Learning to use the time you have
This post is part of my series on PBH for Grown-ups — you can see all of the posts here.
You think you have no time. You have five children, or you have teenagers who play different sports, or you have a nursing baby and a toddler. You have a dog that needs to be walked, and your parents need help with their taxes. You are so pressed for time, if you turn sideways, you disappear.
You think you have no time, but actually you do, of course, have time, it’s just not useful time.
Let’s think about all the ways in which the time you have is inadequate:
- There isn’t enough of it to ball together to make a brief interlude.
- It’s riddled with interruptions.
- You’re exhausted.
- Your brain is mush after the sun goes down.
and so on.
You simply don’t have what you need to do the work you yearn to do. You are like a cobbler forced to make shoes out of pinecones.
Most of you believe that you need a chunk of uninterrupted time in order to get anything done. Or you need to work in the morning, because by afternoon your brain no longer functions properly. Or you need to work during the day, because after dinner, you’re toast.
You need it to be quiet — no TV noise or children arguing. You need to be well rested and relaxed. You need to be less stressed. You need to have less on your plate.
There are people who can work while being bombarded by family life. There are people who can shut out their worldly cares. But you’re not one of them. You are a hothouse flower. You are a special snowflake.
Oops, no you’re not.
You’ve just only ever accomplished anything during ideal work time because that ideal work time was available. No one would choose less than ideal conditions if close to ideal were available. You have no experience working in five-minute intervals or while children are arguing (cough) playing in the same room or when you’ve already put in a full day of parenting. No experience, however, is not the same as no ability.
When I sat down to start writing PBH (years and years ago), I worked out — through a series of negotiations which would make the United Nations proud — a two-hour chunk of alone time four mornings a week. I didn’t think it was possible for me to start writing a book under anything less than ideal conditions.
I was wrong.
The ability to work is a muscle, and mine was the consistency of a warm slice of bologna.
But you can build up your ability to work in less than ideal conditions. I did it by accident. I wasn’t satisfied with only working during the times I could arrange to “get away” — and life yanked that two-hour window away fairly soon, anyway. I started working during those less optimal times. I was interrupted constantly. I forgot what I was thinking about or what I was writing. I stared at half-sentences and couldn’t for the life of me remember what the tail end was supposed to be. If I had an idea, I had to write it down immediately or it evaporated like steam. But I kept stubbornly plugging away at it, because those minutes added up to something and I wanted whatever I could get.
Now, I’m one of those magic people who can work under poor conditions. (Cue theme from Rocky.) I could sit at the Superbowl and work while people passed hotdogs over me and screamed in my ear. I can work at night — at night! — when I used to feel like the only thing left in me was the ability to keep the couch from floating away. I have ideas and I can actually remember them without writing them down, which is a sort of miracle, because I can’t seem to remember anything else.
The fact that you can’t work under these conditions right now does not mean that you will never be able to work under these conditions. It isn’t a talent you’re either born with or not. It’s a skill you can acquire over time. It’s a muscle you can strengthen through use.
Yes, it won’t be pretty at first. You might think, this isn’t even worth it, I’m accomplishing so little. I’m pretty sure the work is terrible, too. I only had X minutes to work today and I only accomplished Y; it’s going to take a million years to get anywhere.
So what’s your hurry? You know that somewhere off on the horizon, your children are going to steadily grow up and be more independent. Eventually they might even move out. Do you want to wait until you can have your perfect, ideal time out there in the future? You’ll be too busy playing with your new flying car.
Going slow gets you there quicker than going nowhere.
This is a math equation and you are plugging in the small work variable but don’t forget you get to multiply by the days, and there are a lot of them. They stretch out in front of you and they become months and years and more years. Someone once wrote to Dear Abby and said, I want to be a doctor but I’m so old — I’ll be 45 before I get out of medical school. And she said, And how old will you be if you don’t go to medical school?
The most important number is zero, which is how much time you’ll be working if you don’t get over this hump. Pretty much anything bigger than zero is a win for you. If you want to achieve something — learn something, be something, do something — and you do more than zero, you’re going to eventually get there. Imagine that you do nothing and wait but alternate-dimension you gets started today using those little bitty scraps of time. Where will both of you be in a year?
If you start building up your work muscle — under these less than ideal conditions — then you will be a superhero when you actually get some big blocks of uninterrupted time. Like an astronaut in 70% gravity, you’ll be hoisting giant machinery with one hand and taking gigantic 30-foot steps. You will have done all your training Rocky-style, running up and down mountains with logs on your back, so that when you’re finally in the ring, it will feel like a vacation.
As an added bonus, if you stop stubbornly insisting that you need XYZ in order to work, you can take the first step in quitting making excuses. There’s no patch for that, and it’s very hard to go cold turkey. Most of us are so addicted to our excuses that giving them up feels like surgery without anesthetic.
Yes, it’s going to be hard. Yes, it’s not going to be ideal. It’s probably going to be a whole lot less than ideal. But you can grow and change and become stronger and more capable. (Really. You can.) What is a struggle now will get easier with time and practice. The tiny bits of time add up. Doing nothing now and waiting for the ideal time later means waiting a very long time before you can even begin. Starting now and giving up the fantasy of ideal conditions means you can begin immediately.
Slow? Sure. Painful? Probably. Frustrating? Almost certainly. But there is a big difference between actually doing something and only thinking about doing something. It makes you feel pretty great. You are on your way. You are strengthening your skills and testing your ideas. When more time becomes available to you — and higher-quality time — you will be ready to make the absolute most of it. You will fly.
Now do your Rocky dance.
Next time we’ll talk about how to set up an environment that will support what you’re trying to do. Because you’re going to need all the help you can get.
The minute you begin to do what you really want to do, it’s really a different kind of life. — Buckminster Fuller