When other people eat your time

photo-232This week’s reader question comes from Becky, who posted this as a comment last week: “I have maybe 2.5 hours per weekday that are not dedicated to work/getting to work/eating/sleeping. I look at that time and make plans for it.” This is a great first step. However, “when the time actually comes, I find I’m re-directed into other things. Let’s walk the dog, let’s watch this show, the bathroom hasn’t been cleaned, there’s a piece of clothing we need clean for tomorrow, etc. It wouldn’t be an issue if it was 1 or 2 days a week that I didn’t get any ‘me’ time, but entire weeks can go by that it was all used up by others.”

So, she asks, “How do I be bold and take this time for myself?”

It’s a good question. If we’re already busy, having our limited free time eaten up by things we don’t want to do is incredibly frustrating. Even more insidious, sometimes these suggestions or demands are reasonably entertaining (watching a show), but they’re not what you’d choose if others weren’t around. So how do you assert your own interests?

The best answer is already wrapped into Becky’s question of how do I be bold. Carving out time for your own interests is primarily about just this: being bold. It is about believing that your time is a valuable currency, and that it is largely yours to dole out as you wish. To quote one of the busiest women I ever interviewed, “Everything I do, every minute I spend is my choice.” True, there are things we need to do with our time, just as we have bills we need to pay. But if you decide you don’t want to do something you are doing, you likely have the power to do something about it.

For example, if you want to go for a run, and yet someone else wants a garment washed for the next day, you can decide that this is not your problem. Other people can have problems without their becoming your problems. This is true even if you care about someone. If someone wants to watch a show, and you don’t want to watch that show, you can say “I’d like to do X,Y, Z instead, thanks for asking.” Then go do it. Your partner isn’t going to leave you because you elected not to watch Mad Men, particularly if you are investing in the relationship on other occasions. Your children aren’t going to stop loving you because they had to wear a different pair of pants to school.

Of course, placing a high priority on one’s own interests is often easier said than done, and is easier for some people than others. I have a reasonable tolerance for mess, so it does not bother me a whit to sit there and read for half an hour while there are dishes in the sink or laundry in the hamper. On the grand scale of human personalities, I’m probably also not so tilted to the side of wanting to accommodate people. This has its downsides, I’m sure. People on the accommodating side likely have better social lives. They would not have been surprised about the village coming through for them, as I wrote in a previous post. Half the town would have had chits they could call in when the kids all needed be be different places at the same time. But that is what it is.

In any case, there are tactics to bat people off when you decide you’d like to do your own thing, and yet still be willing to compromise on the margins. For instance: “I’d love to watch that show with you at 10 p.m. Right now I’m going to go read my book for an hour.”

Or you can remind the person of occasions when you already have compromised. “Yes, the dog does need to be walked. I did that yesterday. Thank you for taking care of that today.” Then just stand your ground and wait. People often count on accommodating people to give in. When you don’t, they might get flustered at first, but conflict itself need not be feared if it’s the price of getting what you want. If you decide that you are willing to participate, set a limit on it. “I can go with you for ten minutes to catch up and then I’ve got something I need to take care of at 7.”

As for chores, in general, a key insight is that they will always be there. They can fill all available space. There is always something else you could be doing. You could be worrying about whether your spoons are loaded into the dishwasher correctly (something Real Simple recently told me was one of the 8 Cleaning Mistakes You’re Probably Making). Since chores can expand to fill the available space, if you want to have leisure time, you have to commit to doing your leisure activities first, and then letting the chores fill in around the edges. If you wind up having less time than you think you will, then the chores might not get completely done, but oh well. At least you will have had your leisure time. As I always say, there is no 11 p.m. inspection, with someone coming to your house to check that all the toys are put away and dishes cleaned. The house will just get dirty again, but you’ll never get that hour back.      

A few other practical suggestions: First, start small. If you’ve spent a lifetime accommodating people, it might feel dread-inducing to commit to a “no.” But most of the time, people care far less than we think they will. So start with something low stakes, such as turning down a TV show, rather than bowing out of a whole planned Saturday excursion. When earth doesn’t crash into the sun, you’ll feel emboldened.

