How can I achieve my personal goals when I commute and work long hours?

photo-209I had another great question come in from a reader this week. I’d like to address reader questions more frequently, so please, send them in! This reader is in his early 30s and would like to figure out his long-term career path. He currently supervises counselors who work with children with special needs. The challenge is that these kids and counselors are in a 24-hour setting, which means he’s got long hours that don’t come at “normal” times. His schedule:

Monday: 9am-6pm
Tuesday: 9am- 11pm
Wednesday: 1pm-9pm
Thursday: 3pm-11pm
Friday: 12pm- 8pm
Sat: 10am-6pm

He also has a 45-minute commute. He told me that he was pretty good about working out after his shift, Monday through Friday. He had heard advice from me and others that mornings were a great time to tackle important-but-not-urgent things but “Due to the late nights and the fluctuation in times, I find it near impossible to have any semblance of a ‘morning.’ I am also trying to figure out a career path and find an apartment and my current prioritization and time management skills, or lack thereof, have left me basically no time to focus on these important issues. Add on errands and I have no time for relationships or leisure time either. I feel as if I am just spinning my wheels and, except for my exercising, am relatively unproductive.” He wrote that he wanted to find “joy and satisfaction in my days, not simply trudge through them.”

That’s a great desire. So how could he make time for figuring out these big questions, and for having fun too?

If you add his hours up, you get a 55-hour work week. Add in 12 iterations of the 45-minute commute (9 total hours) and you get 64 hours committed to work. It’s a long week. Of course, it’s not the total week. If he sleeps 56 hours, that still leaves 48 hours available for other things.

That’s not nothing, but I suspected from our correspondence that this was as much an energy question as anything else. This is a demanding job. He has hours available, but after 6 tough days, I doubt he wants to ponder anything career-related on Sundays. Likewise, if he comes home at close to 1 a.m. on Tuesday (after working out and commuting) and wakes up at 9 a.m. Wednesday, it’s easy to focus on the fact that he has to leave again by 12:15 p.m., and just putter around or go buy milk until then. (As a side note, most friends or dates are not available from 9 a.m. to noon on a Wednesday either).   

It’s complicated, but since our reader is managing to exercise multiple times per week, even after long, late work days, I think he’s quite capable of making progress toward other goals. Goals like “figure out my career” and “find a relationship” are complex. But there are a few strategies he can use to manage his energy while devoting time to these things.

First, he can let himself relax a bit. Sunday should be a “me time” day. He should fill it only with things he wants to do. When I interviewed Mike Huckabee for What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend, he also mentioned this 6-day workweek phenomenon. So on Sundays, he’s focused on doing what will rejuvenate him. In his case, it’s church, time walking on the beach, reading, and having friends over. Our reader should likewise treat Sunday as a fun, non-worry day. He need not think about these big questions (other than having fun and getting together with friends — things he could aim to do during this off time). From Saturday at 6:45 p.m. when he gets home until he goes to bed on Sunday night, he should simply do whatever is necessary to recharge his batteries for Monday.

As for other goals, it might help to physically map out his schedule on a 168-hour time sheet. He’ll soon see that, even taking into account the commute, exercise, and sleep, there are some non-work blocks of time available. If he knows where these are (and it sounds like the schedule is somewhat set, or at least he knows it ahead of time and can plan for it), he can start to think of them as options to play around with. Here are some open, non-work slots:

M: 8-10 p.m.
W: 9 a.m. – noon
Th: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.
F: 9 a.m. – 11 a.m.

It’s hard to figure out what should be a top priority. While in general figuring out a career path would top finding an apartment, my sense was that the latter was a bit more pressing, and hence stress-inducing. So, looking at his schedule, our reader could spend time Wednesday and Friday morning looking at apartments until he gets an awesome one (maybe one that’s closer to his gym and his work!)

Once that’s taken care of, those Wednesday and Friday slots can be re-deployed to career questions. He can use that time to read career books, take online personality and career assessments, ask people to tell him about his strengths, picture when he was happiest in life and so forth. This is a somewhat eternal question, and the truth is there may not be the perfect career for anyone. So it might help to keep his motivation up by not considering this an eternal question. He could call it a 12-week Passion Project. For the next 12 weeks or so, until January, he is going to spend 5 hours per week researching careers and talking to people and trying to figure this question out. There’s no guarantee he’ll figure out what he wants to do with his life by January, but anyone can stick with something for 3 months — especially someone who manages to work out after getting off work at 9 p.m.!

Monday is a potential night for getting together with friends or doing low-key dates. Looking at his schedule, I personally like the idea of treating Thursday before he leaves for work at 2:15 p.m. as a quasi-weekend day. That is his day to do what he wants with: watch TV, read, play games, etc. No pressure at all. If need be, he can spend an hour of this doing errands, but he should try to keep that compressed as much as possible. People need time off, and if he’s not getting that time off on Saturday, due to his work schedule, he should relish that time on Thursday. It’s got an end to it, sure, but 5-6 hours can contain a lot of fun, too.

