Whenever I poll audiences about what they’d like to spend more time doing, exercise almost always comes out on top. Push a little bit more, and people mention other activities that at first glance seem different, but broadly fall in the same category: writing and other creative activities, brand-building opportunities such as blogging, and so forth. These activities are all important but not urgent, as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People would put it. They also tend to be done for our own benefit, rather than for bosses or family members, and so they tend to fall to the bottom of the to-do list unless they are scheduled in. I also find that people fall into certain mindset traps that close off possibilities. We think things need to happen daily at the same time (that’s the 24-hour trap) and we think high quality activities require a lot of time (maybe I’ll start calling that the ‘perfect time’ fallacy).
Rethink these mindsets, though, and a lot of time opens up. Or at least some time, and in an incredibly full life, that might be good enough.
This past summer, I asked blog readers to submit time logs so I could run some more reader makeovers here. Among the respondents: Gillian, a full-time physician and mother of four kids, ages 9, 6, 3, and a baby. She lives in Westchester and works in New York City, which adds a commute to her time. She drives on the four days per week she starts work early. On the day she starts later (Thursday), she takes Metro North and the subway.
She sent me her time logs, which showed an admirable amount of time for relationships of various sorts, given her professional commitments. She had family dinner at least 3-4 times per week, tried to carve out one-on-one time with all her kids, and she and her husband went out either solo or with friends at least once a week. She went to church most weekends and she taught Sunday school. There was even a book club in there!
So what was missing? As with my audiences, Gillian told me she wanted to exercise more. “I see this as both a personal and career issue,” she said, as her particular specialty involves working with patients on weight loss. While on maternity leave with her baby in the spring, she ran or did yoga 5-6 times a week “and I felt great.” Back at work, though, the only exercise she did regularly was a walk/run with a friend on Saturday mornings.
She also said she wanted to write more, including posts for her practice website, and other medical writing. This brand-building would be helpful for her career. But, “right now writing has no home in my schedule so it rarely happens unless I am under the gun.”
The tricky issue for Gillian was that the low-hanging fruit was long gone. She had already outsourced most of her housework. She ordered most household items via Amazon Prime. Because she sometimes started seeing patients at 7 a.m., with the associated prep prior, she was up at 5 a.m. That meant that doing anything else in the morning was going to be tough. To wake up at 5, she had to be in bed at 10, if not before. This required winding down by 9/9:30 — not long after the older kids had been put to bed, and in any case, her evenings were often already full with her various social activities and church functions. Weekends tended to be consumed by family things.
However, she was doing some activity on the exercise and writing front. The Saturday morning workout with a friend was a good start, and on one early log she sent me, she’d done some medical writing during the baby’s nap on Sunday. She just wasn’t doing as much as she wanted, and the weekend nap was always in danger of going to something else.
She was correct that these things needed a home in her schedule in order to happen. Given her very full life, I thought she needed to accept that these homes would not be daily, and these homes might not be incredibly big. But they would exist, and often when we are doing things regularly, we make progress, and that makes life feel sustainable. It also sometimes creates the momentum and motivation to find other time slots that can be converted to high-value activities.
On the exercise front I had two suggestions. One was to find two other spots for a regular workout. If Saturday could happen, Sunday could happen. It was just a matter of looking at the weekend schedule and making a workout as much of a priority as the various kid activities. Then she could also add something in on Friday. Looking at her schedule, she got off relatively early on Fridays. She’d sometimes do errands, or do one-on-one time with the 3-year-old, which was perfectly fine, but probably didn’t need to consume all the time before the older kids were out of school. She could work out after work, possibly in Central Park (she was close enough), and start the afternoon schedule 45 minutes later, and get both.
Three work outs a week is not bad at all. But she didn’t have to stop there. I suggested she think beyond formal exercise and just look for opportunities to regularly get more walking into her days. That’s something she’d probably help her patients do, and she could too. She was already doing a reasonable amount of walking that wasn’t captured in her log. Her town in Westchester is quite walkable, and she’d walk from the subway when she was doing the train commute. One option she could add: parking slightly farther away from work. If she was normally parking somewhere that it took her 5 minutes to get to her desk, and she found a place to park that was 12 minutes from her desk, that would be an extra 14 minutes of walking per day, or close to an hour a week. Given the nature of commuting, it would likely be brisk walking too. And honestly, it might not require finding an extra 7 minutes on each side. It takes some time to drive that extra bit in Manhattan, and we often lose bits of time here and there in the cracks. Breaks during the day could likewise be used for taking a quick stroll (vs. web surfing – though of course I always like when people read my blog as a break at work!)
As for finding time to write, I thought her best option might be turning her Thursday Metro North commute time into writing time. She often read during this time, but she had some time to read at night too, whereas she was too tired to write at night. She could get a solid 30 minutes both ways, and if she knew that she would be devoting 1 of her 168 hours to writing, she could start planning for what she would do with that time.
She liked both ideas. She tracked two more weeks later in the fall. “Both were a little atypical, but I am starting to realize there is no typical week,” she told me. She was semi-successful in implementing these changes. Writing on the train had not happened the weeks she tracked, because she began running into a colleague on the train, and would use the time to chat about work issues. But that would change as he was soon going to be taking a different train. She also said that in previous weeks she had used train time to write “and it worked well.”
Exercise was happening more consistently. She was getting two more workouts into her routine as suggested: generally a walk on Sunday (her mom had been visiting for a while so she walked with her) and on Friday afternoons after work. She had tried to add a Tuesday workout (this was also generally an earlier day) but that had not happened as consistently. What had worked: She found some extra places to park that were about 10 minutes from her office so she was getting 20 extra minutes of walking in on those four days. She liked the walk enough that she pondering getting off the subway one stop earlier on Thursday mornings too. When we emailed again a few days after she sent me her new log, she noted that she had tried it and it had worked well. “I find it perks me up a bit to have a brisk walk in the morning especially on the days when I start seeing patients at 7 a.m.,” she said.
Of course, in a life as full as hers, this time did not just magically appear. There were trade offs. “It is a little tough some afternoons when I am heading home to add in the 10-15 minutes to walk to the car,” she said. “I am often trying to get home for some activity I have to take a kid to and it can be a bit stressful to feel like I am trying to stretch time, but I haven’t been late for anything yet and I think I just need to get used to it.”
I’m curious if anyone else has tried any of these strategies for fitting time to exercise or write into their lives. Please let me know in the comments!