Every evening after enjoying dinner with his family, President Barack Obama retires to the White House’s ‘Treaty Room’, where he spends four to five hours alone.
He goes through a stack of briefing papers — delivered to him by staff — works on speeches, reads letters from a number of Americans. He watches a little sport, might read a novel, skim the papers, or even play Words With Friends. If he’s hungry, he’ll snack on seven, lightly salted, almonds. Only seven.
I learnt about this nightly habit in an excellent piece published in the New York Times recently, discussing the President’s “precious hours alone”. It got me thinking: if the president can find the space for such alone time, could the average working woman?
Well, that all depends — on your work, on your family, your commitment to making it happen, and possibly on just how much sleep you actually need. Let’s remember, Obama is spending part of this time working, he goes through an “insane amount of paperwork”. He also has staff to look after every, single one of his needs. And, the clincher, he’s one of those people who only needs four or five hours of sleep a night. A self confessed “night guy”, he can somehow manage to stay calm, cool and collected, even after pulling an all-nighter to get a speech written. Let’s face it, most of us can’t do that.
While women may not be able to find four to five hours alone every evening, what if we could manage a good half hour here and there? What if we scheduled it in the diary as a daily, uninterrupted habit? What if we prioritised it as much as we prioritise a business meeting, or finding time to cook a meal, or to get to a gym class?
And what if we truly spent it alone, without the multitasking and need to get as much done as possible?
What if we simply spent it thinking? No emails. No checking in with team members, or projects. No social media.
This isn’t a ‘what if’ for me. This is my reality. I run a busy household and an office and have managed to schedule half an hour of precious alone time every day for the past four years. I made it a priority after a significant turning point when I felt so overwhelmed by chaos in my work and family life that I was about to avoid a significant promotion. I took the promotion, and instead opted for re-organising my life — that meant saying no to more ‘opportunities’ and saying yes to more ‘me time’.
It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done for my career and (following a few hurdles at the start) the easiest habit to maintain.
I don’t watch ESPN like Obama. I don’t play Words With Friends (although that would be nice) and I don’t read the papers.
I simply sit and I think — about anything from upcoming projects, to an issue with staff, to new ideas, to pending challenges, to how I’m going to get through the next week.
I do this every work day. And I’d love to see more women take up the habit.
Such time shouldn’t be a chore, and it certainly shouldn’t be considered frivolous or an indulgence. It’s time that’s necessary in order to connect with what matters to you, to reflect and reframe. Whether you manage fifteen minutes a day or five hours, it’s a daily habit that can transform your life and career.
According to the New York Times, Michelle Obama will pop in to visit her husband during his nightly stint of solitude. I only hope that she too manages to carve out a little space for alone time during her day.
Meredith the Mentor is a contributing writer to Women’s Agenda. She is is not a consultant or a management guru. She’s not even a published author. Just someone who’s made plenty of mistakes, and learnt a few lessons along the way.