You Have More Time Than You Think: How a Time Study Brought Balance Into My Life

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2016 was the year when it seemed that my productivity goals all seemed to fall into place. I’m an odd mix of a productivity junkie (anything with the keywords “be more productive” or “get things done” is like click-bait to me) and a dreamer. Sometimes I dream about big things, sometimes I’m a fiend about getting little things done, but rarely have those big dreams and little things intersected into anything that resembles a balance of accomplishment.

Something clicked when I read Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. For years I told myself that when X, Y, or Z happened, I’d finally have time to do the big (and little) things I wanted to do. When Eli goes to school full-time, I’ll be able to really launch my blog. When I stop spending so much time blogging, I’ll get my photos organized. When I finish this project, I’ll get my writing career off the ground. I know we’ve all said similar things, only to find that we’re no further along. Those extra magical hours never materialized.

Vanderkam encourages readers to conduct a time study on themselves. For a minimum of one week (which contains 168 hours), you are to write down everything you do and how long it takes you to do it. Sleeping, eating, watching TV, commuting, housework, scrolling through Facebook … it all gets accounted for. I did this for a week last summer and it was so incredibly informative. Some things were good. I get an average of 8 hours of sleep a night. I exercise roughly 4 hours a week. I don’t spend excessive time in the car or watching television. On the flip side, I spent more hours than necessary on housework, email, social media and, oddly enough, socializing.

After you conduct a time study and know where you can cut back to create pockets of time, Vanderkam suggests making a list of 100 dreams. These are things you’ve always wanted to do, from the very big (Go to Paris!) to the very small. (Put our Disney photos in an album.) Creating extra time in your week is wonderful, but what purpose does it serve if you don’t spend it intentionally? And how can you be intentional about the way you spend your time if you don’t identify what’s important to you?

Once you have your list in hand and a general idea of how you spend your time vs. what can be minimized, Vanderkam recommends planning your week using the strategy of block scheduling. Listing out the hours in the day, you give a name to how you’ll spend those hours. For someone who lived by a never-ending to-do list, this was revolutionary. I’d make lists with items like fold laundry, meal plan, write, email Lisa, call Amy. Then the laundry would never end, or the email would turn into 10 emails, which would bleed into a few minutes on Pinterest … you get the idea. Things that had to get done got done, of course. We always had meals on the table, clean underwear, and phone calls returned. But those nebulous, dreamy plans or those someday maybe projects never got started. I mean, who has the time, right? It’s one of Gretchen Rubin’s Secrets of Adulthood: “Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time.”

How block scheduling helped me organize my days and reach my dreams.

I’ll go deeper into block scheduling in a future post, but for now here’s the gist. I plan out the week with goals in mind for my 4 necessary life categories: work, home, self, and relationships. I have 3-4 goals for each, and as I plan out each day, I schedule blocks of time to work on those things – and only those things.

Making my list of 100 dreams was both a fun and useful way to get a bigger picture of what really mattered to me. What stood out was that my big dreams involve travel, creating a cozy home in which we are surrounded by meaningful things, getting the most out of my time with the kids while they’re still around, and finding creative work that satisfied me while helping us reach our financial and travel goals.

When those things are laid out there, you have a more clear picture of how you want to spend your time. I keep coming back to housework, because apparently I have a strange issue with doing too much housework. (I spent a whopping 24.75 hours in a week cleaning, cooking and doing laundry. AN ENTIRE DAY OF MY LIFE EVERY WEEK. Even I recognize that’s not normal.) Would I like to spend 6 of those 24 hours folding every last sock and polishing the toaster? Or would my 6 hours be better spent on a baby step that will get me closer to my big goals and dreams?

I started block scheduling on a (mostly) regular basis in mid-October, and a few months in I see a dramatic difference in my quality of life. I feel more balanced. I feel a satisfaction in my work and personal life I haven’t felt in, well, ever. I have a sense of peace about my days – I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing at exactly the time I’m doing it. It’s far from perfect. I still have weeks where it feels like I’ve been derailed and nothing gets done. I still have to fight urges to engage in time wasters. But I feel progress and hope, which feels pretty darn good.

