I’m no fan of time. It is a relentless, immovable force, destroying plans, inducing stress, and bringing unpredictable change to our delicate expectations of consistency. But I’m slowly realizing that of all of my scholarly responsibilities, time is the one constant, the ever present subject. Teaching is designing pace and order of content. Research is predicting and inventing the future based on all that has passed. And doing both of these well requires me to carefully sequence my thought and actions to best leverage what little time I have. To manage my time.
I don’t feel like an expert at this. But people often comment on my ability to manage time well, and I’m always struck at people’s inability to understand where their time goes. What am I seeing that others can’t? What am I doing to control time?
After thinking about it a bit, I think it boils down to three basic skills. First, I’ve always been able to prioritize. That might sound simple, but it’s an astounding act to take the thousands of things one cares about and rank them. This is because there’s nothing inherently ordered about the things one cares about. The laundry isn’t inherently less important than writing a lecture if all my clothes are soiled. Knowing how to prioritize and constantly reprioritize as situations change needs to be a conscious, explicit act, if one hopes to influence the future. Otherwise, the forward thrust of time will always dominate and dictate what’s important.
But knowing what’s important isn’t enough. Being able to articulate what’s important, and define what that means, is important as well. For instance, my allergies have been bothering me a lot lately and I’ve wanted them to bother me less. But there are a lot of ways to articulate that goal, some more useful and actionable than others. For example, when I say, “bother me less,” I have to be very careful to know what I mean by “bother” and “less.” Do I want to get off allergy pills? Do I want to buy less facial tissue? Do I want fewer sinus headaches? These are all different goals and I might do different things to accomplish each. They also might improve my life in different ways. It’s not until I start giving meaning to verbs and adjectives in my goals that I can start to evaluate what’s really important to me.
Finally, a clearly articulated goal isn’t enough to accomplish it. A third skill is being able to take a well articulated goal and carefully break it down into smaller goals. For example, if I decide I want fewer sinus headaches, I need to find out what causes sinus headaches and see what causes I have control over in my life. This might lead to several new activities and goals, such as drinking more fluids. How can I drink more fluids? Maybe I need a water bottle. What’s a good water bottle? And so on. Without breaking down the future into manageable parts, it would be quite difficult to find a moment where progress seems actionable. Big goals only lead us to imagine big, unwieldy futures. A good small goal is something you can imagine getting done in an hour.
So how does one get good at these things? Practice is probably the best approach. Having accomplished a goal before makes it a lot easier to know how to break down the goal into smaller goals, with confidence. It also gives one practice at articulating goals. Another trick I like to use is to write to do items about to do items, such as “break down the goal of reducing sinus headaches”. That way, the first and most important step of accomplish the goal becomes a legitimate step in a process, and something that I can accomplish in 20 minutes.
Tools can help with all of this, but most are just glorified lists. Most of the important parts of managing time come with discipline.