Reader question: I finally have time. What should I do with it?

Many of the time management dilemmas I hear about stem from a place of scarcity. People feel like they lack time for the things they want to do, and they’re trying to figure out how to change their lives to make these activities fit.

But sometimes time dilemmas spring from the stranger font of abundance. Life circumstances change, and people know they have time, at least for a while. They want to make good choices with it. Figuring out what those choices should be turns out to be more complicated than it might seem.

This is what I thought about when I heard from long-time reader Anandi, who sometimes comments here as ARC. She and her family (consisting of her husband and 7-year-old and 4-year-old daughters) recently moved from Seattle to California. As a result of this move, Anandi, who works in the software industry, is not currently working. She plans to do contract work or look for a job again in about 6 months, but she’s giving herself some time off first to get settled in to her new home.

Her daughters go to school, though the 4-year-old has just a half day. So in theory, she only has 3 hours a day to work with, but “my kids are pretty self-entertaining now,” she says, “so I actually have a lot more time on my hands. And this is where I’m stuck. I have an overwhelming list of things I need to do, but also want to savor this time with no job.” She wants to do all the things — scrapbooking, cooking, doing activities with the kids, and exercising — that she felt like she had less space for when she was commuting and working full time.

“I absolutely 100% have time to do these things but I’m paralyzed by the freedom of this new schedule,” she says. “There is a ton of little stuff to deal with regarding the move (pet license, address changes, small home improvements, errands, cleaning etc) and I could get consumed in those all day if I wanted to.” She also wants to work on her resume, LinkedIn profile, and do some networking so that her job prospects are strong when she decides to go back to that.

“Apparently I need structure,” she says. So her question: how can she adopt enough structure to get all the little things done, and yet also enjoy her time off from work? I love how she phrased her goal: “I need to feel like I’m swimming in time, but still getting my important things done.”

It’s an interesting question to ponder. I heard a related one at a talk recently from someone who was newly retired. He’d had various things he’d put off while working that he needed to take care of, and he had various things he wanted to do as well, but he wasn’t sure how to blend them all together.

Here’s my advice for anyone in a new life situation that involves more disposable time:

Make a List of 100 Dreams. I originally heard this idea from life coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine. In workshops, I get people started on making a long list of anything they want to spend time doing. Ideally these are relatively specific things (e.g. visit the Grand Canyon, make a scrapbook about a kid’s kindergarten year, plant a citrus grove, whatever). This list should be unedited. You are not holding yourself to anything on the list. It’s anything you might possibly like to do. (Ceniza-Levine put “learning to sew” on her list, then took a sewing class, and hated it!) The point is simply to spend some contemplative time thinking about what might deserve a space in your life.

Prioritize for the time you have, pacing yourself. In Anandi’s case, she’s pretty sure she’ll be looking at employment in 6 months, so she could pick maybe 12 things she wants to try from that list (the equivalent of 2 per month). That’s a good pace in general for people with limited time off. A new retiree might aim to do 12 things from the list in the first year, as retirement tends to go on for a while. While some items might happen quite quickly, which makes this seem like a slow pace, others will take longer (e.g. “take a pottery class” — that could be a weekly commitment for 12 weeks on its own of classes and studio time). Better to aim low and do the things you set out to do, rather than aim high and not get to things, and feel discouraged.

Get goals on the calendar. Once you’ve chosen your items from the list of 100 dreams to prioritize, block them into the calendar for the time you have (e.g. the first year of retirement, or the 6 months you’ll be off work). It’s not so much that your schedule is cluttered, and you have to fit these in. It’s more that by telling yourself there is a week to make that scrapbook (September 25, let’s say), you don’t ruminate on whether you should be doing it now, in August. There is a time for it, and now is not that time.

Now, look at the have-to-dos. The process is fairly similar. As with the List of 100 Dreams, make a good long list of anything that you feel “should” happen. Our new retiree might list the home renovation projects he put off, the life maintenance stuff (my eyeglasses are 5 years old!), etc. Anandi can list all her moving stuff and professional to-dos. Get it out of your head and onto a piece of paper (or electronic file).

