Many people wonder how they can get more time for themselves. It feels like a symptom of the modern age: the constant feeling that you are on a cycle of frantic activity, a treadmill, which it is almost impossible to get off. I thought it might be helpful to have a look at some of the reasons why this might happen; and a few ideas as to how we can change our relationship with time.
TIME AS A THING
Time has been my fascination since I began studying counselling, and working with clients. I noticed that many psychotherapists were obsessed with controlling it. I noticed that many clients were obsessed with reclaiming it for themselves. In particular, I noticed that we all live between two extremes – the extreme of busy-ness, and the extreme of death. At both extremes, it is true to say ‘I have no time’. In between, by managing the tension between the things we want to do, and our ultimate inability to do anything, lies the land in which we live, for better or for worse.
Time is a thing, an object of concern, a focus of experience. We cannot see it, but it represents something important to us, perhaps even importance itself. ‘Do you have the time?’ we ask, and we can hear the undercurrent: ‘Are you too important for me?’ Therapists continue to feel important because they control the time; and clients continue to feel unimportant, because no one has time for them, least of all themselves. And there is the eternal magic of a moment with someone who genuinely has ‘time for us’, who has realised that nothing is more important than offering others compassionate attention, with a sense of wisdom and spaciousness.
THE HISTORY OF OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH TIME
In recent history, civilisations have developed a way of framing time: it is called the clock. What it does, is to move our experience from the continuous experience of days, to the intense experience of time limitations. No longer do we wander in a world which is in sympathy with our natural rhythms. We have ‘timetables’; we have ‘events’, which start and finish at predetermined times. What this has done, is to create the possibility of ‘too little time’, and ‘too much time’.
This translates onto the two most common psychological conditions of our time. When we have too little time, we experience anxiety. (Try it: if you want to make yourself anxious, just give yourself too much to do, and too short a time frame.) When we have too much time, we experience depression. (Again, try it: if you want to make yourself depressed, just give yourself too little to do, and a long stretch of time in which to do it.)
You might say to me: ‘Actually, the second option sounds lovely, like a holiday!’ But the secret to depression is powerlessness. Actually, on holiday, you don’t have too little to do, you have just enough to do. In depression, you feel that you have lost your power to do anything, and time seems to stretch ahead of you unendingly.
In summary, by using clocks, we have overexcited our relationship with time, put ourselves in prison, and fallen out of sympathy with our naturally free selves. Instead of taking life as it comes, we become bipolar, alternately urgent and disengaged, one minute frantically busy, and the next desperate to withdraw. Urgent we call anxious; disengaged we call depressed.
So, back to the question, ‘How can I get more time for myself?’ Well, given the predicament we are in… we are going to have to negotiate with our surroundings, including our loved ones. We already live in a world that pressurises everyone to get busy, using the mechanical clock as a stick to beat each other up with. We are going to have to box clever: to use that mechanism, the clock, against itself.
I am going to suggest you use two main tactics in your battle to regain your sense of self. Each involves slightly different conversations. But both require you to learn new vocabulary, new ways of acting and being.
And getting more time for yourself, inevitably, involves improving your relationship with others so that there are clear expectations. It won’t be comfortable, because you will temporarily have to disappoint those around you. (Of course you will! They love you, and want your company.) But ultimately, if they love you, they will want you to be happy.
TIME-RECLAIMING EXERCISE 1 – SIGNS AND FENCES
How does a motorway tell you about a turning that’s coming? Observe, and you’ll see that, first, it warns you incredibly early, miles ahead. Then you’ll get pictures, just in case you were too dumb to notice the warnings. Finally, you’ll get a countdown, in sign language: 3… 2… 1. Turn. By then, if you didn’t notice the huge signs and the MASSIVE communication signals, then you’re on your own. The message has been laid down, and most people turn without a hint of resentment.
You need to do the same thing with your private time. Choose a time months ahead. Warn everybody. Remind everyone, with pictures if necessary, as you get closer to the time. Then: 3… 2… 1… count them down to the time. By then, they have been warned. You now have a right to your time. Everyone else needs to turn off your motorway, and it’s yours for a while. That’s how you use the ‘signs and fences’ approach.
TIME-RECLAIMING EXERCISE 2 – COATS AND TRENCHES
OK, are you ready for a bit of subterfuge? A bit of cloak-and-dagger? How did the French Resistance, in World War 2, reclaim space? Here, you need to use the opposite of open warning systems. You need to create a network of underground tunnels to enrich your freedom, while everyone on the surface thinks you are participating in the Third Reich.
Where can you go where you are invisible? I used to know a FInance Director who disappeared to the Oval to watch the cricket. No one knew where to find him. He could get some peace. What is your invisibility cloak? Mine is charity shops. When I go there, I can browse objects, attend to details, and lose myself. It’s a form of meditation, away from everything busy. Find yours. Somewhere you can go, at any time, or in the little gaps in between events. It could be a coffee shop, a walk in the woods, a trip to a neighbouring town, a long drive in the car, a library, a bookshop. I want you to be happy. Find your underground tunnels. Escape to them. It’s legal, and it works.
I have called this approach ‘coats and trenches’, because you are being like soldiers in the First World War, protecting yourself from the bombs. It doesn’t mean you don’t fight the battles; it just means that you exercise self-care in the face of the enemy. What are your temporary hideouts? Build them, and use them consistently. Find allies who will support you in those trenches. If you write, liaise with fellow writers. If you walk, liaise with fellow walkers. Whatever it takes – build your secret resistance network, just like in a war.
I am realistic. As soon as you do this, a host of problems will arise. Your nearest and dearest, lovers, children, friends… they will all seem to look at you as though you are betraying their very existence. You will be overcome with guilt, and say that it is impossible, just impossible, to compromise their happiness. You love them too much. OK… but, I repeat, I am interested in YOUR happiness, not theirs. You would support their time apart, their hidey-holes, wouldn’t you? So (it’s only fair) I encourage you to hold them accountable for allowing you yours. More than that: your confident example might encourage those around you to negotiate their freedom, too. How wonderful.
And, when you are refreshed, you can be of more help to them. No one wants to clean with a dirty cloth. So take time to clean yourself, and you will be a better means for others to be clean.
How can you get time for yourself? We live in a world of clocks, imprisoning ourselves in timetables, or time frames. When the allocated time is too short compared with our ability to act, we get anxious. When the time runs long, but we have little capacity to act, we get depressed.
To regain control of our personal time, we need to take responsibility for our relationships with others. We have two main tools at our disposal:
Firstly, planning our private time a long way ahead, and warning others that we will not be available at those times.
Secondly, developing a secret network of hidden spaces, where we can escape, without warning, in between our busy moments.