Time and how to spend it

I had an email from a friend which touched on something I often think about: time and how to use it and how to share it.  I have quoted her original email below because she expresses the questions so well.

"I was wondering - you've recently (relatively) been released from many heavy obligations and demands. How are you managing your freedom? Are you able to just enjoy or do you have duty voices in your head, cutting across any 'holiday' feel. 

There's always enough to be done. So it's easy to always be thinking 'I should be doing this, that, the other....' Do you? Or have you beaten that? I'd love to know how if you have, so I can learn.

And C is just about to retire and be here full time apart from walking. I find his activity ... reproaching and disturbing. This is me - he doesn't bug me if I'm not being busy."

Two separate but related questions here and both of them particular to this stage of life I think.  When you are running around raising children and holding down a job and spinning constantly from one thing to another you simply don't have the luxury of thinking about time and what to do with it.  There is no time to do anything other than do!  
I left my ridicuously demanding job a few years ago precisely to have time for other things and almost immediately had to devote much of it to looking after my elderly father in law and then father.   So the time and freedom I now have has come at the cost of their loss.  And my mother has gone too, my mother who was the best person I have ever known at making the everyday sing, at feeling the sun on the skin, at making the really good coffee, at being in the moment.  So this time and this freedom is both glorious and freighted with their loss.  Perhaps that makes me more aware of using it well, or of trying to.

So to Anne's question: "do I have duty voices running in my head"?  Of course I do.  Living somewhere like this there are always jobs to do: there is always work in the garden and in the house; there is always work waiting for my Spanish Open University course; there are still things I do that are work related even if I am no longer paid for them; even writing this blog can feel like a duty as well as a pleasure; and there are other things that are both a pleasure and a responsibility, principally to do with looking after myself physically with things like yoga and pilates and walking.  And is the family time a duty?  Looking after a grandchild?  Visiting a brother or a daughter?   I am not sure that is how I think of it and these duties, if that is the right word, are not ones I want to be without.  In fact I don't want to be without any of the things which might be called duties.  They are my framework.  They give shape and meaning to my day and thus, presumably, to my life.

So the balance for me is between the pleasurable duties and not packing my day with so much to do that I simply become a task machine.   It is easy to be so busy with "jobs" that the yoga, the walking, the pilates, the time with friends all get shunted down the priority list and that is not what I want.  What works for me is to distinguish between the things I want to do that only I can do - family things, Spanish, writing -  and the things that take a lot of time but can be done by other people - gardening, meetings, jobs in the house.  I think this was something which became very clear when my father was ill with the Motor Neurone Disease which finally killed him.  It is easy to be so busy with work or with activities that you lose the sense that there are bits of your life that you cannot delegate and on the whole it is those things which really matter.   Nobody else can be me.   Somebody else can weed the garden although I might not always want them to.  Someone else can go to a meeting, iron a sheet or clean a bath.  Spending time with my father, looking after my grandchildren, learning Spanish or walking the hills, those are things which are me, which require me.   I do not mean that there were not other important people who visited my father or who look after my grandchildren, simply that my relationship could not be delegated.  My relationship needs me.

I try to fill my days mainly with the things that are me, that require me.  And when I look at it like that the yoga clearly trumps the weeding.  If I want the calmness of mind and the flexibility of body which yoga gives me I have to do it.  I can't send someone along in my place.  I don't benefit myself because my friend went to class when I stayed home and watched the television.  If I want to speak Spanish I have to learn even though the world is full of other people who speak Spanish already.  If I want to sing I have to open my mouth and let the sound out.  If I want a close and happy relationship with my children and grandchildren I have to spend time with them.  So in a world where the hours are finite and the days and weeks and months and years that remain are finite I can only spend my time once.  So sometimes somebody else will have to weed the cutting garden, even if they might pull up the self sown poppies.  

I definitely don't get this right a lot of the time.  One of the great things about travelling for me is that it removes me from all the things that need doing at home and makes me be in the moment, undistracted by the lengthy to do list.  And when I return from travelling there is a real pleasure in doing things again and in engaging afresh with the practicalities of life.  In fact nowadays I have practically stopped running a to do list after a lifetime of lists for both work and home.  Every few weeks I might write down half a dozen things which really need to be sorted out and then take satisfaction in working through them and ticking them off.  Mostly however I find that I will do the really important things because they are important and if I keep a diary of my commitments to myself and other people, on the principle of which parts of my life require me, things get done and people get loved and words get written.  Meals get made.  Swallows get watched playing diving games above the pigsties.

So that is how I manage the voices of duty in my head, mostly.  Which parts of my life cannot be delegated?

Now the question of how you live alongside somebody who manages time in a different way is another question altogether and one for another blog I think!

I would love to know how other people at this stage of life, or any stage really, manage the complicated issue of what time is for.  How do you choose, and indeed do you feel as if you choose, how to spend your time or is the choice out of your hands?  How do you prioritise?  Do tell me!


  1. Well that's a doozy of a subject! And definitely not one I have a good handle on. I love your approach of prioritising things that demand the youness of you. I am battling with ME again, so all this time management stuff has become more challenging again too, but I was already struggling to allow myself to prioritise Tai Chi and seeing friends, things which feed my soul and help me manage life, if there was work to be done. As for the garden and gardening, it has become a bit of a millstone around my neck if I am totally honest. I still tap in to the joy of it all when I allow myself time to weed, or sow, or ponder planting. Mostly it is just a source of shame, as neglect has allowed weeds to flourish and once prized plants to be swamped.

