I’ve had a lot of dreams in my life. Big dreams. Exciting dreams. Life changing dreams. Sadly, most of them never came to life – not because I didn’t have the ability or resources, but because I put them off for some mythical day in the future “when I have some extra time”. But there was always something more “urgent” as the days and months and years passed me by. Looking back, I couldn’t even tell you what most of those urgent things were because in the long run, they weren’t very important. But I could tell you all about the dreams and missed opportunities.
I suspect I’m not alone. I’ve met a lot of people who tell me they’ve always wanted to (fill in the blank – write a book, start a business, pursue a different career path, get into shape, improve their relationships, deepen their spiritual practice, etc…), but they just don’t have the time right now. They’ll get around to it someday (when they retire, when the kids go off to college, when they win the lottery, etc…).
The fact is, there will never be a point in your life when you have more time than you do today. There will always be more demands on your time and energy than you can possibly handle. There will never be a perfect time to go after that vision you’re holding of a better life or a better you.
One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned (and actually put into practice) over the past few years is that if I want to create something different in my life, I have to make the time. I have to be intentional. I have to deliberately create the space in my life, and then guard it with the ferociousness of a mama grizzly bear.
I’m not kidding about the last part, either. There’s always something or someone trying to sneak its way into the time I’ve set aside. It’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
In my last post, I wrote about identifying your dream or goal –your North Star. This is the critical first step in creating something extraordinary in your life, but by itself, it won’t get you very far. Excellence and success in any endeavor or area of life require an investment of time and energy.
Finding that time means taking a hard look at the ways you currently spend your time, clarifying your true priorities (and separating them from the priorities other people or society would like to impose on you), and looking for activities you can prune or drop altogether to create the space your goal requires.
Over the past year as I launched my coaching business, I realized I was going to have to create space if I was going to have any chance of success. I couldn’t just squeeze it into my ‘spare time’. And if I wanted to blog and write books and give talks, I was going to have to let go of some things.
The process isn’t easy. It can involve some tough choices. It can involve being brutally honest with ourselves about why we do the things we do. It can require courage and/or discipline.
So how do we create the time and space in our life that our dreams require?
Step 1. Decide to make your dream or goal a priority.
This step is possibly the most critical. Without making a conscious decision to prioritize your dream, you’ll constantly be at the mercy of distractions and other people’s priorities. Until you decide deep within your heart and soul that your dream is important and you are willing to do whatever it takes to make it come to life, there will always be something else more urgent or more compelling to snatch away the snippets of time you were thinking that maybe, possibly, you might be able to use toward building your dream.
It’s no accident that two of the first three microresolutions in my Excellence Experiment involve creating dedicated space and time for writing/studying and personal care. And putting those microresolutions out there to the world through my blog creates accountability. I’m fully committing to making the time to take the actions I need to take to transform my life.
Wishy-washy won’t cut it. Maybe, possibly, someday, won’t cut it. In the words of the great sage Yoda, “Do or do not, there is no try.”
Step 2: Block off the time on your calendar
The more specific you are about when you’ll dedicate time to work on your goal or dream, the more likely you’ll be to actually follow through. When you start with a vague intention, it’s easy to procrastinate, and eventually you run out of time.
I spent about eight months talking about starting my blog. Every week, I would add ‘draft first blog post’ to my voluminous to-do list, and promise myself I would find some time. And every Sunday, I would face the reality that I hadn’t even written one sentence, so I would roll it over to the next week’s list. Between March and October, I had written one partial article. In November, I was super-ambitious and set a goal to write 12 posts so I would have a stockpile when I launched my blog! I figured that with the Thanksgiving break, I would have plenty of time!
I think I did actually get one full post written in November, and two more in December after my blog went live and the pressure to publish began to hit. But leaving time for writing to chance wasn’t going to cut it, and hoping I’d get all my other projects done early in the week so I could have large chunks of creative time available on the weekend wasn’t panning out. So I decided to break up the time I needed into smaller pieces, and turn writing into a daily habit. Now, working on my blog for an hour is usually the first thing I do each morning. It has a non-negotiable place in my schedule. And it’s working.
So think about what action you need to take to move your dream forward, and find a place for it on your schedule. Take that commitment as seriously as you would take a commitment to your boss or your family and friends.
Step 3. Inventory Your Current Schedule and Commitments; Prune Ruthlessly
The topic of managing an overstuffed schedule deserves several posts of its own (and they’re being planned!). But for now, start by making a list of all of the predictable commitments that are on your daily/weekly/monthly schedule – work or school, groups you belong to or where you hold leadership roles, activities of life (shopping, etc…), exercise, hobbies, etc…. Then take a careful look at each activity individually. Does it fill your energy tank or drain you? Is it something you look forward to, dread, or have neutral feelings toward?
Now, focus on the draining or neutral items on your list. Think about why they are on your list. Are they really mission-critical in your life? According to who?
Some less-than-thrilling activities may indeed be necessary, like your current job, at least for now. But you may find other activities, like groups or hobbies, that brought you joy at one time, but whose season has passed. You may find roles or commitments that were taken on to please someone else, or meet some sort of external expectation. Think carefully about the value of these activities in your life right now – how important are they compared with your North Star dream?
Over the last year, as I looked for ways to create time for my new life, I discovered I was involved in a lot of groups that no longer served me. They weren’t bad groups or bad people – in fact, most were fun or served a positive purpose when I first joined them. But they didn’t fit where I was at in my life now. So I started to prune.
Dropping them wasn’t always easy. I have a kind of warped sense of loyalty and I hate to let other people down. But by continuing to spend time on activities that left me feeling empty, or annoyed because they were taking time away from building the life I wanted, I was letting myself down. And to be honest, when I stepped away from those groups, they either went on fine without me, or if they fell apart, it was because no one else really cared enough to keep them going either.
Another place to examine to reclaim some time is empty time fillers – social media, funny animal videos on YouTube, marathons of Netflix or Hulu, games on your phone, etc… None of these are intrinsically bad, and in moderation, they can be relaxing or informative. But the average American spends more than a moderate amount of time on them (guilty as charged – I’ve lost entire weekends to Netflix binges). Imagine how much progress you could make if you cut back in this area. Be conscious of how you spend your time – the next time you’re tempted to check your email for the umpteenth time, or flick on the TV, ask yourself if it’s really worth sacrificing your dream.
Step 4. Protect the Time You’ve Dedicated to Your Dream
This is where you need to channel your inner grizzly bear, because the time you set aside will constantly be under attack. You have to be vigilant. You have to learn to respectfully say “no”. Treat that space on your schedule as sacred – like a doctor’s appointment that you’ll have to pay for no matter why you cancel, or a lunch date with your closest friend.
If possible, make your dream-building activity the first thing you do each day, or the first thing you do when you come home from work. Fight the urge to put it off until later. Make it one of your non-negotiables on your daily to-do list, the thing that has to get done even if everything else falls by the wayside.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying creating the time you need to build your new business or write the Great American Novel or research your dream career is going to be easy. But you don’t have to create all the time you’ll need all at once. Remember the principles of kaizen. Start with 5 minutes a day if that’s all you can fit at first – but start. Reserve that time and take action consistently, no matter what. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel when you begin to honor your commitment to yourself.