How to Have Time For a Life
Posted on November 16, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 19 Comments
On Twitter this morning, the following tweet:
I looked at the tweet and realized that, in fact, I am an adult who mostly manages to do all of those thing (that is, when the cats don’t wake me up at 3am to show me their butts and then I can’t get back to sleep). It made me curious as to what factors allow me to do all of them.
And I have answers! One of them is very general, and the others are specific to me. I answered the very general one in a tweet as well:
The reason that money can increase your bandwidth is that it can let you buy solutions to time-sucking activities. This often in the form of people you pay to do things, but also in the form of goods and services that let you spend less time doing things you don’t want to do (which then leaves time for the things you do want to do). Money also lets you do things like live in nice neighborhoods with fancy stores that have organic meats and produce, go to the gyms with trainers, have decent healthcare, enjoy the wherewithal for hobbies, etc. Money solves problems, and problems take time, so: money makes time.
Sometimes. As noted in the tweet, to make money one often has to be the sort of personality that overcommits to work and/or have the sort of job one never actually gets to leave even when one is not “at work,” so the mere presence of money in one’s life does not mean that one will automatically have any of those six goals enumerated above. Money can solve problems, but the pursuit of money itself creates its own problems, and the latter can swamp money’s ability to deal with the former. Welcome to the capitalist system.
So that’s the general answer. Specific to me, here are some of the things that allow me to hit all six of those goals:
1. I am well off. See above for what that allows. Also, I am fortunate that I neither have the sort of personality that makes a pleasure of the pursuit of money (I like making money, and recognize the necessity of it in our system, but the act of making is not in itself a dopamine rush for me), nor do I have a job that requires time penalties to make money. Speaking of which:
2. I have a creative job with no set hours that lets me work from home (or anywhere else). I have to produce roughly a novel a year. Once I do that I have other responsibilities relating to the production and promotion of the novel, which take up time but also leave stretches of time unoccupied. The novels can be (and largely are) written at home, which means time usually given over to commutes and presence at a workplace (not to mention things like meetings, client maintenance, etc) are not a factor for me. Which means I can sleep in! And, also, schedule time for exercise. Additionally, the work is portable, so if I do travel, I can theoretically at least take the work with me.
3. I’m an introvert who socializes online and/or whose social life often dovetails with work. Being an introvert means that my need for socializing is less than it might be for other people, and means having social interactions via social media, texting, etc actually works for me a lot of the time. Also, a lot of my “real world” socializing happens at things like science fiction conventions, book fairs/festivals or when I’m on a book tour, which is nice because a) in the case of conventions and festivals, there are other publishing pros (writers, editors, etc, and also members of SF/F fandom) who I like who are also there and happy to hang out, b) on tour I see friends in their hometowns. This makes social activities both schedulable and pleasant. Also, you know. On a daily basis I see my wife, whose company I like, and my daughter is nearby too, and I also like her a lot.
4. My hobbies dovetail into my life rather than require space to be made for them. My current hobbies are photography, music and writing. All of them work pretty well with my work/life flow — photography I can do opportunistically as I travel or do other things, music I get to incorporate with my social activities (for example, I now frequently DJ dances at science fiction conventions), and as for writing… well, hello. Thank you for reading my hobby. (I don’t count reading as a hobby; for me that’s like saying breathing is a hobby.) There is nothing wrong, and much right, about time-intensive hobbies like, say, bird-watching or mountain climbing or community theater. But I don’t do those. The hobbies I do have are, for me, low-impact/high-reward, timewise.
5. I have a spouse who handles a bunch of stuff. To be clear, I can, and do, do things about the house (I am at home, after all). Also to be clear, the amount she does is not strictly tied into the amount I don’t do — she has her own plans for things that are independent of anything I want/need/desire. But the side effect of that is I don’t have to do a lot of things relating to household upkeep and maintenance. I’m also not going to pretend that, with regard to the work I do, the division is equitable; Krissy does more. I asked her just now if she thought that was an artifact of our personalities, or just garden variety sexism; she said probably both. More specifically, she said “I don’t think you are a sexist, but I think we both sort of fall into some of society’s expectations.” Which was kind of her, to blame the system and not me personally.
