“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths.” ~Etty Hillesum
There was a time that I wished I had more than 24 hours a day to finish everything in my long to-do list. I have a full-time job editing news stories for a media agency while tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist for entrepreneurs.
That’s just the work thing. Like most single women in Asia, I live with my parents, so I do my share of household chores. I’m also writing my thesis for my masters in anthropology.
I had such a crazy schedule that I had this feeling of being literally crushed under a heavy pile of work. I wondered if I was just spinning my wheels, or if it was even worth it.
I decided then to make some changes so I’d feel less overwhelmed. After reading books and blogs on time management, goal setting, and productivity, I accepted that, while I can’t have more than 24 hours a day, I can give myself one day each week to forget my workload and just focus on myself.
My free day is my time to read, watch DVDs, and go to the gym. This me-time is as important as my work days, as it recharges my energy. It also clears my mind so I can focus on my goal of transforming my current side gig into a full-blown business.
1. Stop for a moment and review your daily schedule.
The purpose of this review is to see if there’s anything that distracts you from pursuing your goal. When I did this, I was surprised to discover that I wasted time and energy on activities I thought I was supposed to do—like writing a few news reports that only earn me peanuts, or having coffee with colleagues whom I neither like nor respect.
Look at every item on your daily to-do list. How many of them are must-do activities? Which ones are non-essentials that won’t actually bring you closer to your goals? Drop one activity you don’t absolutely have to do, and replace it with one small thing that will move you an inch closer to your dream.
For instance, if one of your aspirations in life is to write a novel, then drop one activity—like checking your email for the third time in a day—and use that time writing a few paragraphs for your novel.
2. Put a blank space in your daily organizer.
This simple act can be the most liberating. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the busier we are, the more important we are. It can even turn into a fear of having free time.
Harvard Business School Professor Thomas J. DeLong termed this the “busyness trap.” In his post in the Harvard Business Review’s blog network, DeLong lamented that the busyness trap is so ingrained in the American corporate culture that people don’t even know what to do when they are not busy.
I can attest that DeLong’s analysis is right on the money.
A few years ago, I had this high-octane job working as a reporter for a major financial news agency in Singapore. I worked long hours on weekdays. But instead of relaxing on weekends, I used those days to cram as many activities as possible into my schedule: fitness training, attending various workshops (photography, film-making, painting—anything that I was into at the moment), and organizing parties.
When I had nothing to do, I felt insecure, thinking that I wasn’t important or popular enough to merit an active social schedule.
It was only later—after I left that job to travel—that I realized that I was using busyness to mask my unhappiness, stemming from a relationship that didn’t work out and a job that wasn’t giving me professional or personal fulfillment.
It took me a while to get myself out of my busyness trap, but I have learned to celebrate my free time by leaving space in my planner.
See that blank space in your personal calendar as an opportunity to do whatever you want. You can meditate, play with your kids, or just chill and cherish what the Italians call “il dulce far niente”—the sweetness of doing nothing.
3. Declare a day off and stick to it.
No matter how busy you are, you have to set limits. Whether you’re a corporate warrior or home-based mompreneur, set aside at least one day as your off-day, and refrain from doing anything even remotely related to work. (Yes, that includes checking your e-mails or checking for text messages in your Blackberry.)
This may be difficult for people who’ve been in the busyness trap for so long, so my advice is to do this one step at a time. If you regularly check your Blackberry five times a day, then on your off-day, just check it once or twice. Continue doing this for the next few weeks, and then gradually reduce your Blackberry time.
You may also need to enlist the cooperation of your family and your manager. Sometimes, it’s so hard to say no to your children or to that boss who demands so much of your time. But anything can be negotiated.
Explain to your family why it’s important for you to take time for yourself. With your boss (or if you’re an entrepreneur, with your client), you need to take a different tact. Explain why you have to keep fixed working hours and politely, but firmly, tell him that you need downtime.
4. Just unplug.
Do this experiment for one day: get a notebook and list down how much time you spent surfing the net, blog hopping, reading and answering e-mails, and using social media. You may be surprised by the hours you spend on the web. You may also find that often when you sign online, you do so many different things that you soon forget why you turned on your computer to begin with.
You don’t need to be a slave to this Internet. Take control of your time by unplugging at least once a week. If this is not possible, try reducing your online time by one to two hours weekly. Two hours a week translates to eight hours a month. Imagine what you can do just for yourself in those eight hours.
5. Let go of some of your tasks.
Accept the fact there are some tasks that are better left to someone else. This is not because you’re incapable. But like any human being, you have your own limitations. Ask for help and let others do these for you instead.
If you are a multitasking entrepreneur who’s working ridiculously long hours, perhaps it’s time for you to hire an assistant, even a part-time one (if that’s what you can afford). If you are a student who can’t figure out organic chemistry, go get yourself a tutor. If you don’t enjoy cleaning your house and can afford it, pay a housekeeper to do it.
If you can’t afford to outsource, there are cheaper (and even free) ways to reduce your workload. Do-it-all parents can enlist more help from their families around the house. At work, anyone can learn to ask for help from colleagues.
You can also try bartering—and I especially recommend this to bootstrapping entrepreneurs. Look for other entrepreneurs who need your service and/or product and offer a trade-off. If you’re a web designer, for instance, you can offer free designing services to a copywriter who will in turn write content for your website.
The gift of time is the best gift you can give to yourself, both because you get to enjoy it and because it gives you space to pursue your dreams. So go ahead, set aside some time for yourself, both to live the life you want for today and to create the life you want for tomorrow.
Photo by Justine and Elise