Time makeover: Make your week day evenings count more

4694387543_75b9dc9d93_zLong time readers know that over the past few years, I’ve been exploring best practices for making the most of many segments of the week. First came mornings, then weekends, then work days. I wrote a piece for Fast Company recently on What Successful People Do During Lunch. So what does that leave?

Week day evenings — which have long been a struggle for me to use well. I think they are for many people, which I was reminded of when I studied the schedule of someone whose life is very different from mine.

Mark is a senior vice president at a major bank. His children are grown, and he lives by himself. He responded to my call for time logs this winter, and sent me his schedule.

His 168 hours spreadsheet showed that he had a good life. He exercised regularly in the mornings before working at his office from 8-5:30 or so. He spent his work days on lots of high quality activities: planning meetings before they happened, coaching his direct reports. He saw his girlfriend a few nights per week when they often socialized with other couples.

The issue was what happened on the other nights. After noting when he ate dinner in his time log, he then cut and pasted his spreadsheet entry from one night to the next: “TV, games, email, read magazines.” While this was partly seasonal — he plays a lot of golf on summer evenings — he did feel he could make better use of these after work hours during the months when he couldn’t play golf in his midwestern state. He asked for some suggestions.

My first thought was to start fantasizing about what I’d do with my evenings if I didn’t have to answer to anyone else. But I also realized that Mark’s question was one many of us will face. There will come a time in most of our lives when we can start adding things back in. When we get busy with work and young families, we let a lot of hobbies and activities go. Then, slowly at first, but then inexorably, we realize that hours that were once unavailable are available again. What should we do with them?

Even if our evening hours aren’t free like Mark’s are, there may be more choices available to us than we realize. My kids and I often fall into the usual routine of eating dinner, then watching TV or bickering over toys in the basement until the toddler’s bedtime. There are other things we could be doing. But all these things take effort and decision. The problem is that it’s easy to get into the habit of letting these hours pass without thinking through how we want to spend them, and so we let them slip through our fingers.

There is nothing wrong with leisure. I love true leisure time. But there is a big difference between coming home anticipating turning on the new movie you ordered that’s directed by someone whose work you just discovered…and coming home and watching something on HGTV that’s mildly interesting, but not that interesting, just because it’s the channel that happens to be on. There’s a big difference between spending an evening reading a book you got at the library because your friend said the author was fantastic… and spending an evening flipping through a magazine you already flipped through before, just because it’s there. And in my case, I can let the evenings happen with all their whining and kid TV marathons, or I can nudge the kids into some activity (like stroller races down the driveway) that I know will put us in a better mood as we enjoy the late summer evening light.

Even just having a project to absorb you — cooking something challenging, perhaps, or decorating the house — can shove off that sense that these hours are wasted.

So that’s what I suggested to Mark. We spent some time on the phone thinking up activities he’d enjoy for his evenings. He thought he could try a few on occasion. Not every night. Sometimes you really want to do nothing. But nothing gets old after a few nights in a row.

He did wind up taking on a few projects, like making some more elaborate dishes (he reported he’d tried a nice sirloin beef stew). He painted the bathroom, the spare bedroom, and the hallway leading to his front door. And then, of course, the weather got warm, and it was out to the golf course. The key for Mark — and all of us — is to find activities that make us as happy as golf makes him, or are mildly enjoyable if your options are more constrained than Mark’s. Then we can make space for these things in the evening hours. Things you love to do are generally energizing, not draining, which makes them great to do in the evening after you’re tired from work.

How do you spend your evenings? If your evenings are spent caring for young children, how do you anticipate spending your evenings once they’re older — or how did you spend your post-work evenings before they were born? In my young single days, I actually sang in three separate choirs in NYC to get me out of the house in the evenings.

In other news: If you like these time makeovers, please consider pre-ordering the paperback of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. This compilation of my bestselling ebook series contains several bonus time makeovers, as well as time management tips. You can purchase from Amazon here and Barnes & Noble here.

Photo courtesy flickr user fauxto_digit

17 thoughts on “Time makeover: Make your week day evenings count more

  1. I went to grad school and worked, so my evenings were often “free”. In the summer, I hiked or roller bladed. In the winter, I’d like to reach out to the less fortunate. One of my acquaintances in grad school chaperoned Friday night dances for developmentally disabled adults. This sounds appealing- worthwhile, but not incredibly demanding after a week of thinking at work.

    1. @TG – Mark and I discussed options for volunteering. This is a great idea, though volunteer programs aren’t always set up around people who can offer nights and weekends but not work days. That has been one of the great things about the Hands On Network — their volunteer programs are structured to be low commitment (if you do have to work late, someone else can step in) and mostly nights/weekends.

  2. Yes about the mindless leisure time thing. I find that when we fall into leisure, we usually end up spending it in ways that aren’t particularly fulfilling, but if we make a point of mindfully choosing leisure activities, we end up being more rested and refreshed.

    1. @The Frugal Girl – exactly. It’s not even a “don’t watch TV” sort of thing. TV is fine, but why watch shows you don’t care about when you can watch stuff you do?

