Most people I know in the U.S., even my retired parents, love to say how busy they are all the time.
There’s even data to support the fact that American workers toil the most hours in all of the industrial world.
One recent survey said that 58 percent of Americans would pay $2,700 cash just for one extra hour a day. Just one. Another recent poll found that almost one-fifth of Americans would gladly take a 20 percent pay cut for 20 percent less working time, which roughly translates to a 3-day weekend.
But saying we are “busy” is also the response given as an excuse, or when we just feel busy, as in when our mind is overwhelmed with ideas or worries. It doesn’t necessarily mean we are actually swamped with work, family stuff or errands—it’s a way of conveying that we’re mentally and emotionally preoccupied and just feeling bogged down by life.
The problem is that we don’t really understand where all our time goes—time flies when you’re having fun, or not.
“We can’t make more time, but it will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put in it. The biggest challenge in finding extra time is deciding that you do have time to do what you want! Once you believe that, it’s just a matter of logistics,” she says.
Vanderkam recommends that it could be very revealing to make an inventory of how you use those 168 hours in a week. If you can manage to keep track of your work time and free time for a whole week (not an easy task, let me tell you), you may be shocked to find that you waste hours doing stuff you don’t really care about—or doing nothing at all. Those are the moments you can reclaim to work on your meaningful projects.
You’ll end up having to rethink your daily and weekly routines, Vanderkam points out, once you figure out how many hours you need each day or week to work on your extra project. “Look for what plans you can cancel or rearrange, look for gaps where you can squeeze in an hour or even 30 minutes of work,” she adds.
But Vanderkam also has other ideas on how you can take back the time that’s rightfully yours:
Shift Your Priorities
“Prioritizing is key when you have lots of things going on. I recommend taking a bit of time on Friday afternoons and making a three-category priority list for the next week: career, relationships, self.”
“Using all three categories reminds you that there should be something in all three categories! Just put two to three top things in each. Then look at the whole of the next 168 hours, and figure out where they should go. If you’re creative, the time will be there.”
Focus on One Project at a Time
You may be really excited about a dozen projects and want to work on all of them at the same time, but that’s the exact way to get none of them done.
If you have a dozen, try to get only one done each month, and in just a year, you will have accomplished all of them. What a great year that would be.
Stop opening social media or distracting websites that you usually check in your free time, or simply turn off your phone and/or internet. This also means you’ll have to stop binging on Netflix! Yes, it’s true–free time can be yours with just the push of a button. Vanderkam adds that you may feel bored when you go offline, “but that’s a good thing. Boredom is where we get our best ideas.”
If you have kids, get a friend or family member to watch your kids for a few extra hours, or have the babysitter stay a little longer once or twice a week. Ask your family to help out with some chores or errands so you can have some extra time to work on your side project.
Try the Early Bird Thing
Still stuck on how to find extra time? Get up earlier. No one else will be around to distract you. And unless you’re really not a morning person, you’ll be at your freshest. Going to bed a little earlier can transform unproductive evening time into productive morning time, Vanderkam says.
When Extra Time Still Isn’t Enough
While it can certainly be insightful to get technical about time and see the numbers behind your weekly routine, there is also the possibility that you could end up feeling even more squeezed for time.
Just because you have a spare 30 minutes between tasks doesn’t mean you have the mind space or energy to get any project work done in that exact moment. How much quality work are you going to get done in those 30 minutes anyhow? Maybe you’ve already heard that multi-tasking actually makes it harder for us to get back into the “state of flow” of what we were doing before, and also detracts from our concentration on each of the tasks we are trying to accomplish simultaneously.
This is why a shift in our attitude toward time is what’s really needed, as that then translates to a shift in the way we do things, the way we create and handle our daily routine.
If you always say you’re too busy to work on your project, and then you do the numbers and find out you actually aren’t too busy—that may not necessarily change your mind. Which means there’s something else blocking you and making you procrastinate on your project.
Sometimes, it is the fear of failure that makes us say we are “just too busy” to work on that side project. Or maybe once we finish up this great idea, we won’t have any other great ideas.
How Do We Change That Mindset?
One way is to step back and take a look at the bigger picture of your life goals—you’ve gotta get deep if you’re talking about time.
Finding the time to work on a side project might be the first step on your path to creative entrepreneurship—as long as this is the right moment in your life to move toward that goal. Make sure you currently have the mind space to let yourself focus on creation.
Because adding one more extra thing into what already feels like a schedule overflowing with work, chores and all of life’s unpredictable complications will make your side project less appealing, and you may want to drop the idea altogether. Having ambition is great, but saying yes to everything can eventually lead to a “straw that broke the camel’s back” situation.
On the other hand, you might see this precious, carefully calculated time spent working on a side project as your saving grace for the day or week.
Indulging in your passion can transport you to your happy place, allow you to forget the less exciting parts of your life, and fire you up for the day when you’ll be able to work on your passion all day, every day—and make money doing it. If this is the case, you just need to figure out how to stretch the rubber band of time, as discussed above.
For example, before I became a freelance writer, I worked full time as a staff reporter for a business journal.
But after work, I really wanted to make progress on my fiction writing, and all day I looked forward to the evening hours that I would spend on this passion of mine, my side project. I had recently returned from a trip to India, and all I could think about was writing a book about the experience. So almost every day of the week, for about four months, I came home from work around 6 p.m., took a shower to re-energize and “rinse off the day” and changed into more comfy clothes.
I lit some incense (something to take me back to India), put on a CD of songs I had carefully selected as my writing mood soundtrack, and I started typing away. (It also really helped that my apartment had no internet connection!) This ritual allowed me to keep the writing flow for at least 2 to 3 hours each night, sometimes longer, and I managed to completely finish my book (an experimental novella, but still!) in less than a year.
Finishing that book gave me the renewed motivation–and the mindspace–to then move onto writing a collection of short stories, the next of many fiction projects I had in mind.
When you feel that time isn’t on your side, first try zooming in for a closer look at your 168 hours each week–and then try zooming out to see how you feel about your overall routine, about how your side project fits into your life goals. Give yourself some time to ponder time—and you’ll find yourself rewarded.