prime time

brightly colored paper clocks

First, let me say … Happy New Year to you! I do hope your holidays were happy and that you are filled with hope and purpose as another year begins.

Leading up to the holidays this year, I’ve been thinking more than usual about time (and for me, “more than usual” is saying something, because I think about time a lot).  I’m tempted to divert from course here and interject some witty or pithy anecdotes about time as I see it; but I’m afraid that, by the time I finally finished my meanderings, I’ll have lost focus regarding what I really came here to say.

So let me get right to it.

My first book was released in print in May of 2015, and it was enjoying positive traction even early on. I was talking often with close friends, dreaming and scheming, plotting our individual courses and buzzing with the unlimited possibilities that lay on the horizon for all of us in various areas. The future was looking bright.

Prior to this, I’d been protective of my creative time, because I knew I’d need to be if I were going to accomplish on time all that goes into the monumental event of releasing a book, particularly one such as The Best Advice So Far, which was not primarily designed to be a point-of-sale item, but rather a precursor to live speaking engagements, a conversation starter – a way of life. I went to bed each night (or, rather, early morning) tuckered out, but happy.

I was investing time into meeting new and like-minded people regularly and cultivating those relationships, both live and through social media – building real connections with others equally passionate about their own quests for adding positivity to the world.

And, of course, I was exploring and experimenting daily with how best to let the world know about the book, the blog and the potential for change that the power of choice can bring. I created engaging media daily, posted often to social sites, and engaged in meaningful conversations with people the world over regarding their experiences with the book and blog.

But somewhere back about late June, something in me shifted. To this day, I can’t really say exactly why or pinpoint the specific details. It wasn’t one event and it didn’t happen overnight. But it happened nonetheless.

I began to be less diligent in guarding my time.

Leading up to that period of time, I’d been investing concerted energy and focus into finishing the book, and that milestone had been reached. Truly, there was never a time during the day when there was nothing left to do in that regard. But I’d succeeded. The book was finally out there. And, as I say, the initial groundswell was encouraging all around.

Maybe in the wake of it all, my system wasn’t used to having free time with no structured “next thing to do.”

Maybe I was just worn down and didn’t realize that my mental defenses were weakened, due to all of the positive energy swirling about.

But, whatever the reason, I began allowing other things to creep in and take over that newly found “free space.”

I started saying “yes” to a lot more requests from people all of a sudden. As I look back, it was seemingly small stuff at first. Things that would “only take an hour or two.”

Or five.

Things that started as a “yes to a couple of hours” somehow turned into “… oh, and just one more thing, if you don’t mind.” And before long, I began to realize that 9 out of 10 times people were contacting me, it was to say, “Hey, Erik, I was wondering if you could just [fill in the blank] for me.” Somehow, I’d forgotten my own advice:

“No” is a complete answer.

As the cool kids say, here’s the sitch.

Let’s say a new person texted to ask me “could you just …?” The habit I had allowed myself to get into for the latter half of 2015 was that I would open my schedule on my phone. I would scroll through and see all the times that were booked. Monday – booked. Tuesday – no dice. Wednesday – nope. “Oh, OK, well I guess I do have a two-hour slot that isn’t booked Thursday night from 8:00 to 10:00,” I’d think, “so I suppose I could do it then.

Notice that what I haven’t been considering as a viable thought is, “I’m stretched too thin. I’m going to have to tell this person I can’t help them. I need some time to rest.” Instead, the trap I’d gotten myself into was looking at any slot in my calendar that wasn’t already claimed as “available time I could fill with helping another person out.”

This sounds nice of me. I’m sure it makes me seem like a good guy. But it is bad.

Very, very bad, in fact.

In thinking this way – that any unclaimed real estate on the calendar is up for grabs – I’ve let my own pursuits fall by the wayside. I’ve become unfocused, pulled in twenty unrelated directions. Many days, my head hurts, not with a headache, per se, but with a sort of feeling like my skull is stuffed with wet towels. And while I’d been peripherally upholding the truths of the first three chapters of my book – “You always have a choice,” “Misery is a choice” and “Practice positivity” – I had to face the fact that I’d begun to choose helping over happiness.

The Best Advice So Far: Are you choosing helping over happiness?

Let me stop here and make a few things as clear as possible.

First, even in the worst of this cycle I’ve let myself fall into, I have not blamed anyone else. The problem here is not with other people. The problem is with me. Anyone who knows me and has seen glimpses of the burn-out will tell you that I’ve consistently said, “I chose this. And only I can un-choose it.”

Now, if I were to say “no” to you and you were to stomp off in a huff or throw a tantrum or never speak to me again because of it, then the responsibility would fall to you. You would have chosen your reaction. But as things stand, I’ve chosen to say “yes” more times than I should have; and that was no one’s doing but my own.

I also want to say, I love helping! I love my friends and family. I love people. What’s more, I believe as much as ever in looking for opportunities to foster others-centered moments over perpetual me-centered moments. I often feel honored that people believe in my input and skills and would turn to me for help. And, on an individual and isolated basis, being able to have a positive impact in someone else’s life – helping them reach a goal or move toward a dream – is fun for me. What isn’t quite as fun is the cumulative effect of doing so for dozens of people simultaneously.

