Tranquility by Tuesday: Make more me time

It’s a common lament: “Between the demands of work and family, I have no time for my own interests!” Various surveys purport to show this, like one claiming moms had a mere 17 minutes of me time per day. Early in my time management research, I came across one online poll finding that a full half of respondents couldn’t remember the last time they’d had me time. This is kind of funny, as I don’t think taking online polls is required for many people’s jobs….

The truth is, most of us do have some leisure time. But with work and family demands, we tend not to plan for it, and so we don’t spend it in ways that consciously register as me time. Or else we fill what could be discretionary time with other things — not seeing that it could be redeployed.

That was the challenge facing Jennifer Toller, who tracked her time as part of the Tranquility by Tuesday project. Jennifer manages the Child Nutrition Services for an elementary school district in the Bay area. While her hours are contained to roughly 40 a week, she has to be in the office for them (generally 7:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. with a lunch break). She commutes 30-50 minutes on top of that. She has two children, ages 6 and 19 months. The 6-year-old goes to school by her family’s home, so her husband manages that pick-up/drop-off. The baby goes to Jennifer’s school district daycare, so she handles drop-off/pick-up for her.

With two young kids, a full-time job, and a commute, Jennifer noted that “I feel like my days are very full on the weekdays and do find myself falling into that ‘I’m so busy, I have no time for myself’ trap.” She was excited to have a reason to keep a time log, and so she got to work on it.

Her log was fun for me to see — Jennifer wrote of listening to Before Breakfast in the car most mornings, and to Best of Both Worlds on Tuesdays! I heartily endorse this use of time. But between getting on the road around 6:30 a.m. most mornings, getting home around 5 p.m. and then cooking family dinner (a passion for a professional nutritionist), and getting the kids to bed, there wasn’t a whole lot of open time until 8:30/8:45 p.m., at which point Jennifer was spent. She was admirably good about turning the lights out at 9:30 p.m. in order to rise at 5:30 a.m. On weekends she and her husband tended to spend time doing chores and errands, or with the kids, with discretionary time taking the form of TV after they went to bed.

In other words, while Jennifer did have some time for herself, it didn’t feel like a lot, nor did it feel all that usable.

So I suggested one of my favorite time management mantras: give yourself one night off.

With seven nights in a week, devoting one to personal pursuits still leaves six for family responsibilities. But that one night can be the difference between feeling squeezed, and feeling like we do have time for our personal passions.

In two parent families where each partner has relatively predictable hours — which was the case for Jennifer and her husband — the most obvious way to do this is to give each parent one night off. The other party covers, knowing that he or she will get another night covered in turn. In households where schedules are less predictable (such as mine), or in a single-parent household, this tends to involve childcare, but I still believe it is one of the best financial investments a busy parent can make. We go from feeling like we have no time for fun to being the sort of person who can sing in a choir, or play in a softball league, or go to a regular Thursday girls night.

Jennifer was open to this idea, and began brainstorming what she and her husband might do with their nights off. One complication was that because of where each parent worked, and where their children spent their days, Jennifer really did have to pick up her daughter (using your employer’s daycare will ensure that). Her husband really had to get their son. So this limited everyone’s ability to do something right after work. She needed to think about that, and promised to talk with her husband, track her time, and report back.

Then we hit a snag. Her husband was not on board with the one-weeknight-off idea.

Fortunately, Jennifer quickly realized that this was not because he didn’t want her to have me time! It was because their transportation logistics and the nature of the activities each parent wanted to do made weekday evenings less than ideal. But they reached a compromise that worked just as well, if not better, so all was good.

First, the problems. Their division of labor on the pick-ups definitely put a damper on their evening energy. By the time a parent would bring their child back to the house for the hand-off, it was going to be hard to get motivated to go out again. Second, Jennifer noted that her husband’s job was more flexible than hers. He was able to get to the gym during the day sometimes, so that removed an obvious evening-off activity. What he did really want to do and had been missing: hunting and fishing. Alas, these hobbies don’t fit well into a 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. weeknight time slot.

