Back in the mythical age of young-adulthood, time was everywhere—on my hands, waiting to be killed, never flying unless I had a paper due. Baby #1 slowed the clock even more: who knew a day could be so long? That changed with my decision to start homeschooling. All of a sudden there was never enough time, because it burned at both ends. “Time is my enemy,” I remember saying savagely. But of course it isn’t the enemy; it just acts that way when you treat it that way.
It’s the great healer, and the ultimate killer. It brings all things to pass, waits for no man, runs through the roughest day, and bears all its sons away. It’s essentially mysterious: “I know what it is, provided no one asks me” (says Augustine), but weighs heavily on a guilty soul. “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” muses Richard II, the most introspective of Shakespeare’s kings.
And the impatient reader says, “Yeah, okay, lots of profound people have said profound things about time. So get to the point: how do I find more of it? Time is money.”
So, has this ever happened to you? New Year’s Day, or the first day of school, you make a schedule and promise yourself you’ll stick to it. Maybe it lasts as long as a week, but more often, by day three or four you chuck it. Things take longer than you thought, or you just don’t feel like doing what the schedule says you must do, or it’s too hard or interruptions get in the way or it’s boring.
This has happened to me over and over, so this year I approached the issue from another angle. Instead of trying to wrestle time to the grid, I sneaked up on it from behind. What do I accomplish, and what do I want to accomplish better? Thinking through everything I do, I found these activities fall into four basic categories. I gave them names: Janie/mom/grandma, Janie Cheaney, Janie B. Cheaney, and J.B. Cheaney. I drew four columns on a piece of notebook paper, and headed each column with one of those names.
The first category is who I am as a person and family member. About how much time in a week do I spend just being a human? Starting on the far right column, I wrote everything I could think of, plus time spent doing: number of hours sleeping, shopping, preparing food and eating it (and cleaning up afterwards), keeping the house from looking like a pigsty, even talking to my kids on the phone (since they don’t live anywhere close, the little scamps). I wrote all this and more, added up the total and put that sum directly under the list, as well as on the far left side of the page.
Next, who I am in my community and church. How many hours a week do I spend actually in church, and how much preparing Sunday school lessons or Bible studies? How much in volunteer work and lunch with friends? All of it went in the second column from the right, with the total number of hours underneath and also added to the running total on the left side.
My professional life splits in two, roughly divided between Christian writing and fiction writing (at this point, they’re not the same). Janie B. Cheaney writes for World Magazine and blogs at RedeemedReader.com; J. B. Cheaney writes fiction for kids and tries to market the same. There’s a bit of overlap in these, indicated by the little arrows you may see between the two columns. Both involve some marketing, blogging, Facebooking, and maybe (one of these days if I can ever figure it out) Twittering. I also count reading time because Janie B. reviews books—nice work if you can get it, but it puts me to sleep sometimes. Adding up my professional hours showed me two things: 1) I’m going to have to create an additional blog and Facebook page to accommodate them, and 2) I work an average of 45 hours a week. After all these years, I can prove I’m a FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL WRITER. So don’t mess with me.
After adding up all these hours and subtracting them from 168 (the number of hours in a week), I came up with 29 hours and 45 minutes unaccounted for! That’s more than a whole day! I’m breathing easier already.
The purpose of all this is not—like scheduling—to see how much activity I can cram into a twenty-four span. The purpose is to show Time what it’s dealing with (I’m serious, pal). It also shows me what I can realistically expect from a day. “Realistically” is key—if you have young children at home or if you let your Doberman make out your schedule, you’ll have to set aside at least six hours daily for Mr. Unexpected to drop by. Otherwise, given something you might call a “normal day,” you can start assigning your various obligations to blocks of time.
“Blocks,” not linear increments. Our days don’t flow minute-by-minute, but rather bump-by-bump: periods of single-tasking followed by periods of multi-tasking; times of relative calm interspersed with times of hectic activity. Figure out when you are most productive and/or when you are least likely to be interrupted. If those hours are not the same, synchronize them if you can, and tackle your most challenging tasks for that block of the day. Squirrel your less-demanding tasks into those blocks when you’re more available, and arrange the things you can do simultaneously (like listening to an audio book while mopping the floor, or practicing French while driving—though that sounds like it should be illegal).
Of course you will not find yourself automatically doing what your planner says. Your planner doesn’t understand human nature, much less your individual slacker mentality. That’s where discipline comes in. It’s also where standard advice that you’ve heard a million times comes in: whatever requires the most concentration needs to occur when you are best able to focus (for me this is 6-8 a.m.). Do not check your phone. Do not check your email. Do not peek at Facebook, even for one teeny-weeny second. If you can only set aside one hour a day to work on your novel, whip your attitude into line and tell it you won’t tolerate any backtalk for this one hour. Do your best to scale back interruptions and streamline routines. Lay out your clothes and mix the ingredients for your breakfast smoothie in the blender the night before. When you take a break, keep it to ten minutes or less. Ride herd on those productive hours, and you can loosen up the reins for the rest.
Case in point: I can do all my serious writing between 6 and 11 a.m. with a half-hour break for breakfast and a quick check of the news–4 ½ hours. Afternoons are for uploading, Facebooking, research, business and personal emails . . . and everything else. I don’t have to fill each week with everything on my hour log—self-employed people get vacations too. And I’m not always going to be as productive as I planned because stuff happens. (Look on the bright side when it does, maybe you can write about it!)
There’s also this: My times are in his hands (Ps 31:15). Anyone who’s ever tried to command the hours learns that she’s not the boss. But at least I know the Boss, and I don’t have to feel destroyed every time the plan goes off the rails. There’s a bigger plan at work.