So, please – if you have asked me to help you and I’ve said “yes” in 2015, don’t fret or email or call saying, “Did you write that blog post about me?” I didn’t. I’m not. Again, this isn’t about individuals or incidents. It’s about me. It’s about patterns and about the compounded effect of forgetting that taking care of myself is every bit as important as taking care of others.

So here is my plan moving forward:

I am refocusing on my own goals and dreams and making them a priority.

I am allocating blocks of time for myself and my own dreams, pursuits, enjoyments and restoration, treating them as immovable and protected “scheduled time.” And I am choosing to make those times “prime times” rather than whatever is left over for a towel-stuffed brain in the waning hours of a non-stop day. In fact, I am going to actually add these times to my schedule, so that they are colored in and therefore, visually, not treated like “open time.” (It’s got me feeling like the trickiest of tricksters, I tell you.)

I am going to graciously say “no” more often, toward achieving the above goal – even though that means that people may choose to be mad at me.  If that happens, it will be a bummer … but not as much of a bummer as perpetually feeling like a pincushion rag doll.

This doesn’t mean my days of helping people are over. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. But I’ve lived the truth of things, that you can’t really take care of others unless you are willing to take care of yourself. When I am chasing my dreams, seeing them come to fruition, and feeling focused and fulfilled, it radiates to others. And so, moving forward into this new year, those additional things to which I do say “yes” will once again be able to be undertaken wholeheartedly, energetically and with positivity.

Anyone out there know what I’m talking about? Have you been feeling that you’ve painted yourself into some corners lately? Or do you have your own strategies or approaches to protecting prime time for your own goals and wellbeing? Share your thoughts and let’s help each other stay on track in 2016.

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

18 responses to “prime time

  • reocochran

    It is hard to put limits on time. This is a good post to help define your own plan of direction and help others to take action. 🙂
    I have just started saying No. It is hard and I used to apologize but now, I need to think about my limited time. I still wish I could blog and be better connected, also wish I could spend every spare moment with my grandies but they realize Nana needs to rest and she is nicer after time away. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Oh, yes! I’m always a nicer me during my YES times if I’ve been careful about my NO times and had those times of rest and “away-ness.” Absolutely necessary. A person with a kind heart will always be helping and benefiting others; we just need to be sure to be helping and benefiting our own soul, as well. I’m cheering you on in your own goal to say NO more, toward saying YES to other really cool and soul-restoring things in your life.

      Like

  • Jed Jurchenko

    Erik,

    This is such an excellent and timely post, I know exactly what you mean. Of course, with three–soon to be four kiddos–it seems like that days fly by, and time is something that there is never enough of. Jenny often reminds the kiddos and I, that every time we say “no,” to something, it is because we want to be able to say, “yes,” to something else. Often this involves saying “no” to something good, so that we have time for the things that truly matter–such as time together as a family.

    It’s not easy, and we don’t always get this right, but we are definitely getting better at it. It’s neat to hear that you are reallocating your time to persue some of your passions–which I believe are going to ultimately encourage and support a ton of people. It’s a good reminder to me, to continually evaluate the use of my time too–as things are only going to get busier in the months ahead (unless we end up being one of those incredibly fortunate couples who has a baby that simply loves to sleep during the night).

    Wishing you an incredible 2016!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      Hey, Jed. Your reflections here have added even further clarity to things, particularly in the truth that, when I pursue “my own goals and passions,” those goals and passions are about investing in people, as well. When I say no to one person, it is in the interest of doing something that could potentially benefit hundreds or thousands (i.e., writing, speaking, recording the audio-book format, etc.).

      You give a good point: that saying “no” to one thing means saying “yes” to another. The hardest part for me is realizing that, sometimes, the thing I’m saying “no” to is important and matters – to someone else. It’s tough to know you truly could be the difference between their important thing happening or not happening … and to still say “no.” I have to keep reminding myself that the world went on just find before my arrival and will continue on just fine after my departure. That’s not to minimize my impact; it’s only to keep things in perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Leigh Anne

    Erik-I really enjoyed reading this. I am especially thankful that I now have actual words to describe how I often feel- “my head is stuffed with wet towels”. I also want to add that sometimes we fill our “free time” with thoughts -how I “should” be helping someone, how I “should” be doing x, y, or z, or how I “need” to do ________ or else! It doesn’t always involve a specific action that is taking up actual time on your calendar. This can be overwhelming and can often cause the “wet towel” thing going on in my head and it can be exhausting. Scheduling a time slot to address those thoughts, make decisions about those thoughts, and then putting them aside for the day sounds silly, but it can be helpful. Otherwise it nags at me all day!

    It’s just as important as blocking off time for yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Awesome advice, Leigh Anne! You’re absolutely right. I was just talking to someone yesterday about how those thoughts you mention can steal focus and creative energy, when you allow yourself to get into the cycle of always having “something coming up.” Setting aside an allotted time – and time limit – for those nagging thoughts and decisions they require is, again, a terrific strategy. So glad you shared!