6. I’m 50. Which means a lot of set-up for those goals is already in my rear-view mirror, and I’m currently getting the benefit of those set-up exercises. There were times, mostly in my 20s, where I was not close to hitting all of those goals — my social life was a dead zone from when I left college to when I met Krissy, and when I was working at AOL in the 90s, the job sucked all the hours, because the tech ethos of “we put food and a laundry in the building so you never have to leave” is not a new invention. It all paid off, which is nice for me.
7. I’m healthy. Mentally and, aside from a temporary case of tendonitis, physically. This is not a value judgment; I’m not a better or more virtuous person for being healthy. It’s recognition that health issues burn lots of hours (and in the US at least, lots of money), and can make it more difficult to achieve those goals.
Add all of this up, and there are two conclusions: One, it is possible for someone to achieve all six of those goals; Two, that to be that someone, it helps to have specific conditions to one’s life.
(Additionally, inasmuch as the sleep goal is one I only intermittently hit, it helps not to have cats waking your ass up at 3am. I did bring the cats into my home, so that’s on me, however.)
I don’t think you have to have my life to achieve all of these goals, mind you, especially if you combine factors. If you’re someone who loves to cook, for example, you can hit three of these with one stone: Throw a dinner party and you get to work on your hobby, socialize and (depending on the menu) eat healthy. If you live somewhere you can bike to work, there’s your daily exercise. And so on. But there are conditions to one’s life which are beneficial to realize those goals.
I do think it’s harder for younger people to get all of these goals lined up. Partly because being younger means having to work crappier jobs that require more from you, and that’s been true in most eras, but in this era in particular, in which jobs are more temporary and are stagnant in wages, and younger people’s debt loads are significantly higher, it’s more of a challenge. Obviously, they’re aware of this inequity, and equally obviously, it’s not fair.
It would be nice to live in a world where all of these goals were more achievable for more people, and more achievable without the time solvent of money. Such a world is possible! We’re not there yet, however. Hopefully activism toward that goal will be more people’s hobby, and they will find a way to make time for it.
Relatedly, people might be interested in an interview John kindly did with me a while back on his time management. https://www.hillaryrettig.com/2015/06/01/exclusive-john-scalzis-time-management-and-career-tips/
Health is a huge factor here. There is my life before my autoimmune system started trying to destroy my joints, and my life after it decided this would be a fun activity. The difference in my energy levels is tremendous, and not accounted for simply by age.
Fortunately, I spent the years Before setting up my life as you’ve noted is possible, to clear a lot of those difficulties out of the way. I don’t make bestselling novelist money, but I have advanced in my career to a good salary with superior bennies in a stable job. This does mean my job gets the bulk of my limited energy (so I don’t lose that income/bennies).
But I look at my established full-time freelancer/writer friends and I envy them their time flexibility. But the best I can arrange is to work from home sometimes, which is HUGE. Not losing 2 hours of my morning to getting dressed and commuting makes me much more productive. And I can take an afternoon nap.
> when the cats don’t wake me up at 3am to show me their butts
Have you discovered what cats really want when they do that? They’re not so much visual. In my experience, a puff of air simuating a sincerely interested butt-sniff seems to make their little hindbrains happy so they can go away.
This is the first to forward your blog to my daughter. I’d like her to read about somebody who’s successful and really has a good grip on their life. Versus me who screwed up their life. And is dealing with a plethora of health issues. not everybody can be as talented as me and get 7 concussions in a 18-month time frame. Not looking for sympathy here. I accept this is what has happened to me. And that I had a hand in my physical ailments. This is what I get for Slam Dancing my way through the 80s.
