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.)

More about...Productivity

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
51 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I loved this post!

I’m actually printing it off and hanging it in my office to remind me. For a long time, I’ve been in the habit of borrowing so much time that I find myself way over my head and cancelling commitments to people I care about for things I care about.

My initial push back to this came last year, but this article is just what I needed as a solid reminder.

Blair MacGregor
Blair MacGregor
10 years ago

This is a really good piece Sierra, thanks for this. I’ve always had this struggle and certainly now, trying to juggle starting a business with a day job and everything else in my life, my time is more scarce than ever. Prioritization is key though and I too have cut out a lot of the social elements of my life that I was engaging in just to take me away from what I really wanted to do. Also, the quiet time is key for me; I HAVE to have that ability to brainstorm and think about my “next move(s)” so… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

This is so familiar to me too. I still need to work on quitting things (or at least not volunteering to do *new* things), but my solution so far is twofold. One, I’ve started getting up an hour earlier every day and only doing my business-related things then. So far it’s been a good experiment. Two, I’ve started *permanently* asking other people to do things instead of me doing them. I think women (and especially moms) feel like many things are our responsibility that could just as easily be someone else’s in the family. (Making dinner, carting kids around, cleaning… Read more »

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl
10 years ago

Sierra, you already know that I love your “I Quit Everything” post and the idea behind it. I think it’s so awesome that you’re giving your kids the gift of free time. But, I wanted to add that the rest of this article resonates with me too…like you, I’ve always had more time than money in the past, but that’s not always the case now that I’m blogging and doing photography in addition to some other freelance stuff I’m doing for pay. For me, I think the solution lies in avoiding extra hired work. I tend to be happier when… Read more »

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
10 years ago

I actually blogged the other day about my issues with making headway on the things that were important to me. I did the whole “drop everything but the priorities”, but I still was having trouble actually getting going on my projects. I ended up starting what I call my “Weekend 3”, which are three specific personal goals. Sometimes they are related to fixing up the house, sometimes they are related to social obligations, and sometimes they are for my personal projects. Narrowing my focus down that much has really helped me, because I’ve quantified tasks that can actually be accomplished,… Read more »

Coley
Coley
10 years ago

It’s an interesting analogy the author draws between time management and debt management. The big difference that she ignores, however, is that it’s usually far easier to clear an overcommitted schedule than it is to clear yourserlf from overcommittment to debt. You can tell the children’s librarian that you won’t be able to make it to the next group of story times; dispatching an adjustable HELOC isn’t quite so simple or free of consequences.

Blair MacGregor
Blair MacGregor
10 years ago

Coley –

That’s true; BUT you can prioritize debt in terms of what is more important to pay off.

I did this with some lingering CC debt a few months ago and chose to pay off the higher debt w/higher interest first before tackling some of the other debt in my life.

Someone
Someone
10 years ago

I’m with Jackie on the point that women shouldn’t be saddled with tasks that should be SHARED – whether it’s maintaining the home or driving kids to events and all that.

When your schedule and commitments changed, Sierra, did your husband’s? It sounded like his responsibilities went untouched while you were left simply adding to yours – and that when he did contribute here and there it was only temporary, leaving you feeling obligated to pick up the job “next time.” How exhausting…!

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

This post was great, I feel like I’m in major time debt. I work all week, generally 60 hours or more a week, some work on the weekend, I’m involved with professional and charity orgs., I’m involved with my neighborhood, my city. Most of my free time is spend doing activities with friends and family, book club, traveling for family vacations, etc. My husband also works hard at his professional job and then on the weekends manages our real estate properties. I have almost no time to myself and no time with just my husband. We are always go, go,… Read more »

RMS
RMS
10 years ago

Great article! It took me a while to realize that in order to take on something new, I needed to give up my time from something else. It’s just so hard to let go of all the social commitments, activities, etc. My time coach is my boyfriend. He is always on time or early, it’s amazing (like filing taxes, gym reimbursement, etc). He rarely procrastinates. Initially, I thought he was spending too much time at home relaxing and I called him lazy. But when I compared my schedule with his, I realized that he gets pretty much the same amount… Read more »

Michael
Michael
10 years ago

JD alluded to Steven Covey’s book on the subject, “First Things First”, which should be required reading for anyone with any thought about time management! When Covey combined forces with the Franklin Quest planner team, two great methods become one awesome tool. Put the “big rocks” (aka important things) into your time management bowl first, then the sand and the little rocks can fill in the spaces.

