Fun fact: I started writing this post over a year ago.
It’s a strange thing to realize that you’ll never read all the books you want to read. You won’t visit every country, and – unless you’re particularly motivated – you probably won’t master a new language. You won’t have the time to keep up or reconnect with all those long lost friends, not even the ones you promised yourself that you’d make more of an effort with.
Perhaps the hardest part is accepting that your idealised version of your life, or even yourself, is one that may always be deferred. We tell ourselves that we’ll “get around to that one day.” Then tomorrow comes. And then the next day. The “one day” in question seems ever-more elusive.
Even something as trivial as maintaining this blog has proven to be something I haven’t had much time for. When I started writing this in summer 2020, I had a vague intention to post at least once a month. In hindsight, that was during lockdown, when we all had time on our hands, and in reality I’ve only produced a handful of entries since then (including this one). There’s not shortage of ideas for things to write about in my head, but I find I’ve often lacked the time, or – more accurately – the motivation to do commit to doing so.
Time is an incredibly precious resource, and one I value much more as I get older. It’s a resource we take for granted in youth, and usually don’t recognise it’s worth until it’s far too late. This is hardly a new observation (we’ve all heard that “life’s too short”), but I’ve always found it striking when oft-heard remarks become personal revelations.
With a lack of time comes a pressure to do as much with it as you can. And here’s the problem.
It’s often not immediately apparent that you’re spreading yourself too thin until you hit your limit. We’ve all worked late, sending “just one more e-mail” until it’s time to go to bed. Our lives are often bogged down with work and financial commitments. But it’s not just work. We rarely make things easier, as we put more and more pressure on ourselves by overestimating our ability for what we have the capacity to do. The desire for self-improvement can be a powerful motivator, for example, but an obsession on who we want to be or what we want to accomplish can blind us to who we already are and what we already have achieved.
I’ve been particularly bad for this in the past, juggling too many creative and voluntary projects to the detriment of my free time. I volunteered to work on everyone’s film projects, and took on more and more corporate video commissions, making no time at all for film projects of my own. During my political days, I spent days chapping doors and canvassing for elections (an activity I’m still convinced made minimal difference). I volunteered my time freely to help charities, friends, and political campaigns. And then I’d go home, and somehow try to make my own films. Or write. Or learn Japanese. Or anything else, just to make sure I wasn’t letting time pass me by.
All of which meant less time, for me, doing the things I actually wanted to do. Instead, I did the things that I felt I should do. And that’s a big difference.
Stress. Lack of sleep. Burnout. With little time to recharge.
And when you (inevitably) couldn’t do it all, you would be faced with an inevitable sense of disappointment in yourself for letting yourself down. Or at least, that’s how I felt. I’m often too hard on myself, and perhaps you can relate.
This way of living isn’t sustainable. Around about this time last year, I decided a change was needed.
In Essentialism, Greg McKeown shows us the mistakes we make with our time management to the detriment of our own happiness. By doing too much, or by never saying no, or by putting too much pressure on ourselves, we effectively make life worse – not better – for ourselves. It turns out trying to do “just one more thing” really isn’t a health or sustainable strategy after all. It’s an excellent read, and one I’d highly recommend.
You know the feeling: someone has asked you for a favour. Maybe your boss has asked you to work late, or you’ve been asked to volunteer at the local charity event. You don’t want to do it, yet you feel reluctant to say no. We all know that it’s far too easy to say “yes” in the moment, only to find ourselves later regretting it. It’s usually harder – but ultimately better – to give a clear “no” for your own sake. Whether it’s the expectation of politeness, or choosing the sake of convenience in the moment, a “yes” may feel easier in the short-term, but – really – we’re just sacrificing time we could spend on the things we actually involved.
(A noncommittal “maybe” doesn’t help, by the way. You’re just dragging out the process.)
The point is simple: do “less, but better“, a quote attributed to Dieter Rams, designer for the famous German brand Braun. It’s a simple but powerful philosophy, and one I’ve been working to apply to all aspects of my life over the last year.
(Hopefully that philosophy carries over to the word count for this blog post, too!)
Whether it be turning down business clients (if a project will take too long, or wont pay enough, or is something I just simply won’t find enjoyable), to choosing how I spend my free time (ignoring FOMO for events and actually spending my time the way I want to spend it). It frees up time and energy to focus on doing the things I want to do, with the people I want to do them with. I’ve found saying “no” gets much easier with practice, and I’ve found people respect you for your honesty when you do.
Do fewer things.
Make sure that the things you still do are what you actually want to do.
That’s pretty much it. You only have so much time in a week. A month. A year. A life. So make it count.
You can’t do it all, but you can do less things better.
No one says that’s an easy shift to make, and it’s hard not to daydream about what you “could do”. If I had all the time in the world, I’d be looking to read every book on my shelf, travel the world, develop several film projects, write several of my own novels, do more photography, keep in good shape, write more blog posts, and much more besides while still maintaining a healthy personal life.
But I don’t have all the time in the world. All of those things are worthwhile and – individually – would give me great satisfaction, but it’s probably better to focus on just a couple at any one time. I don’t have to read every book, and I don’t have to travel to every country.
Maybe the blog posts can wait. Maybe it’s okay if it all doesn’t get done. Maybe it’s even okay if a few of those things drop off the list as the years go by, as I focus more on the things that give me more joy than others.
If the alternative is burnout, I know what I choose.
Beyond the self, there is much to be grateful for. I have a wonderful family, fantastic friends, and have had a lot of incredible experiences in my life. It’s easy to dream of an idealised life where we “do it all”, but it’s also easy to spend so much time living in your idealised fantasy future that you miss how good life already is, and how much you already have to be thankful for.
And if you really want to save time? Here’s two quick tips.
Firstly, no work after a cut-off time at night. For me, it’s 7.30pm. As someone who used to work late almost every night, I agree that there may be (exceptional) times you need to do this, but if you find yourself regularly working late, you’re probably not in a good place. I’d suggest that it’s probably time to reflect that you’re on the wrong end of the work-life balance, and what you’re doing likely isn’t sustainable for long-term happiness. No one ever looked back on their death bed and wished they’d spent more time on their work emails when they should be sleeping.
Second tip? Delete the social media apps from your phone. I can access them through my laptop when I want to, but the simple act of removing 24/7 access has made such a substantially positive difference to both my free time (and general lack of high blood pressure during the day) that I never want to go back.
Speaking purely for myself, the aim is simple: focus more on the things I really want to do in life, and avoid the things that distract me from that focus. Take each day as it comes, and not overwhelm myself through overambition. Sure, there will inevitably be times we all have to do things we don’t want to (taking out the bin, for starters), but how we manage the free time we do have says a lot about our priorities.
For now, it’s time for me to take my own advice: to put my feet up, pour a fresh coffee, and enjoy my free time.