Time and work aren’t excuses

The first days of the year are gone. Exciting days, full of expectation for the upcoming challenges and experiences, in which many people resolve to make big changes in their lives. But these are also the days in which many of us have to leave vacation behind and go “back to reality”, to our routines.

Even though we’re all different, there’s one thing we have in common: we all seek happiness, one way or another. And the new year seems to be the precise moment when many happen to start looking for it. We feel thrilled by beginnings and new stories. We want to lead satisfying lives.

To exercise more, to read more books, to learn a new language, to visit the family more often… The resolution list is big and promising, and we are sure that they will get us closer to the happiness we long for. But there are two specific things on which many of those resolutions rely, and that we eventually blame when we cannot accomplish them: work and time.

“I have too much work”

Work: some have it, others look for it. Some love it as it is, others want to change it. It is a blessing for some but a torture for others. But there is an undeniable fact: work is necessary. It’s not just about the money; work is necessary because, as human beings, we have to develop and grow. We need to stay busy and contribute for the system to function. And, as they say, work dignifies a person’s life.

But if work is necessary, it makes us grow and it allows us to get the money to satisfy our basic needs… why is it not enough to make us happy? Why do we even blame it for getting in our way to happiness? Why are we so upset at Mondays? Through the years I’ve realized that it’s not the job’s fault, it’s ours. Even if it sounds illogical, we want to be happy but we don’t let ourselves be.

We live in a society in which we are recognized for what we do, in which success is measured by degrees and numbers (specifically titles and salaries). That is a fact. The more titles and the better salary a person has, it would be logical for that person to have all that is necessary to be happy. That is an assumption, therefore, it’s not entirely true.

So, if we already know that more titles and more money are not the magical formula to be happy, why are we still so obsessed with working more and more? We can start blaming everything: our boss, the system, even the government itself if we want. But that’s not the point. The harsh truth is that we don’t know how to set a limit on our job. And this is not about quantity, it’s about quality: don’t work more, work smarter. No, we’re not fools, it’s just that we haven’t been taught it’s possible to work in a different way.

We are letting a job take over our lives and separate us from any other aspect that deserves our attention: exercise, books, learning a new language, family, and even ourselves. We let ourselves be tricked by the worst lie there is: working too much is a synonym of success. Being busy all the time doesn’t mean you’re successful. We have to stop taking pride in telling everybody how busy we are so they will admire us. A work overload will only lead to an unnecessary apathy to our jobs, and it’s possibly the reason why we relate “going back to reality” with work, as if working was something negative.

Now, since we already know that not everything in life is -nor should be- work, let’s move on to the next element, which is very important to learn how to work smarter, not harder: time.

“I don’t have time”

Each day has 24 hours. We can sort of split it like this: 8 hours for sleeping, 8 for working and 8 more to do everything else that is not related to our jobs. A very important part of those hours are spent commuting (traffic jams are inevitable) but even in the worst case scenario we still have about 4 hours to spare. What are we really doing in those hours that makes us say we never have enough time?

By my own experience, I know the answer is almost always one of two options: working more or procrastinating.

Our favorite excuse is to say we don’t have time because we have to work a lot, but many times we’re not even working. We’re avoiding work, let’s face it.

 

Procrastination. Some people refer to it as the action of “doing nothing”. Unlike such belief, it is doing a lot, it’s doing everything you possibly can: playing, watching television, reading, researching about some interesting topic, having a long and heated discussion with your coworkers about politics or last night’s game, watching videos online, calling your mom to have a long conversation, interrupting work to take a snack and realizing there aren’t enough eggs in the fridge, so you have to go to buy more right that second and, on the way, you stop by the ATM for some cash…

Procrastinating is doing a lot of things, except what you really have to do in a specific moment. I differ from those who think it’s usually doing unproductive or meaningless things: when you procrastinate you can go from cleaning your entire house to writing an academic paper. The problem is not in what you do, but in what you don’t do -which is exactly what you must do-. And what’s usually that thing you have to do? Work.

Procrastination is not bad, sometimes it’s even necessary, but ironically even “wasting time” has its time. There are days when you can delay a task if you don’t have enough concentration or motivation to do it right, but you have to know how to handle mental breaks so they don’t become a problem.

Something that has been really useful to me is procrastinating as a prize: if I got to finish a task, I allow myself 10 minutes to clear my mind and then go back to work. If I finish another assignment, the prize is “doing nothing” for other 10 minutes. Thanks to that, in the last months I feel less stressed, more focused and I’m also more productive. Since I give myself short periods of procrastination throughout the day, I no longer need to use two o three full hours to “rest”.

So, to sum it up, the problem is not time, work or the combination of both, but the way we approach them. We do have enough time and we don’t always have as much work as we say. What happens is that we still don’t know how to play these elements in our favor.

Live to work or work to live?

A couple of months ago one of my coworkers asked me this question. My answer was, and still is: none. Both work and personal time are equally important and necessary for each other. We need a job to survive, but we also need personal time to rest, develop relationships, take care of our health and cultivate our knowledge. Work is very important because it provides the money we need to pay our bills, medical services, studies and outings with friends and family. But all these things are also important because without health and proper rest we are not in the best shape to work, studies can open the door to better working conditions and opportunities, and friends and family allow us to distract and support us in good and bad times.