Pace yourself. Some stuff (e.g. new drivers’ licenses and license plates) has to happen within 30 days or so of moving, but other stuff does not. Look at the list and start assigning yourself tasks on certain days. BUT I would suggest not going overboard here. Maybe 3-4 per week would be great. You might designate one day of the week to get as many of those done as possible, so the rest of the week feels relatively open — or “swimming in time” as Anandi put it.

Be open to serendipity. With both the dreams and the have-to-dos on the calendar, you can now relax and revel in your open space. You know you will get to the things you need and want to do, so now you can see what life feels like when you ask yourself what you feel like doing in any given moment. Go explore a new neighborhood or park. Find a good book and let yourself read all day if you like. Try a new recipe just because.

Record in order to savor. Savoring is a lovely psychological adaptation. Not only is something good happening, you are recognizing it, and calling your attention to it. That adds a second layer of enjoyment. One of the best ways to do this is to note, each day, the fun things you’ve done. A sentence in a one-sentence journal at night should do, or if you want to share publicly, a blog post with a picture. When you can look back and see all the wonderful things you’re experiencing, it’s hard to feel like you’re wasting time.

What would you recommend Anandi do? If you’ve ever had a few months of open time, how have you decided what to do with it?

A side note: Much of this advice is aimed at someone who finds herself voluntarily off from work. In the aftermath of a layoff, it can be much harder to relax and enjoy newly open space. There may be financial worries, and the uncertainty of exactly how much time off there will be. People may feel like they should spend all their time job hunting. If that’s the case, I’d alter the above scenario to build in a certain quantity of time per day (or tasks per day) for the employment search. If you do job search activities from 9-noon, for instance, then you can give yourself permission to relax and do what you’d like the rest of the day.

In other news: Thanks so much to everyone who’s downloaded the Best of Both Worlds podcast. We should cross 5000 downloads shortly! We’ll be on Stitcher by the end of the week, and the next episode will come out next Tuesday. If you’re on iTunes, please subscribe so you never miss an episode! And if you would be willing to rate and/or review the podcast, you will get my everlasting gratitude.

27 thoughts on “Reader question: I finally have time. What should I do with it?

  1. Great advice. I am recently retired and am just coming to the end of puppy training so I feel my schedule opening up again. While I was swamped I made a list of things I wish I could do.
    Some of the best advice I’ve received is to not do all the housework while the kids are at school. It feels so good to gain order and cleanliness, but then you’ve missed your “me” time, they’ll just mess it up and think that fairies do the work.

    1. @Lori – totally agreed on not using school hours for all of the housework. I also generally suggest stay-at-home parents not use nap time exclusively for housework. It does feel good to get it done, but that slice of me-time will be harder to get while the kids are awake, whereas you can unload the dishwasher while the kids are up. It might be harder, and you might get distracted, but so what.

    2. Such good advice especially the part about making them see *someone* has to do the work 😉 I also like to figure out how I can involve them in more chores. As they get older, I haven’t really been updating their chores accordingly because it feels like it takes too much time to teach them than just do it myself, but it really does pay off when I spend the time 😉 Plus I can justify it as “life skills”. 🙂

  2. YES! There MUST be a limit on housework/chores. It will expand to fill all the time you have if you let it. I’m afraid that’s what will happen to my husband when he retires. He has no idea what sorts of things he will do.

    I have my list of 100+ dreams. It will take me a while to get through it. And a lot of those things aren’t bucket list things – they’re things I want to be DOING, not just have DONE.

    I’m considering assigning one day a week to errands, one for housework, one for projects, etc. Or something like that. I’m sure it’ll take some experimentation and tweaking!

    1. @Ruth – I was thinking about the same sort of thing – certain days for specific tasks. Or maybe putting together a loose schedule so I am sure to spend 1 hour a week on job search stuff, a bit of time for cleaning, etc. I like the idea of “assigning” these things a time so I’m not having decision paralysis constantly about whether or not to do them right now.

  3. My kids finall start back to preschool next week after a 3.5 mo summer and I start an academic sabbatical for a year so I’m overwhelmed by the stretches of time to THINK that will start next week and hoping to both rest and write. It’s weird to have time off of teaching and parenting!

