The school bus roaring past my house woke me from an email and social media stupor, and I looked up from my laptop to notice the sky growing dark. How? I whined to myself. I’d meant to sneak in a midday trail run, but somehow I was still cross-legged on the couch, running shoes still in the closet. I’d like to say I have it good as a freelancer—I work from home, and my schedule is flexible. And maybe I do get out more than most, sometimes heading to the trail midday in exchange for working late into the evening or occasionally packing up to work remotely. But I’ve learned a frustrating lesson over the years: Having a flexible schedule doesn’t mean having free time unless I make free time. I think most Americans would agree that work seems to expand to fill the time allotted to it—which, if we let it, would be all the time.
Countless legitimate obstacles stack up between us and our more adventurous dream lives: picking the kids up from school, deadlines, shifts that simply can’t get covered or swapped. But what irks me is when I know deep down I could be living more freely if I only managed my time differently. So I reached out to a time management expert to find out how to organize my life better to squeeze in more adventure. Laura Vanderkam is the author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done and the upcoming Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities. She blogs and hosts a podcast on time management and productivity. Here’s her advice—which applies for both nine-to-five workers and freelance folks.
Change the Way You Talk About Your Time
“When people say ‘I don’t have time,’ what they really mean is ‘It’s not a priority,’” Vanderkam says. Of course, you may have good reasons why more adventure might not be your top priority. “If you’ve got a brand-new baby, taking a two-week hiking trip in Nepal might not be top on your list,” she says. But by choosing to say “It’s not a priority right now” instead of “I don’t have time,” you’re reminding yourself that you are in control of how to spend your time. It’s an empowering first step toward managing your time the way you want.
Make Your Downtime a Priority Just Like You Make Your Work a Priority
If you want to make free time a higher priority, whether it’s for a quick evening outing or a weeklong trip, treat it like the other important things in your life. “I think that ‘something’—work, personal obligations—always has a tendency to crowd out what is perceived as ‘nothing,’ like downtime and time for personally pleasurable activities,” Vanderkam explains. How to counter that? Turn your “nothings” into “somethings,” she says. Make commitments like joining a running club or rock climbing group. It turns fun into a specific item on your schedule, and having an obligation to other people holds you accountable.
Use Your Calendar More Than You Do Now
Even without blocking out a two-week chunk for a big trip, there are ways most of us can eke out more time for ourselves by being more efficient, Vanderkam says. “Decide each day, before you end work, what are your top three to five priorities for the next day,” she says, and place those items on your schedule. That specific planning can be the difference between working late and getting out in time for an evening hike. “If you’re a freelancer, you might consciously block out open days in your schedule and not give these times away when people ask. I’ve carved out a few open fall days to go on leaf-peeping tours.”
Become a Morning Person
“For most people, mornings are the best time for adding in things to your life that you’re not doing right now,” Vanderkam says. For example, if you want to work out more, getting up earlier a few times per week will help you fit it in. But resist the urge to pencil it in every single day; fitting it into realistic windows will help you stick to it. “Honestly, things don’t have to happen daily in order to count in our lives,” she says.
If Your Work Is Flexible or Freelance, Untether Yourself
Don’t be afraid to do a little work on your vacation if it means you can take a vacation you otherwise wouldn’t. “Maybe half an hour in the morning a few times per week is enough to make you feel on top of things but will allow you to travel and take advantage of the flexibility that comes from self-employment,” Vanderkam says. Sure, there are times when it’s important to totally unplug. But using any flexibility allowed to you can go a long way. “For freelancers, your phone and laptop can truly be your friends,” she says. “Sometimes they feel like handcuffs, but we can change this perception. If you can work from anywhere, why not try it?”
When It Comes to Taking Time Off, Done Is Better Than Perfect
“Most things matter less than we think they do,” Vanderkam says. “Can you remember what you were doing on today’s date two years ago?” It’s a good reminder, she says, that whatever is stressing you out right now most likely won’t matter much in two years. There will never be the perfect time to go for that hike or take a few days off. So stop looking for the perfect time, and instead just choose a reasonable one. “The reality is that for the vast majority of us, Earth will not stop orbiting the sun if we go on that vacation,” Vanderkam says. “We are just not that important.”