“Oh, no!” I thought as soon as I spotted the email in my inbox.
The message that prompted my sense of dread wasn’t a cancer diagnosis, a huge financial loss, or even a missed deadline. It was an email from a good friend, inviting me to attend an event that evening — a night I had planned for “me time,” including doing some cleaning for a party, running errands, and writing Christmas cards.
To be clear: I’m far from antisocial. I am usually out with people three or four nights a week. I really did like this friend, and the event sounded interesting. I am open to spontaneous invites, and I had accepted about three of them the week before. But on that particular day, my innate emotional response told me that I needed to keep my evening free to preserve an overall sense of peace, spaciousness, and order in my life.
But another part of me felt guilty about declining the invitation just to have time to myself. It felt like telling a guy you can’t go on a date because you need to wash your hair. So I went back and forth all day about it: Could I get my to-do list done before events later in the week? In my rank of priorities, friends are more important than my home, so was I being a bad friend?
In the end, I didn’t go to the event. I let my friend know I would be open to attending the event in the future but I already had some plans for that evening. The decision led to a peaceful evening and nice flow to the rest of the week.
This situation highlights a truth I’ve been exploring with my time-coaching clients over the last year. To feel most joyful and satisfied, you need to not only accomplish certain priority items but also prioritize certain experiences of time. In this case, I needed the experience of “breathing room.” I wanted to savor tasks like writing Christmas cards instead of feeling like I was working on an assembly line where efficiency was the only goal.
Sometimes, very small shifts in how you use your time can make the difference between feeling focused and productive at work, with energy left over for home, and feeling like you’re pulling yourself through the day in a fog of exhaustion only to collapse on the couch at night. For example, make it a rule to have at least 15 minutes between meetings to wrap up your notes, get a drink of water, and have a moment to breathe. Even those few minutes can help you feel good about what you accomplished and leave the office satisfied — instead of feeling overwhelmed by loose ends and. Is having 15-minute gaps technically the most efficient? No. But can it be effective at helping you finish tasks and feel like you have space to think? Absolutely. The same principle holds true for blocking out a few hours of uninterrupted time each week to move ahead on a priority project or to exercise.
Unfortunately, these sorts of experiences often get pushed out or devalued in traditional productivity advice, particularly when it comes to our work. As a time investment expert, I’m interested in ways you can push back and reclaim the joy in your time. Because as Brené Brown shares in her talk on The Price of Invulnerability, “So often we’re missing what’s truly important because we’re on the quest for what is extraordinary.”
Here’s how to reclaim your desired experiences of time:
Define what success feels like for you. Get clear on your desired experience of time. For me, it’s really important to have the ability to calmly prepare for projects at work or activities at home, exercise regularly, and be completely present with people. To another person, the mountaintop may be feeling like they can pick up and leave on the weekend to go skiing or hiking. For others, the ideal could be simply having the bandwidth to stop and pay attention when someone asks him a question.
Be honest about “must do” activities. It’s amazing how often we think of something and then turn it into a burden or obligation when it was self-generated. The truth is that it’s completely up to us whether we complete the task or do the activity. If you want a different experience of time, be honest about what truly needs to happen to make life work. These “must do” activities should then find a place on your calendar to get done. The “would like to do” activities can go on a separate list that you can either move ahead on as you have time or hire someone else to do. This is especially critical for those who choose not to work full-time. Often, they think they should be able to fit everything into their schedule, which can end up making them more stressed than those who do work 40+ hours a week.
Under-schedule your calendar. The ideal amount of meeting time varies from position to position. But as a general rule, you’ll end up with your best experience of time if you have four hours or less of meetings per day, or group your meetings together on certain days so that you have one or more meeting-free days. Outside of work, your life can feel much calmer if you have at least one unscheduled weekday evening and at least half of a weekend day that’s more relaxed. During that open space, block in time to move ahead on projects and activities that are important to you. Open space doesn’t mean that you don’t intend to do anything, but it does mean that you can focus on something without feeling like you need to rush through it and quickly move on to something else in 30 minutes. To maximize the value of this time, close your e-mail tab and silence your phone (or at least the random alerts) so you can be open to the activity of the moment.
Decline activities and tasks that aren’t aligned. Once you’ve set aside this time, stick to it. Many people feel pressured to accept new tasks or projects just because they see the open space on their calendar. But remember, you’ve set aside this time for a reason: to focus on your own priorities. When someone asks you to do something that would cut into that time, you need to give yourself permission to decline if that activity isn’t aligned with your goals. You’re not lying to say you’re booked or at capacity when you have set aside the time for yourself.
Savor the beauty of the everyday. The key to happiness may have nothing to do with fitting something more in your schedule — and may have everything to do with stopping to enjoy what’s already there. I wake up two hours before I need to be at my desk so that I can savor the beauty of mornings. I make it a point to be thankful for my food or to take in the beauty of the greenery outside my window and to think, pray, and journal. Those two hours are an important source of happiness for me because I’m attuned to noticing and appreciating the good in them. Science has shown that focusing on positive cues and showing appreciation for them can lead to an increase in feelings of happiness in a matter of days. Even a few minutes of relishing something that you usually rush through can reduce depression.
In this holiday season, and especially in the new year, give yourself permission to prioritize your desired experience of your time, not just your priority items.
This post was originally posted on Harvard Business Review. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.