When I realized I was thinking of time management all wrong.
Last year, with two kids at home being homeschooled, two teenagers in extracurriculars, a part-time work-from-home job with tight deadlines, and a time-intensive volunteer position with my church, I found myself constantly thinking, “I don’t have time.”
I didn’t have time to exercise, I didn’t have time to clean, I didn’t have time to spend with friends– I didn’t even have time to call my own mother.
Normally in this situation I’d drop the least important thing off my plate, but which was that? My kids’ education? My commitment to my faith? My income? They were all non-negotiables.
I was running from task to task, a slave to my frantic schedule, yet I never really felt like I was getting anywhere. I was surviving, but I certainly wasn’t thriving. I was the proverbial hamster on the wheel, and I was running out of steam.
In desperation, I started listening to productivity podcasts in the few minutes I had driving my teenagers to and from their after-school activities. I thought there must be some magic way to squeeze more time out of each day.
It turns out there was a solution– but it wasn’t magic. It was a mindset.
One day while listening to “Beyond the To-Do List” I heard about a book called “Juliet’s School of Possibilities” by Laura Vanderkam. It intrigued me, so I ordered it, and it was that unpretentious little tome that led me to one of the greatest epiphanies of my life.
In the book, a harried, workaholic young executive named Riley attends a retreat with the Martha-Stewart-esque home crafts mogul Juliet. As the retreat progresses, Riley is confused and a bit unnerved by Juliet’s completely relaxed, unhurried attitude. Juliet is startlingly go-with-the-flow, taking the time to talk with Riley and take her under her wing. When Riley asks Juliet how she manages her laid-back demeanor, especially considering the empire she’s running, Juliet replies,
I have all the time in the world.
She goes on to tutor Riley in her ways. She explains that all of us have the same 24 hours in a day, and that despite what we might think, we are all choosing how to use those hours, along with the minutes and seconds they contain. She says,
Possibilities are infinite. Time is finite.
You are always choosing.
“You are always choosing.” While I knew this was true, it didn’t feel true. Unlike Juliet, that same old tired refrain had become my mantra: “I don’t have time.”
When you have a looming deadline and a kid that needs to get to play practice and an email from a superior that’s waiting on an answer, it doesn’t feel like you have all the time in the world. It definitely doesn’t feel like you’re choosing.
But you are.
Unless someone is holding a gun to your head, or you are possessed with an evil spirit, you always have a choice as to how you spend your time. You are always deciding.
When I realized this– that literally everything I do each day is of my own choosing– I suddenly felt empowered. I was in charge of my life. I got to decide. In fact, I’d been deciding all along.
I went from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset– I literally did have all the time in the world. Which led to this thought:
Crap, what have I been deciding to spend my time on? Is it all worth it?
Suddenly I saw those daily 24 hours as currency, and I wanted to make absolutely sure that I was spending them in a way that was going to add real value to my life. So I started reevaluating my priorities, starting with the things I had thought were non-negotiable.
While it wasn’t financially feasible to quit my job, I realized I could reduce my workload and the number of deadlines I had to meet. Doing so would mean less money, but I would gain more time– time to get my house cleaned, be with those I love, take care of my health, and, most importantly, breathe for a minute. In this case, time was money, and I realized I could choose time over money.
I also started looking at some of the smaller, more menial tasks eating into my day and reevaluating their worth. For example, I was spending 30 minutes driving my son from his school to his robotics team meetings. Was that what I wanted to do with that time? Was that what mattered to me? Why did it matter to me?
I determined that it mattered to me because it mattered to him, and because I knew it was helping him pursue his passion and further his education. Also, it gave my son and me an island of time where we could connect in the middle of our busy day, and that connection was important to our relationship.
After that mini-evaluation of how I was spending those 30 minutes, I no longer felt trapped in the car on yet another annoying errand. Instead, I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be, doing exactly what I needed to be doing in order to be the kind of mother I wanted to be.
That realization– for that task and for many others– made all the difference in the world. Once the nagging feeling of, “I should be doing something else” fell away, I started to feel much more present, even during those mundane tasks. Rather than feeling like I was on a hamster wheel, I felt instead like I was on a deliberate journey. I was still moving at a similar pace, because I still had many of the same responsibilities, but I was moving along with the knowledge that I was the one who had chosen the pace.
Being more intentional with my time extended beyond pinpointing the “whys” behind my tasks. I also started gathering up little bits of lost time like loose change, and I started finding ways to cash it in for more fulfilling returns.
Rather than standing around scrolling through Facebook on my phone as I waited for the microwave to finish heating my lunch, I would instead see how many dishes I could get into the dishwasher before the beep, or I would see how many sets of squats I could do. It was amazing how these little bits of formerly “lost” time started to transform my life as I began to appreciate them and use their intrinsic value to invest in my happiness.
I began to plan ahead more. I started taking my to-do lists and translating them into time. The same way I budget for monthly bills by assigning a portion of the paycheck to each one, I started budgeting my time by assigning a certain portion of my day to each task. And the same way it becomes clear when you have more money going out than coming in, it became much easier to see when I had more tasks than time, and I could reevaluate.
But it wasn’t all work and no play. As I prioritized, I realized how important it was for me to include mental breaks and relationship connection points in my day. I took the long view and started to strategically drop little breaks into my days like rest stops on a long journey, to give me time to breathe, refocus, and refuel, so I wouldn’t just be running from one thing to another.
I also made sure I put each time chunk puzzle piece into my day or week loosely, with some wiggle room around it, so that I could rearrange as necessary and have the flexibility I desired. I could take advantage of spontaneous opportunities and unexpected delays without feeling like I was dropping the ball.
Now that I think of my time as a valuable commodity, the phrase “spending time” has taken on new meaning. I’m spending my time each day like I spend money in a store, walking along the aisles deciding what I’m spending it on. And I only have 24 hours to spend.
There’s a scripture in one of the holy books of my religion, The Book of Mormon, that reads, “Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.” (2 Nephi 9:51)
Just like I’ll put an item back on the shelf in the store if I don’t think it’s worth the price tag, I’m starting to develop a better awareness of the time cost of new projects and commitments, and I’m being pickier about what I spend my time (and labor) on. If it costs too much of my time with too little personal value or satisfaction in return, it doesn’t make the cut.
That’s not to say that every day is a deliberately curated shopping basket of carefully-selected, high-value tasks. Some days I’ll blow a good 5–6 hours– or even an entire day– on not much at all, and it’s kind of nice to be able to do that.
Ideally, it’s best if I consciously choose to do nothing, rather than just letting the time slip away. But even if it happens accidentally, it’s okay. Because unlike my dwindling bank account that only gets refilled when I refill it, every morning I get another 24 hours, automatically, free and clear, to use as I please, with infinite possibilities.
It’s pretty great.
So don’t worry, you have time. You have all the time in the world.
Just remember: You are always choosing.
Kasey Tross is a writer and mother of four who likes to steal great ideas on productivity and management from CEOs and business coaches and translate them to motherhood and running a household. When she’s not writing she enjoys hiking, camping, kayaking, watching historical dramas, and eating more chocolate than she probably should.