No time left for you

At the end of the day — or the week or the year, or the life — many of us will be struck by a painful truth: There was enough time.

There was enough time to make a strategic or visionary business plan — but we preferred to be reactive adrenaline surfers, putting out fires, bouncing from issue to issue. It felt good to be in demand, and it took less concentration. In fact, as the day progressed, the chances of being planful or insightful diminished, so we pushed it off yet again — but we called it “lack of time.”

Occasionally, there was no one around to distract us and we had the time to write something meaningful or think through a dilemma. But we were uncomfortable with silence and so we shared our space with voices that would conjecture endlessly about whom our favorite team would hire or who was likely to become our next elected official. Or we were sure we could not concentrate without a steady stream of music or texting to reduce the dreaded silence. Somehow we never reached the desired level of concentration — but we called it lack of time.

There was enough time to call a loved one, a friend, or an ailing person on occasion, or attend a child’s academic or sporting event, but perhaps the idea of it was too open-ended or too boring, or maybe we thought we’d squeeze it in during some “down time” — but we never did get around to it. When we were confronted or it was too late, we told others the same story we told ourselves about a lack of time.

Values and tactics

When we consistently fail to attend to the big things that would have the greatest tangible or intangible payoff, it’s tempting to question our ambition, values or moral fiber. Do we really want it badly enough? Do we realize the implications of not getting it done? Do we really value the relationship? While that may be a good part of the issue, we may simply be setting ourselves up for failure. Important work often requires more mental preparation and uninterrupted concentration. It’s not likely to happen during the whirlwind part of the day when speed overpowers clarity. Talking to some people requires more patience and empathy than we can muster when on the run.

If an activity really matters, then it’s imperative to acknowledge that it’s worth scheduling and that it needs to be attempted under optimal conditions. The basics are:

Time: Do you think most clearly early in the morning, late at night, or after closing time at the office? When will you have enough time in one block to make progress? There’s no point in picking early morning if you only have 20 peaceful minutes and half of those involve making coffee. For major breakthroughs, you may need more than a morning or even a weekend — you may need a retreat with yourself. Estimate wisely and build in time for daydreaming.

Location: Does your role allow for quiet and solitude in the office, or would that conflict with your open-door policy? If your office isn’t an option, is your home any better? Some have found that a spare office elsewhere in the company or an off-hours corner of the cafeteria can work. A spare office or desk in someone else’s office building may be drastic but necessary, and it won’t have the temptations of home or the accessibility of your own company.

Company: Do you work well in solitude? Many people do, but some who do not can be surprisingly effective by using a devil’s advocate or a scribe, someone to speak out thoughts and bounce ideas off of. That would be more beneficial than having various media keep you company. In general, many find that dictating initial ideas and then editing them is easier than breaking the ice and actually writing words. The second part of “company” is this: Who will have access to you? What devices will be shut off to give you a semblance of uninterrupted time?

As for calling relatives and spending time with your children, you may have to admit that the right spontaneous moment may not come and instead schedule the time to do it. If you still feel resistance, then you can figure out (perhaps with help) what emotions are getting in the way.

 Being honest

The French writer Albert Memmi once wrote that man wishes to live forever, yet cannot figure out how to get through a boring Sunday afternoon. For most of us, being continuously busy is just posturing. As long as we use lack of time as our all-purpose excuse, we run the risk of deceiving ourselves and disappointing others (and perhaps ourselves). Reconfirming our values and taking practical steps to accomplish what matters most can make a big difference, and it’s about time.


Fred Mael, Ph.D., helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in 2016 in Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine (