My daughter has two children and is pregnant with her third. She’s also works full time as a nurse, and she just returned to school to become a Nurse Practitioner. She’s really busy. I go to her house on Wednesday and Friday mornings to take care of the kids, and while I’m there I’ll do things that need doing. A load of laundry. A sink full of dishes. Whatever I find.
This drives my daughter crazy. She appreciates it, but she feels like I shouldn’t be cleaning her house. She says, “You do too much already.” Then she says the thing that really matters – as if I needed her to explain herself: “I don’t have time to do it all, so I let the things sit that can wait, and I don’t do the things that don’t need to be done. I’m OK with that.”
I’m OK with that too. It’s the best possible way to manage a busy life.
That was always my rule when my own children were small. I preferred to hang out in the bathroom for long, playful pre-bedtime bubble baths than to get my kitchen in spotless order (plus, there was always the slim possibility that the dish fairy would visit, though I didn’t actually meet and marry her until about 10 years later).
When my daughter said this, I realized that I hadn’t been applying that rule well enough in my more recent life. It seems entirely possible that in the years since my kids had grown up and moved out, since I left corporate life to start my own business, since the juggling act I had perfected in my younger adulthood was no longer necessary, it seems possible that I had become lazy about prioritizing. Yet my time is no less valuable now. So I started on a mission to refocus on letting the things that could wait, wait, and not doing the things that needn’t be done.
It’s easy to figure out the low-value things one is doing with one’s life, but it takes some thought to decide what one could be doing instead. I had already added two hours of sleep daily (I had no idea how wonderful eight hours of sleep could be!) since my children left adolescence behind them. I didn't need more sleep. Sure, I still work a full-time job, but with two adults in a house that rarely becomes messy, my non-work hours are my own. But what did I need? What did I want to learn, do, or be that I haven’t given myself time to achieve?
This was a fantastic exercise, something I wish I had thought of much sooner. I sat down and made a list of all the things I have thought about doing and learning but which I had never had time for. And suddenly, I was out of time again, but in a wonderful way, a way that motivated me to remove all the things that don’t need to be done.
Here are some of the things that were wasting my precious time, both in my personal and professional life:
- Email. I unsubscribed from nearly every email list.
- Social media. I can get its full value in 20 minutes each day (or less).
- Unnecessary groups and social commitments. I can still remember the explosion of relief I felt when I realized I had just attended my last PTA meeting. For some people, social commitments bring them the very quality they want in their lives. Me? Not so much.
- Shopping! Grocery, clothing, household, online and in real life, shopping was taking up too much time. We figured out how to cut that time down to almost nothing, and decided to make the time we do spend shopping fun, together time.
- Exhausting, time-consuming clients. I can make more money in less time with clients who are clear about what they need and are easy and professional to work with. Now I select my clients with the same care I select my employees.
- Meetings. I run a company that has one meeting per month. Total. Not one meeting per department per month. Not one meeting per client group per month. Just one meeting. Per month. Everything else is done over an internal social media style network that is fast, easy, and effective. The one meeting per month is done in an hour or less.
- Trade events. I belong to an industry that has a lot of trade events. I long subscribed to the idea that I needed to be seen, to be front-and-center, to remain competitive. But in the past two years I’ve tested that notion and found it dead wrong. Now I only travel when I must to meet a customer commitment or when there’s a presentation or educational experience that fits my personal goals.
Your list of things that take away your precious time could include online games, frequent eating in restaurants, long commutes, compulsive cleaning, perfectionism, conspiracy theory obsessions, insisting on doing everything yourself, packing your lunch every day, washing salad greens instead of buying pre-wash, or having extra-marital affairs. Whatever they are, figure them out, and stop doing them.
These days I am spending much more time on one of my favorite hobbies (knitting), I watch my grandkids, I read a lot, and I am learning a new computer code language (Ruby). I feel busier again, but less tired. I always have something to look forward to. All this, just for taking a bit of time to reconsider how I spend my time.
And every time I fold a load of my daughter’s laundry, or do a load of dishes, or whatever I find at her house that needs to be done, I remember with gratitude that she brought this lesson back to me at a time when I really needed it.