March 30th, 2006

Me 2012

Time and Money

This post is more about the mind games I play with myself than anything else.

I don't consider the time I devote to my job as "mine". Nine hours a day, five days a week, my time belongs to work. I can't do what I want with it. I have to do my job (or get to-and-from my job) instead. This is the normal state of affairs, and while I resent it on occassion, I don't question the assertion on a daily basis. That's the Way It Is. When I was in school, I looked at class time the same way.

But it wasn't until I resumed work on Prophecy five years ago that I really started looking at other portions of my day as not "mine". I guess I did this to some degree when I was in college and knew perfectly well that part of my day outside of class had to be spent on a classwork. But I resented classwork's intrusion on my "free time" more than I did the actual classes. Class time and work time were supposed to be occupied, but the rest of my time was mine, to do with as I pleased.

Then I started on the Master Plan(tm), and I had Commitments that I Had to Meet. My free time wasn't all mine any more; I had to use some of it working on the novel.

The Master Plan(tm) worked somewhat badly; as with class work, I had a hard time quantifying the amount of time I devoted to the book, and a hard time surrendering the notion that I could do whatever I wanted with the time I wasn't at work.

In 2004, I changed the Plan to be from "produce X words" to "write for X hours". Now my time was quantified. I knew how much time I had to devote to the book per week, and I knew that I couldn't do whatever I wanted with that time. It went to the book. This worked much better than the "X words" method.

Since I started exercising last May, I've gradually accustomed myself to the idea that I don't actually have free time when I get home. The first couple of hours, until 7PM, are occupied by exercise and fixing my dinner and showering and whatnot. If I finish these things early, I consider myself to have gotten "extra" time. If I finish them late, I'm grumpy over the loss of "free" time.

koogrr has a phrase, "time-sliced into oblivion". It describes the phenomenon of having chopped one's entire day into slices of time that are committed to this or that thing. Even when the activities are fun things, I sometimes resent the structure to the day. I like time with no commitments in it, time when I can do whatever I feel like at that particular moment.

But the truly odd thing about my attitude towards time is that it's very different from my attitude towards money.

When it comes to money, I've always been a compulsive saver. Any point in my life when I've had an income, no matter how small, I have saved part of that income. I rarely view my savings as a slush fund with which to buy cool things, either. I save for a rainy day: against unemployment, for medical problems, for pet expenses, for retirement, for home expenses. When I have some extraordinary expense in one of these categories, I don't mentally bemoan the loss of "my money", because that's what I was saving the money for anyway. My AC broke last summer, and I was quite pleased that the replacement came to less than $2000. I didn't think "Oh no! That's $1800 I can't use for fun". I thought "I was expecting it to break last summer, so hey, one more year of use than I'd hoped for." I'll shell out $150 for a vet bill for my cat and not bat an eye.

But it took me three or four years of thinking "I'd like a set of Tria markers" before I finally bought one.

In fact, I have a much easier time spending money on myself than I used to. Part of this came from a self-help book that likened budgeting time to budgeting money. "Financial advisors suggest that you set aside money for your long-term savings the same way you would any other bill. You pay your rent and your utilities and your retirement account, and none of these are optional. You can view time the same way: set aside some time for yourself every day, perhaps in the morning or evening, as time for *you*."

I didn't take the advice on time management, but the budget advice gave me an entirely different perspective. I didn't have the problem that financial advisors were proposing their cure for: I had the opposite problem. The advice still applied, but in reverse. I realized that if I decided that my savings goal was, say, $700 a month, then I could spend whatever was left. On myself. For things I didn't need. Prior to that, I'd mentally viewed my money as belonging either to long-term savings or to necessities. If I spent on something I didn't need, I felt guilty because it was being "stolen" from long-term savings.

Many, if not most, people take the opposite view on money. They look at their income as entirely "their money" and resent expenses that intrude on it. Some of them take this so far as to resent ordinary expenses, like rent or food. But even of those who accept routine expenses as The Way Things Are, many still hate it when unusual expenses crop up, like car or home repairs. Things you know will need to be paid for now and again, but which happen rarely enough that they're not routine.

And that is my attitude -- not towards money, but towards time. I've accepted work the way most people accept the cost of rent and groceries. But I've never learned to accept unusual drains on my time, and I rebel at the thought of any additional regular commitments of my time. I am possessive of my time. I view it as mine to use as I see fit, exactly the way I don't view money. I spend time frivolously, on things I view as unimportant, in just the way I won't spend money.

I never took the self-help book's advice on time because it was aimed at the opposite sort of attitude. "Set aside some time for yourself" is advice to people who regard none of their time as their own, who believe that all their time has to be devoted towards work and family and long term goals. For me, "setting aside time for myself" would mean admiting that not all of my time belonged to me already. Like a spendthrift who refuses to devote money to retirement that she could use to buy clothes, I refused to budget time for chores and the tasks of every day life.

As I've grown older, I've surrendered some of my clinginess to my time, making it more like my attitude towards money. But I could do this much more gracefully and happily; I want to "save time", not in the conventional sense, but in the same way that I save money, budgeted against current and future needs. I have a notion for how to do this, which I'll go into later.

In the meantime, I have a feeling that this whole approach is wrongheaded. The answer to the question of "How can I gracefully accept spending the time I need to on things I don't like doing?" isn't worthless, but it would be far more valuable to answer "How can I enjoy doing the things I have to do anyway?" If I could let go of the idea that some things are more fun than others, or if I could convince myself that I loved every minute of my life, even when I was doing push-ups, then I'd no longer mind devoting time to exercise or cleaning instead of Puzzle Pirates.