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

FYI the link to “living under clutter” is broken/incorrect

I liked this article, though. I definitely have been struggling with this kind of thing!

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

Ugh. Yes. I’m working on this now. In fact, I’m quitting something that is a major second source of income just because I’m tired of being exhausted and stressed and overcommitted every second of the day.

Dangerman
Dangerman
10 years ago

A friend of mine is coming out with a book on just this topic: “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think” by Laura Vanderkam

http://www.amazon.com/168-Hours-Have-More-Think/dp/1591843316/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1266112136&sr=1-3

[just sharing, not an affiliate link]

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Great post.

Coley, while you have a point that it may be easier to remove oneself from time commitments than debt commitments, for many of us who’ve moved past the debt stage the time management issue is the next up.

And honestly, it isn’t always easy to get out of time commitments. My biggest time commitments are my kids, and I really can’t put them back. I’m stuck with that for another 15 years!

Brian C.
Brian C.
10 years ago

For me, one of the biggest time-debt problem is stealing time from my sleep. I always think I could just do more and sleep a little less, but time and time again, it bites me in the end. I’ve tried for years to make sleep a priority and “getting on a good sleep schedule” has been my New Year’s Resolution more times than I’d like to admit. The ironically sad part is that when you celebrate New Year’s, you usually have to stay up past midnight thus ruining my resolutions from the get-go. But still, as soon as I get… Read more »

UnderstatementJones
UnderstatementJones
10 years ago

Sierra, I think you should raise your freelance rates. If you have more work than you can handle, you aren’t charging enough. Raise your rates, lose a few customers, gain some time.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Another great article. Thanks!

Charlie Ahern
Charlie Ahern
10 years ago

For some perspective on why many of us feel we don’t have enough time, check out the book Take Back Your Time; http://www.timeday.org/ I agree that prioritizing our activities and tasks based on our goals and values is the key to good time management. I’ve come to believe that we have enough time to do whatever is really important, but many of us aren’t focused on what’s important in our own lives. The problematic intersection of time and money management is our consumption. We work 60+ hours per week for the income that enables us to drive a Mercedes rather… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Take 5 is a great song, but it also was the only way for me to stay alive in college. I was burning the candle at both ends to say the least. Then one day I was listening to my jazz and heard the song Take 5 and realized that I needed a break, too. Priorities are what help shape how we spend our money and time. We feel less joy when we are not spending according to our true priorities in life.

John Paul Aguiar
John Paul Aguiar
10 years ago

Great tips. Time is one thing we all struggle with.

Keeping goals and task in your face will keep you on task and get most done from the time you do have.

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

This is a fantastic article, and I LOVE the analogy between time and money! Time is the biggest constraint in my life, and my readers have identified it as the #1 thing that’s keeping them from thriving in their marriages the way they’d like. I’m working on some resources to help them with that specific issue.

In the meantime, I’m posting this article on my Facebook Fan page so the readers at Engaged Marriage can check it out!

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

I don’t know why people bog themselves down with so much stuff. I am glad you realized kids don’t like being in structured lessons all the time and that you don’t have to do it ALL. When I was reading your post I thought “Wow, she really needs to learn to say no”, but I see at the end you do list that as one of the things you did 😀 I don’t like being crazy busy. I try to prioritize and not freak out if I don’t get to the laundry or books I keep meaning to read. I… Read more »

S Muller
S Muller
10 years ago

I schedule down time. Sunday nights at 6pm I am at home, relaxing, being quiet and still. This takes practice, but I think our minds and bodies need it in this crazy world.

