I want to write about something I’m noticing—and struggling with. I don’t have an answer for it. It is, perhaps, a set of observations.
When I was younger: in my twenties, I didn’t realize how much of my free time I spent doing things—things that I now try to do all inside of my limited work hours. There are small projects I used to indulge in that occupied pockets of time I no longer have in the same way.
Here are some of the projects:
Blog posts. I used to write posts (like these!) in snippets of time where my mind could wander, and I had a small chunk of time to dally or write. This was often in the early morning. When my days started around 6:30am, and if I wanted to write a blog post from 7am to 7:45am and get ready in a slapdash moment at 7:45am, splashing water on my face and quickly slapping my cheeks and brushing my hair into a ponytail, work outfit only requiring some black denim jeans and an architecture-y t-shirt (the good thing about architecture is that while you are designers, y’all are also broke, so we wore the same thing hundreds of times in a row. Or at least I did.)
The bus would roll up at 8:45am—yes! I had a full hour between ending my writing session and getting to do things like eat a full meal, get showered, dressed and changed, pack my bag and notebooks.
Then, the bus ride over the Golden Gate bridge would take me 30 minutes, and I’d read a book on the bus. 30 minuets of uninterrupted reading time. The Golden Gate Transit was a coach-style bus, cushy seats and lifted up high and a smoother ride; no city bus here.
But the less obvious parts are the projects I wasn’t even aware that I was tracking and doing, like:
My annual review. I like to look back and write an annual report on the year before. I haven’t done one for 2019 yet.
Writing snail mail letters. This is one of my favorite things to do. I love handwritten mail. Here’s a post on how I tied writing letters to traveling on airplanes, and how to write more handwritten notes. This requires not having small children, of course.
Long and complicated debates with friends via email. Many of my (too many?) Facebook posts I write turn into private conversations between people 1:1 who want to dig deeper into an idea. As an introverted lover of ideas and words and connecting people to new ideas, I have long adored getting to know people through writing and ideas. So my email inbox is full of … well, not just calendar invitations and appointments and meetings and billing receipts, but it’s also full of LETTERS. From real people. Who I enjoy taking to.
I used to write letters in the evening, 7pm or 8pm, after work and after dinner. I’d even stay up until 11pm because I could.
I had children.* I wish I could have grasped how viscerally the morning and evenings would shift to become devoted 24/7 to the routines of small humans that need your help with everything: Eating, sleeping, getting dressed, going to the bathroom.
The morning routine and the nighttime routine is an all-hands-on-deck affair, a battery of noises, a litany of questions, a cacophony of refusals. It’s a beautiful madness, filled with unending repetition, no time for lost thought, and injections of pure sweetness that come just frequently enough to keep you on the outside of the insane asylum.
*More poignantly, I had children in a country that provides little to zero support for working families.
I can’t go back in time, and I wouldn’t wish for it, but I do know that it is radically different, and that I have a sense of sorrow for those moments and gaps of time—the space—where I could entertain an idea. Maybe not from start to finish, but at least from start to a good, solid, delightful middle.
I adore my children. I feel as though I’m obligated to write that here, lest you get the assumption that I don’t like them or I somehow am a bad parent. The impulse to validate my love for them stems from a larger problem of judging parents—mothers, in particular—as “good” or “bad” and constantly determining whether or not a parent is an acceptable adult for a child. It’s a nasty pastime of our modern culture, one that I despise. Parents are doing a great job given the circumstances they’re in, and kids only need good enough parents (Psychologist Winnicot has a lot to say on this).
But I’ve gotten distracted by my kids again, even here in this essay.
And it got me thinking about the ways that time changes as we age, and how parenting is one symptom of this puzzle, but it’s not the cause of all of these problems.
In the work world, I also see this problem of what I’ll called “reduced time gaps” or “decreased time for wondering and spacing out.”
Let me explain.
How work eats your time
Whenever I start a new project, it’s exciting, exhilarating: there’s a clean slate. A fresh page full of space for words, an open box of ideas, a new course I want to put together, an audio file that needs to be scripted and mapped out. The space is open, full of possibilities. Like a horse in a huge valley field, we can run far and wide and explore.
The first draft of the project is made. Then the second.
Team members are brought in to review. Web pages are made / constructed. Links go up. Invitations get sent out.
For the sake of this analogy, let’s talk about a digital course as an example. I’m teaching a course called RECESS for my company, Startup Pregnant, and it’s all about taking 5-minute resets and mini-breaks throughout the day when you’re swamped for time or attention. It’s supposed to be the mental equivalent of taking a bath or getting a massage when you’re in that I’m-so-fucking-tired-I-can’t-breathe stage.
A course has videos, lecture notes, sign-up sequences, a landing page to describe the project, sales emails, reminder emails, a payment portal. (And more).
Taking it from an idea in my notebook to the fresh moments of recording the video, to uploading the videos to our course platform (We use Teachable; there are many different course platforms you can use; another research project to fill several days of time.).
Then the course is live. Is it done?
Not even close.
Management, maintenance, fielding customer questions, updating videos when they become out-of-date—and then the cascading effect of updating the email sequences, customer reminders, lecture notes, and sales pages—builds up.
Like plaque on teeth, the detritus of a course (or any project) begins to build.
This is often called ‘Legacy” problems, and it’s a puzzle that anyone with a project or company older than a few years has. Ongoing maintenance and upgrades are real costs of business.
Say you have a business with 1,000 blog posts and a dozen courses. How much time is spent updating and editing past materials and courses?
You can fill all of your time just managing the current projects, or editing past projects.
What happens next is that people who enjoy creating new things, inventing new ideas, or building new projects get exhausted. Their time is slowly eroded (eaten away) by the demand that existing “business kids” have on their time and attention.
An erosion of time
The thing is, I see this happening with our physical bodies as well. As we age, we require more time and attention just to be able to function in a similar way as before. Where we used to get up and be able to just jog out the door on a run (theoretically), it may take much longer to get our bodies prepared for that same run as we get older.
First we need to stretch out and limber up our joints. Then there’s a series of exercises to warm up the strained ligaments from damage done at an earlier age. Then we need a short injection of caffeine and the right supplements to ward against an upset stomach, say, caused by years of inflammation and an irritable bowel syndrome.
The same run takes an hour of time just to prepare for with a physically aging body.
As we age, we have less time to spend.
What I’ve noticed, then, is that as we age, we have less time to attend to the things we want to do, and we’re playing a game where time continues to decrease in front of us, not just linearly, as in the years marching by; but the time we have within each day to do the things we want to do is also shortening. It’s like we’re living from the summer solstice into the winter (“Winter is Coming,”), and the amount of available daylight decreases by a few minutes with each progressive day.
What’s to be done about this?
My only strategy of late is to become even more judicious with my boundaries. It is no longer possible for me to squeeze more in during the early hours or late night. The edges of my sleep and sanity are real. I can optimize as much as I can, and then I’ve reached the upper limit of optimization and I need to edit.
Editing requires pruning, cutting, deleting.
I’ve written before about why decisions are so hard. It’s because to decide is to cut—quite literally—a possibility out of your life. (The latin root of the word ‘decide” is “cede,” which means “to cut,” just like cesarean or scissors.)
When faced with decreasing amounts of time, not just linearly but also eroded day by day, in the sum we have to work with, what do you do?
Learn how to say no.
Wield the weapons of boundaries, decisiveness, focus, and clarity like your life depends on it. Because it does.
When I don’t get replies from busy people, or older people, I now know why. At some point, you’ve decided what’s most important and you realize that time is precious, it is short, and we are all just grasping at moments.
That’s all I have for now.
What do you think?—