What does it mean to control your free time? For me, the idea of controlling my free time has long meant doing things I like to do in the spaces between my external obligations. But I recently learned that my perception was wrong, and I wanted to share with you some concepts from Laura Vanderkam’s TED talk, “How to Gain Control of Your Free Time” that helped me better understand what controlling my time means.
What “I Don’t Have Time” Really Means
How often do you catch yourself saying, “I just don’t have time to _________?” Have you ever thought about why you might say it?
Vanderkam brought up something I never realized, but makes a lot of sense. She said what “I don’t have time” really means is “It’s not a priority.” If we don’t have time for something, we are not prioritizing it.
“I don’t have time to be creative” becomes “Creativity is not a priority to me.”
“I don’t have time to play with my kids” says that your kids are not a priority to you.
“I don’t have time to follow my dreams” means your dreams are not a priority to you.
There is no mincing of words here. Not having time for something literally means you are choosing not to do “that thing” in favor of something else, a something else that has a higher perceived urgency or importance (generally imposed by other people), but maybe not the things that are of value to us.
The truth is, we use “I don’t have time” as an excuse to soften the blow for when we don’t want to do something or don’t get something done, like going after our dreams, playing with the kids, or engaging in that creative thing we’ve always wanted to do. At the end of the day, time isn’t the enemy, but the things we allow to be put into it.
Time Has an Elastic Waistband
Vanderkam told a story about a study she did where she asked several extremely busy businesswomen to keep time logs so that she could see how they managed their time and got so much done.
She recounts one woman whose water heater broke right in the middle of the time log study. What this woman’s log showed was that despite managing her own business and taking care of her family, she found seven hours in her week to take care of her broken water heater, meet repairmen, get carpets cleaned, etc. Yet Vanderkam states that if she had asked this same woman at the beginning of the week if she could find seven hours to “mentor seven worthy people” or “train for a triathlon,” she was sure the woman would have said, “No. Can’t you see how busy I am?” But there were seven hours that could be spent in this woman’s schedule to handle a flooded basement.
Vanderkam sums up her findings as follows:
“Time is highly elastic. We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it. And so the key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater.”
I love this quote. It never once occurred to me that time expands to fit what we put into it. It made me take a step back and ask myself what I’ve been fitting into time’s waistband. What am I doing to fill the bits of time I have floating around my obligations?
I decided to do a similar experiment on myself and keep a time log to see where all my time was going, and the results were eye opening. After a week of accounting for every shred of time I had during my waking hours, I found myself doing a lot of filler activities.
I was procrastinating.
I was scrolling social media.
I was watching a lot of TV.
And I realized I could do a lot less of all that and have more time for things that truly mattered to me.
Rethinking What You Don’t Have Time For
Vanderkam told another story that caught my attention about a different business woman. She called to get in contact with her for an interview and the woman was unavailable to speak with her because she was out on a hike. This piqued Vanderkam’s interest.
When Vanderkam finally caught up with this woman, the woman explained to her that each moment in her day is her choice. It was a beautiful spring day on the morning in question and she wanted to go for a hike. It was a priority to her and that is what she chose to do with her time.
This made me stop and think. What are the things out there that I am saying, “yes” to that I could be saying, “no” to that would make time more my own?
I suddenly felt like I had permission to say “no” to some things so that I could prioritize things I enjoy, like going on runs, reading books, or writing. How often do we sacrifice our priorities for things we don’t want to do, or that are not important to us?
Now, take a second and think about the life you want. What things consume your time now? What things have you felt you haven’t had time for? Are you happy with the way you are spending your time? Make a list of all the things you would like to see manifested in your life. Is it more time with the kids? Is it writing that song you’ve had in your head for a year? Is it writing a book or painting your first masterpiece? Resist the urge to think you don’t have time to do any of these things, and instead reserve spots in your schedule to work on them. Then, schedule in everything else around it.
I realize that people’s lives are busy. Our schedules fill up with things we can’t avoid. As I’ve tried to implement some of the things I learned from Vanderkams TED talk and taken this challenge myself, I’ve realized when scheduling time to do those things that are important to us, other things get pushed to the wayside. It’s my experience that those things are things that are least important to us, and is that really such a loss?
If I’ve learned anything from this TED talk, it’s that there is always time for the good stuff. You just need to put it in your schedule and treat it like a broken water heater.
What is one thing you can do less of to make time for the things you want to do? Let me know in the comments below!
Vanderkam, L. (Presenter). (2017, February 7). How to Gain Control of Your Free Time [Video file]. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3kNlFMXslo&t=288s