Michael Crosby
Michael Crosby
10 years ago

By learning the principles of paying off debt, living below one’s means, and frugality, I’ve bought myself more time. Much more time. It’s a simple fact. I just have more time. Free time. I can do what I want. One of the things I do is spend more time reading and writing. Like reading this post and responding. I think there is no question this makes me a smarter person. And I write to people who share my same values. It almost seems scary to have free time. Oh my God, what will I do? Oh, I’ll be so lonely… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

Where you’re already spending your time is one thing to find out. In the same way that if you’re feeling broke you might spend a few weeks documenting every bit of money-spending to find out where the money was going, it may be a good idea to record what you’re doing every half hour or so, or recording start-end times for each activity over a week or two. We may think that some things aren’t taking up a lot of time, but they are, or that other tasks don’t take up as much time as we think, or, that some… Read more »

Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

One of my favorite books (Handmade Houses, Art Boericke) had a comment about one of the houses having a good amount of “just plain idle space”. In the same way, I like to have a certain amount of just plain idle time in my schedule. The Jewish and Christian traditions include a Sabbath rest which provides some of this idle time, and I find it an extremely valuable practice. Sabbath is not just about physical rest or spiritual refreshment; it is also a time to sort through priorities and think ahead. And that makes the rest of the week go… Read more »

Peggy
Peggy
10 years ago

I’ll add that a common trait among super high achievers is that they are very protective of their down time.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I’m like ebyt, I get cranky if I don’t have my down time. The things that make it possible are: 1) not a homeowner; and 2) not a parent.

I frankly don’t know how people manage two-career households with those other major commitments, without going a little bit insane.

That said, I know a lot of parents who do the some-activity-every-night thing with their kids and I just want to shake them (gently) and say STOP!

AA
AA
10 years ago

I struggle with this constantly! My biggest “borrower” is not remembering that when I get home at night that I’ll be tired. After work I just can’t seem to get anything done, which frustrates me endlessly. I see my friends working full time, with kids, going out, socializing, taking classes and all I can think is .. when do you people SLEEP?! Don’t you ever get tired? I know much of this has to do with unnamed time drains and lack of schedule. This article was wonderful and I hope to apply some of it to my daily life. Baby… Read more »

Nick
Nick
10 years ago

Definitely do not use sleep to catch up on other things! It is amazing how important it is for regulating your body, not to mention that a good night of sleep makes the next day that much better. I try to ensure I get 7-8 hours in each night.

David/Yourfinances101
David/Yourfinances101
10 years ago

No matter how busy I get, I always find time to do the things that are really important to me.

To me, its all about prioritization.

And of course, not wasting time on frivolous stuff

elena
elena
10 years ago

Thanks for this post.I was recently laid off and started a lot of things to get rolling and stay busy while I figure out what’s next. I had the right idea, but it’s been difficult to stay disciplined with new routines to get things done. Meeting new people, learning new skills takes up time and mental space, more than I expected. I’ve got to make some adjustments.

Stella
Stella
10 years ago

A little over a year ago I went from working about 12 hours a week to a regular M-F full-time job. That’s where I really encountered the whole time debt thing. There simply isn’t enough time in the week to keep up with my friends, favorite TV shows, personal blog, workout schedule, chores and errands, hobbies, etc. It’s hard to give up some of the things I enjoyed doing–but for my physical and mental health I had to accept that there just weren’t enough hours in the day. As it is, I’m still struggling to find a good balance–and get… Read more »

Another Dave
Another Dave
10 years ago

HAHA… I did a quick search and found no one had mentioned Stephen Covey’s “First Things First” Book. It’s fairly High Level of writting, but very informative. I got some good info from it. It’s geared towards Execs+Professionals but I really connected with it. (suggest reading his “7 Habits” first. It will prep you for his writing style.

Angela May
Angela May
10 years ago

Great post, I recently had to cross that threshold myself (from having no money to having no time) and it’s a tough reality to come to terms with. Glad to see you made it through, but beware – to super-ambitious people like us, it can creep up on you!