The first thing we need to do is accept that the responsibility of achieving our goals and being happy relies mostly on us. We can’t focus on blaming external factors whenever we tumble. We also have to recognize that many of the things we want to accomplish require effort and dedication, we have to be constant and patient. If we get to February and we still haven’t lost 20 pounds, well maybe our goal wasn’t very realistic, but by no means should we quit. Let’s better look at the pound we did lose and let’s reconsider our deadline or the method we’re using.

We should also refrain from doing a very big list of resolutions because it’s more likely to end up with very few crossed items, not by lack of time or too much work, but because we didn’t prioritize. It’s much better to have a shorter but feasible list and finishing the year with several small but completely crossed lists, than having a single intact one.

Lead by example

Talking about all this can seem too easy, even I used to think that whenever I read an article about it. All this subject used to seem very shallow and hard to bring to life, but after going through some unpleasant experiences -from which I decided to learn and take only the best- I realized I lacked will. Nobody is going to stop and fix my life, but neither will they complain if I didn’t finish reading all the books I intended or if I didn’t learn a new language by December. If I want to feel happier and fulfilled, with more available time to do things and handling my job in a better way, then it’s me who has to set the wheels in motion. Eventually, people who want to help will join, but the first step has to be personal.

I can properly speak about these topics because I used to be an expert at making the excuse of “not having enough time due to work”. I was even starting to believe it. Yes, I’ve always had an actual job (in the past 8 years I’ve been a full time employee, part time student and mom, simultaneously) but still I’ve always had a lot of time to spare. I just didn’t know it, I actually realized it until last year. Before I knew that, I used to think I was always so busy because of work and/or lack of time. It turns out it wasn’t like that at all, it was my fault for not making better use of my time.

When people ask me how I put my life together and made significant changes, the answer is very straightforward: sleeping more. Simple as that. I’ve always been very sleepy and I cherish my sleep time as a treasure. When I realized I was neglecting sleep by working late at night or by starting to work past 8 p.m. after procrastinating since 3 p.m., and I also noticed I was cranky and couldn’t concentrate due to lack of sleep, I knew I had to stop and rearrange my priorities. So I put sleep at the top of them. After that, the rest flowed.

At the beginning I forced myself to stop working right at the end of my work schedule. As expected, on the following days I was exhausted because of the work load and I thought if I took “just a few minutes” to do some tasks at home I could finish them sooner. But no, I forbade myself to even peek at work email when being home and I just did something else, mainly catching up on sleep.

A week later, since I was already getting used to that new routine and I was feeling more rested, I was able to concentrate more during office hours and I could move forward with my tasks faster. When lunch time came, I put any job-related stuff out of sight and simply focused on eating, and then I would get back to work. It sounds so simple but it is actually very difficult. Initially I felt guilty for not being working all the time, but later on I felt guilty when I was working too much instead of being with my family, reading a good book or taking an online class.

When I mastered the time situation, I started experimenting with productivity techniques and so I met the Pomodoro technique, created by Francesco Cirillo and adapted to a simpler version by Chris Winfield. I started trying it with tons of skepticism but it worked, and now I am confident to say it helped me rearrange my days. You work nonstop for 25 minutes, then you take a 5 minute recess and you go back to work for only 25 minutes. It’s an easier way to handle the day.

It was only when I won the battle of lack of sleep that I started a new fight. First I started drinking more water, then I went back to exercising, then I finished three pending books in two months. But let’s not forget they are cumulative accomplishments: with each new goal, you have to handle your resources well so you don’t give up on the previous ones.

I imagine, at this point, many of you are waiting for a solution or a magical recipe. Well I’m sorry to tell you I don’t have it. But I can tell you one thing: go take a look at the mirror, that’s your answer. The solution to all those time and work issues is in yourself, it’s a matter of attitude. Do you want to take your life back, not feel your job is choking you and have enough time to achieve all your goals? Well, take it seriously. In the end it’s your life and nothing gets more serious than that.

I can also offer you some recommendations, from my personal experience:

  • Try one change at a time and know in advance that results are visible after weeks, even months.
  • Forget once and for all about new year’s resolutions, it’s better to have life resolutions. You have 365 full days (this year even has an extra day) to reach your goals, not just January and February. And if December comes and you’re still not there, keep going! Years don’t stop. Also, don’t limit yourself to start projects in January, you still have 11 more available months. I’m sure there’s nobody keeping track of your own personal resolutions, so just don’t worry about everyone else’s pace, don’t compare yourself and just focus on your thing.
  • Celebrate small achievements. If your overall goal is to be happy, then make yourself happy little by little. It helps to be a little more optimistic and looking at challenges as opportunities, not as obstacles.
  • Try different methods, read and find out about techniques, tools, apps and whatever there is to help you feel more organized. There are two specific apps I really like and use daily for work, even to organize my personal life: Trello (to make lists, take notes and keep track of what I’m doing) and Toggl (to know how much time I’m spending on each task).

Feeling that you take back control over your own life is the most satisfactory thing and should be an accomplishment by itself. When I did it, I finally convinced myself I do have time, I don’t have more work than I can handle and each time I cross an item of my resolution list I feel happier and more fulfilled than ever.

To finish, in case you still don’t buy all this stuff I wrote with care and dedication, let me tell you I’m 25 years old and until last week I didn’t know how to drive a car. The excuse: “I have too much work, so I don’t have time to take driving lessons”. Last Monday I cut it with excuses and called a teacher. I started lessons on Tuesday. By Wednesday I was already driving a car to get home from work. It wasn’t lack of time or too much work. It was a little bit of fear, but especially, lack of will.

_____________________________________________________
Read this entry in Spanish here.

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