The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Time

I have a friend who is very accomplished. He’s started and sold companies, built a local startup community, run events and done charitable work. I had lunch with him once and marveled at the long list of achievements on his LinkedIn profile and asked how he managed to do so much. He admitted that he was more involved in some things than others and that he wasn’t solely responsible for all of it. He talked a bit about working with lots of smart, great people and the energy he gets from being involved in lots of cool things. Of course neither of those answers fully explains how he manages to accomplish so much.

And then he said, “Also, I don’t watch sports on TV. From conversations I have with some of my friends I figure that gives me about 10 hours a week.”

There’s nothing wrong with watching sports (or anything else) on TV. But I bet if you ask someone who spends 10 hours a week watching TV if they have time to start a business, write a book, run a marathon or even just have more time for their family, the response would likely be “No way! I’m way too busy.”

One of my favorite writers on this subject is Laura Vanderkam. Her book, I Know How She Does It is a wonderful antidote to the cultural narrative that women simply can’t have it all because there aren’t enough hours in the day. Her NYT editorial from May of this year is a wonderful distillation of her central thesis: you have more time than you think you do.

What I love most about her is she pushes us to think different about how we use our time to both accomplish the things we want to accomplish and to live the lives we want to live. Priorities aren’t just about picking your family over your career. They are about deciding that if you want to learn Spanish you are going to dedicate 30 minutes a night to practicing Spanish. It’s about saying that it’s okay to work at 2pm on Saturday if it allows you to be at the school writing celebration at 2pm on Tuesday. For some reason we think it’s great when parents have the flexibility to participate in daytime school activities, but we automatically assume that work done outside “normal” work hours is a sure sign of overwork and burnout.

The stories we tell ourselves matters. If the story you tell yourself is that you are overworked, overwhelmed and miserable you are very likely to feel overworked, overwhelmed and miserable. And you’ll find evidence to prove you are right – no doubt in the modern era you can find it everywhere you look. But if the story you tell yourself is that you have more than enough time to live a rich, full life – one that is filled with family, friends and career accomplishments, too – then you will feel you have that time.

Ironically, the Pew Research Center finds that college-educated professionals feel the most time pressure. This despite the fact that college-educated professionals generally have to the most autonomy and flexibility – if we are living in a prison of overwork, it’s one that many of us hold the key to.

Vanderkam is a huge proponent of time tracking to tell yourself the truth about your time. She even offers a free time tracking spreadsheet on her website. Like logging your diet and exercise habits to improve them, this is an idea with merit. But let me suggest you also try to spend a week being conscious of your thought patterns around time. When you find yourself thinking “I’m so busy!” replace that thought with “I have plenty of time to do all the things I want to do.” See how that makes you feel.

Also, be conscious in noticing when you are spending your time in a way that gives you pleasure. Our brains, left to their own devices, will emphasize the negative and downplay the positive. Then, look for ways to find pleasure in your time. Here’s an example: I get up early so I can shower and dress before anyone else is up. That allows me to sit at the table and eat breakfast with my kids. During a good week this means I’m actually sitting down to a family meal TWICE every day. During a bad week when I can’t make it home for dinner, I still get about an hour of connection and family time. Celebrating the family breakfast is a far more uplifting way to think about my life than lamenting the missed dinners.