My writing life, and our only true zero-sum resource

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My favorite line from Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which I read this weekend.  I think you could say that a central task of adulthood for me has been stripping away whatever is unnecessary so that I can be sure to be present for the small and the daily, which is where I find life.

On my post marking nine years of blogging (O.M.G.) I asked if there were specific things people wanted to hear about.  More than one person asked a version of how do I balance it, how do I make time for writing, how do I juggle the various responsibilities that are a part of my life.  And then, about a month ago, a reader and friend wrote me an email with some more questions about making time for writing and it felt right to answer these queries in a post.

I’ve written about time before.  It’s one of the themes I circle around, like a black hole, drawn inexorably into its orbit.  I believe firmly that time is life’s only true zero-sum resource.  My life is replete with both joys and responsibilities.  I work full time.  I have limited childcare because I want to be Grace and Whit’s primary caretaker.  I don’t have a lot of help with household tasks and I am responsible for most domestic chores.  I keep a pad of paper on my desk, between my two computers (I have a laptop for work and a laptop for personal things, on which I do my writing and my blogging).  On that pad of paper is a running to-do list for household/life things, and I fill the page every couple of days.  I’m looking at it right now, and it says: UPS store, laundry, Whole Foods, Grace Thanksgiving food contribution, birthday card to Alexandra, post office, dry cleaner, order holiday gifts for godchildren, send book to Gloria.

One thing I know for sure is everybody feels busy.  No matter what our lives consist of, they all feel full.  And this feeling is all that matters.  I don’t participate in the societal glorification of busy that I see all around me, and I refuse to compare my life to anyone else’s.  That is just irrrelevant.  As I tell Grace all the time: run your own race.  That’s all any of us can do.

So how do I do it?  When do I make time for writing?  What does my life look like?  I wish I had good, clear answers here, but I don’t.

All I know is this: I have prioritized what matters to me.  I’ve made choices.  I’ve let a lot of things go. 

Once you know what you prize above all else, then how to allocate your time becomes radically clear.  I’ve stripped away almost all claims on my hours other than those belonging to work, family, and writing.  Because time is zero sum, things had to go.  I have many dear friends I very rarely (never) see.  We are often not invited to social events anymore, maybe because I said no several times and maybe because I’m boring.  I’m not on non-profit boards and I rarely go to adult events in the evenings or weekends. That time is for Grace and Whit.  This, the idea that how we spend our time reflects what we value, is a theme I’ve touched on many times before.  We know from Annie Dillard that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend your lives.” Your week is a map of matters to you.  I am deeply comfortable with my map.

I am an extremely structured person so many have been surprised that I have a fluid approach to work/life/writing balance.  I actually dislike the word “balance.”  Maybe it feels better to say that I have a fluid approach to integrating the various essential parts of my life.  I used to write after the children went to bed, but Grace and Whit stay up later now and that doesn’t work anymore.  I also find I am absolutely fried by the end of the day.

So on an average day, I wake up early – 5, 5:30.  Maybe 4 days a week I will go out for a run at that point.  I like being up before most of the rest of the world and find the dark and quiet very soothing.  When I get home, I have my first cup of coffee (this is one of my very favorite moments of the entire day) and take a shower.  Sometimes I still have half an hour before Grace and Whit get up, and I’ll use that time to clear out my work and personal email and to skim the blogs I read daily.

Then it’s up and at ’em.  I wake the children up, make breakfast for them, and take them to school.  I try to leave my phone in my bag during this hour, because I’ve found that I’m materially more present and relaxed with them when I do that.  We live less than a mile from school and could easily walk, but we usually drive because I’d rather they slept the extra 10 minutes in the morning. By 8 I’m at my desk and starting my work day.

While my office is in my house, about 3 or 4 days a week I have to go into Boston or elsewhere for meetings for work.  Most of my days, Monday to Friday, are composed of work.  Occasionally, if I have a 30 minute break in my schedule, I’ll read blogs or check twitter or, even, sometimes, write a quick blog post.

This is true answer to the question of when I write: around the edges of the rest of my life.

There’s no doubt that working at home is essential to my life operating as it does.  Despite the fact that I work a lot of hours, I have a lot of flexibility and I’m hugely grateful for that.  I have wonderful babysitters who pick the children up from school during the week and bring them home, but I’m also around most of the time.  Parenting children of this age feels less outsource-able than any other time before.  I don’t know when it is that they’ll want to talk, and I want to be sure I’m here when they do.  So I put that desire above almost all else.

Most days I take a break from the work computer around 6 to have dinner with Grace and Whit (usually something easy that I put into the oven earlier in the day).  Our babysitters have usually left by then.  After dinner I’ll do another hour or so of work while Grace and Whit are showering and finishing homework or simply puttering.  Many days we have to fit a practice in here too, so I drive several children to the hockey rink or make sure mine are ready to be picked up by a carpool.  My favorite days are the ones where we don’t have practice and life has a slightly slower rhythm.

I spend time with both children before bed, often quietly.  Sometimes we all pile into our bed to read books together.  Sometimes I read Harry Potter or The Golden Compass to one child.  Sometimes we talk about a math problem that is particularly thorny.  Sometimes we discuss what happened that day at school.  In between time with Grace and Whit I’ll check blogs or twitter again, and my email a last time.  I try to have all screens shut down and put away by 9 and that has made a difference in my sleep.  I read 30-45 minutes of an old-fashioned paper book in bed before I go to sleep.

My days tumble by at alarming speed, and many of them have a similar shape.  There is a lot of work, some domestic chores and responsibilities, and time for simply being around my two children.  Matt travels for work and is here some of the time but not all.  As you can see, there isn’t a ton of time for prolonged, focused writing.  I try to spend a couple of hours during the weekend doing that, and I’ve been known to sit at the hockey rink with my computer during a weeknight practice.  But I haven’t written a book yet, that much is clear, and maybe this is part of the reason why.  Blog posts lend themselves to brief windows of time, but sustained narrative works don’t.

I have often exhorted people to stop hiding behind “I don’t have time” and to recognize that what they value they make time for.  If I believe that – and I do – I should own up to not prioritizing writing a book.  When I do work on longer form things (and I have, multiple times) I use Scrivener. I love this software for structuring a book-length work.  I write essays for places other than my blog in Microsoft Word.  I write my blog straight into WordPress.

This entry is long-winded and unstructured, but I think in that way it echoes the topic at hand.  My life, and the days that compose it, aren’t rigidly ordered, either.  I put my professional life and my family life at the top of my priority list (those are the rocks in the jar of my life) and writing and reading come next (the sand that fills in the gaps between the rocks in the jar, to continue that metaphor).

Of course I feel sorrow sometimes at the things I haven’t done and those I don’t do on a regular basis.  I wish I had more time for yoga, more time for my friends, a published book under my belt.  But when I look hard in the mirror, my choices hold up to scrutiny (my own, that is – and nobody else’s matters, does it?).  On the surface, my life may look small, but what I have realized is that tight focus on what I truly value allows me to access a deep, glittering cavern insideMy life is simultaneously narrow and wide.  I don’t have any true regrets about what I prioritize in my life, and I feel comfortable that anyone can extrapolate from a description of my days what it is I most value.  Do you feel that way?


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15 Comments

  1. Posted November 23, 2015 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    I had this idea that after Austin left for university, I would fill my weeknights…or at the very least, my weekends…with writing & creative projects. And then the Universe brought Dan into my life, and he brought toddlers. 🙂 I’m finding that I have to take a second look at the structure of my weeks (especially the weeks that include the littles)….

    admin Reply:

    The particular demands on and joys in our hours change, all the time, don’t they? xoxo

  2. Posted November 23, 2015 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    This is so great Lindsey. I love the overall theme of prioritizing and either standing by those decisions or making a change. I stand by mine, too.

    admin Reply:

    Amen to that. xoxo

  3. Posted November 23, 2015 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    This is all so very, very true. A few years ago I changed my language from, “I don’t have time” to “I don’t prioritize” and it changed a lot. Unfortunately. this thinking hasn’t yet changed my actions but as least I know the truth. Right now, I have prioritized my volunteer time over my writing time and until that changes I have agreed to stop being so harsh with myself for not writing. Time is the only zero sum and I am thinking a lot about how to prioritize that time when my current volunteer commitments end. Thank you as always for getting my mind going this morning 🙂

    admin Reply:

    Thank YOU for reading. I am looking forward to our 14 day workshop together next month xox

  4. Nadine
    Posted November 23, 2015 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your approach to, life really. I love how writing fits in around the corners of your life, and honestly your posts are always so thoughtful it’s hard to believe that that’s how you write them.
    I don’t think my choices represent what matters most, yet. It’s a journey, stripping away the unnecessary. I’m getting there, and seeing how you do it is inspiring.

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much. It is definitely a journey. At least that’s true for me. xox

  5. Posted November 23, 2015 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    “Only one thing is clear: I have prioritized what matters to me. I’ve made choices. I’ve let a lot of things go.”

    Boom. There it is right there. That is the key. Time can be found, but one has to let other things go.

    To be honest, I know this but have not implemented it in my life yet. But I also don’t use “not enough time” as an excuse for not writing.

