Finding time to do the things you really want

Self portrait in iPad screen with apple

The most common excuse I hear from friends and family members when it comes to things like working out, learning another language, getting organized, or even reading a book is, “If only I had time.” I used to say it too. I used to say it a lot.

Americans have an obsession with time (other countries probably do too, but I can only speak for mine). We love to talk about how there’s not enough of it. If we could only had more of it. If they could go backwards within it. Or forward and have a glimpse at the future.

For some people, not having enough time is a reality. There are people who juggle multiple jobs, work 80 hours a week, or are raising a household of children. Those are not the people I’m addressing here. They know how to manage time. I’m talking about people like me, who work seven or eight hours, five days a week, and have the rest of the time to manage our own lives.

The people who tell me they don’t have the time to accomplish things on their wishlist miraculously have the time for Netflix, for weekends away with family, for Twitter, for crafts and DIY. They act genuinely surprised when I tell them I work out three or four times a week, that I’m learning a new language, that I write every day, that I read before bed. Their response is never, “You manage your time well!” It’s always a sigh, followed by, “If there were only more time.”

This isn’t the Harry Potter universe. I don’t have a timetuner or more hours than anyone else. I just decided what was important to me and what I wanted to spend my time doing. What I figured out, after many years of bring frustrated with myself for not being as accomplished as I knew I could be, was this: 

It’s probably not that you don’t have the time, but that you aren’t willing to make it.

You have to make time for the things you want to do. There’s no way around it. Yes, that probably means giving up something else. You can wish for more hours in a day for the rest of your life, but you will die disappointed. 

I know it’s hard to reinvent your lifestyle, especially when you are conditioned to a particular routine, but if you really want to accomplish something, then you must be willing to reevaluate your life and how you spend your time.

But before you cancel your Netflix subscription and pledge yourself to an intense workout routine you are never going to stick with, here is what I’ve learned in my own search for time:

You waste a lot more time than you realize.

Do you catch yourself scrolling aimlessly through Twitter or Instagram, or looking through Amazon’s website for a deal you don’t need? Flipping through a book or a photo album when you are supposed to be dusting the bookshelf? I have a bad habit of staring out the window or suddenly deciding that I have to clean the room I’m sitting in when I’m supposed to be working on an important project.

Distractions can stretch tasks that should take only a couple of minutes into hours. Cleaning your house is going to take a lot longer if you’re stopping to look at memorabilia in every room.  That email is going to take an hour to write if you check social media every 30 seconds. No, you won’t work more effectively if you write that report while you watch House of Cards.

The process

The first step to finding more time in your life is to recognize when you are wasting it.

We all do it. You don’t need to punish yourself. Simply learn to be aware when it happens, acknowledge it, and refocus on the task at hand. That can take a lot of practice. When I’m working on something, I often want to check Twitter, or look out the window at my garden, or play with Luke who is probably lying on the floor looking mournfully at me while I type (sorry, buddy).

Quick fixes for distractions:

  • If you can’t stop reaching for your phone, set it across the room.
  • Position your desk so it doesn’t face the TV and you aren’t tempted to watch.
  • Give the dogs a temporary distraction so you can get things done.
  • If you often find yourself browsing the internet instead of working, install a productivity app that locks you out of fun websites for a certain time period, until you break the habit.

One day, you’ll be able to sit next to your phone and totally ignore it. (The dog might take more training.)

I find music helps me to focus. There are pre-made playlists and channels on Google Play Music and Amazon Music. My favorite Amazon channel is called “Liquid Mind,” but they have playlists for all musical tastes. If you have an Echo, the skills “Cosmic Sounds” and “Himalaya Sounds” are relaxing backgrounds for work.

Start with one goal

Managing your time wisely is a habit, and habits are not created overnight. You have habits in place already. That’s what’s brought you to thinking you don’t have time. If you made a major change right now, you might not stick with it. Think of New Year’s resolutions. How many of those do we tend to keep? I don’t even bother making them anymore.

That’s why I recommend making little changes to your daily routine, starting with one goal at at a time. When your new behaviors become routine, you can add another goal into the mix!


