that aim. “Writing in the morning was productive (I have an extra 24 pages now) but taxing,” she told me. “Because the topic of my writing is the death of my sister, I began every day (with the exception of the day I slept in) tremendously depressed. On the weekend I had a conference to attend, and had planned to rearrange things in order to write as intended. But after I got home from the conference I consciously chose not to follow my schedule because I was feeling good, and didn’t want to become depressed again.”

I wasn’t really sure what to say about this. Lanoway has to decide if now is the right time for writing about her sister, getting all the emotions about that out at the same time she is in the immediate aftermath of a separation, or if it’s too much to take all at once. She wasn’t sure either. “I don’t like being depressed. But I know that I need to get this written. It’s become a thread in the tapestry of my life, so to speak.” For all these reasons, seeing her therapist is a good idea, even if the therapist’s yoga suggestion missed the mark: “I do know that I don’t like Yoga. I’m doing it because everyone else thinks I should, and because I said I would and paid for the 10 weeks. Maybe I can try Tai Chi next.”

One upside? Her kids were happy that she’d defined time just for them. “They saw my schedule and were actually quite excited by the special time I’d put in for them to choose an activity or to spend time with me. I was surprised — but they are old enough to know how busy I am and clearly there were things unspoken with them about what gets my attention.” Defining time for certain priorities made life more doable, even in the midst of a lot of emotional upheaval.

Do you designate certain blocks of time for focusing on different things?

Photo courtesy flickr user MissMessie

6 thoughts on “Defining time to navigate a new life

  1. Wow, DL sounds like a great person I’d like as a friend. Having lost my sister three years ago, I feel great compassion for her situation. Much as she wants to write the book, it does sound like a lot to handle at the same time as the separation. Plus, her feelings of intense grief and sadness could affect the children.

    What is the deeper purpose behind the book? Does it have to be a book? Could it take a less ambitious form? I’ve always found the act of writing to be so cathartic and a way to move my emotions to another place, so I’m somewhat surprised that the writing is so painful.

    One other thought: I suggest going back to the yoga teacher, explaining that yoga isn’t your thing, and asking if you can get at least a partial refund.

    1. @Louisa- I tend to find writing cathartic too, but I suppose not everyone does. And sometimes it can make me angry if I’m writing about certain things.

  2. Who knew a time makeover could be touching? Best wishes to Deanna as she makes her way in her new life. I’ll be interested to read a follow-up in how she’s doing.

    1. @WG – part of the fun of doing these makeovers has been getting back in touch with people after a few weeks to see how everything is going. As I always tell people, some ideas work and some just don’t.

  3. I find this particular makeover very interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional timing. (I actually blogged about something similar recently.) My best friend was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and on the days she has tests and treatments, I’m noticeably less focused and productive. When you’re in a creative profession (teaching/writing, for me) these emotional hits are especially hard to handle. Getting up in front of a class of kids two days after a loved one dies is incredibly challenging. But “getting back on the horse” as soon as possible is also important. I sympathize with Deanna’s need to tell her sister’s story and the difficulties of doing so. Maybe she can aim for smaller chunks of time, some in the morning and some at night, so it doesn’t become a long period of dealing with difficult emotions. When she’s finished with the book and if she wants to polish it, editing could be moved back to the mornings. It would likely be easier to handle at that point, having already lived through those feelings in the first draft.

  4. Wow – what a story! Best wishes to Deanna as she charts her new path.

    Sharing this post with a friend that’s going thru the same thing.

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