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Rationing the midnight oil

If your situation’s anything like mine, you’ve got what seems like an endless stack of to-dos.  With only so many hours in the day, for me at least the only clear place to steal more time is in the evenings before bed. Thus is the way of the Order of the Night Owl—a society of which I am definitely a card-carrying member.

The problem with stealing work time is that, unless I’m intentional about it, I usually wind up doing more harm to myself than good. This is mainly because I don’t make the effort to set boundaries on my time. I’ll sit down, look at the list of all the things, suck down a big caffeine, and work until I drop—or I’ll get another wind and feel productive for a little too long. The problem with this, of course, is that I’m tired the next day. This gives me all the standard issues of anyone who is tired—my brain is fuzzy, I have trouble maintaining attention—but beyond those obvious consequences, fatigue compromises my emotional resilience AND my ability to recognize I’m compromised. That means that any stressor that comes along is going to have far more negative consequences than it would if I was well rested. In my case, I’m susceptible to bouts of anxiety, which if they occur, put me in a worse situation than had I just gone to bed when I was supposed to.

Another issue with unbounded time is that it’s harder to respect when it comes time to feed yourself positive, motivating narratives about your productivity. Saying “I told myself I’d work for an hour and half and I did” is a much more quantifiable marker than “I stayed up half the night and still have so much to do.”

There’s got to be a better way.

When I decide to work in the evenings, what I’ve been trying to do nowadays is say something to myself like this: “I need some extra time to get work done. At 9PM, I’m going to sit at my desk and attempt to work for 1.5 hours. If something comes up and I can’t start on time, I’m going to forgive myself and start as soon as I can. If I become too tired to complete the time, I’m going to stop and go to bed.” Setting a timer, I go as long as I agreed to myself to go—one and a half hours. When that time is up, no matter what, I’m done. If I still have some energy, I can do something else, but I will not feel bad about either the time I spent or that I stopped and did something else.

Establishing this upfront frees me of the narrative that I didn’t work long enough, hard enough, or get enough done. More importantly, I’m helping prevent staying up later, which is important for my mental health.

What’s your relationship with working in the evening? Is it something you’ve had success with, struggle with, or simply cannot do?