Almost everybody I know feels like they don’t have enough time. Not enough time to see friends, spend with their family, to go to the gym, to make meals. They don’t get enough sleep, don’t spend time on their hobbies. If they even have hobbies. Between work and life and everything, there just isn’t enough time.
We take time management courses and read articles about how to manage our time and try to schedule everything in our phones or Google calendar, and still, there’s not enough time.
We’re just past the mid-point of January. For some people, the New Year’s resolutions have already been shelved. For others, they still really want to be committed, but the inspiration is sort of wearing off, and they can just feel those goals slipping away. And for many people, the reason they will let go? Not enough time.
The most common piece of advice I’ve seen when reading articles about how to find the time to do something: get up earlier. Apparently, getting up earlier is the answer to all of life’s problems. Get up an hour earlier and go to the gym. Get up half an hour earlier and do your morning pages (writers in the crowd will relate). Get up an hour earlier and make lunches and prepare meals. Or in my case, get up an hour earlier and hate the world a little bit more with each passing minute.
I will admit that as a card carrying night owl, this advice probably pisses me off a lot more than it should, and as a result, I am probably quite biased. It’s just that I don’t understand how getting up earlier magically expands time. Because it doesn’t. But that’s not really obvious in all the “suck it up and get up earlier” advice.
There are two things that the purveyors of advice like “get up an hour earlier” (who are probably all morning people to begin with) fail to convey in their message.
One: Everything comes at the cost of something else.
Everything, absolutely everything, involves a choice and a trade off. We are making choices all the time, even though most of us don’t realize it. How many times have you said to yourself “I have no choice”? The truth is, you do have a choice. You always have a choice. When you think you don’t have a choice it’s usually because the alternatives are so bad, or even morally repugnant, that we don’t even consider them choices. It takes us no time to consider those options, because making the choice is actually easy.
So once I decide to make a choice (I will get up an hour earlier than my normal wake up time), I have to consider all the trade-offs and additional choices that first choice brings me. Will I go to bed earlier at night to maintain my total number of hours of sleep? If so, what will I need to give up in the evening to make that happen? Or will I sacrifice the hour of sleep and deal with the consequences of that? And then, what will I do in that hour when I am not normally awake? Which, of the many options available to me, will I choose? Whether we realize it or not, we are always making choices. Always weighing the opportunity costs in our head.
I was pretty irritated when I first realized that I actually had choices when I was arguing that I had none. Like seriously, who could tell me that I had any choice but to stay in a job that was sucking my soul out every single day? I didn’t have a choice. I had a mortgage and kids to support. Of course I had to work at that job — I had already looked for other jobs — nothing paid as well or provided the same level of benefits. So what choice did I have really?
Well, as it turns out, I could have downsized my house, moved in with my parents, cashed in all my savings, gone to live in Alaska with all the reality show people, lived in my car and probably a whole host of other options. But because all of those options seemed immediately worse than the soul sucking job, they didn’t seem like choices. But they were.
Why is this important? Because since absolutely everything comes at the cost of something else, it pays to be conscious of all the choices you actually make. If you suddenly become conscious of the fact that you’ve actually been making choices when you thought you had none, a bigger thing can happen. You realize all of the opportunities you have to make choices that you didn’t see at all before. And this can be a game changer — because some of these will be better than what you have today.
Two: You are wasting time.
People are often told to examine their day and get rid of non-productive activities, like watching TV, playing games, Facebook surfing, watching cat videos — whatever it is that takes your time but doesn’t provide any obvious value.
It’s probably true. You are probably doing non-productive stuff at least some of the time. So most people end up feeling guilty — “I watched The Walking Dead last night instead of doing the dishes. I really should have done the dishes instead. I waste so much time on stuff that isn’t important. I should probably quit TV altogether and move to Alaska and live off the land.”
Okay, maybe not quite that bad. But, we are led to believe that productivity is important above all, and that time spent on TV and games is wasted and would be better spent another way. Maybe that’s true. And then again, maybe it isn’t. If that hour spent watching The Walking Dead allowed you to unwind and relax and clear your mind, and maybe connect with your spouse or kids who also love The Walking Dead, then maybe that unproductive time actually had value that can’t be measured. Maybe it’s value was higher than the value of doing the dishes. This is where you get to exercise choice. You get to choose what’s valuable. You get to choose how to spend your time. And you get to change your mind.
I was recently reflecting on the fact that I used to play two games on my phone (Candy Crush and Bee Brilliant, if you’re interested). I would play each game until I ran out of lives. Sometimes that took a long time if the levels were easy or if friends had given me lives. Sometimes it didn’t take all that long. Usually, by the time I had played through all the lives on both games, I’d have another new life on the first one. So I’d play again. And it wasn’t unusual for me to find that an hour, or sometimes more, had passed without me even realizing it. It was just for fun. And I deserved to play the games. But then, I started thinking that maybe the game playing wasn’t so much for fun as it was for the avoidance of other things. So at the beginning of the year, I decided to stop playing the games on weekdays. I would only play them on weekends. 19 days later, I still haven’t played. Not even on weekends. And what’s interesting about this is that I actually haven’t missed playing. Not really at all. Has anything else changed? Well, I’ve been spending a lot more time in the evenings writing, which as it turns out, makes me a whole lot happier than the games did (and is infinitely more difficult, which is probably why I was looking for reasons to avoid it). I’m not sure that I’m necessarily more productive, but I am more satisfied. So in this case, the experiment worked out.
The point here is — productivity is not everything. Satisfaction is important too. If you say there is value in playing games for an hour a day, or watching a movie, or looking at cat videos, then there is value. You don’t have to feel guilty. And … maybe sometimes you should question. Ask yourself — what do I get out of this activity? What do I enjoy about this game? Do I like this show? Am I using this to avoid something else? And if you’re not sure, be curious. Run an experiment. Quit the game for a few weeks and see what happens. You can always go back to it.
Because you have choices.
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