The other day I was walking past a local charity shop and I saw a handbag in the window that just seemed so me. It was bigger than the one I’d been using, had lots of pockets, and was a neutral navy and brown leather that I could see going with pretty much everything I wear. It was big enough to carry a book or my journal but not so big that I’d weigh it down with loads of extra stuff.

I’m also fast approaching my return to work after a year’s maternity leave, so time is a big thing for me at the moment. Both the concept of time passing of course but also quite practically speaking: how am I going to manage my time to do everything I want to do?

And that’s when it hit me: the handbag metaphor.

The Goldilocks Zone

For those of you who carry bags with you during your day, you may relate to this. I have found there’s a kind of Goldilocks zone when it comes to handbags: too small and I overfill it too easily and it can be hard to get to my keys or Oyster card or wallet when I need it; too big, and I manage to fill it up with other stuff anyway so it’s still a jumbled mess.

Sure, with the bigger bag I have room for my book or my journal, but nine times out of ten I end up lugging around a book I haven’t had a chance to read. And the 10th time is when I have my small bag with me so I don’t have a book to read on that rare occasion I’m in a cafe and have a few minutes to spare.

I’ve found there’s a happy size where I can fit everything I tend to need but nothing extra and still have enough space to find what I need when I need it.

I also have found I benefit from a few compartments – so bags with a zipped outer pocket where I can fit my Oyster card and phone easily, maybe an inside zippered pocket for my keys, a big pocket for my wallet, book, lip moisturiser, etc.

Everyone probably has a different blend of what they carry with them and therefore what size and style of compartments works for them.

My handbag and what I carry with me.

More isn’t always more

Jump to this morning at the school gates, talking to some of the other mothers. We were talking about how tired our kids have been and how they are adjusting to the new school year. I’m somewhat worried about when I’ll be able to get my little boy to bed once I’m back at work, as I’m finding that the mental strain of year 1 has meant he’s been rather tired and, based on last night’s experience, may benefit from an even earlier bedtime for a while. I was honest with the other mums and said I didn’t know how I would manage to get him to bed earlier once I’m back at work. Even being on maternity leave and having more time in the afternoons and evenings, sometimes it’s a struggle.

The other mums were supportive and said, “You’ll find a way! Don’t worry!” And some of the stay-at-home mums mentioned that even though they’re home and not working full time they still find they fill their days and find themselves pressed for time. One mother even said she felt she gets more done when she’s working, because she had to.

I was reminded of my handbag and the metaphor made sense to me. Just as I can fill a larger handbag until it’s too full, I can fill my time until it’s too full. The solution isn’t to try to get a bigger handbag each time. More time won’t always solve the problem.

It’s how we spend it. How we organise it.

As I look at my new back-to-work treat – my £5.99 handbag from BHF – I feel optimistic. I may have less time in the imminent future, but more isn’t always better. What matters is what I do with it.

Applying the metaphor

So how am I practically applying this metaphor to my life?

Well, for starters, I’m taking inspiration from the handy compartments and looking at how I can respect the natural boundaries of my time. I have a compartment for work. A pocket for commuting by myself. A small pocket for being home with my kids during the week. What will I put in each pocket?

Practical solutions have started to make sense to me.

The pockets of lone commuting time will be perfect for reading and meditating. I may even take my laptop and write during the morning commute when I’m likely to have a seat for a half hour.

The pocket for work is just for that – work – so I’ll make sure I’m focused in the office but also that I keep work from spilling over into other areas. That can mean keeping work emails off my phone so I’m not tempted to read emails on the train home or as I make dinner for my husband and me. Planning my to do list for tomorrow before I leave the office tonight so I can switch off work mode.

The small pocket with my kids during the week means I’m devoted to them during that time. Our current evening routine is we come home, I get the my son an after school snack before he starts playing and often nurse my baby as he takes an afternoon nap. This is often a time when I might read a book as well. As soon as baby wakes from his afternoon nap, I start making dinner so it’s ready when my husband walks in the door.

But the pocket of time won’t be as big once I’m back at work. Maybe the new pocket of time will look more like this: walk from the nursery and childminders and hear about my son’s day, walk in the door, do homework with my eldest, baths, and bedtimes.

As I look at my time like pockets in a handbag, I start to see where I might need new pockets – so now that ‘home with kids’ is no longer combined with ‘me’ time, I need to create a separate pocket for ‘me’, such as using the commute and creating some time at the weekend, or earlier in the morning, or after the kids are in bed.

The thing is, I feel back in control. I can acknowledge where my time will be organised differently being back at work compared to being on leave.

Journal prompts

Using this metaphor, examine your relationship with the various demands on your time and what these represent in your life. Thinking of your life as a bag you take with you every day through life, write down the answers to the following prompts.

What pockets and compartments do you have? What compartments do you need? How do these compartments vary in size?

What items do you carry with you all the time? What do these items represent?

What is the clutter you have to clear out? What’s the detritus that ends up in the way – the old receipts, gum wrappers, etc?


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