Balancing Act

Is time really the enemy?

Is time really the enemy?

Is time really the enemy? (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

In my parenting reverie, Saturday mornings are for pancakes and puzzles and craft projects.

In real life, they're for tracking down pieces from Thursday's puzzle, scraping up dried glitter glue from Wednesday's craft project and folding the laundry I did Tuesday.

Such is my relationship with time. I know it's finite. But I treat it like a renewable resource. I know I want to give the people in my life a lot more of it and the chores a lot less. Yet so many mornings I do the exact opposite.

I used to do that defeated-shrug thing. Oh, well. Never enough time.

Then I got really sick, really fast, and learned how little time it takes for life to slip from your control. It was spinal meningitis, and later a heart condition (triggered by the meningitis). I'm fine, but those moments of uncertainty change your appreciation for time.

As in, wake up, dummy, you've only got so much of it.

But resolve, like time, has a way of slipping away from you. I'm more mindful of my minutes, but I still feel like my people-to-chore ratio is off.

For example: There's very little I enjoy more than time with good pals. And yet, finding a moment to see one is a feat of epic proportions.

There's the scheduling. I have 40 minutes on May 25 between swim and Eli's birthday party. No? OK, I have 20 minutes on July 13 between … oh, forget it.

And the guilt. What is this, "Friends"? You have babies, and they magically disappear so you can hang out in a coffee shop all day?

And the expense. Forty bucks to a sitter and 40 bucks for flatbread and a glass (fine, glasses) of wine? Well, I'm sure ComEd will give you a pass this month.

Which is all just a variation on the defeated-shrug thing.

So, enough.

I called on Laura Vanderkam, author of the 2010 book "168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think" (Portfolio). The premise: We have 168 hours in a week. If you work 50 hours and sleep 56 (pause for laughter), you're still left with 62 hours.

Sixty-two hours! Surely I can spend a couple of them on friendship. I contacted Vanderkam for guidance. She was in Japan, but she took up my case via email.

"Some people feel guilty about spending time with friends, in the same way some people feel it's selfish to exercise," Vanderkam wrote. "But you know what? It isn't. Both are associated with better health and well-being, and you can't give your best to your family or your job if you don't fill the well of your own happiness."

So how do I make it happen?

"Build them into your life as part of activities you were going to do anyway," she advised. "Do you have a friend you could carpool with once a week? Can you find a friend who'd exercise with you on Saturday mornings? Volunteer with an organization you care about with a friend. Ask a friend to come with you on an errand to Target. Make it a habit of having someone over for a low-key dinner every Sunday night."

I was sort of hoping she'd tell me to stop doing housework.

One of my favorite passages from "168 Hours" reads: "Many people still believe that 'caring for a family' means cooking, scrubbing, vacuuming, lunch packing, weeding and laundry, in addition to the emotional work of nurturing children's brains and souls. Is that really what kids need?"

I told her as much.

"Housework, like email, can consume all available time," she replied. "So if you feel you don't have time for friends, try lowering your standards. The house will just get dirty again, but you'll never get that hour back."

It seems downright impossible to love a piece of advice more than I love that piece of advice. But wait. There's more.

In "168 Hours," Vanderkam suggests tweaking our language. Instead of saying, "I don't have time for x, y or z," we should say, "I don't do x, y or z because it's not a priority" or "I don't make time for x, y or z."

"I don't make time for friendships" is an instant perspective check. And a little hard to sit with if you take inventory of the things you do make time for. Things, that is. Not people.

"It's the rare human relationship that wouldn't be strengthened by more contact," Vanderkam adds. "Make a list of friends you want to get in touch with. Then make it happen."

I hope they don't mind dried glitter glue with their Sunday dinner.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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