And cats man, they are just disturbers of sleep. I swear to God they want nothing more than to see you miserable because you haven’t gotten enough sleep. And then crawl up into your lap when you doze off from exhaustion.
Well, John, as an introvert myself, I’m surprised to hear you call yourself one; in that case, you must be the least shy introvert I ever met (at a branch of Olsson’s Books in DC, now defunct, where you read what became “Judge Sn Goes Golfing”).
I’m lucky enough to work 100% from home, at a very stable job with good benefits and flexible hours, but I have that privilege because I commuted there for 20+ years first, and also because it’s become technologically feasible to do so only in the past 5-6 years. (I do still participate remotely in meetings with colleagues.) I hope that such arrangements will free more and more non-self-employed people from commuting.
Probably a sign of age, but I think the rest are only possible if you hit the big 3- move, eat, sleep. I move first thing in the morning, I eat the same thing twice a day and plan out the third on a weekly basis (helps that I have a high tolerance for some foods), and I only need 7 hours of sleep. With getting up early and moving, I am pretty done about the time I should go to sleep, so it works. The career takes up more than it should, but worth it, I love my job. Social and hobbies are hardest, but I have some mixing with friends at the gym and at work, and most of my friends are in the same busy place, so we plan catchup calls, and schedule real meetings months in advance. Hobbies are reading and movies, so I stopped driving to work so I could read on the train, and I usually see a movie a week, which can mix with social, so that works.
First time commenter.
And I think time management is easier with one child to raise to adulthood. I had two — I thought “double the work” but it was more like quadruple. But, like you, I hit the jackpot in a spouse who shouldered a burden (in this case the monetary one) so I could work my passion (teaching Swedish) at a job with no bennies. Still, the $30/hour wage allows me to time manage in ordering out instead of making food (not the greatest cook) and my social life is with my students at work. So lots of time for necessary reading and also I do let the housework slide whenever I feel too tired for it.
You seem to be holding a grudge against cats who wake you at 3 am to have you look at their butts. Has this been happening a lot?
Perhaps you both should seek counseling?
Health and a caring, helpful partner definitely make a huge difference. In my case, chronic illness and not having anyone to share the household work and expenses with are huge factors in not having time or energy for exercise (though PT is forcing me to be better about that) and socializing. .If I could afford to work 1/2 time, my life would be greatly improved on all other accounts.
When I had cats, the bedroom was off-limits to them. Sleep with the bedroom door closed and voila! no middle-of-the-night awakenings by cats.
How to have it all?
It also helps that your daughter is older, too. My kids are younger and it’s harder for me to have all of these things because a lot of my time is spent making sure they are taken care of. That’s totally fine, and I’m happy to do it because I know, someday, they’ll be older and won’t need me as much, and then I’ll miss them. But it does make getting those 8 hours of sleep and socialization hard to get!
I’m retired now after 35+ years as an engineer so its no longer an issue but I also found it reasonably straightforward before I retired. I don’t know if this was just me or if it is generally true but I never worked as hard or as long hours as my friends but I can’t see that my career suffered much if at all. The key was to decide which parts of the job had to be done and which didn’t. If it didn’t have to be done and I would have to stay late to do it, I just didn’t do it. At the end of the project, I had done everything that really needed doing, the project was successful and I had worked 40 hours a week while everyone around me was working 50-60. (I should add that there were occasions near deadlines that I had to work extra hours to get things done but even then I put in 50 hours when the rest of the team was working 70 or 80.) To be honest, I kind of wondered what they were doing all that time. (Obviously this only works if you are in a profession where you don’t have to work strict hours.)
Relatedly, there was a company in the news recently that went to a 30 hour work week, cut off all social media at work, eliminated most meetings, drastically cut back on email use and found that the amount of work that actually got done didn’t suffer.
@gottacook: John wrote a blog post about his introversion, and the contrast between that & how he comes across in his public appearances: Portrait of a Closet Introvert
Bike to work is a big part of it for me. One of the (few) upsides to renting is being able to move so I live the right distance from work. Flip side is that renting again reminds me how much I like living in my own house.
I’ve been fortunate in my life that “time management” has mostly consisted of not over-committing to things I want to do outside work. But there’s also a lot of virtuous circles, only some of which are specific to Aotearoa/Australia – biking to work means I can buy groceries on the way home and our farmers markets/greengrocers tend yo be quite accessible to cyclists and pedestrians, landcare/rivercare/community gardens are social, get me outside *and* often provide cheap healthy food (the people who weed and clean communal spaces often have vege gardens). Carrer wise I got lucky, being a geeky boy in the 1980’s mean there were decent jobs that pay stupid money, even for antisocial types like me.
These days those jobs seem to involve social networks more than actual skills, which I suspect is why the companies who don’t do that are able to pick exactly the people they want (google and microsoft most notoriously.. offer double the going salary and filter *hard*).
Funny. Yesterday I read a column tangentially related to this, which argued that:
“Crucially, the problem here isn’t a lack of free time: research suggests we generally have more leisure than in the past. The issue is that we can’t coordinate it, so as to spend it fulfillingly with others – thanks partly to the decline of conventions and institutions that used to organise time on our behalf, including the traditional nine-to-five job. Ironically, this is true even for people who do have control over their schedules.”
@Buzz79 – You’re describing my approach to my engineering job. I like that my job has challenging problems that make me think, but the second I have enough money to retire you better believe I’m gone. Whereas many of my colleagues are the type who get fulfillment out of the engineering itself. Those are the ones who put in the extra time “unnecessarily”.
So since I’m working a reasonable number of hours a week I then look at the time saving tips shared by our host; use your money to hire people to do stuff you don’t want to do. Bi-weekly house cleaning, bi-weekly lawn maintenance, weekly pool maintenance. It lets me focus on the things I do enjoy, like cooking and baking. And then I have a lot of time for my hobbies, which are pretty exclusively tied to my house (as I am also quite the introvert).
There’s also how you spend your time. With the rise of social media, the plethoria of on-line activities, and the enormous amount of video available on-demand (everything from network TV to premium channels to sports to Netflx/Disney/Apple) it’s very easy to fall into a hole and not emerge, ignoring he resto of your life in favor of being entertained.
I remember people from high school who got so deep into reading genre fiction that it consumed their entire life, and left them no time for anything else (or a desire to do anything else, I suppose). I’m aware of people who effectively dedicate their life to watching TV (particularly a problem among retitrees; the average retiree watches well over 40 hours a week of TV, having traded a paid job for a volunteer one of watching TV). Add in all the possibilities than now exist and it’s like having gone from a 20s black and white silent movie into a current 4K HD CGI special effects extravanga.
Others have said this in various ways but I don’t think that the list is that hard. The problem is that people don’t really define what “do well in your career* and *maintain a good social life* means for themselves.
Is a good career working at a job you enjoy, making a good living and keeping pretty much a 40 hour week? Or is it being tops in your field and keynoting conferences?
Is having a good social life having 20 friends and going out several nights a week or having a core of friends and doing things with them regularly?
Is having hobbies have several and doing them all the time? Or have hobbies that you do when you want, even if that’s not every week?
I am not healthy.
I bike to my job; that’s exercise, even if I am slow.
My job is 9-5 with no expected overtime, this may be a rareity in tech, and it is nice. I don’t know if that ‘doing well in a career’ but it pays the mortgage which is what matters
One has to eat food, I make sure that the food that is available to eat is reasonably healthy food. It helps that my job has a canteen that serves decent food, and that I can afford to buy healthy food in shops.
I have to sleep, if I don’t I can’t manage to work, thus I must prioritise sleeping, it requires a force of will to put down the book and sleep, but I do, again it helps that I don’t need to work silly hours.
I keep up with friends online when I can’t manage to see them in person.
I have a few hours me-time a day; personally I read a lot, but other things would fit in that time.
I am sure it helps hugely that I have no kids.