A little over a year ago, I faced a milestone that had seemed impossibly far away for most of my adult life, and was now, suddenly, right around the corner: the day all five of my children would be in school, all day, all at the same time.
Since having my first child at 20, I’d never experienced a period when I didn’t have at least one baby, toddler or preschooler in the house (often more than one at a time.) And, especially during my decade-plus career as a work-from-home writer, that led to developing an almost obsessive relationship with time.
How long will this article take to write? And related: how long will the baby nap?
How much longer until he’ll let me put him down?
How much longer will she play alone before she needs something and interrupts me…again?
How many more years, months, weeks, before my days are my own again?
I really want to get the office cleaned up, where will I find the time?
Did I spend enough time working this week? Did I spend enough time with the kids today?
Time, time, time, just think of all the things I could do if I had more time!
During that hectic period, I lived my life and worked my work bouncing from one small crisis to another, from the deadline made just under the radar to the conference call I managed to wrap up just before the toddler threw a fit in the other room.
But looking back, I did more than just manage. In fact, for someone with a house constantly full of small, needy people and little to no formal child care, I got a hell of a lot done.
So you can imagine the excitement I felt when looking forward to the 35 hours each week that my kids – all of ’em – would be in another building, and I’d be sitting in a quiet house, hours stretching out in front of me, probably taking over the world within a month.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
A year after the day all my kids went off to school at the same time, for the first time, I have to admit that I did not: take over the world, double my income, or produce exponentially more writing. I didn’t learn to keep a spotless house, I didn’t get in the best physical shape of my life, and I didn’t even finish the embroidery project I’d started the year before.
In fact, I did less personal writing than I had the year before, eventually “sunsetting” the home and family blog I’d written for 6 years. Everything else – revenue, cleanliness of home, level of physical activity – stayed more or less the same.
Yes, even with more time on my hands than I once would have been able to dream of.
Over 17 years as a mother with at least one small child at home at all times, I’d become used to running back and forth caring for various people’s needs throughout the day. So when they were suddenly all gone, the silence, the absence of others and their needs, was surprisingly hard to get used to.
I spent a lot of time avoiding the quiet by filling my “spare” minutes scrolling mindlessly through Facebook or messaging friends. Fun, but not exactly productive, and too much of either can slowly lead to a wasted-time shame spiral: fall down the internet rabbit hole, realize how many minutes or hours have passed, feel bad about all the time you’ve “wasted,” distract yourself from said guilty feelings by clicking another link…
One year later, I’m learning once again to use time efficiently; this time without the somewhat addictive rush of cramming all those “must-dos” in during naptimes and quiet bouts of independent play. But I’m also learning that feeling a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day isn’t all about how efficiently we use our time – or how much of it we have available.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think some time management skills are essential to getting things done, especially when you’re trying to juggle small children and a small business. It’s easy to fritter away minutes and hours doing small tasks that don’t move you toward your goals. It’s easy to let less important commitments start to crowd in on the things you really want to accomplish. And sooner or later, we all run out of hours. Yes, time matters.
But I no longer feel like time is my most precious resource. How much time I have on my hands is no longer the way I assess my potential to accomplish things, and how many hours I’ve spent on a project, on myself, or even with my kids no longer factors into how satisfied or successful I feel at the end of the day.
Instead, I have come to value attention as the most valuable resource I have to offer.
I’ve seen how, when I’m engaged, rapt, and working with all cylinders firing, an hour can seem to become a fluid thing, stretching to accommodate an incredible amount of work…and conversely, when I’m tired, distracted, or uninspired, a whole day can shrink to nothing, passing before I even realized it began.
Six hours of quality sleep can be better than eight hours of tossing and turning.
A weekend full of laughter and fun can seem to last forever and a moment all at once. A big memory can feel like it happened twenty years ago…or two.
A moment can be transcendent, and an hour can be missed.
And so, I’ve changed the way I consider time in both my work and my life.
I no longer charge by the hour, because how long something takes me to accomplish no longer seems relevant to the value it offers my clients or the life it takes from me.
I no longer worry about how long it’ll take to finish an assignment while considering whether it’s worth the pay, but instead, how much I’ll enjoy the effort I’ll put into it.
I no longer guard time jealously, because I realize that it’s more abundant than I ever thought possible if I just learn to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of me.
Once upon a time, my house and arms were full 24-7. It was more difficult to get to some things because my children needed my attention more than they do now. Even so, what needed to get done somehow always got done. And if some things slipped through the cracks, here I am anyway. The world didn’t come to an end.
Today, when every morning brings me a day full of hours to fill, it’s not just about how quickly or efficiently I can get things done. It’s about how much of my concentration, effort, energy, and passion I can spare for each task. I can fit a lot into these open days of mine, but not every activity is equally worthy of my attention.
So the next time I find myself wondering “Do I have time for this?” I’m going to flip the script. The truth is, I probably have the time. But do I – should I – care enough to make this thing a priority? Does it warrant my attention? That, I think, is the real question.
Because unlike time, which passes one way or the other whether I notice or not, the amount of attention and focus I pour into something is wholly within my control.
We spend a lot of time obsessing about time and worrying that we won’t have enough. But what if we trusted that, if we do only the things that matter to us and pay our fullest attention while we’re doing them, then “enough time” will follow?