As Jennifer thought about what she’d want to do with her evenings, she realized that what she wanted space for was to hang out with friends, have quiet time to read, and time to pursue cooking/baking projects. “For me, these things are all better accomplished on a weekend day,” she told me. “Friends usually have way more flexibility to grab coffee, brunch, or a drink on a weekend,” she said, because “Bay Area traffic on a weeknight kind of eliminates me hanging out with anyone not within 10 minutes of me on a weeknight!” For cooking projects she needed the house to herself for a few hours. She was interested in taking a yoga class, but as a morning person, she realized that a 7 p.m. one wasn’t nearly as appealing as a 7 a.m. one. Since 7 a.m. could not happen on weekdays with her work schedule, she was looking at Saturday or Sunday for that.

So she and her husband decided to change “give yourself one night off” to “give yourself several weekend hours off.” They began looking at their weekends ahead of time and mapping out when each could get a longer chunk of personal time. Using weekends meant that he could go fishing, or she could do a major project while he took the kids elsewhere.

When she tracked her time again, this is exactly what they did. Her husband got his outdoor excursion, and she made plans to meet friends for a Sunday evening cocktail hour. Alas, then the California wildfires struck, with PG&E blackouts through big chunks of the Bay Area. Jennifer still had power, but most of her friends did not. They decided to postpone their cocktails. However, “While I was disappointed, the nice thing was since it was my off time, I didn’t feel like my plans were canceled and now I am just in mom mode this evening,” she wrote. She and her husband had an agreement: he’d had his time, she was entitled to hers. So, instead, she went to a local cafe that was still open, called a girlfriend, and enjoyed a nice long chat with her. She did some long term planning (Christmas lists!) and “it was very pleasant and nice to have that time blocked out for myself regardless of set plans.”

She and her husband really liked this approach — mostly because it was “going to help us be more intentional overall with how we spend our weekend,” Jennifer wrote. “By having to block out our off time it makes us sit and think about what else we want to do, which will help us plan more adventures big and small. And help me not let chores/errands extend throughout the whole weekend!”

A weekend night off is certainly as good as a weekday night off, so I give a big stamp of approval to this modification.

Do you give yourself one weeknight (or a handful of weekend hours) “off”?

21 thoughts on “Tranquility by Tuesday: Make more me time

  1. We don’t currently do this, but I am intrigued by her modification. In my case it may be one parent taking weekend time and the other taking weeknight time. And it may mean a sitter for one parent’s night off due to flexible work schedules. But nonetheless these are options I didn’t consider. I keep forgetting there are no hard and fast rules for this kind of stuff 🙂

    1. @Lori C- nope, no hard and fast rules! Any solution where both parties feel like they’re getting time off can work. That said, I think there could be resentment if one party’s time always requires a sitter, while the other’s is more of a “freebie.”

  2. Re: jobs don’t require you to fill out online polls- please remember that a lot of people have far less control over their work day-to-day than you do. I’ve had lots of jobs where I wasn’t always busy, but I *was* always chained to my desk. Can’t get up and take a walk, read (bad optics), etc., but can surf Facebook and fill out online polls (because no one can tell what you’re doing on your computer)- and I certainly wouldn’t have described that as “me time.” Yes, I could probably have come up with a more fulfilling way to fill the time, but it’s not as if I was choosing to fill out online polls on a completely free Saturday afternoon.

    1. I had a job like that and was able to use the online Kindle app to read on my computer during down time! I was also able to take an online certification course that I wanted for future professional pursuits during down time. It helped me enjoy my job so much more and made me feel like my life overall was much more fulfilling!

      1. @Jara – these are both excellent ideas for jobs that require being at a desk but don’t actually fill all your time.

  3. This is so good and something my husband and I have always done just intuitively. I couldn’t figure out why other people didn’t “just do it”. Apparently, we had a bright idea and should have shared it with others. 🙂 When I suggested it to one friend, she said “that will limit our family time on the weekend”. My response: “So? You have like 36 other hours for family time”.

    1. I agree! I am a better participant in “family time” when I also have time away. So yes, maybe I skip a morning soccer game to go to a yoga class, but then I’m more all-in for the afternoon activities.

      My night off is Tuesday and I scheduled with a bunch of other women to get together the first Tuesday of the month for dinner/drinks/whatever. It’s been great! It’s also nice to not need to consult with my husband and coordinate schedules when a friend wants to get together- I just see if Tuesday works. Easy.

      This was one of the things that I blogged about as working for me for the past few years. It is seriously a game-changer.

      If I can give two bits of advice: please, I beg you, don’t spend your night off at the grocery store. Unless that is your idea of fun, I mean. Just the thought makes me sad… which tells you how much I dislike grocery shopping. A few years ago I realized that on my husbands’ night off he would meet a friend for a beer and I would be at Kroger. Lame. No more.

      Also, it helps to set some expectations for the night off. A night off is not a night off if I come home to all of the dinner dishes (that I did not even eat off of… because it was my night off.) So communicate about expectations ahead of time. (Don’t get me started on thinking you have to accept that as part of the trade off for getting away for a few hours… We can expect more than that…)

      1. @Katherine – both important points! Choir rehearsals are my night off. We have childcare, but often my husband winds up taking over at some point in there. I have gotten better at communicating that if I arrive after the time when the children are supposed to be in their bedrooms reading, and they are not in their bedrooms reading, I will be an unhappy camper.

    2. @Jennifer – great answer! Yes, there is plenty of time for family time, even when people get to do their own things too.

    3. I’m Canadian, and our government-funded parental leave generally makes it possible to have both parents off for some part of the leave, so my husband and I did just that. And we quickly realized that if we were both ‘on’ with the baby all day, we’d both feel frustrated and burnt out by bedtime–silly, given that one pair of hands is generally enough to wrangle one kiddo.

      So we came up with a system where one parent is 100% on and the other is 100% off, and we switched chunks of on and off time throughout the day. (It was a little tricky when the baby was having two naps, i.e. three chunks of time, but works perfectly now that the day is split neatly in half by one nap.)

      We still do this on weekends now that we’re back at work (me in the office, my husband as a SAHD), and we love it. We do one big family outing on Saturday or Sunday afternoon and all our meals together, but each parent gets at least two big child-free chunks of time every weekend (usually 5-7 hours at a time–from wakeup to end of nap or from end of nap to bedtime). My husband paints and writes, I write and sew, or we see friends, go on child-unfriendly outings, or putter in the kitchen. The baby loves running errands, so I get a bunch of our household necessities done while I have him.

      And just as good as getting lots of personal and baby time, our system means that we’re never keeping score about who is doing more childcare. It’s 50/50, and that is a wonderful thing.

  4. Another version of this is something I did last night. Monday I got quite a bit done around the house and ran a couple of necessary errands, and didn’t have much time to myself. I planned to do more house stuff on Tuesday evening when I got home, but instead I decided to “take the night off.” I still hung out with my husband and toddler when they got home and helped him get her dinner and ready for bed (just minor stuff in the background like heating up her food–he is the primary parent in the evenings, I handle the mornings), and probably threw a few dishes in the dishwasher, but other than that I just did what I wanted (knitting, crocheting, and reading), as opposed to the never-ending list of chores. I felt much more refreshed today.

    1. @Caitlin – this works too. A night off doesn’t necessarily have to be a night out – just as long as you’re doing what you want to do.

