Learning to use the time you have

Published by Lori Pickert on January 7, 2013 at 08:01 AM

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


Comment by Danielle | In S... on January 8, 2013 at 08:35 AM

This post spoke to me so much that I can't help but speak up. I, obviously, agree. In fact, my business - In Stolen Moments - was named because of this sort of feeling that you communicate here. I started the business when my youngest was just a few months old. And now that I have a 4-year old and a 2-year old it is still how I work. 5 minutes here. 10 minutes there. An uninterrupted hour or two when I get the chance. It's amazing what can get done in small moments!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 09:56 AM

thank you, danielle. :) it is amazing! and you’re really stealing those moments back for yourself. <3

Comment by amanda {the hab... on January 8, 2013 at 10:24 AM

i love you for this post. really. girl crush to the max.

i cannot even tell you how many people have emailed, wondering how i do it all with 5 kids underfoot 24/7. i do it because it's important to me. i do it because it's a priority. i do it in crappy conditions, in a tiny filled to the brim house because i can't do otherwise.

from here on out, i will be directing all those emails to this post :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 09:55 AM

right back at you, girl crush. :)

i get those same questions. i hope this series helps some other moms who want to figure out how to find that time. it’s there! just have to help them connect with it. :)

Comment by knittingrid on January 8, 2013 at 10:27 AM

When my daughter was small I discovered that I could get things done in 20-minute chunks. She's much older now, but I still find myself using chunks of time when I find them. I always carry a small, portable knitting project with me (usually socks) and it's very gratifying to see how much the project grows even when I'm only knitting for a few minutes at a time. I think the key is (and I suspect/hope that you're going to address it in this series) in being prepared; having the materials you need on hand, and leaving your project at the end of a session ready to go the next time you pick it up. And sometimes 5 minutes is enough to reorganize the pile of knitting books, which is enough to spark a new idea, and so on...

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 09:53 AM


ingrid, it is the *exact* same for me. now that my boys are older, i still find myself working in chunks.

your suspicions are correct. ;o)  it is key to set yourself up so you can hit the ground running!

Comment by janet on January 8, 2013 at 01:49 PM

yes! love it!

it's like a switch flipping. i see the broom in my hands (or the muffin, or the ipad), drop it, and run to my work completely unprepared. i don't indulge in research or inspiration. i just do. it's ok. no one needs to see that i didn't get far. but i did get beyond zero.

thanks for the support, lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 09:51 AM

thank YOU, janet! :) and yes — it’s a habit and a skill you can build up over time. and you add a really important point — there’s no one watching and no one grading our progress. as long as we keep going, that’s the important thing.

Comment by sustainablemum on January 8, 2013 at 03:47 PM

Such wise words, thank you for sharing. I had this epiphany moment last year when I was thinking of ways to be more productive with my time. By using the snippets more wisely I have found that I actually do more. I feel calmer, more content and rest easy at night.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 09:50 AM

yes! beautiful point re: calm, content, resting easier. i think doing our own meaningful work is deeply nourishing. <3

Comment by Kat on January 9, 2013 at 09:27 AM

Spooky. Looking for hidden cameras aimed inside my brain. Thanks for the reminder that indulging in the pity party is fruitless.

P.S. "You are a special snowflake," cracked me up.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 09:48 AM

you know i love you guys! you’re all special snowflakes to me! ;o)

Comment by Monika weglarz on January 9, 2013 at 09:43 AM

Lori, have you been spying on me? The first part of your post is me exactly. Made me laugh. Thank you for all the helpful points in this post. Amazing!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 9, 2013 at 09:47 AM


you’re not the only one who thinks i’m a fly on the wall! ;o)

thank you so much, monika! :)

Comment by Wildwood on January 10, 2013 at 03:32 PM

Really a timely post. Actually, any time in the last 10 years or so, and this would've been timely. Exactly what I needed to hear.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 10, 2013 at 04:59 PM

i’m glad! :)

Comment by Kirstie on January 15, 2013 at 12:22 AM

For me it's not so much the struggle to work surrounded by chaos, (after all, plenty of offices are chaotic) it's the maternal guilt that I shouldn't work (i.e. choose to do something non domestic) if I am surrounded by chaos...

Can't really remember the plot of Rocky - was there a crisis point in the story where Rocky felt guilty because his training was interfering with his ability to create a perfectly managed and calm Waldorf/Montessori environment? : )

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 15, 2013 at 07:31 AM


ha! “adrienne .. the gnomes, adrienne ..”

we have to address maternal guilt in this series. it’s coming, i promise. :)

Comment by shelli : mamaof... on January 19, 2013 at 09:22 PM

Lori, this is one of the best posts I've ever read, and I really needed to read it tonight, so thank you. I completely agree with you. I've always had kind of a motto to "be the turtle and not the hare," but sometimes I just get so exhausted and then I get on my pity pot. That usually means I need to take a break and do something different and more relaxing - don't worry about what I wanted to accomplish. These ups and downs are inevitable, I suppose.

Your post reminded me of my friend who teaches news writing in our local university's journalism school. He told me once that he makes his students write an article during his (maybe just an hour long?) class, and he would put the radio on while they were writing. He said it was to train them to be able to write quickly while they were in a busy and noisy news room. When he told me that, I knew that I could also train myself to write under less than ideal conditions.

And I have for the most part. Except on the occasions I get on my pity pot. ;)

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 21, 2013 at 07:01 AM


thank you, shelli. :)

love the story about the journalism professor — pan up in the comments to read sheila’s similar story. :)  professionals know you have to learn to work under less-than-ideal conditions — we just need to embrace that same mindset and realize it can work for us, too.

Comment by hopewellmomschool on August 19, 2013 at 12:14 PM

I started carrying a tiny composition book in the outer pocket of my purse. I decided this year I WOULD BE A REAL WRITER! I've lost track of the number of times I've pulled over on my 1.25 hour commute to scribble notes. This series is AWESOME!!! May I please post positively about it at my blog when I've gone thru all of the posts?

Comment by Cindy Stephens on January 24, 2014 at 07:13 PM

Lori, I love this. So glad I found your blog today through a project based homeschooler in Australia. I received my books to study herbal remedies two months ago and haven't cracked open the first book. I realize I was waiting on the right conditions. And lost days are turning into months. I can't wait to read the next post in this series. Thank you from NC!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 24, 2014 at 08:14 PM

thank you, cindy! :)

Comment by Misty O'Dell on June 8, 2014 at 09:29 PM

I'm doing my very own rocky dance now. Thank you for this and your site. A friend shared your post on the old fashioned summer and it resonated deep within me. That was this afternoon and I've been reading your posts during my chunks of time (baby, toddler are occupied briefly) this evening. I've also signed up for the forum. This is exactly what our family needed, thank you!

Comment by Lori Pickert on June 8, 2014 at 09:44 PM

thank you! that is great to hear. :)


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