How can I make better use of my limited free time?
January 4, 2018 2:24 PM   Subscribe

How can I be more productive with my limited free time when I'm an introvert who always needs serious down-time before going to bed?

My schedule is usually as such--I wake up at 7:30, get ready for work, leave my house at 8:30, and usually arrive to work around 9:15. I don't really get much a 'lunch hour' because I'm busy and often just take 15 minutes to eat at my desk. I take a couple 5 minute coffee/tea breaks during the day. I usually leave my office at 6:30ish and arrive home around 7:15 or so. I also wait tables Sundays at a restaurant from 9:30-4 (with 30 minute commute on either side) that tires me out and leaves me with only a day and a half weekend instead of two full rested days to fit in social and personal endeavors.

One of my New Year's resolutions is to go to bed by 11 or 11:30 every night so I can get a full 8 hours sleep.

So that basically gives me from 7 to 11, four hours, to be productive in my other endeavors which includes grocery shopping/cooking, working out, keeping the house clean, reading, etc.

Problem is I am an introvert in the sense that I need a LOT of time to wind down before actually being able to go to sleep. I get home very tired from a busy day, and often need at least an hour or two either when I get home to sit and do nothing before being productive, or before going to bed to be able to actually get to sleep.

And by downtime, I mean like really shutting off and not hardly moving (such as looking at Instagram or watching something dumb on tv). Downtime for me is not working out or cooking or reading. I don't find shopping/cooking or working out to be relaxing like many people do, they are more like chores to me. Even if I did enjoy them they are still use too much brain power or require me to be around other people and noise. I do find cleaning and reading relaxing but I don't really need to clean every day and I need to have already cleared my mind to be able to focus on a good novel. I'm trying to cut down on smoking cigarettes, but I have found that standing alone outside at night smoking a cigarette or two for 10 minutes to be one of more effective ways of recharging. I just sort of stop my brain and watch trees or people crossing the street or dogs or whatever. I have tried just standing without a cigarette and looking around, but it makes me feel self-conscious and then my brain starts whirling around. In case someone tries to blame my smoking, I smoke maybe 4 cigarettes a day, trying to cut them out entirely, but this problem existed even when I had quit for a few years.

Problem is this leaves me with only a couple hours to get anything done, which means I find myself very crunched for time to fit everything in (gym, groceries, laundry, cooking, etc) and if I have any social plans that pretty much wipes out my evening.

I can't change my commute (subway) or the share the household chores (single) or cut down on shopping or laundry time (grocery store is 15 minute walk and I don't have laundry in my building so have to trudge to the laundromat) and I can't afford to throw money at the problem by getting delivered groceries or sending laundry out.

So I guess my question is, how do overcome this need to shut down for hours every day so I can be the kind of person who can go straight from work to the gym, then straight to the grocery store, then home to cook, then clean, and go straight to bed?

In an ideal world where I am at peak productivity, my schedule would look like this:

7:30-8:30 Wake and get ready for work
8:30-9:15 Commute to work
9:15-6:30 Work
6:30-7:15 Commute to gym nearish home (also a 10 minute walk)
7:15-8:15 Work out
8:15-9:15 Grocery shop, walk home
9:15-10:15 Cook dinner, eat, clean up
10:15-11 Get ready for work the next day, maybe make a phone call or two to friends/relatives, read a little
11 go to bed

It seems impossible to me how people just go go go all day and then go straight to bed and sleep a full night. How does one adult with little free time without sharing responsibilities or paying extra for convenience? I realize this isn't the kind of thing I'd have to do every day, but assume that some nights I work late, some nights I make dinner plans with friends, some nights I will choose to forgo all of it and watch a movie. But even on the days when I WANT to keep this schedule, I find it really really draining and nearly impossible to do more than once a week and I want to be able to cook more and work out more without feeling like it's sucking up all my ME time.

Any introverts or otherwise busy tired people out there figure out how to compact your much need down time into just a few minutes a day?