Achieving balance means constant evaluation and viligance, just like staying on budget!

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

This is one of the greatest posts I’ve read! What great timing. I’m an organized person that handles my time great. BUT my friends are all nuts and they all come to me to tell me their crazy problems because they run around like chickens with their heads cut off. I swear I am emailing this to all of them!

Kevin
Kevin
10 years ago

Thank you for the post. I myself have been battling the “two many irons in the fire” problem. This has given me something to think about and work towards fixing my own problems.

Sassy
Sassy
10 years ago

I used to be a time slave pretty much feeling exhausted all the time. I finally realised that this was no way to live my life and like the author, I started pushing back. I schedule me time all the time. Over Easter I saw no-one. I slept in every day. At least once a year I take myself off to a hotel and stay for the night. I make sure I book well in advance so I usually get a great rate and can wangle at least a free breakfast… I find that I am more refreshed and able… Read more »

Tony Woody
Tony Woody
10 years ago

This is a great post. My wife and I recently had our son 8 months ago and it has taken a lot of effort from both of us to deal with the new time pressures of a being a parent.

Some of the ways I have been dealing with it learning to say ‘No’. This goes against my pre-child self, but it is a must, otherwise your sleep, health, and quality of life will certainly be depleted.

We are still in the process of figuring out our new schedule, but prioritizing items has helped tremendously.

KT
KT
10 years ago

Nice analogy!

Andrea
Andrea
10 years ago

AnotherDave @ #35: Actually, the book was mentioned by Michael at #11.

Amy H.
Amy H.
10 years ago

Very well-written and thought-provoking post. Thank you!

(I have to add on a more frivolous note, though, that one tiny point of this article confirmed why I will never have kids. Having to “insist” on TEN MINUTES ALONE TO TAKE A SHOWER??? Gah.)

Elisha
Elisha
10 years ago

This is a wonderful post, and really hits the mark in my life. I’ve been blessed to be able to return to being a stay at home mom after many years of working outside the home. Time management has always been a struggle for me & I will really have to learn to budget my time in the same ways I budget our finances. Thanks for sharing this – I will be referring back to this article frequently!

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

Great article. I’d never thought of spending time like spending money–and the lack of thought shows in my life, let me tell you. Off to catch up a bit with this new attitude in mind. Thanks!

Money Reasons
Money Reasons
10 years ago

Wow, you nailed one of my key weaknesses (I’m working on it!) For the past few years, I’ve been wondering if I was in a camp of one with this problems. It’s so rarely spoken about. It’s good to read that I’m not the only one, and based on the comments, we are many!!! For me, I’ve taken to record everything in a small traveling journal. I have work, chores, and things I told the kids that we would do. I’m always looking for that 2 for 1 deal, with time. If I can do 2 or more tasks in… Read more »

Chris@BeDebtFreeAmerica
10 years ago

Based on all the comments your article really hit home to a lot of us, myself included. Why is time management so difficult? Anyway, thanks for the great article and the wake-up call in regards to time. Great advice on strictly guarding some time for ourselves. If we aren’t healthy, due to stress etc, we sure won’t be able to pour into other people’s lives very easily.

Jim Estill
Jim Estill
10 years ago

Awesome article. I will reference it in one of my future blog entries.

Analogies (in this case debt to time-debt) are a great way to get a point across as you certainly did here.

People build time debts when they do not spend their time where their values lie.

Vanessa
Vanessa
10 years ago

Your article touched on what I’m going through right now but I can’t quit everything. With working full time, commuting, and trying to get the essentials done, I’m already running out of time. There isn’t much I can cut out anymore, save some brief internet time which I really need to keep me happy, and it is brief these days. I wonder what solutions there are for people like me.

Grey
Grey
10 years ago

Oompf. As a single mother of three, this hits home – hard. I really struggle with this, especially with being asked to work a lot of overtime lately, and then trying to fit in commitments elsewhere.

Thank you for this!

shares