    1. I know, right? The last time I was “off” was maternity leave so I always had an infant around. This time it’s so weird to drop off both kids at school and then have actual time to myself that doesn’t involve me rushing to get to work 😉

  4. This is an excellent & thoughtful article. Thanks Laura! I just forwarded it to my retired dad and my retired in-laws. 🙂

  5. Great post and suggestions. I also like this idea from Margaret Lobenstein, author of The Renaissance Soul: think of your interests and activities like being at an ice cream shop. You can pick three or even four flavors in one visit, but more than that is overwhelming (and probably gross). So pick 2-4 to focus on for a month or longer, then rotate some or all of them out for new interests or activities. A slight rephrasing of the idea to pick 12 things for 6 months. I like it because it is similar to the idea that there is an appointed time for things and I’m not paralyzed by having to choose from many things, because I know I will probably get to them eventually. Also it is less overwhelming for me–I would rather complete fewer projects/activities than start many of them and leave them unfinished.

    1. YES to this! I definitely do better focusing on a few things, so I need to figure out how to do this better. I like the ice cream analogy 🙂

      1. @ARC – I like the ice cream analogy too! And I’m really a one flavor kind of girl. I could see trying a different flavor nightly when I visit, but one at a time is good.

  6. Great article! I started working at a school last year and this was my first summer “off.” I found myself feeling at loose ends a lot of the time, and I will totally use this method the next time I’m on an extended break! I kept looking at my bucket list but a lot of the items needed planning–if I schedule them next year, I should have a much more enjoyable summer!

  7. I love this, I’m at a place where I similarly need structure in the sense that I have way more ideas than the amount of free time they could fit in. My limitations come from the demands of small children combined with a part time job. But I’m also at a place where as the youngest get older I’m progressively beginning to have more time but I can’t decide what to do with it. I love your 100 dreams exercise, thanks for the reminder, I did it awhile ago, I will pull it out and revisit it!

    1. @Alicia- thanks! I’m thinking of making another such list myself. I have definitely felt time opening up a bit as my littlest is 2.5 (even though he’s a bit of a terror). He may be up at 5:30 a.m., but I can read on my Kindle while he watches cartoons — something I couldn’t do when he was 18 months. As I feel like I’m thawing out, to a degree, I want to make sure I use this space well. Reading has been a big part of it. And exercising more too. And some professional new ventures!

  8. This is such a great post! I hope you enjoy the time off, Anandi. My neighbor and I were just talking about this situation, and how difficult it can be to adjust to a much more open schedule. Having structure really helps, and these tips are super! I struggle more with smaller periods of open space – a day or two, or at most a couple of weeks – but can easily scale these ideas for that. Thanks!

    1. Yeah, it’s such a luxury to have this time, and then I think – oh, I have all this time, I don’t need to do THAT now, and then a week has gone by with nothing substantive to show for it :O I think I’m still decompressing from the move and my job so I’m trying to give myself some grace in that sense, too. But 6 months is both long and not that long, so I love the idea of coming up with a few major things to accomplish.

      1. Yes, I love it! That sort of elasticity is like the handbag principle — no matter the size of your purse, the junk you carry around will grow or shrink to accommodate it.
        I actually started a 6-month mini-Happiness Project in July (I’m not taking time off work, but want to be better about using the weird time I have, since my schedule fluctuates) and it’s been super for focusing my time better. I’ll definitely be using Laura’s tips to fine-tune my Sept-Dec habits (I need lots of structure and focus, haha).

  9. Another thing I thought of that doesn’t always get mentioned is sacrificing some of the free time to prep time–this is more of an issue when time is scarce or scattered but also applies here. Laura has mentioned this in relation to reading, in terms of making time to go to the library to get books or look up reviews online to find new titles. It would also apply to scrapbooking (any craft, really, which is how I realized it was necessary for me), kids’ activities, and the other goals Anandi listed. For scrapbooking it could be setting aside time to gather all of the supplies needed for a project, stopping by the store to get specific stickers, and getting photos printed to include in the scrapbook. It does mean that “make summer scrapbook” doesn’t get checked off the list right away but for me including prep time separately makes things much more likely to get done.

