My mom has this uncanny knack for calling me when I’m in the middle of something family- or fun-centric. She does it so uncannily, in fact, that she seems to think that I do nothing else but play all day.
She calls while we’re at Austin’s swim lessons, which are on Tuesday afternoons.
She’s called during the workday while I’m at the playground with the kids.
She’ll call while I’m at the gym or driving back and forth from it, which takes up much of Wednesday and Friday mornings.
Sometimes she’ll call on a Friday afternoon and ask if I can look something up on my computer, and I’ll tell her that I can’t right now because we’re all at a Borders book store, drinking lattes and reading.
I can see how this must look.
Then, a week or so ago, I was making conversation — just shooting the breeze. I told her, by the way, that I was training to run in the Cleveland marathon in May.
Her response was, “Geez. You need more work to do or something.”
So, okay, I do do a lot of enjoyable stuff. Because I’m my own boss, I currently do much of it during the work day, but back when I kind of had a job (I worked in a post-grad program doing lab work that was slightly more thrilling than competitive toilet paper spooling), I fit it in before and after, or during lunch, or during unauthorized breaks. I always found the time, somehow.
And after really thinking on it, I’ve realized I can spell out a formula for how anyone can spend more time doing things they enjoy… and here’s that formula:
Schedule the things you want to do.
End of lesson.
The super duper formula for finding the time to do what you want to do
There is no magic involved in doing more of what you want to do. Really. To prove it, try this for me: Think of a free or cheap activity that you never seem to find the time for (exercising, doing something with your family, etc.) but that you would really like to do. Do you miss playing racquetball like you did in college? Would you and your spouse like to take a long walk every evening? Do you want to learn to play the guitar, but never seem to find the time?
Think of that thing.
Now, here’s how you fit it into your impossible schedule. Here’s the super amazing formula:
1. Plan a time to do it. Schedule it with whoever it needs to be scheduled with, and put it on the calendar.
2. Keep that appointment.
The reason most people don’t do the things that they want to do is because they consider them less important than other commitments, and so do them only after considering “real appointments and obligations.” But it doesn’t stop there; fun activities are also subordinate to anything that may come up at the last minute.
Most people say, I want to play racquetball on Tuesday, if I can fit it in. Then Tuesday comes and the laundry needs to be folded or that project due on Thursday is behind schedule, so they bail.
You can’t wait until there is literally no other niggling task that you could or should do at a given time, because that never happens. There’s always something that you could be doing, and thanks to the Puritan Work Ethic, chances are you’ll therefore decide that you should be doing it. Should be doing it over some frivolous fun activity, anyway.
Most people grew up with the notion that you could only play once you’d done all of your chores. While that makes sense in principle, modern adults will never finish all of their chores… and yet, they’ve carried that nagging voice of tightassery right on into adulthood.
Could the house be cleaned?
Could the car be washed?
Is it possible to finish the January project now, in December, to get ahead of the game?
Can you call your grandmother? Get your wife some flowers? Fix the gutters?
No? None of that can be done?
Okay, then I suppose you can go out and play.
Fuck that. If you want to enjoy your life, make enjoyment a priority. Treat appointments with yourself in the same way you’d treat them with everyone else.
There’s at least one skeptical dickhead out there reading this and saying how it’s easy for me, but not for them. Because Johnny… well, he’s got it easier than me. He doesn’t know my tough situation. He doesn’t know my life.
And while I suppose that’s possible, I don’t think it’s likely. Two years ago, when I was having nightly panic attacks because I couldn’t pay my real estate “investment” bills and was grasping at straws trying to make something — anything! — work, I still went to the gym four times a week. Those weren’t short trips, either. At the time, I was focusing on powerlifting and was doing Westside-style workouts involving heavy weights and long rest periods. Including travel, that was something like 2.5 hours out of every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday morning.
How did I do it, when I was working every minute I could find to try and create income — working like a bastard to keep from falling into the deep, dark hole?
Well, how could I NOT do it? It was essential to my relaxation, my confidence, my self-esteem, my reason for wanting to get up in the morning. But more importantly, it was also booked time. I knew that on those days, at those times, I went to the gym. It was an appointment. It was a commitment I’d made. I wouldn’t bail on a client… and, accordingly, I wouldn’t bail on myself.
Yes, I had a lot of work to do. But this time was spoken for, so I had to do that work around it.
One thing to keep in mind is that your obligations will always expand to fill the time you give them. (The principle even has a name.) The converse is that within reason, your obligations will also contract to fit into a smaller time if that’s all you have. So all that work I needed to do? If I thought it would take ten hours to complete, I knew that it’d somehow get done in 7.5 if it had to.
Let’s take an example. Let’s say that in the next week, you have a major project due, your house is a mess, your kids have two soccer games, you really need to finally quote that big new potential deal, and honestly, you should also catch up on important email and call your parents. Oh, and also, let’s not forget that Aunt Phoebe’s 60th birthday bonanza next month is still woefully underplanned.
