Struggling with Time-Debt

I recently found myself, late one night, staring at my computer screen with a sinking, hard feeling in my stomach and a bad taste in my mouth. A familiar bad taste. The taste of debt. But I wasn’t looking at my bank statement — I was looking at my calendar.

I’d borrowed a few hours from my normal work routine to do something special with my kids, and then cancelled a date with my husband to make up the work hours, and then tried to reschedule with him but ran into a doctor’s appointment I’d forgotten about.

Time-management coach Thekla Richter says I’m not alone. “Everybody has that problem,” she says. “No matter how good we are at time managment. We want to do more things than we have time to do. It just means that we have lots of desire and lots of imagination.”

Once I’d had that rock-bottom moment of insight, the pattern that led to it was clear.

Running out of time
Looking back, I could see how over the past six months I’ve taken on more and more freelance work without letting any of my other commitments go. To make it all work, I started borrowing. It was just a few hours here and there at first: saying I’d do the laundry tomorrow instead of right now, asking my husband to drive for gymnastics this week and promising to do it next time.

Pretty soon, I needed to start repaying some of that borrowed time. Deadlines I’d gotten extensions on came due like dreaded tax bills, chores I’d postponed piled up around the house. I ran into the same problems I’m familiar with from money-based debt: I owed more than I could pay. There were simply not enough hours in the day for all the commitments I had.

Richter says the biggest consequence for perennial time borrowers is losing joy in life. You’re constantly rushing around, and even the things you love become no fun anymore. I’ll add health problems, sleep deprivation, short-tempered fights with my family and making expensive mistakes to that list.

Being out of time is not unlike living under clutter in that sense. When you always need to be in two places at once, you can’t be your best at anything. You make mistakes, lose things, miss deadlines. That can start costing you real money, as well as lowering your quality of life.

Time wasn’t always in such short supply for me. As a stay-at-home mom managing a household of five people on one salary, I’d adopted the adage, “I have more time than money” as my personal motto.

For years, the best solution to any problem I faced was the time-intensive DIY approach. I learned a lot of money-saving skills during that period, and spent many hours gardening, baking, mending, doing bike repair and bartering goods and services.

But when I didn’t drop my DIY ways after I started working for money again, it quickly became apparent that I no longer had more time than money.

I was sleeping four or five hours a night trying to make my temporal ends meet, and still falling further behind. It seemed like I was working every waking hour to keep a commitment for someone else. My kids were feeling it, too. They wanted more downtime, and were showing it through frequent tantrums and poor sleep.

Something had to give.

Finding time
First, I did the time equivalent of declaring bankruptcy: I quit everything. No more writer’s group, no more swim lessons, no more gymnastics classes, no more weekly library story hour.

I turned my suddenly-much-happier kids loose to play with their neighborhood friends, watch Sesame Street and bake cookies with me in the afternoons. I spent my evenings at home, not running around town trying to keep up with a social life that suited my 25-year-old self better than my mom-self.

After quitting (almost) everything, here are a few techniques I used to bring my time debt under control:

  • I prioritized. Just as the first step with money management is to know where your money is going, you need to know where your time is going. “You need some kind of system where you know big picture what are your priorities and values and what are all the projects that are on your plate,” Thekla says. “That’s really like a budget.”
  • I paid myself first. To get out of debt, you need to pay yourself first. Just like saving money, I needed to put time for myself ahead of the time I give to others if I wanted to make any headway on my ‘time debt’. I started insisting on ten minutes alone in the bathroom each morning to take a quick shower. That ten minutes of private time has grown into hours of personal time each week as my whole family gets used to the idea that Mommy needs time to herself.
  • I practiced saying “no”. Richter told me that the key to time management is being willing to say ‘no’ to yourself and other people. “It all comes down to having to make some really tough and really proactive choices,” she said. Just as you can’t spend the same dollar twice, each minutes can only be lived once. Whatever you choose to do with it means not doing something else.

Unlike money, you can’t get more time. Sure, you can become more efficient up to a point, but eventually you just have to say no to something you really want to do, because you want something else more. Time management is all about tough choices.

Richter suggests asking yourself these questions when choosing to make a time commitment:

  • “What am I giving up to do this?”
  • “How am I going to feel about this decision later?”
  • “How will I feel about this in a month, in a year, in ten years?”

She also suggests making time commitments for now instead of later. Like money, time we commit to spend in the future seems easier to handle than time we have to spend right now. But like money, it really isn’t. You won’t have 20 free hours in six months that you don’t have now.

Take time for yourself
Speaking of free hours, be sure to leave yourself some as you plan your time. Keep a bank of unscheduled time in your day is like having an emergency fund. Things will crop up unexpectedly that demand your time. Having resources to put towards them will save you from breaking other commitments or stressing yourself out.

I’m still far from perfect at this. The great time management tips Thekla gave me I got during a phone interview at 1 a.m. But I took a break while writing this article to have a romantic dinner with my husband. I’m bringing things back into balance.

That doesn’t mean I’ll never be busy again, just like managing my finances doesn’t mean I’ll never have a broke week again. But the overall picture is healthier and more joyful.

J.D.’s note: I so relate to this article. I, too, have been struggling with time-debt, and have been trying to find ways to beat it. One method that seems to be working for me is to put first things first. (If you’ve got a copy of my book, turn to page 20. See that sidebar? That’s what I’ve been reminding myself of as I work to make time for the important stuff.)

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