Please assume I can't change any of the circumstances of my job or commute or convenience of laundry/grocery. I want a way to feel capable of doing what I need to do without sacrificing my important recharge time. I'm not suffering from depression or anxiety, am not on any meds, am taking a Vitamin B complex for energy and focus which is helpful, I only drink one cup of coffee in the morning and herbal tea the rest of the day, and my most recent physical shows that I'm good on all fronts. I think it's just psychological and I'm looking for brain hacks.

posted by greta simone to Grab Bag (27 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I'm the same way as you, and the only thing I found that works is walking. Is there any way you could walk to and/or from work, and then you wouldn't need to go to the gym? (Apologies if you live way too far). I find walking for up to 1 hour clears my head in the same way that lying on my bed doing nothing for a while does. when I've been strapped for time, I've eliminated the gym from my routine (I don't find it fun enough to justify the hassle, you might be different)
posted by winterportage at 2:34 PM on January 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

I am like you. A few things that helped me are:
Building in down time in the morning; breaking it into two shorter chunks seemed to help me need less of it to help me function.

Another thing was that I really did have to do was change my attitude about food. I now cook a Crock-Pot of stuff on the weekend with lots of fresh groceries and freeze it. Cooking every day as a busy single person with a career just wasn't doable for me.

Another good hack is to combine relaxing with super relaxing "chores." I take a bath almost every night. This means I only need a super short refresher shower in the mornings and I get clean mostly by lying around in hot soapy water with a book at night.

Finally, I did a little bit of just plain acceptance with myself over this character trait. Like, I don't have to always be at Max Productivity even though my job sure would like me to be and and I'd benefit from it at home a little (as in like my house would always be super clean etc.). It's ok to let go of that Max Productivity Schedule as a goal. Your recharge time is part of who you are. For me, accepting that and not trying to whittle it down helped a lot too.

Best of luck.
posted by sockermom at 2:35 PM on January 4, 2018 [7 favorites]

I am like you and unfortunately, I don't have any brain hacks (I will be following this question with great interest!) I do, however, try to find more time for myself by being more efficient wherever I can. Time hacks are easier than brain hacks, I think.

One of my biggest, most hated time consumers is cooking. A thing that really helps me with that is to cook a double (or more) batch when I do cook, and then eat leftovers for a couple of days afterwards. If you're not big on having the same thing 2 or more nights in a row, you can freeze the leftovers and have a convenient meal for another time.

Also, I find that swimming is a very restorative activity for me. It's pleasant enough that I can let my mind drift, or meditate, or pray, or think about stuff. It feels a lot like down time, yet I'm getting some exercise in at the same time.

If I folded laundry (which I don't because we live out of laundry baskets like animals, but I have to spend an hour or so ironing linens once a month) I would put on a nice audio book or podcast that feels like recreation to my brain, to where I hardly notice my body going through the motions of work. It actually works out better that way for me as I tend to fall asleep if I try to sit still and listen to anything.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:40 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Take your full lunch break every single day, away from your desk.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:45 PM on January 4, 2018 [11 favorites]

I’m kind of like you and one thing I try to do is not expect myself to do All The Productive Things every night. So eat leftovers or very low effort foods on workout days, do errands/groceries once a week on the way home from work, spend a whole day cleaning once every two weeks or so (I have two day weekends generally though), etc. I find doing one or two productive things makes me feel better about my necessary downtime and this way I’m not falling into bed way to high on productive go-go-go energy to sleep.
posted by MadamM at 2:55 PM on January 4, 2018 [6 favorites]

You're trying to do too much.

The fact is that there are only 24 hours a day. If you spend almost three hours a day working out and grocery shopping, for example, that's three hours a day that you're not spending on something else--like relaxing or sleep. You can't magic up more time, so you have to prioritize.

So the answer to your question of how adults do it is: They do less.