What advice do you have for making progress toward big goals when you work long hours?

Photo: Everyone in Lego Town is hard at work!

11 thoughts on “How can I achieve my personal goals when I commute and work long hours?

  1. when I had more erratic hours (trainee in health care profession, with long hours, weekend and overnight shifts) i would do everything I could to compress “personal errands” I would run one errand every night getting off work (get groceries on the way home, get dry cleaning on the way home, etc) so it wouldn’t sap all my energy but it didnt’ become a Saturday “Errand day” either. the perk for this person is that he has one weekday morning free, and errands during a weekday is often times more efficient (shorter lines at grocery or oil change place, get earliest appt at the dentist, etc). I found my schedule challenging as I felt sleep deprived. but hanging out with friends was recharging/energizing so I sacrificed some sleep for this. this was not a “”Forever” situation as I have completed training and have more regular (but still long) hours, and I find the routinized hours more helpful than the actual duration of work hours. If I were this person I would not waste hours by sleeping in on the days he goes into work late. If he stays regimented, he can do a lot of other activities in his free hours.

    1. @amy – this is good advice. Even people with more regular and shorter hours can let errands take up the whole weekend. It’s good to have some time off with no have-to-dos. And yes, not sleeping in, even if you technically can, opens up time. I don’t recommend sleep deprivation, but setting an alarm for 7.5-8 hours after getting in bed (and making a point of getting in bed as soon as possible after getting home from late nights) opens up some serious time.

  2. i like this post and the suggestions — and that thinking through others’ schedule challenges often gives me ideas that apply to my own!

    agree with errand consolidation — he needs to make sure he is not wasting too many precious hours with things like laundry, cleaning and procrastination from those things 🙂

  3. To me, his commute seems like great “figure out what to do with my life” time. If he’s driving, can he listen to relevant podcasts or informational CDs from the library? If he’s taking the bus/train, can he use that time to do an online class or something else to work toward his professional goals? I have a friend who did almost all of her studying for the 1st actuarial exam (not an easy test) during her long commute to and from work. And if his commute is really not a good time for studying, maybe he could try to make it as enjoyable as possible by finding podcasts/music/books on CD that he really enjoys. Also, since he’s looking for an apartment, maybe he could find one closer to work.

    1. @Chelsea – good point, and I think he may be doing some of this. He wrote to me that he’d been listening to my book, so I assume that’s happening in the car. So yes, it might be a good idea to more consciously think of commuting time as figure-out-my-passion time. He can listen to podcasts and audiobooks related to careers he finds interesting. Then he can use those morning slots for activities that can’t be done in the car (sending emails, meeting people for coffee, etc.)

  4. My first thought—after “that’s a lot of hours to work” and “ugh what a sucky commute” (hopefully he can move closer to work? that’ll save HOURS) was “what a cool mix of hours to have for free time!”. On random weekdays you can get errands done more efficiency, and you can do things like apartment hunting or dr. appointments that are easier to schedule during 9-5. But he also still has Saturday evenings and all day Sunday to participate in weekend activities/parties/dates.
    I think he needs to think outside the box in terms of social life. He’s got to have some friends that aren’t on the M-F 9-5 schedule that he could meet for coffee or lunch or even better, to work out together or go work in the coffee shop together (work on career planning). Same for future romantic partners—maybe breakfast for a FIRST date is a little out there, but once you’ve gone on a couple of dates, if the other person also has an odd schedule, you can have dates anytime.
    I guess, like everything, its about being intentional with the time, and thinking creatively.

    1. @Ana – I like the idea of breakfast early dates. It’s low key, and there’s usually a defined end time since somebody probably has to get to work.

      But yes, I think it is helpful to spell out exactly what your non-work, non-commuting hours are, and then ask what you’d like to do and divvy those slots up accordingly. If you know Thurs AM is your semi-weekend time, then you can be more deliberate about it then if the only thought is “man, I’m at work or in my car a lot.” (which is true in this case!)

  5. I really rate breakfast as a catch up with friends time. I’ve got a regular group of 7 ex-colleagues who I meet up with about once a month for breakfast. We worked out the other day we’ve been doing this for 9 years! In that time, the composition of the group has varied as people move away/move back and has grown to include kids (as two of the group got married to each other!). What hasn’t changed though is that we meet up from 7 or 7.30 to 8.45am on a Friday near the central city. It’s not a heap of time, but it still feels fun and gets the day off to a good start.

  6. Laura, I LOVE this post! Makes me want to apply your strategy to my own schedule.

    Maybe you could have an Ask Laura column…

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