Recognizing Opportunity: How to find and use "Star Power" in your day
Finding moments of "Star Power" in your day I never used to understand how new parents would tell me that having a baby made them more focused, more productive because they use the time available in smarter ways. While I'm yet to personally achieve that higher level of being, one thing that being a mom has taught me is how to recognize opportunity and seize upon tiny moments of freedom. I first learned this when Lydia was only a few months old. As a COVID baby born in NYC last April, there was precious little to do. (Ironically, during her first month of life (arguably the time I needed it the most) even the local coffee shops were closed. Brutal.) So to pass the time, we'd spend hours outside in Central Park. Our routine outside was pretty similar to our routine inside: Feed her, change her, put her down for a nap. But I soon realized that those precious nap cycles -- 45-60 minutes of slumber -- meant that I could accomplish something else. Anything else. Timed correctly, for instance, I could arrive at my nearest park bench, slow her stroller down just enough to not disturb her, and then plop down to dig into a book. Or put on the stroller cover, plunk my earbuds in my ears and enjoy some music to myself while wandering to another park. Once I treated myself to a fancy French salad on the Upper East Side and took a glass of Sancerre to go. As soon as she was out, I was ready, blanket and all, for un petit pique nique for one. My husband and I started referring to those moments as, "Star Power," referring to the thing that happens in old school Mario games where your avatar collects the superstar power up and gains invincibility from all the bad guys for a brief time. (Much like baby naptime, it always seems to end much too soon.) Over the past year or so, I've learned a lot about how to optimize these little moments of spontaneous free time. Whether or not you have a baby at home holding you back, I'm sure you'll find some Star Power in your day if you look for it.
How to make Star Power work for you
Plan ahead. I know this takes the spontaneity out of it a little bit, but one of the surefire ways to not take advantage of a break in your day is to spend the first 20-30 minutes puttering around not knowing what to do. As I've written about before, in order to get into a flow state of Deep Work, you need at least 90 minutes. So spend a few minutes at the end of one day or the beginning of the next to map out your list of things to do or things you'd like to spend time on today. Decide which one you'll do first the next break you get. Then you'll know how to jump right in. (By the way, this goes for work stuff as well as home stuff.)
Give yourself a few options. When possible, I really try to use my Star Power time for at least one thing that makes me feel good. Yes, today during naptime, I did file an insurance claim and do the laundry. But I also wrote this blog post. I find it motivating to put a carrot on the end of the stick, even in very short cycles. So the more options you have for your day, the more autonomy you'll feel (which is an odd feeling, when you're being your own boss).
Be on the lookout Extra Special Star Power. Every once in awhile, you'll start your day planning for a 45-minute break to run some errands but suddenly end up with a 3 hour block of free time. At times like these, I beg of you -- don't stick to your plan! Take advantage of the newfound freedom and pull from your "realistic bucket list" items. Have you been wanting to see the latest exhibit at MoMA? What about try out that new sushi place for lunch? Why not go...right now? As one example, yesterday I left the Bronx Zoo with my baby, intending to get her home for naptime at 1 p.m. But on the one-hour commute home, she fell asleep on the subway. On a whim, I decided to pass right by our stop and keep her asleep all the way to Brooklyn, where we enjoyed a whole second half of our day out in another borough. When the clouds open up, be sure to be ready for it. You'll never know when it'll happen again.
Never depend on Star Power. You'll enjoy it more. Some of my most miserable days as a new mom were ones where I over-planned for how I wanted to spend my free time. And those of course were the days I didn't get any. I like to think of Star Power like an extra special treat. Something I know will happen with some regularity but always involves some inherent variability. By being deliberate with yourself about how you want to spend your time, you'll be more likely to make decisions during open blocks that you're happy about at the end of the night. But to over-prepare for these moments will make it feel less like a break and more like a deadline.