Personally, I think that getting good sleep is more important than working out every day, so I don't work out every day. I value eating home-cooked, non-processed food--but I don't go to the grocery and cook everyday, either. I go to the grocery every few days, cook simple meals, and eat leftovers.

You're already starting "behind" so to speak because you get off work at 6:30 instead of 5 like a lot of people. I think you really need to be easier on yourself and have more realistic expectations about what you can get done in the time you have left.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:02 PM on January 4, 2018 [12 favorites]

The problem isn't your level of introversion, it's that you're constantly working overtime. Adults who do not live in TV commercials deal with this either by allowing the things they don't care about to slide, or by paying other adults to do work for them.

If you can identify things to cook that don't require an individual shopping trip, that might free up a few odd minutes: in similar straits, I owned a huge backpack and ate a lot of lentils-with-frozen-spinach. But the real problem isn't you, it's capitalism.
posted by yarntheory at 3:02 PM on January 4, 2018 [15 favorites]

If you can, I would get up earlier and work out in the morning. You might be able to find a gym near your job, which would have the added benefit (hopefully) of having you miss one bout of rush hour traffic, assuming that's a factor.

Then, in the evenings, I would structure your time so you do 2-3 things per evening, preferably while dinner is getting ready - i.e. laundry, dust, vacuum, light cleaning, and so on. If possible, one night a week, leave work a little early and do your grocery shopping.

Also, every time you cook, make enough for leftovers that you can have either the next evening or for lunch the next day. Or make enough to freeze, and thus, free up a little extra time. It doesn't take much longer to make an entire pan of lasagna or a big bowl of soup or stew, but having something ready to go that you can just throw in the microwave at the end of a hard day is priceless.

If possible, set aside your Saturday afternoons for JUST YOU time. Sort of like that old tradition of Sabbath. That's your time to do whatever you want - read, go for walks, watch mindless movies, see friends, play video games, or whatever.

I would also set aside the half an hour before you go to bed as "you time" or "get ready" time, where you do all of the little tasks that make getting up the next day that much easier - put out your clothes, pack your lunch, write your shopping list for after work, or whatever. Then, have a cup of tea or a glass of wine, if you drink, and just try to chill.
posted by dancing_angel at 3:09 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Get up earlier and get your groceries online while you're sitting around relaxing.
posted by KateViolet at 3:27 PM on January 4, 2018

I agree with the other comments that point out that you're working a lot of hours

My big tips are:

- Batch the things that are batchable. Grocery shopping, for example, is a thing I do once a week. On weeks I'm extra busy, it's via delivery, other weeks it's Saturday or Sunday morning. Same deal with laundry: I have enough clothing to go about 2.5 weeks without doing laundry, and usually do it every two weeks.

- Consider what stuff someone else could do. I get a monthly cleaning service, which means the upkeep I have to do on my own is much more manageable and on the order of 10-15 minutes 2-3 days a week plus daily stuff like dealing with a small number of dishes/etc. (Also, they do stuff I really struggle with doing for chronic health reasons, which is awesome.)

- Consider different scheduling of the moveable pieces. I am not natively a morning person, but I swim before work (near my job) and like dancing_angel says, win the benefit of both much less traffic and not having to do it later. Consider how often you want/need to be working out: I swim twice a week, and do mild other exercise on other days, because of the time issues. I've found it also makes me less stressy about the day even if there's traffic coming home.

- Maybe you do need to limit the other stuff you do and plan to do. I've learned I'm way way happier (also more productive) if I limit after work stuff (any errand more complicated than the drugstore across the street, so that includes doctor appts, extra shopping, etc. plus social things) to once a week and no more than one weekend thing, and I keep at least one weekend day a weekend entirely clear and one full weekend a month. I make exceptions for really unusual things (friend from far away in town, all-weekend events) but rarely. Your numbers for what you schedule are probably different than mine, but finding out what your limits are can help you make better plans.

