on managing time

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I feel like I’m always thinking about time.

Managing time, having (enough) time, making time, setting aside time, borrowing time, balancing time, being on time, running out of time…

Is this a widely held concern? Does it get easier or become more difficult with age?

I really could talk about time forever (except that I couldn’t (oh, glorious irony) since I won’t be here forever to do so).

Perhaps I should be more specific: today I am thinking mostly about time management and the extent to which it seems to demand impossible foresight and an immutable sense of self.

Yesterday I stumbled across this article by Brigid Schulte, in Time magazine (of course), entitled “I’ll Finish the Dishes When I’m Dead.”  The title is absolutely perfect, because it hits on the oft-felt desire (need?) to aschew mundane tasks in favour of the really fun or important stuff. How can or should I manage my time, she asks, so that I don’t miss the good bits of life because I’m too busy weeding?

As part of her search for an answer, she attends a time management course where she and several other busy people take part in an exercise that involves filling in the schedule of their ideal week.  From 12am each day to 12am the next – Sunday through Saturday – how would they spend each chunk of time if they were planning their perfect week?

As the participants quickly learn, though, not only is the task exceedingly difficult, but it neglects one of the important features of getting by: managing the mundane.  Likely no one’s dream week includes time to do the dishes or to bring the vacuum in for repairs.  And I certainly wouldn’t include a visit to the optometrist’s office or time to scrub my shower tiles (as much as I value my ocular health and the cleanliness of my bathroom).

These are nevertheless, for most of us, important parts of our continued existence – even if they may not contribute as obviously or as critically to our survival or to the meaningfulness of our existence. So then we must revise the activity to show us our schedule for a whole month – nay, a year – to give us time to fully consider and include the things that we don’t want to or need to do all the time, but that must nevertheless be done. But wait, what about big things like a family vacation or buying a house? Those are big things that require planning and saving, which means that our annual schedule must now be at least biannual, to include time spent budgeting and saving in preparation for the subsequent, ideal year in which the dream is realized.

Even suspending our certainty in the unexpected – that unforeseen circumstances will and invariably do often shake up our well-laid plans – there just doesn’t seem to be a way to make this kind of planning work.  That is the core insight of the exercise: that scheduling is not in and of itself the solution to the problem of not having enough time.  Scheduling does not make time, after all, it just gives us a sense of being able to exercise some control over how we spend it.  And furthermore, our values and priorities change, which means that planning ahead is only ever helpful to the extent that your projects and desires remain relatively consistent.  As the leader of Schulte’s time management workshop explains:

“When we die, the email inbox will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t,” she told us. “Eighty percent of the email that comes in is crap anyway, and it takes you the equivalent of 19 1/2 weeks a year just to sort through. Eighty percent of your to-do list is crap. Look, the stuff of life never ends. That is life. You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing.”

But where does that leave us?

I won’t spoil Schulte’s amazing piece by giving away all of her insights.  You should most definitely read it to learn them for yourself.  I will, however, cite my favourite paragraph, since I think it points to a key consideration in evaluating time allocation strategies:

“The Greeks called that kind of time kairos. When we live by the clock, the Greeks said, we are bound by chronos time. This is the time that races, marches, creeps and flies. It is the life that T. S. Eliot measured out in coffee spoons and the 30 hours of leisure that some time researchers claim we have. But kairos is the time of the “right moment,” the eternal now, when time is not a number on a dial but the enormity of the experience inside it.”

Perhaps the key is remembering that while chronological time marches on, unfettered by our projects and experiences, we have the power to arrest the time of our experience, or to speed it up, depending on the way we approach the task with which we’re involved.  It’s not so much an issue of needing more time, as of needing to make ourselves more aware of the time we have, when we have it, so that we devote an appropriate amount of our focus and energy on it.  Or, when doing so is unfortunately unrealistic, at least to recognizing the desire or need to do so, and remembering to do our best to adapt, or to make up for it.

I’ve been trying to keep that thought in mind lately.  Freelance work affords a lot of flexibility, but that flexibility can often make it difficult to distinguish between time-that-should-be-spent-working and time-that-I-can-allow-myself-to-enjoy. I was tired yesterday, and really just wanted to get home to make some progress on a work assignment currently underway. It was Sunday, though, and I vowed to give myself the day off.  So instead, I allowed a very wise person to drag me to see an exhibit I had long wanted to check out, and then we both allowed ourselves to fall asleep while reading on the grassy banks of the Philosopher’s Walk.  Though it was initially difficult to allow myself to enjoy a slow day when I felt as though I should be being productive, it ended up being the best way to enjoy a warm summer day, and exactly the kind of reminder that I needed to stop and to be present.

I’m still not confident that I know how to draw the distinction, but given today’s gray skies, chilly temperatures and cloud cover, I’m glad I embraced the sun and warm grass while it was there.

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