Sounds like a lot to do in addition to your full-time job, right? Well, it’s okay. It may be stressful, but one way or another, the vital parts of that are going to get done. You’ll find a way.
Now let’s add something fun to the mix. Let’s say you’d like to go on a decompressing trail run three days this week, but you can’t possibly find the time… not with all of that stuff on your plate.
Or could you find the time?
If you just schedule those runs and commit to doing them — if, in other words, you decide right now that they take priority over at least a small part of what you think you have to do or whatever else might come up in the meantime — then guess what?
Then one way or another, the vital parts of your original list are still going to get done. You’ll find a way.
You’ll wait until next week to decide on Aunt Phoebe’s cake. Or, better, you’ll call a cake store, give them your price range and a rough idea of what A.P. wants, and ask for their best recommendation… instead of driving over and surveying all the cakes in person.
Or you’ll answer less email. Or you’ll call your parents from the car, instead of from your house.
Or you’ll get up a little earlier on one day.
Or what’s most likely, you’ll simply do what you can in the time you have and find that exactly what needed to get done got done, without sacrificing, delaying, or delegating.
What you want to do is as important as what everyone else has planned for you, so give it some priority. The vital parts of the rest will get done somehow, I promise.
My many appointments
Ask my assistant Amy if I practice what I’m preaching here and she’ll probably roll her eyes. I’m constantly asking her to schedule things around ridiculous pre-existing appointments.
Don’t book anything before noon on any day, because I go to the gym or play tennis or racquetball in the mornings.
Friday afternoons, Robin and Austin and I go to the book store and sit in comfortable chairs and read. (I do this for most of Monday too, but some of that is “sit in the cafe and kind of do work” time.) So don’t schedule calls or appointments during those times.
Once, I blocked out an entire afternoon on my calendar because I wanted to watch In the Mouth of Madness and make an apple pie.
And even when it’s not explicitly scheduled, I usually have a few items on my to-do list for the day that I know have to fit in wherever I have time. I mentioned I’m training for a marathon, so I have long runs to go on. Sometimes I do yoga. Sometimes I just want to watch a TV program I recorded the night before.
So, you may ask… when do I work?
Well, I get up at 6am every day (this is changing, actually… stay tuned for another one of my wacky self-experiments), and I do the single most important thing on the day’s list between 6 and 8, and then I often have one or two coaching calls scheduled in the afternoon. So I work hard from 6 to 8, and I conduct the calls as scheduled.
The rest fits in wherever I have time remaining.
So if you’re keeping track, here’s my order of priority during a typical day:
1. Two to three hours’ worth of my most important work
2. My own personal stuff (exercise, fun, family, etc.)
3. Other work
Every proposed new appointment is subordinate to existing appointments, regardless of whether said existing appointment is a client call or baking a pie.
If that doesn’t sound like much work, you’re kind of right… but keep in mind that what remains is like super-work. It’s pure, undiluted essence of pure importance, out of which I’ve meticulous distilled as much of the bullshit and busywork as possible. And honestly, even if it isn’t a lot of time spent “working,” what else can I do? I have a ton of appointments on my calendar. The time I have is the time I have. I’m sorry, I can’t spend a half-hour talking about unimportant crap with you today. I have a movie to get to.
Try this and you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel and, paradoxically, how much more productive you end up being.
Right now, you probably think that if you give yourself priority, important things will fall through the cracks while you’re out having a good time. But that simply won’t happen.
See, the truth is that most tasks are not important. You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right? Well, it’s true — 20% of what you do really does account for 80% of the importance and impact of what you do. The other 80% is less important or flat-out fluff. And even the kind-of-important stuff in there is way, way more time-compressible than you currently think it is.
You’ve heard of paying yourself first? This is the time equivalent of that. If you don’t pay yourself first, all of your money miraculously gets whittled away by meaningless expenses. And if you don’t take time for yourself first, somehow there’s never any time left at the end.
There’s always a pile of shirts that could be folded.
There’s always a door that could be unstuck, or a hinge that needs oiling.
There’s always one more group of potential contacts you could try to get in touch with.
And at the end of the day, you’ll wonder where the time went. The fact that you won’t know where it went says it all: You spent your time doing pointless things.
So decide in advance what’s important to you. Book time for yourself. Take that ten hours you’re allowing for work and compress it to eight, then six. Work expands to fill the time it’s given, so give it less time and see what happens. If you find that you are the rare exception to the rule and that you are simply so important that every minute of your day is vital, then you can always go back.
Try it. Pick something you’ve been wanting to do and just book it. Block it off on your calendar and announce that you will be unavailable at that time. Fit your other commitments in around it, wherever they fit, and schedule new meetings and appointments that come up around that block of time.
Do not cancel your appointment with yourself for a meeting. (I flat-out refuse to do this. You simply cannot schedule me Friday afternoons. Could I move my “unimportant” weekly trip to Borders to accommodate an important work meeting? No. No, I can’t. And I won’t, unless there is literally, literally no other way.)
Try it. And let me know what happens.
Let the good times roll.