The Myth of Making Time for Yourself. And What to Do Instead.
Have you ever read or heard someone say that making time for yourself is really important? I’m guessing that you have, since this advice is commonly directed at women.
So in the first part of this post I’m sharing my thoughts about why it can be so hard to act on this advice, in spite of the abundance of tips and tricks available that make it seem relatively easy. And in the second part I’ll guide you through some specific journaling questions and activities to help you connect with how to actually take time for yourself.
First, why is making time for yourself so challenging?
As strange as this may sound, it’s partly because it flies in the face of reality. The thing is, time is constant and never changing. There’s only so much of it, and you can’t make more. But you already know that.
However, when you’re routinely told that you should be making time for yourself, there’s an underlying expectation. Somehow, between work, family, home and everything else that’s on your plate, you will find a way to squeeze time for yourself in there.
Of course it would be lovely and amazing if you could magically conjure up more time.
Then you could do all the things you want to do in a day or week or month or year.
Or, even more compelling, what if you could wave a magic wand and stop the clock? Then you could get it all done. And when the clock started ticking again you’d have loads of time for yourself.
But alas, that’s not going to happen. And I suspect it would still be hard for many of us to stop the ceaseless march to get things done even with our ability to stop clocks.
So the advice is complicated because of the language that’s used to relay it.
Logically, you know you can’t actually make more time. So perhaps you’re thinking it’s just a harmless metaphor, right?
Maybe. But I’d ask you to consider that how we language things is important. And there’s an insidious, shadowy thing that happens with the language of this particular metaphor.
Underneath it is an unspoken, behind the scenes expectation that women will somehow be able to fit it all in. In spite of the constant nature of time. And although we are hopefully long past the notion that women should be able to effortlessly do it all, we’re still trying to make more time magically appear.
If you’ve ever been entranced by this metaphor you might know how uncomfortable it can get.
You try your best to fit your needs in among all the things. You believe that if you just try hard enough, state your intentions clearly enough, and plan well enough, it will happen.
There’s an optimistic part of you that expects you’ll not only cross everything off your list, but you’ll also discover the secret to summoning forward space between the lines of that list. Space for yourself.
But then, it doesn’t happen. You find yourself racing to get out of work or pick up the kids or finish your projects or clean up the house or a myriad of other responsibilities. Only to discover at the end of it all no additional time for yourself has magically appeared.
And right about then you may begin to wonder what’s wrong with you, because aren’t all these other women having successes, making time for themselves and getting everything else done too?
At some point, you begin to suspect that it’s all a set up: for overwhelm, anxiety, bewilderment.
What no one tells you is that it’s not about making time. It’s about taking time.
Long ago a very wise therapist helped me understand the difference between the two. It isn’t so much about good intentions or excellent planning. In fact, it sometimes feels like an internal rebellion, because it requires you to stop and let go.
But it’s a different kind of letting go.
Consider what Elizabeth Gilbert says about time in her book, Eat, Pray, Love:
Time—when pursued like a bandit—will behave like one; always remaining one country or one room ahead of you, changing its name and hair color to elude you, slipping out the back door of the motel just as you’re banging through the lobby…at some point you have to stop because it won’t. You have to admit that you can’t catch it. That you’re not supposed to catch it. At some point…you gotta let go and sit still and allow contentment to come to you.
Yes: at some point you have to stop because it won’t.
In other words, time won’t stop, but you can.
Rather than planning, intending, and pursuing, the act of taking time (or sometimes just grabbing it) means not always knowing what the outcome will be.
Right now you might be wondering, “Isn’t it good to plan, intend, and pursue?”
Absolutely, nothing wrong with that. However, our lives and our needs aren’t linear. Life is complicated; things rarely go like clockwork.
So when you rebel a little and begin taking time, you may not really know what you’re letting go of and what the outcome will be.
That’s because taking time asks you to embrace a particular kind of flexibility. It pushes you to release a certain amount of control. Or even, perhaps, a vision you have of your life. Or a vision you have of yourself, as a very responsible woman.
So what does it look like in real life to take time rather than trying to find it or make it?
A few years ago I sent out a newsletter encouraging my readers to begin keeping their tiny promises to themselves (rather than waiting until they had time). Later, several women shared stories of how even the smallest shifts made a huge difference.
Their stories are inspiring. Here are one woman’s words (used with permission)…
I have been “giving in” to my whims and self-care notions recently. I am amazed at how honoring even my smallest inclination feeds my soul. Such a simple act of listening and then acting on something I want to do is so fulfilling. I took a nap yesterday. I thought about pushing through to clean the house, but laid down on the couch instead. It was so much needed that I slept for 3 hours. When I awoke, I felt like a new person.
I love the words and phrases she uses: giving in, whims, notions, feeds my soul.
Taking time does require letting go and giving in to what may seem like a whim or a not very serious notion. But when you put aside the resistance even momentarily and begin, the results are bound to be deeply nourishing and fulfilling.
How to shift towards taking time (rather than making time for yourself)
1. Explore your roots, unearthing your particular experiences and narratives about time.
This isn’t about trying to change your past experiences and narratives. Rather, it’s about bringing understanding and compassion to them and seeing the deeper story that surrounds your experience of time in the present day.
Often, when my clients experience a sense of time scarcity there are very clear feelings of overwhelm that go with them. So it’s helpful to explore early experiences, particularly what you were taught and/or what was role modeled to you. Here are four journaling questions to begin the unearthing:
- Remember and explore early experiences in your life when adults around you felt overwhelmed. Or when you felt overwhelmed.
