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How to Reclaim Your Time [To Do More of What You Love] When You Feel Like You Have None to Spare

Time is our most precious commodity. Regardless of your particular perspective or beliefs, the fact remains, that we have one life to live and time is limited.

So how do we spend it well?

We can hope we have all the years before us that it takes to grow old, but we can't know that for sure. Our best approach to planning for future success is to get clear on what brings the most joy and fulfillment on a daily basis and then make decisions to spend our time on those things.

Easy said. But what gets in the way?

Making a choice. By choosing we are a yes for one thing and a no for something else. It's a trade-off of our time, energy, and attention.

As we age, we become acutely aware of how limited and valuable our resources of time and energy are, which can make deciding easier, but also more challenging if we don't employ a system for making selections that work for us.

I'm approaching fifty now (gasp!), and when I was forty, I began re-evaluating the choices that kept me at the office late at night. I loved my job as Vice President of Marketing of my family's business, but it pained me to know a choice to stay late was a choice to miss dinner and bedtime with the kids when they were at the precious ages of four and two years old. Time was moving fast. The kids were growing rapidly and I was busier than ever. I felt like I had two jobs, one by day and another that began in the evenings as dinner prep began in our live kitchen showrooms where we demonstrated our high-end kitchen appliances. I spent so many days paralyzed between feeling pulled toward home while being obligated to stay at work, loyal to the high bar of excellence I set for myself, and often feeling miserable in having to choose between work and family life at home.

Work-life balance was more a mythic quest than a reality I knew anything about.

Slowing waking up to the fact that I was increasingly less satisfied in my career and in general with my lifestyle in the Bay Area, I asked myself one key question that seemed to unlock a new part of my brain, allowing me to think differently about my life and the choices before me:

How am I getting in my own way of being happy?

My answer came to me quickly. I recognized that I wasn't holding the most important thing as the most important thing, and so was stepping over my desire to honor that part of myself each time I made less valuable (to me) choices my top priority. Once I noticed that, I began to re-imagine how I could redesign my life and career for great fulfillment in exchange for how to choose to spend my time.

I also let go of the belief that I can do it all. I know I cannot, and I don’t want to try.

Life is an energetic trade-off. I appreciate that I must decide how I want and will spend my time. If my decisions aren’t yielding the joy and fulfillment I seek, I get to make new choices.

All these decisions taken together allow me to fulfill a vision for my life that I nurture through my values, the things I hold to be most important, and my greatest hopes for myself, my loved ones, my community, and the world.

On a tactical level, Steven Covey, productivity guru teaches us to mind the rocks in his book, First Things First. The rocks are the "most-important things" that I didn't see I was neglecting for years before I ran out of steam trying to do it all, only to realize a complete recalibration was in order. Oliver Burkeman, who wrote 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (a book I highly recommend), shares a point of view on how to be discerning in choosing how to spend your time. Both are invaluable taken together.

To recap, Steven Covey famously described the rocks as the most valuable and important things in one’s life, each representing a non-negotiable aspect of our lives that demands our time and attention. The pebbles represent lesser important items, and the sand is the time-consuming tasks that fill the day around the rocks and pebbles. You can watch his short demonstration of this principle here.

The fact that our time on earth is finite isn’t groundbreaking. What makes deciding how we spend our time so confusing is that although we have a finite lifespan, we have an infinite number of possibilities of how to spend our limited time.

Burkeman argues it’s the very fact that our time is limited imbues our decisions of how to spend our time with significance.

By acknowledging we cannot do it all, we are more likely to be discerning in what we give our attention and time to. By acting in ways that honor our values and align to our vision we can build a well-lived life on our terms. Our ability to look honestly at how little time we have, enables us to become clear about what time well spent looks like.

As a side, a popular new app, WeCroak, operates with a mission to remind users several times a day that they’re going to die. Why? What better way to help you realign to what matters, and may prompt you to make a daring choice, catapulting you into risky territory where you find yourself living far outside your comfort zone? Maybe it will be out there that you notice how reinvigorated you feel, out beyond the familiar, feeling a bit out of control, a bit chaotic, but somehow deeply connected to it all. One can hope this is what comes of these tiny provoking reminders of the brevity of your time. Their promise is after all: “Find happiness by contemplating your mortality.”

Burkeman in his book builds from the premise that we all have on average 80 years of life on this planet, and that’s it. Cue WeCroak for not-so-subtle reminders of this motivating fact. He makes several compelling arguments, all of which funnel back to one main incisive question:

How do you want to spend your time, and how are you getting in your own way from spending it as you would like?

We are motivated to make meaningful and rewarding decisions concerning how to spend our time and energy, but we often don’t know exactly how.

By spending time to identify our core values (2-4), we are equipped to make intentional choices of action that forward who we are and what is most important to us now and in the future.

One of the tactical ways Burkeman suggests to more carefully craft how you spend your time to ensure you are attending to the rocks, is what he calls, “The Art of Creative Neglect,” outlined below:

1. Pay yourself first with your time—Find time for your most valued activities first, before dealing with the less valued ones. If you deal with less valued ones first, you’ll run out of time for the most valued ones.​​

2. Limit your work in progress—we all want to work on multiple projects at once because it gives us a sense that we are taking full advantage of life. But that means nothing gets finished. So only allow yourself a limited number of work-in-progress items at any point in time.

3. Resist the allure of middling priorities—we all have many interesting things we want to do, but most of these things wouldn’t make a top-5 list of our life’s main priorities. Make a list of priorities you have in your life and stack rank them. Then pick the top few and focus on those.

Burkeman gives us the tools to tidy up our schedule, making space for what we value and what will be the best use of our time.

Put these ideas into practice—>

  • Make a list of your rocks, pebbles, and sand

  • Write 2-3 ideas for how you can prioritize the rocks in your days/weeks/months.

  • Share these ideas with a friend who can be your accountability partner.

  • Create a weekly schedule that serves as a template for you to prioritize the rocks as a routine.

  • Share your week’s plan with a friend!

  • Download WeCroak and let the reminders of your mortality motivate you to make sure you tend to the rocks and let the sand fall where it may.

Don’t forget dear one, you’re going to die, so make the most of your days!

Rooting for you!


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