Monday, June 26, 2017

How to Budget Your Time Like It's Money

A Full Plate (Plus Dessert)  

Every time I talk to my mom on the phone (which is not nearly enough) she comments on how busy I am. "You never sit still," she says, clucking her tongue. And she's right. To me, a relaxing day is one spent reorganizing my book shelves, prepping food for the week, and mowing the front lawn. I like being productive and crossing things off my to-do list, and I feel guilty if I'm idle for too long. 

In addition to my 40-hour workweek, I write a few articles a month for various magazines and websites (#sidehustle). I'm working hard on this blog, trying to find my niche in personal finance sphere. I maintain very active Twitter and Instagram accounts, read at least one book a month (my numbers this year are down), occasionally publish short stories in literary journals few people have ever heard of, work out at the YMCA three times a week, organize events for my democratic precinct, and watch a lot of things on Netflix. Not to mention my husband, dog, chickens, and friends. (See, Mom? This is why I never have time to call you!) 

It's a lot. Often, it's too much. In a twist that will surprise no one, I only share the good stuff and keep the less-impressive moments to myself. The piles of dog hair in every corner of my house, the dumb fights with my husband, the anxiety dreams that wake me in a panic, the novel that wouldn't sell, the feelings, overwhelming at times, that I haven't done enough, accomplished enough, or lived an interesting enough life. Instead, I post a beautiful photo of the beach and pretend that everything is perfect. This, of course, is part of the problem. 

More Than I Can Chew

The other part of the problem is that I'm ambitious. Ambition by itself is not a bad thing. It's good to strive for more and challenge yourself and set big goals. But energy and time are finite resources, and trying to do too much means you'll eventually run out of both. 

This seems obvious, but it's a lesson I've only recently learned. The epiphany was sparked, in part, by learning to budget, and here's where the personal finance angle comes in. My budgeting method of choice is YNAB, and in this system you assign jobs to your dollars as soon as you get them. $100 for groceries, $25 for beer and wine, $30 for dog food, and so on until you reach zero. If something I didn't budget for springs up - happy hour at the brewery for a friend's birthday, or a political campaign I simply MUST donate to - then I have to pull that money from another category and give it a new job. 

Sometimes this is easy - obviously an emergency trip to the vet is more important than a six-pack of beer. Other times, the stakes aren't as clear. Should I use some of the money I'm saving for that wedding in September? What about the holiday fund I'm not going to spend until December? 

In this sense, time is a lot like money. For example, I'm currently writing this post, which means there are easily a hundred other things I am not doing. I don't feel too badly about that, because I like this space and I want to publish only thoughtful, well-written posts. This requires time, energy, and work, all of which I'm happy to do. On the other hand, I also want to publish a novel, which also requires time, energy, and work - all without the added bonus of hitting "publish" and instantly sharing my work. Blogging offers immediate gratification, so it's easy to find the time to do it - I'm rewarded right away. Novel writing is long, arduous, rife with rejection, and comes with no guarantees. Choosing to spend my precious and limited time on it anyway - well, you can see why I struggle. 

Pie in the Sky 

While instant gratification is delicious in the moment, it's not a good long term strategy. If I keep spending my September wedding money on tacos and sundresses, I won't be able to afford my plane ticket. If I spend all my free time watching Better Call Saul or scrolling through the latest outrage on Twitter, I'll never finish revising my novel. My paycheck is finite, and I need to use it wisely by paying for the most important things first. My ambition is the same way - I need to decide what my priorities are, accomplish those, and then drink a fancy cocktail at the beach. 

This means cutting some things out, and saying no to others. When I re-launched this blog back in May, I said I would post twice a week. That lasted about two months. As it turns out writing quality posts takes time, and I don't have quite that much - not if I also want to freelance and write fiction. One post a week it is. When I started getting more involved in local politics, I was elected chair of my precinct and volunteered for a few committees. As it turns out this required a lot of meetings and events, and I quickly became overwhelmed. One precinct and one campaign it is.

Another thing that's helping to guide my new philosophy of time management is the idea of consumption versus creation. (The Minimalists sum it up well.) The basic idea is that, while we all need to consume things in order to live (air, water, food, but also wine and books and movies) we shouldn't let consumption be the majority of what we do. We should create as much as we take. As a writer especially, this is an important reminder.

I write because I love words and stories - creating them, and consuming them. Sometimes the scales tip, and instead of working on my blog or novel, I scroll through a hundred other blogs, or read five books, or watch some high quality peak television. None of these are bad ways to spend my time, but even too much of a good thing is - well - too much. If I'm consuming more than I'm creating, I need to bring the focus back to my own work. Write my own words, think my own thoughts. Use what I've consumed as inspiration, and then create something that's all my own. 

The Sweet Spot 

I'm still working on finding the perfect balance, and that means thinking about my goals ahead of time. I know how many hours are in day, and I know how long it takes to accomplish big things. By organizing my days the same way I've organized my bank account, I can spend each moment wisely, invest in the goals that matter most, and enjoy my free time without triggering an existential crisis. Or, to put it another way, I can have my cake and eat it, too.  

This post was inspired by a thoughtful comment from Jaclyn of The ADHD Homestead. Thanks, Jaclyn!