- Remember and explore what you were taught or what you witnessed about time pressure and its relationship to responsibility.
- Identify any expectations that were placed on you to step up and make time for or care for others.
- Identify beliefs that were told or taught to you, like: work before play, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, don’t be lazy, boredom is bad, don’t just sit around, use your time wisely, be productive.
2. Explore how early experiences affect your relationship with time now.
Here’s another journaling question:
- As a result of your early experiences and learnings, what are your beliefs and narratives about time and overwhelm?
After working with women for 20 years, I’ve learned that there are multiple and varied beliefs and backstories related to time scarcity and overwhelm in the present day. And while I can’t share those stories, I can tell you that my personal story is directly related to growing up in a home where there was both abundant love and abundant chaos.
In that environment I learned not to rock the boat, to try to be good, and in turn became a worried and anxious child. Back then I was pretty good at pushing that down and keeping it to myself. So my time anxiety and over-responsibility didn’t show up fully until I was an adult. But clearly, the seeds had been planted.
3. Experiment with changing your language about time.
Sometimes changing your language helps. For instance, years ago I deliberately stopped saying, “I’m busy.” I realized that not only did I think that a lot, but I said it a lot too. And it didn’t alleviate my stress and overwhelm at all. In fact, the word “busy” had become a kind of shield. A way to hide out and not actually look at the real issue.
When I could no longer hide behind the word, I had to be honest with myself. I needed to acknowledge that even though I had responsibilities, I also had more choice than I realized about how I used my time and expended my energy.
Although this may seem simplistic, seeing clearly that I had choices was both sobering and freeing. And when I made an effort to change, it made a difference in ways that I couldn’t have initially imagined.
Does this mean I’m always aware of when I need to just stop and take time? No! Still, it’s an exercise in consciousness now. And even when I do step into the vortex of time overload and overwhelm (doing, going, spinning) I can more easily step back.
4. Develop and maintain an awareness of how screen time, the attention economy, and social media affect time scarcity and overwhelm.
Here’s an example: during the month of December I lost count of the number of emails I received with “last chance” in the title. Not only that, but on New Year’s day I woke up to discover an email proclaiming: “Time is running out!”
Of course it’s no secret that this kind of marketing is intended to make us feel false urgency and time scarcity. But the accumulation of these messages (even when we do our best to ignore them) can affect our mental health. We internalize them without even knowing it. Their urgency can flow over into our perspectives on life, self, responsibilities, and even possibilities.
Read more by visiting the posts I wrote about this: Negative Effects of Screen Time on Women and Creating Boundaries Online.
5. Experiment with practicing Cognitive Defusion
Instead of giving up when you’re trying to make time for yourself (but feel thwarted), begin actively noticing your thoughts and feelings about time in the present moment.
You might discover a running conversation going on in your mind or notice a series of repeating thoughts:
- There’s never enough time
- It must be done now
- What will they think if I say no
- No one but me will do this
- I can’t let them down
- It’s my responsibility
- I have to push through
- Just suck it up and do it
There are endless variations on this theme, and yours will likely be unique to you. But no matter what your internal dialogue, you can make space between it and you.
According to the theory of Acceptance and Commitment therapy, you can continue thinking any of these thoughts and still stop and take time for yourself. Paradoxically, your mind’s negativity bias doesn’t have to dictate your actions. (Especially when your desired actions reflect what living a life of value means to you.)
By the way, I don’t think I’ve ever known a client or a friend who didn’t intuitively understand the value of taking time for yourself.
Here’s a simple cognitive defusion practice that you can do in your journal.
It’s helpful when you’re wrestling with taking time for yourself. In this example the thought I’m working with is “there’s never enough time.”
- Thought: There’s never enough time
- Feeling: I feel overwhelmed.
- Thought and Feeling: There’s never enough time and I feel overwhelmed.
- Distancing 1: I’m thinking that there’s never enough time and I feel overwhelmed.
- Distancing 2: I’m noticing that I’m thinking there’s never enough time and I feel overwhelmed.
By the time you finish writing the last statement, you’ll probably experience some release from your thoughts and feelings. And that is the perfect moment to take a deep breath, let go, put down your pack and take time for you.
One last thing: I’m not advocating irresponsibility here.
That’s not usually a problem, though, for the women I know and work with.
Instead, what I am advocating is opening up to the wisdom of small rebellions. In other words, experimenting with letting go. Not knowing exactly where it will lead, but trusting that it will be okay.
I’m also advocating opening up to the truth that we have so many more potentials within us than we could ever truly live, including getting it all done all the time.
This journey, I know, is far more challenging for many of us than the lists of tips and tricks would have you believe.
But I want you to know it’s worth the effort. Just the other day one of my brilliant clients (who has been working on her own roots of time scarcity and overwhelm) has realized this:
The less I have to do the less I feel I need to do.
I’m so glad she gave me permission to use her words, because they perfectly reflect the paradox here: when you embrace not only the finite nature of time, but the finite nature of life itself, you can step back from the conditioning that tells you to constantly be doing more. And the less you do, the less you’ll need to do.
As a result you’re more open to experiment with taking time and space for yourself as you need it. In whatever way you need it in the moment.
Finally, I’m giving the last words over to poet Christine Valters Paintner. Her poem perfectly reflects what happens when the landscape before you opens up to give you space to do the only thing you can do…
Perhaps your list of pressing tasks is still long.
Leave it there fluttering in the breeze,
uncrossed, undone, unfinished,
to do the only thing you can do…
-Christine Valters Paintner