(I miss not being able to do more things with people I like, but I like not being completely exhausted and overwhelmed all the time even more, and my actual friends understand this and are glad to see me when we work it out.)

- And yeah, definitely see about taking a proper break at lunch if it's at all possible or working fewer overtime hours. Do a test and try each for a week or two, and see how you feel - it'll give you a lot of data.
posted by modernhypatia at 3:28 PM on January 4, 2018

Your location says Brooklyn. I understand the struggle—it is real.

1) Sleep later. Be ruthless about getting your morning routine down to a bare minimum.

2) If you’re like most New Yorkers, you settled on a commute and then never really thought about it again. Experiment with different routes to see if you can shave time off.
posted by Automocar at 3:35 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Looks like you live in or around NYC. I empathize. I live in a city as well and my commute is about the same as yours. It's hard.

Since you are taking public trans to work, I recommend audiobooks and meditation apps. I have found those to be a great way to feel like I am getting time to do something I enjoy while I'm having to sit (or stand) around on public trans. The meditation apps are also really helpful on the commute home because they allow me to release that work mindset that can be really hard to shake.

I also recommend simplifying your meals and trying to integrate more non-perishables into your meals. Aim for meals that require as little prep time as possible. Dutch ovens are great for this; stick in a grain, liquid, protein, and veggies and then stick it in the oven for an hour. Boom, food for four days. More non-perishables means you don't have to shop everyday. If you don't have kitchen room, non-perishables can be stored anywhere, even under the bed in a pinch (although place cardboard boxed and bagged stuff in a plastic storage bin to prevent mice).

Try working out at home on days that you are doing things like 7min abs, stairs, squats, etc.

Lastly, my most important piece of advice is to take your lunch as much as possible. There's a reason you get one, and you will be much more productive and effective as a worker if you are fully fed and have had a little time to breathe. Tell your coworkers "I am taking lunch now" and then after you eat, leave the building to take a walk, or go on your tea break then and read in the coffee shop. Things get busy and inevitably there's going to be days where lunch is 15 minutes at the desk. But try to make that the exception rather than the norm.

Good luck and super commute solidarity.
posted by donut_princess at 3:53 PM on January 4, 2018

Why are you working so many hours? If you're on a particular career track it's perhaps understandable, but there have been times when I went overboard with my hours and it ultimately did not benefit me. Consider taking a longer lunch or leaving earlier if you can.

The way you describe smoking sounds meditative. Maybe try meditating to re-set when you get home from work and see if that helps.

I agree with the above suggestions to not grocery shop every single day and to reconsider whether you need a full hour's workout at the gym every day. And to look at ways to sort out dinner that don't involve cooking every night.
posted by bunderful at 3:53 PM on January 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

Have you considered meal planning/batch cooking? If you get all the groceries you need once a week and then prep things so that meals are heat-and-eat or assemble-and-eat, you'll reclaim a bit of your after work time.

I agree that most people can't do all of this every night and most people don't. Every magazine article etc. makes it sound like we should all be able to do this but that's garbage.

One other thought: have you examined whether your ways of unwinding are truly helpful? (For example, if you're looking through instagram, are you thought-spiralling and comparing yourself to all those idealized portrayals of people's lives...? Just spitballing here.) You mention the cigarette outside as being a recharge and I understand that--it's peaceful and yet also purposeful. Have you ever tried meditation? A guided meditation? That might be something to try for your winding down ritual.
posted by purple_bird at 3:56 PM on January 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

Nthing meditation. The difference between how well I sleep if I spend five minutes in zazen gazing at a blank wall before I go to bed, compared to if I don't, is pronounced.
posted by Lexica at 4:43 PM on January 4, 2018

I'd give up the waitressing gig before considering anything else. You need two days off when you've got a full-time job.
posted by zadcat at 5:14 PM on January 4, 2018 [9 favorites]

Looking at your schedule, it seems to me like the biggest things you could change are:

1. Devote some weekend time to getting your grocery shopping/meals squared away. Grocery shop only once a week, using a little grocery cart like this if it's too heavy for you to carry a whole week of groceries in one go. You may also find you can fit a week's worth of groceries for one person into a backpack + large shoulder bag if your walk isn't too long -- I did this for a long time when I was single and found it worked just fine, plus it doubles as a workout!