Just for fun, I’ll share my list of 100 dreams in the next post. Then I’ll do a deep dive into my block scheduling process so you can give it a try as well. For now I’d love to know: what would you do with a few extra hours every week?

 

 

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Looking Back, Looking Forward: What Worked for Me in 2016

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Photo credit: Elena Six, who has fallen in love with my camera much to my delight!

As I head into 2017 I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on 2016. I’ve always been one to set some intentions or goals for the year ahead, and I really enjoy the self-reflection that goes hand-in-hand with planning for a new year. This year I took it a step further and gave myself a little end-of-year review before coming up with new goals for 2017. It was a good reminder to think about what didn’t go so well in 2016. What didn’t work? And more importantly, do I want to put the effort and energy into making those things that floundered work for me in 2017? I thought it might be fun to share what worked for me in 2016, what didn’t work, and what I hope to carry into 2017.

What Worked For Me in 2016

List of 100 Dreams

This comes directly from Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. It’s an exercise the author learned from a career coach. The idea being that in order to do more of what you love in your life, you should know what you love and what you’d liked to do. Think of it like a detailed bucket list. Some people like to divide theirs into categories (personal, work, travel, etc). I just wrote mine out, and continue to add to it as I think of things. (If there’s any interest, I’m happy to share my list.) Having this list made goal-setting easier this year, and knowing what I’d like more of in my life gave me something to actively work towards when I started using the next thing on this list …

Block Scheduling

Block Scheduling Journal

Which is block scheduling, another handy tool I implemented from Vanderkam’s book. I’ve tried lots of different time-management tools, from lists to timers to apps. None of them have stuck, but block scheduling is here to stay. Monday through Friday I spend a few minutes the evening before planning the next day. In a little journal I list the hours of the day from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in 30 increment blocks. From there, I fill in how I’d like to spend my day. I started doing this after I did a week-long time study on myself and realized I spend too much time doing some tasks (like housework, looking at my phone and email), and very little time doing things that really matter (creative work, unfinished projects, quality time with my spouse). It help keeps me on task, and requires me to be intentional about how I spend my time. If there’s something I really want to accomplish from my list of dreams, I know I need to take baby steps towards them by scheduling in time to work on those goals. It also keeps me balanced. As I schedule my time, I’m cognizant of making sure I schedule time for relationships, work and self.

Personal Training

Speaking of self, I took a step in a new direction in the fall. I’ve done a good job making exercise a habit in the last year or so. But after doing several rounds of Bikini Body Mommy challenges, I was starting to feel a little frustrated about my progress. I was also starting to get a little burnt out. My neighbor organized a weekly morning workout in our cul-de-sac with a personal trainer last September, and these workouts kicked my butt! The trainer mentioned that she was going to organize a 5-week holiday boot camp starting the week of Thanksgiving, so I gave it a try. She emailed me 5 workouts per week and gave me nutritional goals to strive for. As an obliger, knowing that someone was expecting me to work out and check in with my nutritional wins and losses really helped me stick to the program. As a result, I got through the holidays feeling really strong and healthy. I’m sticking with it through the new year and I think it’s going to make a big difference in my health and fitness.

Bullet Journaling

I love my paper planner, but when I finished my last one in July (it was a weird school-year one) I bit the bullet journal bug. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a regular planner. I love how bullet journaling is so flexible and completely customizable to exactly what your needs are. My bullet journal isn’t fancy or pretty, but it serves me well. I keep a weekly spread, a monthly task list, and a log of the books I want to read. I’m trying my own Happiness Project this year, so I just set up a spread to keep track of those goals, but otherwise? That’s it. If you’ve been thinking about making the switch my advice is to just jump in. It might not be pretty in the beginning, but you’ll figure it out.

Taking a Break From Blogging

This was so good for me. I didn’t realize how much time and energy I’d put into blogging, nor how much the task of keeping up with social media was draining me. It’s helped me clarify what I want going forward – more on that down below!

