I know what you’re thinking, and it wasn’t one of those Serious Relationship Conversations. At all.
Rather, it started out with something pretty ordinary: me complaining about time and money. Why wasn’t I making more money? Why did it feel like everyone else was getting ahead, and not me? I was already working all the hours I could, charging good rates. There was no more time left! What was I to do?
This kind of whining is typical after a long day spent balancing a lot of different things (in my case, client work, personal writing, kids, and “me” time). It’s the most un-unique kind of conversation ever. You’ve probably done your own version of this whining, curled up on the couch with your significant other, over cocktails with a friend, or venting over lunch with a co-worker.
My husband is usually pretty good at talking me down from the ledge of my pity party. But this time, he did something other than indulge me.
“Okay,” he said cautiously. “Don’t take this the wrong way . . . but, uh, how much are you really working?”
I reached for indignation (How dare you? What are YOU doing all day, mister?), but instead, I found . . . curiosity.
Keeping my voice even, I said something like, “Well, I do work all day, every week day. What do you mean?”
“Let’s face it, most days you don’t get started until about nine. You work a few hours, and then go running or go to yoga, and eat lunch and take a shower. Then it’s 1:00 or 1:30. You work . . . maybe four more hours, until about 5:00?”
The only comeback I had was, “No, 5:30!”
“Judi, I hate to tell you, but you basically work about five to seven hours a day.”
I should point out that he wasn’t saying any of this to be critical. Rather, he was trying to get me to see that for the amount of time I actually spent working, I was doing alright.
“People work 50 and 60 hours a week at jobs they don’t even like to make what you’re making. And you’re doing what you want to do, working for yourself,” he said.
Another night, I may have been angry. Another night, I may have dismissed everything he said. Another night, I may have had a lofty speech about how you can’t compare like that and was I supposed to just settle for “better than the miserable lot of most workers?”
But on that night, I realized he was right.
Now, some disclaimers: during busy times, it’s very common for me to work a spate of 12-hour days + weekends. But that’s the exception, not the rule. Oh, and I’m constantly checking email (constantly), and very often thinking about work when I’m not working. All those caveats notwithstanding, when it comes to focused work, in my office, i.e., “the workday,” I’m barely a full-time employee of myself.
What I realized that night, more clearly than I ever had before, was this: when it comes to my ideas about time, I’ve been practicing some seriously fuzzy math.
The Reality of Time vs. The Perception of Time
Earlier last year, I had started to read Laura Vanderkam’s168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. I love her writing style (I know her personally, and while she intimidates me something silly, she’s awesome). She made great points about how we think about time.
So naturally, I stopped halfway through reading it and did none of her exercises.
I’ve already got this time thing in the bag, I thought.
I was both right and wrong. I do sort of have it in the bag. I just failed to recognize what my bag looks like.
It’s like this: I’m good at meeting deadlines and being productive. I’m not a flake or a classic procrastinator. Yes, I waste time here and there looking at videos on Facebook of panda bears frolicking in snow, but in general, I’m pretty good at working when I’m supposed to be working. I give myself a solid A-.
And the flexibility? Listen, I love love love that I get to run at 11:00 a.m. I don’t plan on changing it. That flexibility IS why I work for myself.
Reality isn’t my problem. Perception is.
In carving out this freelance life for the past 14 years, I’ve created one work reality, and then told myself another very different story about what’s going on. I need my “I’m out of hours in the day!” story, because it’s my fall back excuse for when I don’t make as much money as I want to make.
For so many of us, stories about time are nothing more than attempts at self-preservation.
Understanding this has led me to explore two ideas:
- I could work a little bit more.
- It would help to repackage the notion of “either/or.”
First, the idea of working more. As I wrote about earlier this month, I’m committed to working a little more this year (say, 10 ‚Äì 15 percent more) to be able to afford some things my family needs, like a small home addition. Rather than approaching this as a drain, as “woe is me,” it actually feels more like a fun challenge. If I hadn’t stared the reality of my working hours in the face, I would see it very differently. I would have kept spinning around in my story about being overworked.
Second, the “either/or” problem. While researching this piece for Owners.com on tips for dealing with overwhelm when searching for a home, I came across this New York Times blog post highlighting some recent research about time management as it relates to goal setting.
Researchers did this experiment where they asked one group of people to talk about two of their goals they felt were in conflict with one another, and another group of people just to talk about two of their goals. The group that was asked to think about the “conflicting” goals felt more of a time crunch than the group that merely talked about them as goals.
Bottom line: how you think about goals and time is HUGE.
Here’s how I’m putting this piece of information to work in my life. I have two goals for the year: spend a little more time working, and have a little more fun. One does not need to inform the other. They each have their own life and trajectory.
In service of the “having fun” goal, I started going to an adult gymnastics open gym at the beginning of the year. It is unbelievably fun to tumble again! (I’m sure it will wind up as a metaphor in a future newsletter.) The class is on Thursday nights, from 8:00 ‚Äì 9:00. It’s 30+ minutes away. I have to start getting ready at 7:00, so there is enough time to pick up my friend who goes with me. By the time I get home again, it’s going on 10:00. That’s three hours—a substantial chunk of time in my world.
Until I sat down to write this, I had never once thought about the fact that “having fun” took three hours every Thursday night. Time never entered into the picture. Because it isn’t about time. It’s about fun. And I didn’t tie them together.
My goal to have fun and my goal to work a little bit more are not in competition with one another.
In the past, before The Big Conversation with my husband, I may have felt a crunch around it—like there couldn’t possibly be time for both.
Now, I feel more a sense of abundance. Of course there’s time for both!
Realizing that my time narrative was complete crap was such a wonderful gift. Yes, it hurt my ego for a few minutes. But I’m so much better poised to meet my goals, knowing the truth.
What’s your time narrative? Do you need to reexamine it?