Goal: Brush up on your high-school French

What you can do right now: Download a free app like Memrise or Duolingo. Instead of hitting the snooze button, practice a language for five minutes before you get out of bed. These apps award you for meeting your daily goal, which is a motivating factor in itself! Just five minutes a day is 30 hours of study time by the end of the year. 

In a few weeks: Increase your morning study to 10 minutes, or add a second 5-minute session before bed. Find a language podcast. Study during your lunch break or make it a Sunday-morning-with-coffee routine. I eventually bought a textbook!

Goal: Get in better shape

What you can do right now: Dance to your favorite song every day before you get ready for work. If you have a treadmill or an elliptical machine, work out to the length of that song and then go about the rest of your day.

In a few weeks: Work up to a couple songs per day – maybe space them out – until you get in the habit of working out. Eventually, commit to a certain number of workouts a week. Mine is four 15-minute sessions. My goal is four 30-minute sessions by the end of the year. 

Goal: Get the spare room organized

What you can do right now: Remove five items every day and donate, recycle, or dispose of them. Do that five days in a row, and you’ve taken care of 25 items! If the room is just cluttered, spend a set amount of time getting things in order. Set a timer. Ten minutes is good to start. Work until the timer goes off and stop. Repeat this Monday through Saturday, and by Sunday you’ve already put in one hour.

In a few weeks: Work up to 20 and 30 minutes of decluttering/organizing/cleaning at a time. Focus on one room. Once it’s under control, move on to the next. When the whole house is tidy, use that time for maintaining it or for other projects.

Goal: Write a book

What you can do right now: Make a daily word pledge and stick with it. Start with something manageable. By the end of the year, 50 words a day is a sizable short story, 100 words is a novella, and 250 words is a novel. It doesn’t matter where or when you write. Right now, you need to condition yourself to write when you have a moment, so get the words out when you can, even if they sound awful.  

In a few weeks: Increase your word pledge. Instead of 50 words a day, aim for 100. Commit to a dedicated writing time and use it daily. Make writing time yours.

Finding time

You might be thinking this all sounds great on the surface, but where are you supposed to find the time to accomplish even these short tasks?

Borrow bits of time from other tasks

It’s not easy or realistic to overhaul your life overnight. You have to do it in stages so that the new behaviors become habit, and that will take dedication on your part. It might seem hard at first, but if your dreams are important to you, then they – and you – are worth the challenge.

Remember, this is not a punishment. You’re making these changes for yourself. You’re taking control of your life so you can get the most out of it. This is a good thing.

Make a list of things you want to accomplish this year and pick one to work on first. If you’ve determined that you need 30 minutes a day to achieve that goal, you have to carve those 30 minutes from somewhere. It’s not as awful as it sounds.

Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Get up 15 minutes earlier and go to bed 15 minutes later
  • If it’s an activity that helps you relax or recharge, use part of your lunch break
  • Don’t press “Next episode” on Netflix
  • Set timers so you realize how much time you’re spending on things you already do, and to make sure to stop when you should
  • Turn fun activities into rewards. You want to read the next chapter? Great. Do it after you’ve worked out.

Do tasks in an order that optimizes your time.

Order your tasks so that things that take a long time can be done in the background while you are accomplishing something else. This might take a little bit of thinking the first few times you do it, but eventually it will become second nature. Here is how I approach this:

  1. Make a list of everything you want to accomplish today. 
  2. Determine things that will take the longest and can run in the background while you do other things (eg. laundry, baking bread, making dinner in a slow cooker). Get those started first.
  3. Next, determine important tasks that require more of your time but have downtime (eg. mopping the floors, retouching the paint on baseboards, disinfecting surfaces). Get them started next.
  4. While floors are drying and the laundry is tumbling, do maintenance tasks that require your full participation: pay bills, clean the kitchen, go through the house with a cloth and dust all of the hard surfaces.
  5. If anything in steps 2 or 3 needs to be checked on, do it (eg. put in a new load of laundry, rinse surfaces).
  6. Keep working down items on your list. 
  7. Don’t worry if you don’t get through the whole thing today.

For example, I do the laundry and bake bread on weekends while I write. I collect the laundry in the morning and start a load. Then I get the bread machine ready. Then I sit down to write – often out on the porch when the weather is nice! I end the day with a couple thousand words, clean laundry, and bread for sandwiches.

