On the fifth day of my very first full-time job, I stopped by to see my boss at around 9:15am. I found him sitting in his office, staring out the window. He seemed embarrassed that I caught him doing nothing.
“It’s recommended by Stephen Covey that one should spend 20 minutes of quiet reflection each day to be more effective,” he explained, and waved one hand in a cryptic little circle. It turned out that all the company management had been sent to a training course on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I remembered being incredulous and thinking to myself, “The company paid thousands of dollars to tell their management staff they had to take 20 minutes out a day to think?” It seemed like madness to me.
I have a confession to make: I don’t remember the last time I thought I was productive. Somewhere along the line I’ve just given up thinking about it because it takes up unnecessary time and space that I could be doing something.
I was probably a very boring child. My mother told me that as a kid I’d finish my homework first, so I could have uninterrupted play later on. I’d somehow worked out early in life that if I finished the dull tasks first while I was waiting for other things to happen—like for dinner to be ready—I’d have more time. (Truth to be told, it was probably a learned behaviour from my own mother, but who knows?) I was a time nerd. I loved having time and I hog it with things I enjoy doing, like: a long, quiet session with a good book, preferably with a couple of apples to crunch through.
Things get a lot more complicated as an adult. There are so many more responsibilities, promises you make to your significant other, your family, to your colleagues at work—promises to yourself. Then there’s the random assortment of chores and the daily business of living: eating, looking for the next meal, travelling from point A to B, cleaning, taxes. It is easy to get trapped into thinking that we’re never doing enough. Everything around us tells us we should do more, experience more, exercise more, but oh wait, eat less, stress less, own less. Then there are endless lists of silver bullets: be mindful of your time, keep your to-do lists tidy, trim your inbox to zero et cetera, et cetera. We’ve somehow been led to think that being more productive equals being happier. Is that a proven hypothesis? I’m not sure. I’m more inclined to think it’s the sense of control we have over our time that we’re truly seeking.
Why do we feel that loss of control? “Where did the day go?” is a common question we might ask ourselves. I used to be fascinated by how mere minutes could feel like forever if you were bored or trapped in a place where you can’t do what you want to do, but time could also fly quickly when you weren't paying attention. Would that be because the perception of time is in our minds, and not an absolute, external force? It is well worth remembering that the modern concept of time is arbitrary, and ironically, science still has trouble keeping up with it. That says to me: we are in control, we just don’t often think we are.
But maybe there’s another way: how would you spend your time if you were free of any constraints? My other half laughs at me, because given a “day off” I’d fill it with making things by hand; I’ve long since learned that it balances out my hyperactivity and gives me energy. Whereas he would happily while the time sitting still watching something, or do—what appears to me as—nothing. And you might already guess that I can’t do ‘nothing’. I’ve come to accept that our baselines for using up time is different, and we need to allow each other to be ourselves without guilt. If you feel the urge to spend that hour reading random things online because that’s what you enjoy—embrace it. If you need to completely disconnect, by all means. And maybe you need a little bit of both, every now and again.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, I deal with my messy life by how I stretch or constrain time relative to the things on my list, equally for things I have to get done and things I do for sheer enjoyment.
Stretch time by creating flow—don’t wait for it to come to you. You may have already figured out what works for you to kick into flow; if not, it just takes a bit of practice. I use a ritual: a cup of tea or coffee, a small number of playlists depending on the mood—calmer if I’m stressed, boppier if I need perking up. Rituals sound boring in principle, but they don’t have to be the same thing each time. And for whatever dumb reason, even if I’m by myself in a big empty room, a pair of headphones seem to work better. I also use a clock (ha!): start on the hour or half-hour, and challenge myself to finish the most painful task on my list in the shortest amount of time. Before I know it, flow has already taken over.
Keep time in check or the 4-hour bucket. I used to joke that days are best divided into two: before lunch, and after lunch. It came from a conversation many years ago when a scrum master and myself tried to size a clutter of tickets. He told me he liked using 4-hour chunks as a benchmark. Anything smaller than that is “small", anything that takes longer than that is “big". And most things do seem to fit within 4 hours. Ever since then, I started seeing my day half-day chunks and organise what would be realistic to fit into each half-day bucket. It takes a bit of practice, but eventually you’ll figure out your own rhythm, and cater for good or bad days.
Time is this liquid, magic thing that we all have been gifted with. A two-edged sword, an irreversible curse. If there’s such a thing as a message from this post? Don’t let time control you. Seize it, give it a good ol’ hug and learn to be friends with it. Then use it to slay your dragons of doubt and celebrate your daily triumphs. All in good time, of course.