2. Prep some things on the weekend to make it easier to prepare dinner later in the week -- chopping up veggies, making a sauce, maybe even making an entire dish that keeps well (for example, soup or casserole). Plan on leftovers throughout the week, or if you don't like eating the same thing two days in a row, plan some things that freeze well and start stocking your freezer so that over time you can pull out homemade food and defrost for dinner rather than making something from scratch. Incorporate some fresh-but-super-fast elements throughout the week so things don't get old or feel overly "leftover-y" (i.e. fresh fruit, green salad, etc.)

3. Depending on the type of workouts you like to do, do it at home and avoid the gym (at least some of the time). For example, you can lift free weights at home, or do workout videos (I'm a big Pilates fan, but there are also tons of free/inexpensive videos out there for yoga, aerobics, etc.), or go running/jogging/biking outside (seasonally). You could also look for an inexpensive exercise bike or elliptical machine on Craigslist. While some of these options do have an upfront cost (of weights, a bike, etc.), you'd be cutting out the cost of a gym membership so it might work out financially. Obviously this doesn't substitute for all the things you could do at the gym (for example, if your thing is weight machines or swimming), but consider whether it could work for you since it would also cut down on "seeing people" time -- you'd both cut out the time it takes to get to the gym AND you might find this time more restorative since it would not involve being around other people in the same way.
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:19 PM on January 4, 2018

I’m a bit different in that I’m extremely extroverted but I go to bed at 10 every. single. night. This means I have even less time to get stuff done because I need to be home by 9 to get ready for bed.

I would spend every night out catching up with friends if I could but that simply doesn’t work for all the side stuff I need to get done. The way I make this work is that I make two tasks work for one. Cooking 2 big meals on the weekend (that I eat throughout the week) means I don’t have much to clean during the week (maybe some Tupperware or a play, but that goes in the washer- still not much), when I go to the gym I invite a friend to join so we can also catch up,
posted by raccoon409 at 5:19 PM on January 4, 2018

Do not cook every day. Big batches, freezables, mix and match. I make a game of the leftovers in new pairings and tweaks.
Do not clean every day. Do it once a week, and a thorough cleaning once a month. If you live alone and are reasonably tidy, this is more than enough.
Pair stupid, mindless chores with phonecalls. I fold laundry, put away leftovers, set out clothes for the next morning, while catching up with friends and family.
I read during my commute. You could try that.
Take a proper break during lunch. Seriously. Physically remove yourself from your desk/cubicle/whatever, if only for ten minutes.
Sleep is priority over EVERYTHING else. This has been my one game-changer (I'd asked a similar question last year). I cut out caffeine after 8 pm and set a hard limit of midnight to bed. Done, and done.
Keep realistic standards for yourself. Unachievable high standards are really stressful, and I had to teach myself to stop doing that.
Very similar situation except the Sunday gig. I feel for you. Good luck!
posted by Nieshka at 2:09 AM on January 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'd say you're working too much and eating too late. Take a full lunch break and eat something that you would otherwise eat in the evening. A full stomach can make it harder to relax and fall asleep at night.

Skip grocery shopping every day. Do it once per week or order grocery delivery. There's no need to go shopping every day.

