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Time Management

Managing "Should" Feelings on an (Almost) Day Off

A Personal Perspective: Learning to let go of expectations.

Key points

  • Reducing work pressures can have unexpected consequences, creating expectations about using the new time well.
  • Thinking about how much can get done on days off can create pre-existing, self-imposed pressure.
  • Expectations aren't always easy to manage. They lead to "shoulds," which then lead to guilt and low-level agitation. 
Mary Allen
Source: Mary Allen

A while ago, I decided to move some things around in my schedule to give myself more time to write. I didn’t cancel anything—just made more work appointments on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and fewer appointments—only one each—on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was really happy with that decision and I still am. But it hasn’t worked out exactly the way I thought it would.

I thought I would feel relaxed and spacious and like I was being super productive on the two lighter workdays, and that I might feel the opposite way, a little more rushed, a little more option-shut-down obligated, on the other days. But in fact, at least so far, I’ve felt a little agitated on the days when I have more time to write, and I’ve felt peaceful, serene, and productive on the days when I have more work appointments (although I haven’t been writing on those days and I do want more time to write). I’ve been trying to figure out why my Tuesdays and Thursdays have not felt peaceful and enjoyable like I thought they would, and this is what I came to: It’s all about expectations.

Ever since I decided to free up my Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ve anticipated that I would get a lot done on those days—more than I probably can, realistically, get done: more writing, more other stuff. So when the day comes, I already have pre-existing pressure. I feel like I should put in a solid amount of writing, and on top of that, I should do all the things on my list that I haven’t had time for on the other days.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays there are clear limits to what I know I can and will do. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have more time to work with and therefore more time to get tangled up in daily-life-maintenance things like emailing and cleaning the bathroom. Plus, I feel like I need to catch up on those things. I’ve been telling myself on the other days that I can and will catch up with them on Tuesday or Thursday.

And then, there are errands. Errands take a lot of time, and while I try to work with that by consolidating—combining going to the bank with going to the store with doing whatever else I can in the same part of town—and putting off whatever can be put off to a time when I’ll have more time—they still take up more time than it seems like they would. Or should.

It’s that should that seems to be the problem: the feeling that I should be doing something more quickly, or differently, or not at all. Or should be doing something else, or something I don’t have time for that urgently needs to be done.

The shoulds seem to be adding up on my Tuesdays and Thursdays. Shoulds arising from expectations and leading to guilt and low-level steady agitation.

I don’t want to go back to my old schedule. I’m still getting more writing done than I would otherwise, and I still like having more time and space on my Tuesdays and Thursdays. So it’s clear that my best option is to work with the shoulds and the expectations. I think part of the problem is that I’ve made this space, given up this income, to write, and if I don’t use it—use it well—I feel guilty. It’s that use it well that’s the problem. It’s that feeling that I’ve put this time aside and I should use it well that creates the expectation.

Somehow I need to talk myself into letting go of expectations and believing that any writing I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays is enough. And that any headway I can make on my errands and other stuff, on top of the writing, is enough. I’ve learned over the years that few things are as much of a crisis as it feels like they are and that just about anything can be postponed without disaster. That if you do just a little bit of writing on most days, if you do just a little bit of anything on most days, that little bit adds up. And that writing has to happen at its own pace. It doesn’t respond well at all to time pressure, and neither do I.

Still, it’s not always easy to get myself to feel those things even though I know them; knowing something in my mind isn’t the same as feeling it in my heart. And telling myself to let go of expectations is dangerously close to creating another should.

So maybe when I’m feeling discontented or like I’m failing to use the time well on a Tuesday or Thursday, I can trot out my most powerful attitude-changing go-to: I can shrug and say, “Oh well, whatever.” Whenever I do that, my outlook changes instantly.

Once, I was telling a friend about how I like to say that and it’s my way of letting go, and she said, “We have something like that in Tai Chi. If you stand tall and rigid, someone can push you over, but if you stay flexible and close to the ground, nothing can bring you down.”

And so here I am, trying to cultivate flexibility.

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