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.
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