    I just need to get over that threshold and realize that writing is something I want to do and that the world does need my voice out there saying things only I can say (or something like that 🙂 )

    admin Reply:

    Boom indeed. Let me be one small voice saying YES, the world does need your voice! xox

  6. Kristen
    Posted November 23, 2015 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I love these words. As a newer mom (I have an 11 month old) that works full time, I am trying to figure out how to make it work. Sage advice about prioritizing what’s important. I needed this – thank you!

    admin Reply:

    Thank YOU. I’m so grateful to know that this rambling set of reflections resonated. xox

  7. Posted November 23, 2015 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Love this peek inside your life. Fluid approach…definitely yes, me too. I find that I also increasingly have fluid wants, which, for someone historically so rigid and methodical about so many things, is simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating. I think it took me too long to realize this way is OK, though some of it I was unable to see before having a daughter. Love that you also wrote you haven’t written a book “yet”–keep that window open, friend.

    admin Reply:

    Unnerving and exhiliarating at the same time. That could describe life itself, no? At least, as far as I’m concerned, the kind of life I want. So grateful to have met you on this path. xox

  8. Posted November 23, 2015 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I’m interested to read your well written interview of a working Mom that is you!
    It is wonderful to hear just how you do what everyone finds that they have to do to get on through the days in a focused way.
    For a whole year I had this quote on my wallpaper:

    “Time is a created thing. To say I don’t have time is like saying I don’t want to.”
    Lao Tzu

    admin Reply:

    Oh, I had not heard that Lao Tzu quote. So perfect! So true! xox

  9. Amy
    Posted November 23, 2015 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    This is so great. I’m really struggling right now with having it all. Working 60 + hours a week, and parenting two babies (both under the age of 26 months) has been exhausting and I am constantly saying no. I realize that most of the things I say no to really don’t matter and many of the things that are exhausting me (holiday cards, outfits for the boys for visiting Santa) really are not the things that I care about. I’d much prefer to have an hour at the park with the boys than an hour shopping at a store trying to find clothes for them 🙂 Thanks for a great post!

    admin Reply:

    You are IN THE WEEDS right now, there’s no question about it. Keep your eye on what matters to you, which is so hard to do in a world so full of opinions (at least that has always been my experience). xox

  10. Posted November 23, 2015 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Such a generous, thoughtful glimpse into your life — which I so appreciated reading. It brings back many memories for me, especially your phrase about your life being both narrow and wide. You will never regret these choices and I love how secure you are in them right now, as you live them. No FOMO here! The surprise is how radically all this will change when your children leave home, and you once again must make choices, which become challenging in a different way. You aren’t pulled to spend time with the kids anymore, but you have a much clearer sense that your own time on earth is limited, that the there is an end point and a deep yearning to use your allocation of days thoughtfully. Thank you for sharing your map and your path!

    admin Reply:

    This comment makes me cry. Thank you – you always, always make me feel seen, heard, known. Yes. No FOMO indeed. I have many concerns and anxieties, but not that one! I could use a little MORE FOMO, I sometimes say. xoxox

  11. Posted November 23, 2015 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Did you get a chance to see this Atlantic piece:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/work-life-balance/414672/

    We often struggle with achieving “balance” when it turns out what we really need is for the bucket labelled “work” to be less full.

    admin Reply:

    Yes, that is really true. I keep telling myself better too full than too empty. xo

  12. Posted November 23, 2015 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Oh my dear, thank you! I really needed this. Lately I have been stumbling toward this, but I am always attracted to the bright shiny glittery objects. I just adore these words on how to stay the course. Your wise words will be hanging on my fridge.

    admin Reply:

    The image of bright shiny glittery objects really moves me. xox

  13. Vani
    Posted November 24, 2015 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Dear Lindsey

    I so agree with you. I do prioratize mine too and I am very happy with that. Of course there are days I wish I have more of this or that but overall I believe that it is in my control on what should I do and I take the responsibility.

    Vani

  14. Posted November 24, 2015 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I don’t care for the word “balance”, either. Though I’m constantly searching for it. I love this peek into your life and “how you do it”. I’m one of those people who annoy you by saying I don’t have time. What I mean to say is that my time-management is off and I haven’t prioritized. (Sorry, this keeps making me think of Ron in Harry Potter “She needs to sort out her priorities.”) Bottom line is that we must make choices and “let a lot of things go”. Thanks for sharing, as always.

  15. Posted November 24, 2015 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Yes, I absolutely feel this way. I agree so much that we make time for whatever we feel is important. For me, that’s my family first, no matter what, and then composing life + full-time work outside the home. I read a lot because it’s the way I stay sane. I see my friends once in awhile. It’s a full, quiet life, and I’m grateful every day I can make these choices, even though they are sometimes hard.

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