Your Choices Limit Your Choices (and That’s a Good Thing)

One of the great things about running a personal-finance website that publishes stories at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. Eastern is how it effectively limits my choices until about 1 p.m. Central.

No, I can’t do interviews in the morning.

No, I can’t attend that networking breakfast.

Sorry, I can’t do revisions on this piece until the afternoon — will that work for you?

You can see how I might frame these responses differently depending on whether I’m RSVPing to an invite or replying to a freelance client’s email, but the decision is the same either way.

I already have responsibilities that take up this particular chunk of time, so I cannot give that time to anything else.

Obviously there are exceptions. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes the interview can only be conducted in the morning because the other person is in Europe and that’s how time zones work. Sometimes a freelance client will email to say “I’ll pay you extra if you can rework this piece in the next 30 minutes,” and I am not one to turn down extra money (nor am I one to turn down the chance to become That One Reliable Freelancer).

But 90 percent of the time, the answer is no.

When the answer is yes, btw, I still have to figure out when I’m going to complete the work that I would have completed during that time slot. Luckily, I can schedule Billfold posts in advance — so if I know I’ll be doing an interview at 9 a.m. Central, I can make sure the post that’s scheduled to go up at noon Eastern gets done the day before. This is also why I try to schedule overflow time into every workday; so I don’t have to do this work after hours (even though sometimes it still happens after hours).

I know that most people don’t have the type of workday that lets them put such clear boundaries around their time. I spent four years working as an executive assistant (a job where the boundaries are set by the person you’re assisting),* and prior to that I was a telemarketer and a church organist and a dog sitter and a booth babe and… you know what, I wrote a piece for The Billfold about every job I’ve ever had, go read that if you’re curious.

But we can — and I’d argue we should — put those types of boundaries around our life, especially if we’re trying to get it closer to THE LIFE we want, and especially-especially if we’re hoping to make time in our life to do THE WORK.

When I decided to set my “tonin alarm” at 9:30 p.m., I thought “well, I guess I can only go to matinees now”

Last week I told you the story of how I saw Jonathan Coulton open for They Might Be Giants and decided I wanted to learn guitar and try singer-songwriting.

I didn’t tell you the part where I, like Jonathan Coulton, committed myself to writing/recording/posting a song a week.

I still had the executive assistant job, so this work had to be done after hours. About halfway through the project, I started recording both a song and a vlog each week and called them Song Tuesday and Vlog Thursday.

This meant that I knew exactly what I was doing on Tuesdays and Thursdays after work.

Yes, I could record a song or a vlog early if I knew I’d have another truly important commitment on a Tuesday or a Thursday (and then schedule the song/vlog to post to YouTube on the appropriate day).

But making that choice successfully limited the opportunities available to me on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and I say successfully because I did in fact publish a song a week for 100 consecutive weeks. (I stopped doing the vlog component before then, but it was never part of my initial goal; it was always the accompaniment.)

When I drafted The Biographies of Ordinary People, I set myself the goal of completing two chapters a week. I knew, because of how I wanted to structure the book, that each volume of Biographies would contain two parts, each part would contain 35 chapters, and each chapter would be roughly 1,200 words.

I also knew, from my experience as a freelancer, that it generally took me about an hour to write 1,200 words — so if I wanted to complete two chapters a week, it would make sense to block off two writing chunks of at least 60 minutes each but probably closer to 90.

I don’t know yet what structure the novel I hope to draft this year will take — and I plan to write about structure/style and the way it both limits and guides you** soon, maybe next week — but I do know that I’m probably going to set aside two 90-minute writing sessions per week. Maybe one after work and one on the weekend.

Plus a third session that could serve as a backup if something very important came up during one of the usually scheduled writing times. (That’s what I did when I drafted Biographies.)

Once again, this decision will limit the other choices I can make. I’ve been invited to participate in this thing, for example, that I am going to say no to because I can’t do the thing and give two 90-minute sessions to writing and do Les Mills classes at the YMCA and be part of this choir that I’m scheduled to audition for and keep some time set aside for parents and friends and keep some time set aside for just me and have enough time left over for the all-important non-sleep rest.

I’m also really curious how this decision will limit the amount of travel I’m doing this year, because I’ve already been approached by multiple people about TRIPS TRIPS TRIPS and I know that each trip will get in the way of novel-writing time.***

Which, again, some of these trips (for both business and pleasure) might be important enough to take. But I’ll need to be judicious, and understand how my choices will limit my other choices.

I need to stop this now because it’s time to move on to The Billfold, but I’m fairly sure I’ve made my point. If you’d like additional reading, or if you’ve read this far and are thinking “but I already have too much after-hours social and family stuff to set aside time to do THE WORK,” I recommend my Lifehacker post on social budgeting:

Like a financial budget, a social budget allocates your available time towards both pre-determined commitments and “discretionary experiences,” and helps you determine how to spend your time in accordance with your values. Even if you’re pretty happy with the way your social life is going, a social budget can help you make more time for the people you want in your life, while spending less time on social events that leave you feeling bored or drained.

I also recommend entrepreneur Derek Sivers’ post “No “yes.” It’s either “HELL YEAH” or “NO.”

When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!”

Every event you get invited to. Every request to start a new project. If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about it, say “no.”

If you like that post, you can also read Sivers’ book Anything You Want, which includes similar inspirational maxims.

Tomorrow I’ll go into what happens during the periods of life when you have less control over your time and/or don’t have as many choices as you hoped you would. ❤️

*Both of the people I assisted were great and had really strong work/life boundaries, which I know isn’t always the case when you’re an assistant. I am very lucky/grateful to have worked for them.

**Do we see a theme here? I see a theme.

***Trips also tend to require me to prep a week or so of The Billfold in advance, which generally means after-hours work — and if that work plus the travel schedule gets in the way of sleep and non-sleep rest and everything else, HERE COMES BURNOUT.