K.J. Dell’Antonia has plenty going on in her life. As a columnist and contributing editor for the Well Family section at the New York Times, she manages other contributors and near constant content. She has four children who play competitive hockey. This involves copious weekend travel, time at ice rinks, and time in ice rink parking lots. “I’ve done more source interviews from rink parking lots than I can count,” she says.
Yet Dell’Antonia refuses to answer queries about how life is going with the word “busy.” She refuses to feel busy. “I’m just not going to let that be the way I see our life,” she tells Fast Company. She likes to feel calm, and that where she is now is where she is supposed to be.
This is not a common mind-set among people like Dell’Antonia. Every year, Gallup asks Americans about time stress. Not surprisingly, people with jobs are more likely to say they lack the time for the things they want to do (61%) versus retirees and others who are not working (32%). Likewise, people with children at home feel more time stress (61%) than people without kids (42%).
Yet about four in 10 people who are working, or who do have kids, say they have enough time for the things they want to do. Here are their strategies for feeling like they have all the time in the world.
Damon Brown launched two startups (and saw one, Cuddlr, acquired) the year that he was also the primary caregiver for his infant son. “The first step is to understand that everything that has to get done will absolutely get done,” says Brown, who is the author of The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur book series. “We get into trouble when we make everything in life a priority.”
Every day he asks himself what three things he wants to do to advance toward his goals. Winnowing down his priorities allows him to focus, which helps get those three priorities completed relatively quickly. “It also helps me calm down and look at everything done beyond that as icing on the cake,” he says. “In fact, it usually calms me down enough to breeze through the bonus priorities, too.”
People sometimes invite time stress into their lives, says Jeff Kavanaugh, senior partner at Infosys Consulting, and an adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, whose career has involved advising many busy executives. “They treat their time as an open-ended invitation to commitments,” he explains, “drawn in by their desire to please people or the fear of missing out, and downplay their capacity limit until the commitments–and the stress–stack up.”
Learn to embrace a paradox: Time is precious and plentiful. To have as much time as you need for the things you want, you need to be ruthless about not filling time with things you don’t care about.
Abbie Duenckel embraces this philosophy. She works two part-time jobs, and is the primary caregiver of her 2-year-old. Yet she feels relaxed about time in part because she savors the free time she has. Most nights, “between 9 p.m. and usually midnight, I do what I want to do.” Many people fill this time with social media. Not Duenckel. “I would rather save my time for face-to-face relationships or phone chats,” she says. She also takes long baths.
If you want to feel like you have all the time in the world, try not turning on the TV, phone, or computer some night. See how slowly the time passes if you just go outside to stare at the stars.
Dell’Antonia says she used to be late frequently, which meant she was always rushing. She kicked the habit by learning to count backward from when she had to be somewhere, and accurately estimating how long each step would take. (Pro tip: Getting in the car with four kids takes longer than 15 seconds.)
She also learned “not to try to fit in that one last thing–the ‘I’ll just empty the dishwasher before we go’ syndrome.” The payoff has been incredible. “I love being on time–no, I love being early,” she says. “I love knowing that we have time to stop for gas. I love looking at the car clock and not desperately calculating whether we can get there in six minutes and whether the clock is maybe a minute fast,” Dell’Antonia enthuses. “It just gives you this big open feeling of calm.”
Jeff Heath runs Matrix Applied Technologies, which manufactures and sells equipment that’s installed on large oil and petrochemical storage tanks. This line of work has him traveling frequently from his Tulsa home to a manufacturing facility near Seoul and a regional office near Sydney. He spent 90 of the first 270 nights of this year on the road.
He maintains his productivity, and his marriage, with a simple strategy: “It sounds trite, but I really try to be present with whatever I’m doing,” he says. “With my job, the work is like liquid and will expand to fill the available space if I let it. There is always more to do than can be done.” And so, he says, “I’ve had to make a conscious choice ‘not to work,’ which is hard for a workaholic. But it’s been an improvement in my life, to say the least.”
Heath tracks his time hour by hour so he can be accountable for it. When he’s on the road, his time logs show he can work 70 hours a week, but during weeks at home it might be 30 hours as he focuses on his wife and children.
We can choose how we think about our time. Talking about how crazed and busy we feel can reinforce the feeling that time is scarce, but to what end? Says Duenckel: “Everyone is stressed. Everyone is busy, and there is no point competing because that is silly, and we never really gain anything anyway.”
Rather than complain about time spent driving to hockey games, Dell’Antonia not only takes the broad view (she is grateful for four active, healthy children), she chooses to appreciate small perks, too. “It comes with lots of joys,” she explains. “Spending time with other parents whose views can expand mine, long in-the-car talks with kids, time to listen to podcasts, the chance to explore new small towns around us–and, of course, new parking lots. I choose to appreciate it.”
Some days are just not going to be productive. And that is okay. A calm, effective life is built over the long haul. Brown gives himself “minimal viable days” when he’s not feeling it. A play on the “minimal viable product” concept, this means he only does what absolutely has to happen. “After a minimal day, I am proverbially jumping out of my seat ready to get things done,” he says.
Letting it go also means recognizing that much stuff that causes time stress doesn’t matter. Duenckel has realized that with a 2-year-old, “there’s no point in picking toys up over and over again all day long.” Better to let them sit on the floor and enjoy the time with her daughter instead. More broadly, in life, she understands, “I cannot do it all. I am not expected to do it all, and the world does not depend on me to do it all.”
Bottom line: If you don’t take yourself too seriously, it’s easy to feel like you have all the time in the world.