There is also no need to cook every day, especially if you're cooking for one. Leftovers are a thing for a reason.
posted by gakiko at 7:04 AM on January 5, 2018

Can you shorten your morning routine so you have more time to decompress in the evenings? The tradeoff may not be worth it for you but I have found it definitely is for me since I am naturally more of a night owl and would rather have more evening free time.
posted by ferret branca at 8:08 AM on January 5, 2018

This year I was effectively single for 6 months as my husband was working mostly in another city. I found cooking a proper dinner every night was an enormous drain on my time and patience, so I’d cook a 2 or 4 serve meal one night, then tuck the leftovers in the fridge or freezer. The next night I’d definitely eat leftovers, and maybe the next night as well depending on if I had more interesting things to do. Also breakfast for dinner (toast, eggs, whatevs) is an acceptable thing if you’re getting enough veggies in your lunch.

But please do realise that you are working long hours in one job and have a 2nd job as well. Cut yourself some slack on exercising and cleaning, and make a plan to ditch the 2nd job as soon as is practical. Your problem isn’t that you’re an introvert or that you’re disorganised or lazy, it’s that your current situation is very difficult. Be kind to yourself!
posted by harriet vane at 8:09 AM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

For those of you who actually read my question and the parts about not being able to change my schedule or not actually trying to follow this time table every day, and trying to change my psychological needs instead of my circumstances, thanks for your insights.
posted by greta simone at 8:10 AM on January 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

You're working a 9+ hour day. Any way to cut that back?

You're working out 5+ days a week. If that isn't fun or relaxing for you, you should cut back to 3x.

Other than that, if you can get out the door in 30m in the morning instead of an hour, that's a half hour you have to relax elsewhere?
posted by talldean at 5:23 PM on January 9, 2018

Hubs is slightly more extroverted than me, but his ADHD requires massive amounts of downtime while I need that introverted downtime too.

My way around it has been to eat the same thing every day for breakfast. While completely unexciting, I portion out a week's worth of oatmeal and make it at work, which means I don't have to make it at home or think about what to have every day. Decision making is exhausting, so maybe reducing the amounts of decisions in a day could also help.

My husband's way is to wear various permutations of his "nerd uniform", which is always a polo shirt, a sweater and black khakis. This way he doesn't have to do special laundry loads along with reduced decision making. Look for areas where you can "shrink the ask".

I don't know if it's possible to change your need for downtime, but it's definitely possible to change activities around it around it.

Having less material goods to look after may also cut down on cleaning time. Minimalist living blogs might have some gems to glean too. Once you start making changes in one area you will probably find it radiating through the rest of your life too. Good luck!
posted by Calzephyr at 5:57 AM on January 10, 2018

It looks like the main issue is that you are spending about 2 hours a day shopping and cooking dinners. You need some strategies to deal with that. Some ideas are:

1. As others mentioned, batch your shopping and cooking because doing meals for one is incredibly inefficient and in my experience results in a lot of food waste. The freezer is your friend.

2. If you were to fast or just drink a protein shake a couple of nights a week, you could free up four hours. It isn’t that bad when you get used to it. Lots of people do it for health reasons and the side effect is that it frees up a lot of time.

3. Take out once or twice a week?

4. Keep a couple of ramen packs in the cupboard for emergencies. I’m not suggesting you make this a lifestyle, but Shin Ramen is pretty tasty. Throw an egg on top.

5. You say you are an introvert, but i assume you have a social life and dinner with a friend or two might be more relaxing then going to a party or club and it takes care of the need to eat at the same time.

If in a given work week you had pre cooked meals from the weekend on two nights, got Chinese takeout on the way home from the gym one night, skip dinner on night, have dinner with a friend one night, you would save conservatively 6-8 hours.

The other idea would be to get up early to work out. Better yet, work out at lunch if it is feasible. This would free up more “shut down time” at the end of the day.
posted by clark at 8:32 AM on January 10, 2018

This article just came across my RSS reader: Researchers say this 5-minute technique could help you fall asleep more quickly. Summary: study participants who spent 5 minutes writing a comprehensive to-do list of everything they needed to do in the next few days fell asleep more quickly than participants who spent the time writing a list of what they'd accomplished during the day.
posted by Lexica at 11:57 AM on January 25, 2018

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