Two Mantras To Help You Make More Time For Yourself


How often do you find yourself looking at your calendar and wondering how it got so overwhelmingly full? How frequently do you look at an item on your to do list and ask yourself “Why did I agree to take this on?”

One of the biggest time management challenges – especially for women – is saying no to things that people ask us to do. Sometimes it’s that we enjoy being needed and we take pride in our ability to juggle a thousand things and while still producing high quality work. Other times it’s that we really want to focus on our own work but feel guilty or selfish about guarding our own time.

The truth is that, either way, we can’t be very helpful to others if we don’t protect ourselves from burnout and from being taken advantage of, and that requires that we learn to say no. But saying no is tough, especially in conversation, and especially when our ordinary inclination is to jump in and save the day. Here are two mantras you can use to help you say no when your schedule is really too full to take on that extra task.

1. “I’d love to help with that, but let me check my calendar first.” This is my favorite because all it does is break the pressure that comes from the face-to-face or over-the-phone interaction itself. You aren’t saying no right away. You’re just buying time to really examine whether or not you want to take the new thing on. Give yourself that time. And then, if the answer is no, send an email apologizing for being unable to say yes, but explaining that your schedule just can’t accomodate whatever you were being asked to do. If the person who made the request follows up in person or on the phone, you’ve already said your “no” and you can repeat your reasons if necessary.

2. “I can’t take that on this time, but please keep me in mind in the future.” Sometimes we know right away we can’t do something, and the first mantra isn’t necessary because we don’t need to buy time to think about it. I often get email requests to do peer-review of research articles for academic journals. Sometimes I can say yes, but other times I know that I have too much work to do. By keeping the door open to say yes in the future, this mantra allows me to say no in those moments when I have to put my own work first.

I’ve used the word mantra intentionally here. A mantra is a repeated utterance that helps to focus the mind in meditation. The mantras I’ve shared above need to be repeated and practiced so that you can focus your mind on strategically organizing your time and your work. Repeating them will help you establish discipline with your time and control over your schedule. That discipline will go a long way toward allowing you to help others as much as you can while still getting the time you need for yourself and your own work.

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“Too Busy” image by Alan O’Rourke of WorkCompass.Com and used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution license.

How Will You Know When You Have Enough?

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Enough might just be the most radical word in the English language. It’s certainly one of those slippery words that many of us have a hard time really getting a handle on. Even it’s meanings can be confusing. “I have had enough!” is a very different statement than “I have enough.” The first signals frustration and the second signals contentment. The difference? A single change of verb tense. Unless you’re speaking, and then tone of voice no doubt conveys a great deal.

A few weeks ago I gave my students an assignment. I told them they needed to record how they spent their time for a full week. Everything from sleeping to sitting in class to commuting to work to hanging out with their friends. Then I asked them to analyze their data and answer some questions about how much control they have over their time, how well the way they spent their time serves their needs, and how often their time use actually gets in the way of their achieving their goals. I ask them to think about what they’d change if they had a magic wand (in the past many have said they’d work fewer hours), and I ask them to think about what they’re most likely to be able to change if they needed to make more time for something that’s getting short shrift (often studying). My goal in the assignment is to help them examine the amount of individual power they have to attain their goals, and to see where social structure, cultural expectations, or economic realities get in their way. Once they’ve done that, we can talk about social changes that would be useful to them.

I’m about to give myself the same kind of assignment, only I’m going to do it with money, not with time. Here’s why: As I think about making big changes in my work life, and as my partner Will moves into retirement, I need to know how much is really “enough” when it comes to monthly cash flow, savings, and long-term security. I’m generally pretty good about keeping my check register in order, but I know there are lots of small cash expenditures I never remember to record. For one month, starting tomorrow, October 1, I’m going to make an effort to record every penny I earn or spend. I’m not going to make any effort to restrict spending, but just to record what comes in and what goes out. At the end of the month, I’ll analyze the data to see where my money goes, and after that, I’ll ask myself the same kinds of questions I asked my students: How much of this spending is within my control? How much of it is directed toward meeting immediate needs? How much is directed toward saving for longer-term needs? How much of my spending is on things that matter a great deal to me, even if they are not “basic needs”? How much room is there for me to shift spending from one category to another if I realize that I need to do that? And finally, how much could I cut back if I wanted to earn less and have more time for other work or other activities?

Many of us work long hours, or at jobs we don’t love, because we can’t meet our basic needs any other way. But some of us work long hours at stressful jobs because we don’t have a sense of whether or not we have enough. It’s that latter question I need to answer for myself. How much do I need to earn in order to be happy? Happiness is not all about money, though we need money to fund large portions of our happiness. Figuring out the balance between earning and enjoying, between accumulation and leisure, between long-term and short-term needs, these are the challenges.

How many of us would give fewer of our hours to our employers if we had a sense that we really could be happy with less than what we’re earning? How will we know whether or not we can unless we collect the information? It’s that knowledge that makes “enough” a radical word. It has the potential to inspire two kind of radical actions. One is the stepping back from unexamined work expectations. The other is a clarity that the system is rigged, unfair, and needs to be changed in dramatic ways. Either way, our current economic structure and cultural expectations are limiting many of us. Examining the question of “enough” is one of the first things we can do to fuel change.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, I encourage you to join me for the month of October. Let’s collect some data and then really analyze it. Don’t look away. Numbers are scary, especially when they’re connected to dollars, but we can’t make meaningful change or meaningful plans without real information.

I’ll post updates throughout the month and will share my results early in November. Join me!

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Image of plant growing out of coins held in hands is by user 401(k) 2012 on Flickr and used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.