I do this after work on a smaller scale. When I get home, I need to let the dogs out, play with them, and make something for dinner.  My routine is that I greet the dogs, let them out into the yard, and then get dinner started. Once it’s underway, I go outside and play with them. If I’m reheating something, it’s usually ready by the time we come in, and then I can sit down to eat.

This same way of thinking can be applied to tasks at work, too. I queue giant files for upload, then return emails.

Make use of dead time.

There are so many moments throughout the day when we are waiting for things. I wait for my coffee to brew (2 minutes) or my tea to steep (3 minutes). I wait for my dogs to come in from outside (varies by canine mood). I wait for a show to come back from commercial break. I wait for the laundry to finish so I can take it out of the washer (“1 minute remaining” is a lie). 

Two- and three-minute chunks of time might not seem like enough to accomplish anything, but play this game instead: rather than telling yourself you need to accomplish an entire task in that time frame, ask yourself how much can I get done before the timer goes off? It’s more than you think.

Here are a few things you can do with only two or three minutes:

  • Empty the dish rack
  • Wipe down the kitchen counters
  • Go through a stack of mail
  • Do jumping jacks
  • Pay a bill
  • Check the status of an online order
  • Study a few words on a language learning app
  • Fold several pieces of clothing
  • Dictate a couple lines of your book
  • Get dressed

You may find that you actually have 15, 20, 30 minutes a day of wasted time that you can put to use. This is how I’ve learned to keep my dishes washed and sink cleaned. I never used to do that. (No, really, ask my dad.)

Be smart about multitasking.

I am not a successful multi-tasker. I work best if I focus on one task at a time, otherwise I become distracted. But there are some tasks that I’m able to combine because they require different kinds of concentration:

  • Want to increase your knowledge? Listen to a podcast while you get ready for work or during your commute. If you are an Amazon Prime member,  you have the benefit of Audible channels, part of the Audible app. Content ranges from 2 minutes to the length of a full audiobook. There are hundreds of free podcasts available through iTunes.
  • Instead of listening to music while doing work, enroll in free courses on Coursera and listen to lectures. This won’t work all the time. I can’t do this when I’m editing, for example, but it’s great when I’m working on ad layouts or performing something mindlessly routine. 
  • Use Memrise and Duolingo while on the elliptical machine (assuming yours is a model where you can safely do this). I can put in 25 minutes of language study while I work out. In fact, it makes the time go by faster than music ever has.
  • Do calf raises while you sort the mail or through a commercial break.
  • Dictate a book from the tub (I use Google’s voice typing feature).

Reward yourself.

Positive reinforcement will help you stick with your new routine. Did you study/work out/write/clean or otherwise accomplish something today? Yay! You earned that next episode. And don’t forget to work hard tomorrow too.

Other things that might help

There are a few things I do that help me feel more productive. I don’t know if they actually aid in productivity, but I thought I would share them in case they are helpful to anyone else:

  • I get dressed, even if I won’t see anyone that day. I do light makeup and pull my hair back. I wear comfortable but pretty stuff on weekends (I have a collection of “deck dresses,” sundresses and long bridesmaid’s dresses that I’d never wear to work, but are fun to wear outside with coffee). If I feel like an adult, I tend to act more like an adult. If I sit around in pajamas, I am much more likely to watch TV than take care of my house or write or clean.
  • I keep the space around me tidy and free of clutter. Clutter upsets me. A clean desk helps me to focus.
  • I stay hydrated and I eat when I am hungry. Hunger is an instant productivity killer.
  • I serve food on real plates and sometimes fun trays. Donuts on cute plates? Yes! Yes, you deserve a pretty presentation! You deserve to drink from a clean mug! You deserve clean clothes! Yes, being kind to yourself is a good thing!

Keep it up.

The only way to find more time in your day is to become more disciplined about how you use your time, which requires ongoing time and effort. This is a lifelong change. But once you get this under control, you’ll be amazed how much you can accomplish in the few hours you’re awake.

When your new routines have become habit and you no longer have to bribe yourself to study, or to work out, or to get out of bed when your alarm goes off, gently introduce another task into your day.

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