  5. This is tougher for me because for my me time, I’d like to be home. I’m out of the house 50 hours/week between work and commuting and I’m a introvert so I’d like the house to myself so I can read in peace or watch something on TV that my husband wouldn’t want to watch (we only have one tv so we watch things we both like when we are home). My husband goes out to his mom’s pretty often, maybe 1-2 weekend days/month so he has started to offer to bring our son with so I can get some time to myself. I used to feel guilty saying yes to that but I have embraced it more and taken it as an opportunity for some peaceful me time. So I usually get 3-4 hours one weekend day/month. Our son goes to bed quite early (7pm) since he’s 21 months so I do have quiet time after he’s in bed. I usually go upstairs at 8 to read before going to bed around 9:30. That way I still get an hour or so alone with my husband before some ‘me time’ spent reading. That would probably be more than enough me time for most people but there is something so luxurious about having the house to myself.

  6. A few years ago, I started going to a stitching/knitting group once a week after work. It’s been a game changer to know I don’t need to make arrangements for childcare or dinner plans.

  7. Agree with this strategy whole heartedly.

    My husband and I hit upon it when our first baby was about two months old and we decided it does NOT take two adults to watch an infant, so why should both be constrained all weekend with diaper duty? (We’ve preached this to friends And colleagues, too often with one spouse saying “I agree but (s)he doesn’t…” which is unfortunate and I think pretty unfair.)

    This approach goes beyond the infant months and holds true for things like weekend soccer games – it’s a waste of time to make all family members attend all games, plus it generally makes one or more family members miserable. Divide and conquer, baby.

    Errands also don’t take much time with strategic use of Amazon, and laundry takes more mental space than hands-on time.

    So in our house, every weekend, we each have free time while the other watches kiddos, and unpleasant errands are minimized.

    On weeknights, we watch 1 hour of some “prestige”-type TV show on Mondays and Wednesdays after the kids go to bed. The other three nights we have individual free time from about 930 until bedtime, which opens up around 8-10 hours per week for other pursuits. He plays the cello, reads, and plays video games. I work on volunteer pursuits and read. It’s really pleasant and works for two introverts!

    1. @Kathleen – yep, all great ideas! And yes, unfortunate that some people have such resistance to the idea. It does require planning and I know some people feel such resistance to the idea of planning a weekend that they wind up shooting themselves in the foot. But good to keep suggesting it!

  8. Love this idea! Does anyone struggle with work that goes into the late evening? I’m generally on a predictable 8-6 schedule, but sometimes will have weeks when I need to be at a work event or meeting until 9-10 PM. Getting another night totally to myself because I really need to hang out feels like a big ask, even though it is technically the same. Thoughts?!

    1. mmm… could you take a few hours in the morning before your late work event/meeting? Probably the kids are in school then and you partner at work, so they will not “notice”?

    2. I don’t think it’s a big ask, as long as your partner gets a night to themselves the same week. Does your partner never work late? Especially if it’s not every single week, which it doesn’t sound like it is. That’s just the nature of your job. I work in a public library and I work one evening every week and one Saturday every four weeks, and I don’t feel bad about taking time on other nights–that’s just how my job is. I am on morning duty and my husband is on bedtime duty, so that’s part of the reason it works for me; I take every single morning, even weekends. It works for us because I’m an early bird and he’s a night owl.

      It’s certainly worth asking your partner what their thoughts are–Sarah Hart-Unger has mentioned before that it’s more about what “feels fair” than a one-for-one trade.

    3. My husband may get childcare if he has plans on a night I work late. Our daughter goes to bed fairly early (7:30pm in Winter), so if he stays in, plays video games after she goes to sleep.

      As for leisure, we try to have activities out on the same night and get a sitter to maximize our time at home together.

  9. All in for divide and conquer and trade time off! We manage to do one night off each during the week but weekends are challenging. There is often little possibility to have down time with all the things we need to do and I feel like we should spend this time with the kids. And, if there is some free time and my husband is taking care of the kids, they would be home (he does not like to go out much) and I can’t really relax (kids don’t get the me time concept!). So I have to get out of the house but there is nothing much interesting to do in my area. What is also challenging is that I feel like I need much more me time than my husband. So it feels quite unfair as he covers for me more often than I do for him. He hasn’t complained but I know that even though he doesn’t want more me time, he wouldn’t mind less kids time.

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