Finding Time When You’re Too Busy to Breathe

The majority of the coaching clients I work with are juggling numerous roles, projects, demands and priorities. Typically these include things like owning and running a business, being a parent, working a job, birthing a creative or entrepreneurial project, helping a spouse, caring for an aging family member or ailing friend, volunteering their time, and finding time for self-care, including exercise and meditation.

Many of them reach out for coaching because they are so swamped with external demands – work, child-rearing, the needs of others – that they are having difficulty finding time for themselves. Without accountability to someone other than themselves, when push comes to shove, the things that get pushed to the bottom of the priority list are inevitably the items that are “just” for them: the creative project that has been on hold for several years (“just until the kids are older”) or the exercise routine, food choices, and meditation time that they know would help keep them healthier, but seem to slip away under the wave of demands that roll in during the course of any given day.

Often, finding time is the top challenge for someone with a busy schedule.

Defining your goals and how you’ll get there

Assuming you have something in mind to add to your already-busy schedule, the first step is to explore that goal a little bit. Taking a moment to examine its essence and come up with acceptable variations to meet it can give you some flexibility around fitting it into your day or week. For example, instead of starting with “I want to attend that specific 6 pm Pilates class for an hour every day” and then cramming it into your schedule (and giving up if it fails to work out exactly as planned), you might realize that what you really want is to move your body on a regular basis in a way that strengthens and tones it. You might have a preferred option for achieving it (e.g., the Pilates class), but also have Plans B and C ready in case unexpected demands throw off your best intentions on any given day.

One way to do this is to identify (1) a minimum acceptable goal, (2) a “reach” goal, and (3) a realistic goal given the other demands on your time. Thinking in terms of weekly rather than daily goals can help with this. For example, I have a client who decided that at minimum she wanted to move her body in an intentional, athletic way for at least 20 minutes no less than twice a week – it could be yoga, volleyball, hiking, jumping jacks. As an ideal reach, she also wanted to get outside at lunch for a walk every day and be active on the weekend. Reality was allowed to fall anywhere in between, and anything over the minimum time per workout or number of days a week was celebrated as a bonus.

Ultimately, differentiating our true objective (e.g., a healthier body) from the wide variety of ways we might achieve it (e.g., going to a toning class, taking a walk at lunch, going to the gym, doing a workout video) allows us to develop a more flexible plan to achieve our core goals. The clearer we are on our true objective and the more robust our options, the more resilient and sustainable our plan will be for achieving our goals – and the more likely we’ll be to follow through.

Finding time in your busy schedule

The first step in locating slices of time is becoming aware of your daily and weekly routines and examining your schedule to see how you’re actually using your time.

This can be as simple and organic as a conversation with yourself, a friend, or your coach in which you pull apart your week and reality test your options for fitting in the thing you want to prioritize for yourself. The most important part of this exercise and its implementation is finding a way to create space for the habit of setting aside time. This means that you may ideally want to spend an hour a day meditating, but that you start by finding five minutes that is doable on a steady basis. You are looking for the “thin edge of the wedge” – a place to start that can eventually lead to the habit you want to develop and the outcome you want to achieve.

You can also get more formal with your schedule analysis. Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and other books on time management, offers an approach to managing your time that starts with understanding what you do with it. She has free time tracking tools available on her web site as well as questions to ask yourself about how you’re spending your time.

The idea with tracking your time to this degree is that – similar to a food, spending, or judgment journal – once you become aware of what you’re actually doing, you can make conscious choices about it. As Vanderkam wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal, “tracking time keeps us from spending it mindlessly or lying to ourselves about what we do with it….Checking Facebook five times a day at six minutes a pop adds up to two-and-a-half hours in a workweek – curiously, the exact amount of time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends we exercise.”

The challenge of prioritizing

Interestingly, Vanderkam is also the origin of the saying you may have seen floating around in memes: “Instead of saying ‘I don’t have time’ try saying ‘it’s not a priority,’ and see how that feels.”

While this can be a useful exercise for owning our decisions and weeding out activities that truly aren’t top priorities, it becomes less useful when the items in question are, in fact, all important to us and we have to choose among them. When our core values come into conflict and a choice gets made between them, the end result is often guilt. We feel that by choosing to give time to one thing, we are betraying the other. When both are priorities to us, this matters. Things get emotionally murky. And often, our own projects and self-care are the ones that get put to the side – but not without some residual resentment, sadness, deflation, suffocation or stickiness.

What can be done about this?

Let’s explore that in my next article, How to Make Choices When Everything Is a Top Priority.