But an even easier practice is this: disappear. If I’m with my family, there may be frequent requests, and I will have to manage these requests. And while I can say no, saying no frequently wears you down. If you’re not there, you don’t field as many of these requests. So if you’ve got potential leisure time, and other people will be home, you could announce that you’re heading out to the library, or going for a walk, or whatever you’d enjoy doing. Combine it with something “useful” if you want an excuse. Go read in your car for half an hour and then go to the grocery store. But recognizing that your interests are worthy of your time is part of living a a full, good life. No one else will look out for your interests like you will. How can we expect them to? People can’t read our minds.

How have you dealt with a situation where someone else was eating your time?

22 thoughts on “When other people eat your time

  1. I found this post helpful, Laura. I struggle with this a bit, tending to accomodate my husband more often than is good for him (and me). I watch more TV than I’d like because that’s something my husband and I do together–not the healthiest activity, I know. I’m much more comfortable with mess than he is, and after 26 years of marriage, I don’t think there is a balance that will keep us both happy here. So since I’m the one who does most of the cleaning, I get to say how clean the house is. (If he wants it cleaner, he can either do it himself or hire someone to take up the slack.) I’m becoming less accomodating as I get older!

    1. @Kathy – thanks! And yes, if someone has much higher housekeeping standards than the other party, then that person can do it to his/her standards. In many cases, there is no objective right answer to how often things need to be cleaned.

  2. I think it can also help if you can arrange your free time to occur when no one can bother you. For example, all my personal time happens from 5-7am when no one is awake. I can exercise, breakfast, read a bit and shower before anyone else can make demands of my time.

  3. This is such a tough issue for me. I find myself giving a lot to groups and organizations I belong to because I often feel I’m one of the few willing to put in the work — Girl Scouts, church, etc. So many parents I know claim they are too overbooked or just don’t seem to care. But as a result, I don’t get much done for myself.

    1. @Danelle – it is a tough issue. One option might be giving yourself a budget for volunteer work. You can set it based on whatever is reasonable in your life (4 hours a week? or more or less based on what you’re doing now) but when you’ve used that allotted time, you need to bat it off to someone else or accept that it won’t happen. If the Girl Scouts do one fewer field trip, it probably won’t be the end of the world. I think it’s also good to keep some filter for volunteer work you find personally really fun or meaningful, and not just good because it’s good for the world. I mentor op-eds through the Op-Ed Project because it keeps my editing skills sharp and has also introduced me to the writing of some fascinating people who’ve often become sources. I am willing to host parties for things; that’s something I enjoy doing. I also write checks. In many cases, I assume that’s as much or more welcome than time.

  4. I’ve had the best luck with just discussing the problem head on with my husband, and agreeing ahead of time that certain blocks of time “belong” to each one of us. He gets Sunday mornings right now, because he’s in a kick where he wants to go for monster runs (like approaching marathon length). Since that means that anything I want to do on Sunday morning is now interruptable when the kids need something, I have no qualms claiming time for myself other times. I do find that my time is most relaxing if either he takes the kids to the park or I leave. I do tell them “go ask Daddy” when they interrupt during “my time,” but it is even nicer not to be interrupted. My husband is more than happy to reciprocate and give me some time to myself, but he would not have volunteered to do it. He tends to assume that if I need/want something, I’ll tell him. So I tell him. It is similar to having a point of contention at work, really- it is almost always better to address it head on early, before it festers into a sore point.

    1. @Cloud – you bring up a good point on some people just assuming that if you want/need something you will ask for it. So really, the kind thing to do is to ask, not assume he/she can read your mind.

    2. We were doing this regularly for a while too, and I’d like to start it up again maybe in the New Year once our schedule is more “normal”.

      Basically, we’d each “call” a weekend morning or afternoon where we could disappear completely into an activity, either in home or away and the other person was responsible for the kids.

      It was luxurious to know during the week that I’d have a guaranteed whole four hour block to myself on the weekend.

      1. @ARC – a guaranteed block of time to do what you want is key to making weekends feel relaxing. If you’re co-parenting, each parent can get a slot. If you’re on your own, this is totally worth making friends to swap playdates with (or hiring a sitter).

  5. Some ways that I make time for myself with 2 little kids (and I’m not an “accommodator” either so it comes easier for me):

    –I have one volunteer commitment per week and the rest of my “giving” is financial. Time is extremely precious to me right now.
    –I don’t do housework while the kids are napping or in bed unless it’s a dire situation or a deadline (laundry before vacation, etc)
    –We are big on self-sufficiency (aka lazy parents) – my 5yo can get her own breakfast, the girls work together to unload the dishwasher and put away clean laundry, etc.
    –I stopped watching TV. I am still working on Internet distraction, but at least I recognize it now 🙂
    –I sign myself up for classes in person – this Saturday I have the second half of an all-day photography workshop. I can’t get enough of continuing education, both for my career stuff and personal stuff. I clear it with hubby in advance, but I don’t worry about his parenting ability while I’m gone.

  6. To add to what some others have said: yes to self-sufficiency and also delegation. I’m getting better at pawning tasks back off onto the person who asked (teaching them to do it the first time). assigning the job to someone else who is competent, or considering using a service. Our CSA box is important to us, but my husband and I realized that we were not willing to spend an extra two hours a week in traffic to pick up the box so now we have it delivered. This of course takes advance planning so does not address Becky’s in-the-moment issues, but if the same trends occur over and over, it might be worth thinking about a laundry service, cleaning service, etc. Amazon Prime solves many problems in our household!

  7. If this is a chance in the relationship/family structure, it might be worth having a conversation about it first – and also planning to spend some time with the person who usually wants to watch TV or walk the dog (assuming that’s more about being together than meeting the dog’s needs). “I have to have that shirt for TOMORROW” is the primary reason my daughter has been doing her own laundry since she was 11. Having a joint family calendar makes it easier for me to block off time for myself – I enter it on the calendar and then my husband can work around it. Consideration and communication go a long way. Change is still hard and there will be pushback – courage!

    1. @Jay- courage indeed! Which is often a new way to think — that our closest interpersonal relationships might require courage. It’s more an emotion one associates with taking risks in the outside world, but the stakes may be just as high at home.

  8. I’m big on disappearing. I disappear one night and one weekend day (not the whole day, but all the same) per week, and it’s a wonderful thing. I also disappear by e.g. going for a run on my lunch hour at work and then getting home later than I otherwise would (because my real lunch, when I don’t do that, I usually just munch while I’m working).

    My husband is out of the house 2 nights/week (his disappearing time) and this simplifies my life 2 ways — dinner those nights becomes something like cheese quesadillas and apple slices, and once DS is in bed, I have the house to myself and can do what I want.

    I also often squeeze in runs around my son’s soccer or basketball practices (or games). Each practice/game lasts an hour, which is plenty of time for me to arrive, get DS checked in, and then go for a run and get back. I usually stay close by (e.g. run around the perimeter of the soccer fields), as DS is still at an age where it’s required (by the volunteer organizations that set this up) that a parent do so, though occasionally I’ll give my phone # to another mom and ask her to call me if DS gets bowled over or otherwise needs parental attention. And my phone makes it pretty easy also to (a) read books; (b) update various lists (to do, grocery); and/or (c) check/respond to/clear out emails, during those intervals as well. Some of those things are “me” things and some are chores, but getting them done while stuck there is useful!

    1. @Alexicographer – I’m glad to see another vote for the disappearing act. Our sitter stays later two nights per week, and those nights I’ve just started going to the library. If I’m home, the kids will probably manage to find me at some point. So better to get out and, while I’m working, there can be personal time around it (e.g. stopping to pick up dinner for myself or running a short personal errand).

    2. Disappearing is where it’s at! I’m definitely your classic introvert (as everyone is talking about these days) and when I get ‘me’ time I like to do solitary things usually, like reading. However, in the house there is always a chore calling or someone to find you. Driving to get a coffee and parking near a lake in our area to read while drinking it has solved that problem!

      1. @Suzanne – hmm… maybe I need to explore this concept of disappearing some more. It sounds like a lot of people use it as a strategy. I really do think it’s a good one.

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