One spring day in 2000, while I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D., I was having tea with a fellow doctoral student and we had an interesting conversation about time that has stuck with me. Discussing our lack of time was a common part of our weekly visits. That day she was particularly agitated about being busy. She explained that a friend of hers was encouraging (perhaps demanding) her to change the way she spoke about her time. “She doesn’t want me to say, ‘I don’t have time to have coffee with you this week,’ she wants me to say, ‘I choose not to take time to have coffee with you.'”
As a leisure scientist, I have a particular interest in time and how we think and speak about time because of the connections between time and leisure. Often, people think of time or lack of it as something that is beyond their control and would therefore view it as a “structural constraint“. Those individuals generally have an external locus of control and feel controlled by what happens to them that is external to themselves. They tend to blame other people and events, positive or negative, for what is transpiring in their lives. Therefore, the reason they would not have satisfying leisure or time for leisure would be viewed as a result of factors external to them. In my friend’s case, she was viewing preparation for comprehensive exams as dictating her time. The stack of books she had on her desk and floor in her home office – they were in charge of her time. The looming date on the calendar was marked in red “methods exam” also controlled how her time was spent.
I have fallen into this similar trap of seeing time as outside my control. In some ways, it’s comforting. I don’t have to take responsibility for my choices and even get to feel a little sorry for myself when I “have to” deny myself opportunities for fun because of class lecture preparation or grading is “eating up my time.” But at the end of the day, this external locus of control can mean that I miss out on satisfying experiences, that I experience a feeling of helplessness, and that I can even have a negative attitude about what it is that I’m doing (e.g., feeling annoyed at a work event because I feel I “have to” be there).
On the other hand, there are those individuals who see time use as something they have considerable influence over and have an internal locus of control. Those with an internal locus of control tend to experience a greater sense of personal freedom – feeling that they control their life, that they possesses a sense of power, are responsible for their life and their choices, and direct their efforts toward mastering their environment.
I have revisited the conversation about choosing how to spend time on many occasions. Would I make different choices if I had to phrase my time excuse as a choice? What might change for me if I thought about or spoke about my time use as a series of choices? In particular, I was curious if it might help me to understand my own values and choices related to how I spend my time.
A few years ago, I gave focused attention to altering the way I thought about and spoke about my time. I committed to a month. It was during a term when I was teaching “leisure education” and the topics I was covering that month were focused on leisure awareness and self-assessment. I thought that teaching those topics would help me keep this internal locus of control experiment at the forefront of my mind.
First of all, I found the exercise of shifting my thoughts and words to be a challenge. I didn’t realize how many times I used, “I don’t have time” or “I ran out of time” as a reason for not doing something or for explaining why I didn’t get to something. I found I used “I have to” quite a bit to explain why I could make a different choice.
I also became much more aware of what my values were related to my time. Work certainly seemed to be a priority as I was regularly choosing this over other things – my personal, solitary leisure pursuits, my social leisure activities, and even my health (e.g., not taking time to exercise or make healthy meals). I found that I was uncomfortable saying to a friend, “I choose to work instead of spending time with you”. It didn’t communicate what I perceived to be my values. It was a bit of a wake up call to realize that blaming the time demands of work had masked the choices I was making and that these choices were not necessarily representative of what I valued.
The other thing I discovered was what I truly enjoyed doing and what I did not. I would be inclined to use the time excuse for things in which I really had no interest. The things I wanted to do, I found a way to make the time. This raised the question for me of whether it’s okay to simply tell people that you’re not interested in, for example, going to a horror movie instead of saying “I’m too busy this week.” Did I risk being excluded in the future by being clear about what I chose to participate in and what I chose not to? It seemed easier to say, “I’m busy” rather than “I’m not interested in seeing a horror movie, so I’m going to choose not to go.” And yet, how could I truly expect friends or family or acquaintances to get to know me or demonstrate they knew me if I masked my interests and choices in the “lack of time” excuse?
The other change I noticed was that as I “chose” to work or “chose” to go grocery shopping, and “chose” to clean the house, or “chose” to do something with a friend that wasn’t really my thing but meant a lot to her, I approached these task less begrudgingly. I didn’t suddenly love cleaning, but there was something different when I used “I choose” instead of “I have to” language. I also found that I had a greater appreciation for those times when I “chose” leisure as well. It wasn’t something I did with what time I had left over. This seemed to enhance the experiences I had with those leisure pursuits. I was also practicing what I preach – taking personal responsibility for one’s leisure
Certainly, there are times when we cannot choose. I teach classes at a particular time and I don’t choose to show up or not – it’s my responsibility to do so. I fulfill this responsibility. There are many things parents do for their children that are not necessarily choices – but a responsibility that comes with being a parent. However, we each have some room in our days and weeks to make choices.
I encourage you to experiment with your thoughts and language related to time and leisure. Rather than saying, “I never have time for leisure” or “I can’t get leisure time” or “No one gives me time”, try saying, “I am responsible for making time for my leisure.” Tell your partner/spouse or children or friends what you are “choosing” – be it work, your family, your friends, or yourself. Be honest with yourself about your choices. Sometimes we make work a priority for a particular length of time for a specific reason. Other times we choose family over time with friends and vice versa. If you don’t like what you see (or hear yourself say) when the mask of “no time” is removed, you are in a position to make different choices.
If you accept the challenge and try the experiment, observe yourself in the process. What do you notice when you switch your language and thoughts? Do you feel differently about what you’re doing? Do you experience an increased sense of freedom? Do you find yourself making different choices?
Since my personal experiment with the time excuse, I still fall into my old traps. I catch myself saying I don’t have time for something when really,… even with all the time in the world, I would not choose to do it. I still catch myself saying “I have to” for things I am really choosing. It is easier at times to blame the clock or a full calendar for what I fail to accomplish or enjoy in my leisure. It absolves me of the responsibility. And yet, in the long run, it doesn’t help me in leading a fulfilling leisure lifestyle. In this way, shifting the way I think about time is indeed a work in progress.