What if we measured success in terms of time rather than money? What if we stopped focusing on how much we earned and instead paid attention to how much we loved, laughed, and enjoyed the moments that make up each day?
In the world of personal finance, we often write about financial freedom and FIRE. We formulate plans for saving, investing in ourselves, and growing our nest eggs. We set our sights on specific dollar amounts: $1 million, $2 million, and counting.
Through these figures, we define ourselves and our particular quest: LeanFIRE, BaristaFIRE, CoastFIRE, FatFIRE, and so many others. We strive to save our pennies, and as we do, we narrowly focus on our monetary goals.
But what happens when the race towards financial independence ends? When you reflect on your journey, what will you see? When you look at the figures in your giant spreadsheets, what will you realize?
If you are lucky enough to reach the end of your journey, the real prize will come into view. In the end, it’s not the money that matters. It’s the time freedom that awaits you.
What is Time Freedom?
In America, we traditionally measure success by the amount of stuff we accumulate and own. We admire bigger houses, luxury vehicles, and extravagant vacations, and we spend our days earning money to pay for all those treasures. But, in doing so, we disregard the most valuable resource: our time.
Time freedom is the understanding that time is limited and precious. We can’t rewind the clock or ask for more when our days begin to dwindle in number. We can’t ask time to stop because we haven’t made the most of the minutes we’ve received so far.
Time freedom allows us to manage the minutes that make up our days. In essence, it enables us to become timekeepers; personally responsible and in control of our waking hours.
While we can’t do everything we want at any given moment, we can do more of what we love each day. As we gain time freedom, we can focus on the matters we hold most near and dear to our hearts, which helps us waste less time on things that don’t matter at all.
The Clock Ticks Life Away
I suppose I’ve always been aware of the life clock that stands before me. While most children look forward to their upcoming birthdays, I cried when the calendar rolled towards mine.
I didn’t want to grow up. Growing up meant my dad couldn’t lovingly toss me into bed each night before tucking me in. And sooner or later, I would grow too big to crawl into my mother’s arms for a hug.
I forgot about the clock during my late teens and twenties, but when an unexpected medical disorder nearly ended my life, the ticking sounds grew louder again.
As I age, the passage of time feels more urgent and apparent. It’s difficult to ignore the wrinkles in my face or my hair as it turns gray.
An Inkling of Time Freedom
This recognition of time helped me walk away from my career nine years ago. I didn’t want to waste another precious moment in a cubicle. Thanks to our prior savings and my husband’s continuing career. I didn’t have to.
I don’t have complete-time freedom, but quitting my job has enabled me to snuggle my babies, volunteer, and live primarily in the moment. Since leaving corporate America, I’ve stopped squeezing the hours of my day in between the hours spent at work and commuting.
Of course, everyone knows that babies have clocks of their own. Despite leaving my career, I certainly didn’t achieve freedom of time. My children woke every three hours as infants, and they still bounce out of bed much too early in the morning.
This past year was my first glimpse into time freedom. For the first time, I didn’t wake up to the sounds of my alarm clock or children in need of attention. I homeschooled our two boys during the pandemic, so we didn’t need to worry about school bells, sports, or after-school activities.
My schedule wasn’t entirely open, but I suddenly found myself faced with more time than I ever could have imagined.
The Problem With Traditional Retirement: Waiting for Time Freedom
Traditional retirement tells us fun will begin thirty to forty years after we start working. If we follow these rules, we wait patiently for a two-week vacation each year and a retirement that looms decades away.
In the meantime, most of us will delay our goals:
- One day, I will write a book.
- One day, I will spend countless hours taking photographs of people and things I love.
But are we postponing our dreams for a future that may never come? What if we don’t make it to retirement age or we aren’t healthy enough to enjoy it when we get there? What if we push our goals so far out into the future that we never find the opportunity to achieve them? Can’t we lead fulfilling, rewarding lives before that time arrives?
The Steps to Achieving Time Freedom
Time freedom sounds nice, but most of us can’t dump the 9-to-5. We can seek financial independence, but the journey can last decades.
So what can we do in the meantime? Can we start making progress towards our goals today? Can we gain time freedom without waiting for the end of the 9-to-5 road?
I think we can. Here’s how:
Step 1 – Discover Your Passions
What matters most to you? If you didn’t need to work, what would you do with your time? Would you spend it on creative endeavors, volunteering, exercising, learning new skills, relaxing, or enjoying the company of your loved ones?
To focus on time freedom, you must construct a clear vision of how you want to spend the minutes that make up your day. What brings joy to your world? What would make you bounce out of bed without an alarm clock to wake you?
Try to create a clear vision of your future. If time were an infinite resource, what goals would you wish to accomplish?
