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How a ‘workaholic robot’ finally found time to play — and how you can, too

Deb Hardy finally making art again in her studio. Courtesy of Deb Hardy.

Want to find time for your most important life goals? In our new feature, Timehacker, we match readers with the right coach to help them find that time, develop new habits and get started. Then we check in on Day 21 to see how it’s working out.

THE SUBJECT: Deb Hardy, 48, lives in Seattle and works for a large technology firm, managing the editorial standards for their technical content. She loves her work, but puts all of her energy into it, has nothing left for anything else, and tends to just collapse in front of the TV or surf the Internet in her free time.

“I have this mental block, where I feel life is all about obligation, drudgery, doing what I should do, making other people happy, never disappointing anyone,” she said. “I must have been a Puritan in a former life.”

THE GOAL: What Deb really wanted was to find time to make art. “I like to do mixed media art, and I’m just not making time for it,” she said. “I’ve started to feel like a fraud. I call myself an artist, but I’m not making any art.”

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THE TIMEHACK: Deb worked to find time for her goal with Carmen Coker, a professional organizer. Coker suggested four Timehacks:

1. Identify your top five values. Once you do, it’s easier to see if your actions are in line with your values. And if they’re not, once you have a clearer idea of what’s important, you’ll have more impetus to change.

2. Schedule time for fun first, before anything else. “Otherwise, you’re trying to ‘squeeze’ it in, and that rarely works,” Coker said. When you schedule something, it shows it’s important to you, she said, and you’re more likely to follow through and make it real.

3. Figure out what you have to let go of in order to make time for what you really want. Ask people you trust for their honest opinions and constructive feedback of how you spend your time.

4. Find the space, not just in the calendar, but the physical space, to create art, and make the space inviting, so you’ll be drawn to spend time there.

[Related: “Everywhere I look is clutter." Can we help this woman get her life in order?]

THE PROGNOSIS: Deb showed real motivation to change, Coker said. But she also fell into some pretty common mindset and behavior traps about time that she’d have to work to overcome:

*Saying “yes” to commitments that (a) you really don’t want to do and (b) that aren’t aligned with your priorities, either because you seek to please, like to help others, are afraid of hurting their feelings, feeling needed makes you feel important, or you don’t want to make waves.

“The end result of being a yes-man or yes-woman is that you will always be over-committed and over-scheduled,” Coker said, “and your priorities and time will suffer the consequences.”

*Spending too much time in non-rewarding/fulfilling activities like watching TV.

“The average American watches 4-5 hours of TV per day. Not to mention that Americans devote an average of 40 minutes each day to Facebook. So the question becomes: how much productive time are you throwing away?” Coker said. “Deb put it very beautifully when she said she spent too much time consuming what other people create, like TV shows, instead of creating herself. In the end, the former doesn’t sustain your motivation or energy levels, let alone fulfill you.”

*Putting 100% into being organized and productive at work, but being the opposite with non-work-related time.

“Your work is something that people — outside your family and close circle of friends — see every day. Which means, you know your work-self will be judged. You want to be perceived as hardworking, productive, organized, and the like, so you are willing to work harder to create that perception,” Coker said. “Unfortunately, putting everything into your work life means you have little or no energy (or inclination) left to put effort into being organized and productive in your personal or home life.”

DAY 21:

After working with Carmen, Deb had a big A-HA! moment: “I had this goal of making more time to make art, but I found what I was really craving was more fun and play,” she said. “Creating art is just one form of that.

“And once I started looking at it that way, I realized I have not made fun and play a priority for many, many years.”

She began by identifying her top values: Creativity. Connection. Health. Fun. Passion. “And I added a sixth one of my own: Ease,” Deb said. “Because I think I make things way harder than they need to be.” She posted the list on her monitor at work, and stuck another one in her wallet.

Then she began to filter all her obligations and invitations through the lens of these core values. If they fit, she said, yes. If they didn’t, she found it easier to begin saying no. “The biggest challenge right now has been to remember to use it in the moment,” Deb said, “Because my knee jerk reaction is to say yes to everything.”

She asked her husband and her sister what they thought she should give up in order to make more time for fun, and realized how much unfulfilling, passive TV she’d been watching, or how many hours she was wasting on Pinterest. “I realized I needed to give those things up for the things that I claim are my priorities,” she said.

So instead of flopping on the couch, she began to plan her week on Sundays, and scheduled two-hour blocks of time for fun and creativity every other day. If one day didn’t work out, she’d push it into the next day. If she didn’t have a full two hours, she’d find creative things to do for 30 minutes.

“Scheduling was key. I have a Google calendar, and it just looks like a sea of obligations,” she said. “So I actually made these fun appointments pink, which is the happiest color I could think of. So when I see them, instead of thinking, ‘Ugh, I have to do this,’ it’s ‘Hey, I get to do this!’”

She’s added lights to her studio to make it more inviting and has been making art again, doodling in her art journal, or playing with digital art on her iPad. For fun, she’s going for walks in the woods, visiting places around Seattle, and getting outside again, or meeting up with friends.

“I don’t want to be a workaholic robot that’s exhausted mentally and physically exhausted at the end of everyday anymore,” she said. “It still feels really frivolous saying I want time to play. But I just feel like I’m coming back to myself. It feels great.”

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