Shouldless Days

I plan on continuing this vital piece of self-care. My goal in 2017 is to schedule one Shouldless Day per quarter.

What Didn’t Work For Me in 2016

Accumulating Stuff

I’m normally great at purging, but this year my plan went awry. For the longest time I participated in a local kids’ consignment sale, and I’d get rid of most of the kids’ outgrown clothing and toys this way. It started to feel like too much work, and so I quit. I also didn’t have a garage sale last year. I have a hard time sending things to Goodwill I feel like I can get some decent money back for, so I started accumulating things thinking I could sell them on the Facebook Marketplace. The only problem? I have the worst luck with Facebook Marketplace. As I write this, I have a pair of Bogs boots I can’t get rid of – every single person that says they want them flakes out and doesn’t pick up. Of course, this plays out over several days and takes forever! This year I need a better plan. Any ideas?

Tracking Steps

I set a goal of getting 10,000 steps in at least 5 days a week. I was doing really well with this goal – most weeks I’d hit 10,000 five or six days a week. The problem? I took 10,000 steps as a justification to not push myself physically and as a license to eat whatever I wanted. I mean, I was moving every day, right? I now know that I need to focus on nutrition and more challenging workouts if I want to really improve my health.

Stitch Fix

I ordered a couple of Fixes this year, as well as peeked into the offerings in my neighbor’s box (we’re about the same size). Every time I’ve been disappointed. I’m not sure if the quality has fallen off or if I’m just getting better and buying my own things. Often I end up feeling like I need to keep at least one thing so I don’t lose my styling fee, and then I end up not wearing the one thing I bought. I’m done with subscription clothing boxes in 2017.

Red wine

This one is so sad! Red wine and I are not friends anymore. Anyone else over 40 notice this? If I have more than one glass, I wake up with a raging headache the next morning. It’s only red wine. (Thank God!) I can still have enough white wine or beer to make me fun.

Looking Forward

In another first for me, I came up with my word for the year: essential. In 2017 I’m striving to organize my days around what is essential to me: relationships, contributions (work or otherwise) and self. When choosing how to spend my time, money and energy I hope to be able to sift through the excess and allow only the essential things to filter through.

I’m also going to give my own yearlong Happiness Project a try, focusing on career, health, possessions, organizing, marriage, parenting, finances, time, writing, challenge, atmosphere and friendship (one category per month).

As for the blog? After stepping a way a bit, I realized that this little space and community are important to me, but in a different way than it was before. For so long, I wanted this to blog to define me as a person and as a career. Now I see it for what it started as: a creative outlet and a way to connect. I’m cultivating some wonderful freelance clients with whom I can use my writing and social media skills to further my career. That leaves me with this lovely little corner to fill as I like, without pressure to make money or sell myself as a brand. I’m full of hope and enthusiasm for what lies ahead!

What worked for you in 2016? Is there anything that didn’t work for you that you’re ready to shed?

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When a Marriage Grows Up

Anniversary flowers

Mike and I celebrated 19 years of marriage this week, the same age we were when we first met. It wasn’t love at first sight, and we didn’t marry our best friend, but dammit – we make a good team. If our marriage was a person, it would be an adult now. It could drive a car, vote, and go to war.

As we raise our own teenager, I can’t help but reflect on this second half of marriage. I’m realizing that as our marriage leaves its teen years behind and we begin our third decade together, our marriage has grown up. Just like raising a kid, the changes are subtle. I didn’t wake up and think, “Oh glorious day! We’ve been through so much, and our marriage is perfect now!”

No, the first time I really thought about it was after we’d had an argument. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about – we argue over a lot of stupid stuff, along with a handful of some big stuff. (I’m very suspicious of people who say they never argue with their spouse. These same couples also seem to have sex multiple times a week after years of marriage and have never had a conversation with their spouse while the other one is pooping.)

