I used to be a lifetime reader of time management books. After the world shut down in March 2020, I got out of my pajamas to meet the challenge of an open schedule. I believed every article telling me that this was the propitious moment for cleaning out my closets, for organizing my pantry, for culling my photos.
And early in the pandemic, I loved my newly organized garage; I was glad to have tackled the towers of paperwork I usually avoided. Productivity is, of course, a modern source of existential consolation. A good day is the day you get things done.
But this new year, I won’t be hunting for a better planner. Nor will I be searching for the best new productivity app. For the first time, I will suffer no illusions this January that a new technique or a better consumer product will help tame the wild beast of time.
Time management is illusory. Though time might be money, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, we cannot grow our portfolio. Sure, we can try to maximize the yield of the minutes, but as the pandemic continues to teach us, tomorrow is never guaranteed. Rather, we must steward our attention.
Despite all my renewed productivity efforts early in the pandemic, I never managed to silence the beating bass of my anxious heart. I had plenty of time, productive time—and still suffered time-anxiety.
As a Christian, I know time matters to God, but I’m beginning to think it matters less to him in the frantic ways I’ve imagined. It’s certainly true we’ve only recently conceived of time as measurable and instrumental, as something to be used or wasted, saved or spent. But even before the invention of the clock—in the medieval monastery—human beings have long been time-anxious creatures.
As David Rooney writes in About Time, a few years after the first sundial was installed in Rome in 263 B.C., a character in a play exclaimed, “The gods damn that man who first discovered the hours, and—yes, who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits for poor me!”
Time management can’t solve the crisis of mortality, this foreboding sense that the days and the years prove short. To be sure, I’ve developed some helpful skills from the many time management books I’ve read: planning ahead, breaking down larger projects into smaller tasks, ruthlessly eliminating the nonessential. But as Melissa Gregg argues in Counterproductive, it’s probably also true that I could have read one good time management book, given how few new ideas have been proposed since the early 20th century.
What seems far more important than disciplines of time management are disciplines of attention management. The minutes are not ours to multiply. We receive them as a gift. What we can do, however, is cultivate the ability to inhabit those minutes with attention, or undiluted unfragmented presence. Simone Weil noticed the gains of attention in her spiritual life, when she began repeating the Lord’s prayer in Greek every day. Whenever her …….