    Ho hum, I will watch the comments that appear on this post with great interest!

    1. Oh Janet, that is a cry from the heart and one that strikes a real chord with me. My garden too became a source of frustration and even distress when I had to neglect it for months on end when we were spending time with dad. I got to the stage where I couldn't walk round it because the weeds and the mess and the sense of things being choked and dying was just too depressing. In a funny sort of way that has changed my priorities. I had to disengage a bit then, rather painfully but as nothing compared to what was happening to my father, and now I am taking pleasure in the garden again but as you can probably tell from this I am less consumed by it. I've perhaps lost something in becoming less obsessive about it but I have gained something too in exploring other bits of myself. Go for the tai chi and the friends I would say! Your garden, like mine, will still be there somewhere under all the weeds when and if you are ready for it.

  2. Another thoughtful and beautiful post, Elizabeth. I for one am so pleased you make the time to keep up with your blog, although I do agree that it can become yet another drain on one's time. As you say, time is the most precious resource we have and it is only when we become aware of how finite it is that we learn to value it properly. Delegating is definitely the way forward, and trying to let go of what doesn't feed the soul. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Marianne. I really appreciate your taking the time to comment too! Sometimes I think I shall let the blog lie but then something comes up that I want to talk about or someone makes interesting comments as you do which shows that people are reading and it inspires me all over again!

  3. Being Me. The bit that cannot be delegated. How thought provoking. First step is to recognise those duties that can be delegated and then finding someone willing to take them up! Then we must accept the way they choose to do it, be it making a dull meal or leaving the ironing basket to overflow for longer than seems bearable. And if they are not willing, do we manage to let go of the duty altogether or resentfully re-shoulder it? Single minded determination to be me has to be re-learnt I suppose.
    I look forward to the answers to your question in the penultimate paragraph with particular interest.
    Some people have perfected the skill of pursuing their own interests for long stretches of time, unperturbed by duties!

    1. I do very much take your point about having to accept someone else's way of doing things as the price for delegating! I also know just what you mean about the possibility of resentfully reshouldering something. I try very hard not do things that make me feel resentful and if that means spending money on paying someone or simply letting things go undone that is how it has to be. I am not a great shopper or consumer of things (except perhaps books) so I justify spending money on not doing the ironing!
      And I suspect that many of the people who are able to pursue their own interests for long periods of time are men! Perhaps women should try to learn from them? Contentious?

  4. For better or worse, but not for lunch - is the bit I struggle with. A room of her own as Virginia Woolf said. So I make that 'my space, my time' now - too late at night, when I should sleep.
    Too much busy, but that is self inflicted, my temperament. Then I get lost in a good book and time drifts and swirls. Kate Atkinson - Life after life.

    Love to see that you have changed your blog look - I battled with the white on black text.
    (Maybe change the white on grey font for the date?)

    1. I very much understand the need for my time and my space. I am good at making it happen away from home, going out to things which are very much mine like yoga and choir, but less good at making it happen in the house. This is entirely my problem as my husband is perfectly comfortable with my having my own time and would make no demands on me at all. I tend to feel that I should be somehow available when there is anyone else there. I don't know if this is a left over from having had children?

  5. This is a wonderfully thought-provoking post, and I'd love to spend more time on my response but fear if I wait until I have that time, I might never get back to comment. I have a huge problem with feeling guilty, and I find it difficult to spend my day as I like, even if the day includes considerable productive activity, if my husband is around (and this is more so now that we're in so much smaller a space. As with you, this has everything to do with me (and my upbringing) and very little to do with him, although he does tend to be more of a do-er in more obviously productive ways. Or, at least, I have a hard time crediting my reading, writing, knitting, language study etc., as productive, and have a bad habit of self-deprecating, of thinking I'm lazy. Working on it, still, at 64! But I really find this distinction you make between what only you can do and what others could do (for, or instead of, you) ever so useful. I think I already allow that division of labour, but I've never seen it quite so clearly as the best use of my time and abilities (I tend to think of it as a shirking, at some level, or as a dependence -- oh goodness, I really need to give myself a stern talking-to, don't I?
    Anyway, thanks so very much -- I always find your posts worth reading and thinking about. . .

  6. With parents passed away and more recently friends and a work colleague it certainly concentrates the mind as to what is the most important things in your life. Certainly if you are fortunate to have children and grandchildren they are top of the list as should yourself and your partner. I think there is a temptation when you retire to take on to much, because everyone thinks you have 'time'. I have following some health problems this year decided to reduce my commitments and concentrate on what for me is the important ones.
    A thought provoking post Elizabeth.

  7. as neglect has allowed weeds to flourish and once prized plants to be swamped.


  8. I'm thinking about this as you might imagine and discussed it with Charles today. We decided it needed a whole post in response! I will try and do justice at some point, some way. But this week we are holidaying at home. Delighted to say it's (just about) possible.

  9. I now have hours per day to loll about reading or watching television , hovering about online and gawping at seagulls ...
    Human nature being what it is , I'd now rather like to have some purpose in life .

  10. Years ago I learned the work is always with me and I'll never finish. So, I make lists to keep me on track, begin work and reach a stopping point this side of exhaustion. Simple pleasures keep me happy...tonight, while supper was baking...I built a small fire in the fire pit and sat down to finish a book while dogs, kittens and cats played all around. Every day I try and do the best I can; if that's not enough for others, so be it. They don't get a vote anyway.


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