This 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?