Most of us complain (some more than others) about having a lack of time. We have all these things we want to do and not enough time to do them. We juggle our responsibilities at work with our responsibilities at home, all while trying to scrape enough time to pursue the hobbies and interests that make us happy.
Suddenly, the end of the day sneaks up on us, it’s time to go to bed, and we still have all these things we want to do. There just isn’t enough time. But is that really the problem?
Looking in the Mirror Isn’t Enough
Before you jump to any conclusions, let me clear the air. I’m not going to say that the problem is a lack of time management, though that can certainly be factor. Several years ago, before I became a husband and a father, I said that you had no one to blame but yourself. Perhaps I was naive. Perhaps trying to balance my responsibilities as a work-at-home dad with those of a professional freelance writer changed me.
What I’ve come to recognize is that it is not necessarily a lack of time that is making life-work balance so difficult. It’s not necessarily because there are too few hours in the day that I might struggle with productivity. After all, there is time. I can work a few hours of the third shift after the little one has gone to bed. I can work in the early hours of the morning before she wakes up. There are blips of opportunity throughout the day.
What’s missing isn’t time. What’s missing is energy. What’s missing is focus. What’s missing is willpower.
Running on Fumes
By the time we reach the end of the day and I’ve finally put my daughter to sleep, I am oftentimes both physically and mentally drained. I can sit down at my computer with my to-do list before me and fingers at the ready on my keyboard, but the words don’t come. I have the time, in the strictest sense, but I don’t have the energy. I don’t have the focus. I don’t have the spark of inspiration or that elusive sense of flow.
In psychology, there is the concept of decision fatigue. The idea is that the more decisions you have to make, the worse your decision-making skills become. This extends to a deterioration of your willpower too. Willpower is like a slowly replenishing resource. The more you use it, the less you have at your disposal. It’ll fill back up eventually, but you’ve got to wait. And that can take a while.
One of the most common illustrations of this can be found at your supermarket checkout. Right before you pay for your groceries, you are tempted by the tabloid magazines and candy bars. You’ve already exercised a significant amount of willpower and decision-making by choosing the healthier cereal or by refraining from buying another bag of potato chips. By the time you get to the cashier, you’re much more likely to indulge in some Skittles candy and Archie comics.
Get Out and Push?
So, how does this all relate to work-life balance, productivity, and managing the responsibilities of parenthood? All of your resources are drained by the time you actually have the time to accomplish anything. You’re physically tired (low energy), the temptation to sleep is overwhelming (low willpower), the rewards of work feel less valuable (low motivation), and your brain has turned to mush (low inspiration). But you’ve got a couple hours that you could use more effectively.
Prolonged sessions with the third shift are not sustainable in the long run. Forcing yourself to wake up at 5 am (or earlier) is only going to bite you back hard a few hours later. These are short-term fixes, not long term solutions.
My Life as an RPG
I’m not sure what the answer is, but if I were to look at this problem from the perspective of a video game, I can say this.
When you first start playing, your character will have limited resources. The health bar might only be able to contain 10 HP, for instance. As you progress, you can upgrade your character. You can arm him (or her) with new weapons and tools. And you can extend the size of that health bar, which will be necessary to face higher-level foes. Soon, your health bar can go as far as 20 HP, 30 HP, or even 100 HP. You can sustain more damage.
Maybe we should apply a similar philosophy to real life. If we can figure out a way to have a higher maximum energy level, a higher maximum willpower amount, we’ll be better able to tackle life’s never-ending challenges. But that probably takes time.