      Like

  • Sean P Carlin

    I have time-management issues myself, Erik; for instance: I get asked quite a bit by colleagues to read works-in-progress and offer notes. This is a practice I genuinely enjoy and from which I personally benefit: Diagnosing problems/shortcomings in other people’s work sharpens my own analytical acumen and ultimately makes me a better writer — a tougher, more capable critic of my own work.

    But critiquing scripts/manuscripts is also incredibly time-consuming and labor-intensive. As a matter of protocol, I read the material once without the analytics engaged, just to take a pure emotional experience from the narrative; once the first read-through is finished, I ask myself where my emotional response fell short of its fullest potential, and only then do I go back into the material from page one and start diagnosing problematic areas. The process of reading and analyzing a single screenplay can consume, at minimum, an entire eight-hour workday — that’s how long it takes me to do it properly, anyhow — and that’s a full day not spent on my own work. And that’s just to do a colleague a solid!

    It was my wife that told me — and retold me — that “‘no’ is an answer, too.” And, since commencing work on my first novel, I have had to say no to a lot of requests for favors — I’ve had to put myself, and my own interests, first of late. It takes a while to get comfortable doing that — to realize it doesn’t make you a thoughtless or selfish person. And I love the encouraging perspective you offer (something that had never occurred to me): “Now, if I were to say ‘no’ to you and you were to stomp off in a huff or throw a tantrum or never speak to me again because of it, then the responsibility would fall to you. You would have chosen your reaction.” That’s a very healthy perspective on the matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      I’m so with you, Sean! I also get asked to read manuscripts, listen to music, critique, etc. And, like you, while I enjoy the process in the microcosm of itself (independently of real life going on around it), it is very time consuming. This post is not to say “never again,” only that I need to be very selective about how many of that type of project I take on per month / quarter / year. Reminds me of this guest post I wrote in 2015 – The Uncritical Critique: How Not To Be Mean (with regard to being diligent with my screening process).

      Thanks for coming along for the journey in 2015, reading, sharing in thoughtful ways and more. Looking forward to good things for both of us in 2016!

      Liked by 1 person

  • Ellen Morris Prewitt

    This same phenomenon happens to me so easily, and I applaud your deliberate correction of the drift. We have so many conflicting pulls within and outside of our selves, being intentional about our priorities is essential but sometimes hard to do. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, Ellen. I think it’s easier, perhaps, for people to assess and say, “I’m watching too much TV, I need to change that” or “I’m spending too much time online, I need to change that.” It’s harder when the “thing” you’re spending too much time on … is people. As I said in the post, I love people and investing in their lives; but everything must have balance.

      Like

      • Ellen Morris Prewitt

        I so agree, and it’s made worse when you are being asked to help in an area where you know you have talent and can contribute. What is the right thing to do? Sometimes finding the answer requires the time to yourself that is so hard to give to yourself! But you have inspired me, as I envision the new year, to see a roped off space on the calendar for me.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Erik

          What I realized some years back (and have to continually remind myself of) is that there are potentially millions (billions?) of people that I have the ability, theoretically, to help in some way. And thinking in those large numbers makes it easier for me to realize that just because I theoretically can does not mean I should or am expected to. It also helps to remind myself that, should I suddenly die or have amnesia, the world will keep revolving without me. That is not to minimize my impact; it’s to free myself to keep things in perspective. Thanks again for adding your own perspective, Ellen.

          Like

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Each day is “Welcome to the Great Adventure” – and you hold the reins. “No” is a perfectly acceptable answer sometimes and anyone who is offended, well, it’s their problem.(Now go outside and play – you deserve it. Play is serious work.)
    May your new year be filled with wonder, laughter, and much delight.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Chad Littlefield

    Love this! I find myself blocking off times as well. Got 9-10:30a tomorrow morning blocked off actually 🙂 It is remarkably helpful to have clear time to say “no” too. I’ve also made a habit of scheduling no meetings after 5p. This allows more room for choice in my evenings. Often I’ll work past 5 but it’s because I choose to, not because somebody/thing else is on my calendar.

    Liked by 1 person

  • D. Wallace Peach

    I think of it as my head being stuffed with yams, Erik. Why yams? Who knows. The point is I totally can relate. There is more in the world to do – that I would enjoy doing – than there is time. Blocking out your calendar is a great idea, and for people who like structure, it works great. I can vouch for it.

    Isn’t it strange how free time becomes a magnet for busy-ness? For me, it’s a constant balancing act, and I’m routinely having to take stock and adjust, set limits, and say “no” – mostly to myself 🙂 It’s critical to tune in and honor what your life needs.

    Enjoy, and have a wonderful, happy, healthy, balanced new year. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Thanks for this, Diana. As you recently commented that, in some fantasy perception, my life can seemed charmed, I would say that I perceived you as a bastion of stalwartness where setting limits and saying “no” are concerned. It’s somehow nice to know that other people who get a lot done … understand the potential pitfalls of that, as well. Happy New Year to you, as well. Can’t wait to see what we accomplish!

      Liked by 1 person

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