How You Should be Spending Your Time Right Now

Julie Clow
Feb 26, 2015 · 6 min read

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” — E.B. White

You should get more sleep. You watch too much TV. You work too much. You don’t work enough. You aren’t spending enough time with your family. You aren’t making any progress on your side projects. And yet, you are exhausted. What’s a person to do? There is never enough time to get it all done, and even when we do make progress, we often still feel like we aren’t doing quite enough.

Although I just turned forty, I’ve spent most of my adult career in a perpetual state of trying to maximize my time, mostly feeling like I was never doing enough. To my credit, I did raise a daughter, finish a Ph.D., write a book, and manage a career (which, to my best knowledge seems to be going well), all while trying to lose those pesky ten pounds through as much exercise as I could fit in. But somehow, I still felt like I was falling short.

I’ve read productivity books. Purged cable from my apartment. Carefully crafted to-do lists, even for my fun weekend activities. Still, the guilt, and perhaps more saliently, the confusion over one big question: in this very moment in time (in which I actually find myself with time on my hands), what should I be doing with this time?

I used to wake up virtually every weekend feeling the urgency of this question: I only have two precious days in my weekend, and dammit, how do I make the most of it? I have managed to swing the pendulum to two extremes, only to discover:

Working all the time is not the answer. I spent eight months writing a book alongside a full time job, which demanded every spare hour of my discretionary time. I would work all week, and then wake up on Saturday and Sunday morning, spending each day writing about 8–10 hours. My weekday evenings were my only “break” — enough time to work out, eat, and fall into bed. After I turned in my final manuscript, my brain insisted on a mandatory you-are-doing-nothing-of-any-value hiatus lasting about a year. I actually still think I’m recovering, three years later.

Playing during all of my downtime is also not the answer. I spent a few concentrated spans experimenting with all-play activities, such as whittling away my time in all-day boozy brunches and/or vegging out in front of the TV watching Breaking Bad and Lost marathons. But in the end, I just felt too lazy and blah.

Clearly, all work and no play is no good. And it’s not sustainable. But all play isn’t the answer, either.

I had a breakthrough moment when I stumbled across this Martha Beck gem:

“My advice to you is to play until you feel like sleeping, and then remember to SLEEP UNTIL YOU FEEL LIKE PLAYING. Without both sides of the equation, the profoundly innovative things that are meant to come through your creativity can’t be realized as fully or as quickly.”

Ahh, the simplicity of this. That’s when I realized I was thinking about my Time Question all wrong. The potential answer to my question varied widely based on whether I needed to sleep or whether it was time to play.

Now, this varies widely between individuals, and it will even vary widely by seasons for each person! In one period of time, you may find you have a ton of energy to start new things and be productive. And then, there are long stretches where you are contemplative, moody, and unable to pick up even your mail. And that is OK. The important thing is you figure out for you what works best. In the end, only you know how much time you need to feel like you are working, contributing, and playing to the optimum levels.

In one of my more productive moments, I logged all of the activities I might actually spend time on, spanning a continuum of things that drain energy to things that restore energy:

All energy estimates will vary wildly by the person and the specific activity. These are generalizations only.

The activities involved in Making a Living are things that are somewhat out of our control. In other words, we have to eat and survive, so these time suckers just won’t go away. We can choose not to do them, but then we are essentially choosing to not eat and maintain a home. If we are lucky and persistent, we may enjoy our work. However, it’s still likely to be a drain of our overall energy.

What’s left of our time is what we can fill with all of the other priorities and activities in our life, from learning, all the way through sleeping. So let’s start by figuring out how ambitious you really want to be.

Think about all the other red, energy draining goals you have right now. This might be learning French, starting a side business, writing a blog, redesigning your home, and/or planting a garden. We have goals, we want to feel like we are making progress in improving our lives. But here’s the big question: how much time in a given month would make you feel great about the time you spent on these goals? For example, one of my Passion Project activities is writing (this piece being one), and it’s important to me that I spend five hours a month doing writing activities of some kind. I also would like to read one book a month that will advance me professionally. Exercising is particularly important to me, and I am committed to spending six hours a week on CrossFit training. And finally, I value devoting two nights or afternoons a week with friends and social activities.

Because all of these activities burn energy for me, I have to counterbalance this with my restorative/green activities. I need reduce stress levels and help me recover from my CrossFit training, so going to the bathhouse twice a month is a necessity. Beyond this, I’ve come to learn I need 7–8 hours a night of sleep, and the rest of the time is mine to dole out depending on how vegetative I feel I need to be. Obviously, once you’ve made a decision about how much time you would like to spend on red, energy activities, filling in the rest of the time with restorative activities is a no-brainer.

So how do you figure out the “right” amount of red energy-draining activities? It depends on many factors, and I tend to revisit my assumptions every month to adjust things based on the following principles:

What goals are you working towards? If you are tackling a book project like I did, you may need to make the choice to say no to everything outside of writing, except maybe vegetative activities, to get it done. If you are fast-tracking a side business, the same may be true. But in general, how much time would be ideal to devote to bettering yourself and getting ahead in some tangible way?

What do you value the most? For me, exercise is critically important to my sanity and well being, so I prioritize it above pretty much everything aside from work. For other people, a short walk every other day might suffice. For the extroverts in the world, you may need a higher dose of social activities. Whatever the case, the ideal blend of activities you choose will be as unique to you as your fingerprints.

What is sustainable over time? You might be overly ambitious in putting pen to paper with your initial goals, but if you find you start avoiding your pet project or dodging the volunteer shifts at the food bank, you might not be programming in enough restorative activities. This is when adjustment becomes necessary. Remember: play until you are ready to sleep, and then sleep until you are ready to play. And when you find you need more sleep, give yourself a break and scale back on your monthly or weekly goals.

Once you’ve pondered these principles, it’s time to put it into practice.

1. Set some goals for a month.

2. Track how you do. (I’ve created this handy template to help you with the goals and tracking.)

3. Calendar blocks of time to write or draw or exercise or whichever activities you want to build into your life.

4. At the end of the month, assess: What worked, what didn’t? Were you too ambitious? What, ultimately, will be sustainable over time?

Once you’ve found the right balance, you can wake up on a Monday morning and go to sleep on Sunday evening with supreme, guilt-free confidence that you’ve truly spent your week the way your best self intended.

If you like what you just read, please hit the ‘Recommend’ button below so that others might stumble upon this essay.

Julie Clow

Written by

Anthropologist of organizational culture, obsessed with maximizing my energy and productivity, co-founder of workrevolution.org, and ever-the-optimist.

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