  10. Anandi, I took a 4-month sabbatical three years ago.

    I wanted to get one big project done – I wrote a 20-part time management course 🙂

    So I scheduled time every morning for that writing, and writing on my blog while the kids were in pre-school in the mornings.

    That worked very well and since I’m an upholder, I got it done with no trouble at all and then got writing on my articles and blog posts.

    I also had things I definitely wanted to say yes to (friend dates and more gym classes!) and I had loose (not written down, but they were noted in my head!) time blocks for those. Like 3 days I exercised and on those days, since I was out anyway, one of those would be my weekly errand day (I can’t bear the thought of running errands more than once a week unless critical – like they’re going to shut off electricity). Most people around here are employed full-time so I could only meet people for lunch.

    In the afternoons, I cooked, went for walks, took photos, Konmari’d (this happened in stages over a month), read all with kids, and I felt great. My sabbatical was spent with lots of time being productive on my side hustle, and with kids, and on my house 🙂

    Shout on Instagram if you want to chat more.

  11. I face this dilemma every summer when my kids go away with grandparents for a week or two. I am a homeschooling mom so this is a huge change in my schedule. The theory/goal I’ve developed over time is to spend half my time on things I should do and the other half on things I want to do. That tally is done over the course of the week. Weekends don’t count as they have separate rules. Just during the week when I would otherwise be occupied with kid stuff. Also, half and half is total over the course of the week. One day I will be immersed in things I should do and another day I will totally check out and just do whatever I want to do while other days will be a combination.

  12. Thank you for this post Laura. I don’t have a great deal of ‘me’ time, even though I don’t have small kids anymore. When I do get a couple of hours to myself it’s often unplanned and I waste it being paralyzed by all the things I’d like to do. I’m going to use your suggestion so I’m ready for the next time and incorporate the suggestion from Caitlin so I’m ready to begin when the opportunity arises. Thank you.

  13. Hi Anandi,

    Thanks for the phrase ‘I need to feel like I’m swimming in time, but still getting my important things done’ – nothing could have articulated my need better. After 22 years of a high demanding job, I left the corporate job in an IT firm and decided to explore and do things differently while spending more time with my children before they are off to college. It has been 4.5 years since and now I see my exploration and enthusiasm to do many things has resulted in a jam packed schedule – the bucket list items are elusive. Well, I am doing quite a few of them, but I am simply wanting to experience that swimming in time feeling along with getting many important things done. I realize I took up much more than I should have – some of these commitments get over by this November and I am really going to work hard to get the ‘swimming in time’ feeling.. Thanks for all the tips in this context….

    1. @Krishna- I also love this phrase. Don’t we all want to feel like time is abundant, yet treat it wisely (because it is precious, too?)

      Glad to hear some of these commitments are winding down. I’ve been pondering the idea of a “time jubilee” — something that might help people with too much on their plates. Declare everything done at a certain date in the future. Wind stuff down, then figure what to add back into your life, with a focus on deciding what to keep (rather than what to get rid of).

      1. I love this idea of a “time jubilee”. I have trouble with signing up my kids for all manner of activities (that we then have to drive them to/from) and I’m moving more towards letting them figure out what they want to try instead of me driving it. So I’m letting the various ones we’re signed up for “expire” without signing up for new ones. I am also prioritizing social engagements for us now since we’re in a new town, so that we can meet people. So unless I’m double booked with something else, if someone invites me to do something social, I go. I have noticed that I am reading a lot more, and staying off the computer/phone more, so this helps with that “swimming in time” feeling as well, and I love that 🙂

      2. Hi Laura,

        I love the idea of time jubilee !! But getting everything done at a certain date – seems like waiting at the beach for the waves to stop!! Maybe the time jubilee should be structured after completing some preidentified time intensive commitments – for reflection – to decide what to add back..

  14. Thank you for directing me to this post when I asked about having too much time and not enough direction. I left my career as a civil engineer because it bored me to tears (literally, every day) and now I’m fortunate to have enough savings to not rush back to work but to take my time and decide what to do.

    Unfortunately this left me with some free-time paralysis so I’m definitely going to do the 100 list exercise and then pick from them just one or two ‘flavours’ at a time. Hopefully out of the 100 things a new career emerges *fingers crossed*. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *