Midway through the holidays has always been a funny time for me. The hustle and bustle of Christmas is past, and the promise of a new year is filling heads and hearts everywhere. Some people are back at work, others are in the midst of spending time with family and friends. It’s a jumble of time spent, time off, and time to spare.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading the past several days – thought provoking blog posts about time. What to do with it, how to make time more rewarding and why we all choose to spend it differently.

I’ve also been reading a lot of things in my social streams about how people feel guilty for not spending enough time at home, at work, or with family and friends. I see others feeling guilty for spending too much time at home, at work, or with family and friends.

People really do try hard to justify why they are working or not working through the holidays, and I don’t get it. The things I’ve seen range from the Martyr: “I really should be going to that family dinner, but I simply have too much important work to do”, to the Self-Righteous: “Look how hard I’m working, while you lazy people sit there with your egg nog”, to the Guilt-Ridden, “I really should be finishing that report for my boss, but my daughter wants to bake cookies.”

Remember back in the old days, when people used to take vacations from work? I mean, before email, and smart phones, and always-on connection. Some of you may be too young to remember, but I remember working in offices where there was no voicemail or email. If someone called me while I was taking time off, the receptionist would write the message on a little pink slip of paper and stuff it in my pigeon hole. When I returned to the office, I picked up my messages. A novel concept, eh?

All that has changed today, and with it, I think our attitude towards time has changed too.

Schedule This!

Time used to be carved up in logical chunks. We worked between 9am and 5pm. We ate lunch at noon. We went home and had supper with our family at 6pm. We watched television or participated in community activities from 7pm to 10pm. We went to bed. On the weekends, we went out with friends, visited family, and otherwise “relaxed”. When we weren’t at work, we stopped working.

Nowadays, technology and connectivity have changed our model of time dramatically. Time is much more fluid now than it once was. The rules of time are becoming more lax. We’re always one click away from reading that next email or picking up that phone call. The restriction of time – the “I don’t answer calls after 5pm or on weekends” mentality has taken a back seat to the need to be available and willing whenever someone reaches out. Those who remain in the old practice of a regimented schedule are seen as being inflexible, and that inflexibility doesn’t jive with our 24/7 existence.

It’s a conundrum. At the same time as you want to strike a balance, you’re forced out of that perceived balance because your messages aren’t on a pink slip of paper, waiting for you the next morning. Your messages being dumped right into your pocket.

A Generation in Time

Time as we know it is different now, and I think many of us (especially us Gen X’ers and Boomers) are having a really hard time fitting into this new paradigm. If we aren’t making the “most effective” use of every second, we’re afraid we’ll be perceived as lazy, so we make a point of telling the world how busy we are. If our clients see us goofing off on Twitter while they wait for a return phone call, we’re sunk, so we put a ton of extra energy into “appearing” busy to the rest of the world (instead of just returning the darn phone call). At the same time, we’re chastising each other for not taking enough time for ourselves, boasting about how we took an “Internet Day Off!”, and telling anyone who’ll listen how we have our priorities so much more in order than everyone else.

30 years ago, we were in control of time. We had a schedule. We stuck to it. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost control of our time. And the behaviour I’m seeing? I think it’s a result of people fighting to gain that control back.

So what if we just stopped fighting?

Lose Control to Gain Control

We need to take back our time, but we can’t just go back to having a regimented schedule like before. It doesn’t work in the new world. There are too many variables now – too many ways in which our time is being pulled by our new way of working and communicating in the world.

No, we don’t need more structure. We need less. And that’s a hard pill for many of us to swallow, because lack of structure is often equated to lack of focus.

So, instead of trying to continue to fit into some kind of time mold, let’s relax the self-imposed rules. Try this for a while: When you need to work, work. When you need to rest, rest. When you get hungry, eat. You’ll find that as you get rid of the guilt and the feelings of inadequacy that are caused by trying to fit the old time paradigm, an interesting thing will begin to happen. Your time will become yours again. Time will once again be within your control. You won’t be doing things because you should be doing them. You’ll be doing them because you’ve got the energy, and the motivation, and the time.

Take your time back. It may be the most important thing you can do to find your balance.