The argument was resolved without any slamming doors, whatevers, or a prolonged period of existing with each other while doing everything we could to pretend the other person wasn’t actually there. (If that doesn’t describe at least twenty arguments you’ve had with your spouse, you may want to move along. Nothing to see here.) Soon after, Mike commented that he was happy that we were at a place where we could argue and get through it without hating each other for the next three days. Here’s the crazy thing: I was thinking the exact same thing.

Somewhere along the way our marriage had grown up to the point that we were able to fight fair. Lord knows we’ve had lots of practice, but being able to hash out grievances without name-calling or dropping totally unrelated emotional bombshells on your partner is a game-changer. It doesn’t mean we just call each other out willy-nilly. Instead it means that there is room for all kinds of growth and hope for our future – and that’s a beautiful thing when you hope to spend another few decades together.

Part of not calling each other out for every little petty thing has been learning to let go of control. After nearly twenty years of marriage, we have a pretty good idea of what our individual strengths are. Knowing that the other person is better suited to handle certain things didn’t mean the other person didn’t feel compelled to micromanage or share their (unsolicited) opinion. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, though, that we’re both more comfortable with letting each other be responsible for handling certain things and being okay with keeping our hands off of those things.

At the same time, we’re getting better at not tuning out completely. Yes, Mike pays the bills and reconciles all the expenditures against our checking account. I used to let this be his completely, to the point where I’d let my receipts pile up and hiss at him if he tried to enter them into the budget for me. But once he showed me exactly what he does, and how difficult the job can be if you get too far behind, I understood where he was coming from. It’s still his domain, but I can be as helpful as possible to make the job easier and grateful that he does this task for me. I’m in charge of the kids’ schedules, from dentist appointments to rugby carpool and homework routines. But it’s not cool to have a clueless spouse, and so we worked together to figure out a calendar system that we both use and check routinely. He may not ever need to take a kid to the doctor, and he may not be responsible for getting home in time to get Elena from her choir rehearsal, but he knows when it happens and appreciates the time I spend getting everyone where they need to be any given day.

The other big thing I’ve noticed as our partnership has matured has been the most important thing of all. More often than not, we speak well of each other in front of others. In the infancy of our relationship, this didn’t seem like a big deal. Of course we would gush about each other! We chose each other for all these amazing reasons, and don’t you want to hear about each and every one of them? But then someone won’t un-ball their socks before putting them in the dirty laundry even though you’ve told them it makes you want to stab someone, and the other person keeps trying to sneak weird stuff in your food and changing perfectly good recipes, and GOD, CAN YOU BELIEVE I MARRIED SUCH A HEARTLESS IDIOT?

We struggled with this for so long, often using each other’s “quirks” as fodder for conversation with other couples. It’s passive-aggressively amusing for the one doing the talking, humiliating for the other. And for what purpose? I’ve yet to change any of my annoying ways because Mike told that “hilarious” anecdote over dinner with friends. Once we stopped doing it (mostly), it made me realize how terribly awkward it must’ve been for everyone around us. Once you’ve been the couple on the receiving end of one of these exchanges, where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or tear the offending a spouse a new one, you think long and hard about calling your partner out.

That doesn’t mean if you invite Mike and I over for drinks that we’re going to fawn all over each other and tell you how wonderful the other person is. Nineteen years is a long time to come up with reasons we’re not so wonderful. And also, we’ve seen each other poop. But we will try our best to follow the sage advice of Thumper, and if we can’t say something nice about each other we’ll change the subject or suggest tequila shots. And because we aren’t each other’s best friend, we each have a small handful of trusted friends with whom we can vent when we absolutely need to.

If that sounds terribly difficult (and believe me, I know in some seasons of marriage it truly is), try to take a step back and see your partner as others see them. Up close we all have faults, and no one knows them better than the person we married. Step away, and suddenly you’re able to see them in a completely different light.

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Happy anniversary, Mike. Thanks for giving me a place to sit and a warm bowl of Kraft Mac and Cheese when I got locked out of my apartment 22 years ago. You’ve been keeping me safe and cozy ever since, and I’m so very glad.

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