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”?