When you are unsure, ask yourself a vital question. If you knew your life would end in a matter of days, what would you want to do with your remaining time? Think hard about that question and focus your attention on the answer you find.
Yes, you are still constrained to a clock, but you have the freedom to decide how to spend your spare time. The truth is, we always have time constraints. We need to sleep, eat, and perform bodily functions on an everyday basis. Ignore the time constraints of work, and find time freedom for the rest of your day.
Step 2 – Break Down Your Goals into Actionable Tasks
After you discover your passions, it’s time to break down your goals into actionable tasks. You don’t need to retire to write the book you’ve always wanted to write. Every book starts with the first paragraph, so focus on a few pages at a time. You don’t need to quit your job to run a marathon. To start, you need to go outside and run around the block.
The same is true of any important goal. It’s more challenging to work around the 9-to-5, but baby steps will help you get there. When you break down the tasks, it’s easier to carve out smaller chunks of time for each of them.
Step 3 – Shorten Your Work Day
Next, take a good hard look at your job. Most of us spend more than eight hours involved in work-related activities. We spend time preparing for work and commuting to it, and many of us also put in long hours after the workday ends.
Can you put limitations around these extra hours? Can you alter the amount of time you spend commuting or cut back on overtime? Is your manager open to compressed schedules or remote options?
How much time do you spend thinking about work outside of typical work hours? Can you find ways to cut back on the amount of time and energy you spend on work-related activities that don’t earn extra income?
Schedule an end to your workday if you can. That means closing your laptop and turning off notifications for email and text messages.
Step 4 – Schedule Your Time
It may seem like time freedom, and scheduling should be at odds with one another, but I beg to differ. To focus on the things that matter, you have to schedule time for them.
Set appointments to spend your time the way you see fit. Add these events on your calendar just like you would dentist appointments or PTA meetings.
Don’t focus on huge chunks of time in the beginning. Start with small increments, even ten to twenty minutes, and build up slowly.
If you have children work around their downtimes. For example, you can paint or write in the morning before your kids wake up or in the evening just after they drift off to sleep.
If you have a partner, ask them to watch the kids for a few hours one day of the week. Then switch so your partner can focus on their passion projects.
Take these events seriously. When they pop up on your calendar, stop what you are doing and focus on the task you wish to complete. Don’t perform chores, make dinner, or complete other household tasks. Use the time you’ve allotted for yourself.
Step 5 – Remove Obligations From Your Calendar
Speaking of calendars now is the time to remove obligations from your monthly to-do list. What meetings, appointments, and other commitments can you strip from your life?
Don’t hesitate to strike things that don’t bring you joy. If an activity feels wasteful or draining, clear it from your calendar.
Imagine time as limitless. What barriers prevent you from scheduling time for the activities and events that matter. Can you remove them one by one?
Step 6 – Avoid the Time Suck
If you don’t have a job, you can stare at the clouds and scroll mindlessly through social media. But if you don’t have complete-time freedom, you’ll need to avoid this time suck.
There are two ways to accomplish that goal. First, don’t grab your phone off the nightstand first thing in the morning. Instead, hop out of bed, take a shower, and get on with your day.
I always feel better when I hit the gym first thing in the morning or write a blog post just after taking the kids to school. Check off the things that matter first. If that doesn’t sound like fun, set a timer for twenty to thirty minutes, and put your phone down when time runs out.
The same goes for activities that suck up time at the end of the day. If you know a Netflix series is bound to keep you up all night, set a time limit for watching it.
Step 7 – Set Aside Time for Resting, Relaxing, and Hanging Out
Most of us feel rushed by the day-to-day events in our lives, but we don’t set aside specific time for resting, relaxing, or hanging out. Instead, we crash on the couch in utter exhaustion and fail to get back up until long after night falls.
Make sure to use some of your free time for vegging out. Schedule a time to RELAX on your calendar. That means grabbing a book, taking a walk, soaking in a warm tub. It doesn’t matter what you do. Just make sure the activity helps you rest.
Let this be a time where you take care of yourself and help your body rejuvenate.
Step 8 – Stop Wasting Time on Factors You Can’t Change.
I’ve spent too much time on unhealthy relationships, worries, and regrets. I’ve focused on things I couldn’t alter or change, and in my youth, I focused too narrowly on climbing up the corporate ladder of success. Our time is limited. Try not to waste it on pointless endeavors.
Achieving Time Freedom Now
If you feel stuck, listen to Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech. In it he said:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
You might not have complete time freedom right now, but you can set a course to change that. Seeking financial freedom will point you in the right direction, but don’t wait until you retire to make the most of your minutes. Figure out what matters to you right now and carve out space and time for it!