      1. how do you get that list ? maybe do a few posts on that … I just watched invisible war which like a lot of great films wasn’t on Netflix — sometimes we stumble on good movies like on netflix we watched that one about the hands about the black dr at john hopkins who separated teh first twins.. we stumbled on it… but it is hard to stumble on great stuff which is one of the problems withthe technology — it is all available to you except what you most should be consuming or want to get into

        1. As an aside, I’ll note that this is one of the arguments against unbundling TV channels — the smaller, more unique ones will hurt the most. The best example I heard was that very few people plan to watch a National Geographic documentary. However, in the midst of channel surfing, they see the footage and get hooked into the program.

      2. Not having a real “TV” helps with this…but now I just spend more time internet surfing which is extremely non-fulfilling. At least when I watched TV I would often do it while doing other things (ironing, mending, or other mindless chores), but I need my fingers to swipe the phone.

  3. this is a good idea for an article — volunteer ideas for those with kids or working folks who want to give back or volunteer nights or weekends– as a working parent the activities we most enjoyed were the pool which is open until 8 most of the summer and when I had more energy I did sesame place weeknights from like 6 to 9 p.m. was always fun to be there for a few hours with the tourists on what was a ‘regular night’ for us… Id like to get back into tennis but still find it too stodgey and complicated and the kids a bit too little… reading is a hard thing to plan for and I’m tring to figure out a reading guide — like of fiction and non fiction that is of highest quality I’d be into… is it ny times review of books? a lot of women’s magazines have book sections but I find the long lists of books you coul try impractical and think a good article would be books by age … like working mom kids under 6 — here is yoru book list … there is a chemistry to this like not all people are into the same things.. .etc. how do do you find yoru playlist when it comes to music and reading if you are buys.. i don’t find itunes to be good at this mixing or any reading list sources good at this

    1. Cara, have you tried goodreads? I have a seldom-updated account, but I like looking at what a couple of my friends or my sister (who has similar taste in books) ranked highly and have gotten lots of ideas from there. I read a lot (and buy a lot of books) so amazon also gives me decent suggestions (“people who brought x also brought y…”). You’re right, its very complex and personal what you are going to like, there needs to be a Netflix style algorithm based on your ranking of things you’ve already read to give you suggestions. I definitely find reading lists in magazines useless (and they usually contain brand new books which are expensive to buy and not available in libraries).

  4. I’ve made a point of doing an outside of the house activity at least one weeknight a week this summer. It initially seemed like “too much work” but once we started, we find that we’re doing it more & more often. We like going to the pool, the library, picnics at the park (where we just bring our normal pre-made dinner heated up and put in plastic containers…no special “picnic food” required). Even one hour of doing something outside of our normal get home-dinner-clean-up-bath-bed routine is refreshing.
    Once the kids are in bed I like to either watch one episode of a good TV show with my husband or read a book (both with a glass of wine). If I start a book and don’t like it, I’ve finally become OK with quitting (something that took me a LONG TIME to figure out!)

    1. Ana, how long do you give the book before you give up? I’m starting to wonder whether I should quit books that are “meh” as opposed to ones I dislike.

      1. It varies. But lately if I’m not feeling excited about it, or notice that instead of reading the book I’m playing on my phone or anything else, than I put it aside and pick something else. I can always pick it up again later (if I own it) or even get it again from the library if I suddenly feel the urge to read it again. Some books I could NOT get into previously, I picked up again recently and flew through them. Then there are those that just really aren’t for me—by 10-25% in I can tell if I HATE the writing style or the subject matter is disturbing.

        1. @Ana- my problem is more getting started. I tend to feel like a novel is a big project, and I have a number of other big projects going on right now, so I don’t feel like doing that. I often like books once I start them. But I’ve also been reading a lot of short novels as I like to feel like I’ve accomplished something. I know, I know.

          1. Lately I have read a substantial number of long, substantive novels for work (what a pity, I know), which has made the selection of after-hours reading material more difficult. I’ve also gone the novella route combined with a small amount of pretty bad (but easy) contemporary fiction. While this novels-for-work phase lasts, the better answer might be more magazines, which unfortunately won’t be part of my work routine any time soon. 🙂

    2. @Ana- yes, breaking the dinner-bath-bed routine on occasion is key to sanity. People often feel like they have no time for fun, but that’s usable time. Especially in our case, in which the kids’ bedtimes turn out to be extremely flexible. Maybe I’ll take my kids somewhere tonight…

  5. I have a 2 year old and face some of the same issues you bring up here. Before I had him, I spent many evenings out with friends or reading for long periods of time. Now I find that I’m just trying to make it through the time after work until his bedtime when I can relax again. At that point, I’m so tired I’m just ready for bed and have trouble focusing on much of anything. Things I’ve tried include: letterboxing, making felted wool balls while watching TV, reading, attending classes at our community library, and going to book club meetings. I’d love to socialize more like I used to before kids 🙂

    1. If you have friends who don’t have kids, they can always come over and visit you after your son goes to bed. That’s how we managed to socialize with friends for a while. But yes, the care of a 2-year-old after a full day of work is pretty exhausting. That’s why I read a lot of magazines.

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