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What I’ve Learned By Giving Up On “Time Management”

When he stopped trying to schedule things, this writer reconnected to a side of his work that matters more–and still got it done.

What I’ve Learned By Giving Up On “Time Management”
Photo: Flickr user AdA Durden

When I was a child, things that were scheduled did not happen. My father would say we’d go fishing next week, so I’d get excited about going fishing. Then something would come up or he’d just forget, and the fishing trip never happened. I’d be hurt. I’d hide the hurt. I’d go off by myself and be sad.

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On the other hand, things that weren’t planned seemed to happen all the time, sometimes spectacularly so. We kids would all be taken by surprise when we suddenly discovered we were moving to a new house, or giving up meat, or some other unexpected life change. My parents didn’t gather us together to discuss the future. As far as we were concerned, the future was a vague and possibly bogus notion. That’s how I remember my childhood: Lots of things talked about and not done, followed by sudden unplanned upheavals of enormous proportions.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when someone suggests setting a date to do something in the future, my first response is fear. I don’t expect this response to change all that much. When I was younger I was always trying to perfect myself and change my attitudes and habits. But now I’m pretty much resolved to being who I am. I’ll get better at certain things but not others.

One of those other things is time management. Here’s how I’ve come to terms with that.

Scheduling The Possible Isn’t Always Possible

I love time. I like to save it and spend it. What I have a problem with is “time management”—I don’t like treating time as a resource to be managed. I have a personal relationship with my time. I feel that my time is mine. I am jealous and protective of it because I love being in the moment. When I am, everything is fine; I could stay here just like this and be happy. But then you tell me we have to go now. Something is “scheduled.” You’re breaking my heart.

When I try to schedule, I often end up breaking my own heart–or at least my promises. Recently, I scheduled things I couldn’t do and completely forgot to schedule other things that I needed to do. I didn’t schedule what was really possible, because I didn’t take the time to think it through ahead of time.

I scheduled two hours to work on my novel and two hours to work on writing the book from which this article is excerpted. I put both of these items on my calendar the night before:

  • Work on editing 50 novel pages, 9 a.m.–11 a.m.
  • Work on writing book chapter, 1 p.m.–3 p.m.

What actually happened was that I woke up the next morning with an idea for writing a pitch. And because I’d arisen feeling energized by the prospect of writing some sparkling and persuasive ad copy, I sailed along doing that instead of what I’d scheduled.

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Then I looked up, and two hours had gone by. I needed a walk. This was a Wednesday, the day that my column is scheduled to be written, and I hadn’t even put that down in my schedule! But it was column-writing day. So I walked down to the cafe and wrote a column. That, too, went well.

By then, I’d done a lot of writing already. It was difficult to carry out my plan of writing the book chapter and editing the novel. Instead, I remembered other things instead–business chores that I had to do–so I turned to them with a vengeance.

I ended up working until 1:00 in the morning.

Living In Time Without Managing It

The next day, after staying up late, I awoke baffled and unhappy because I’d failed to follow my schedule the day before. I had scheduled the impossible. Under pressure, I’d just jotted down what I intended do without really connecting to it, or evaluating it honestly.

I had scheduled without taking into account what I was emotionally and creatively engaged with at the time, nor had I considered my prior commitments. Simply declaring that I would work on these two projects did not change reality. My inner life turned out to be more powerful. My own creativity ruled. My own sense of what was important ruled. Time management didn’t.

It turns out that I don’t do what I tell myself to do unless I want to. (As you might imagine, this doesn’t exactly work in an ordinary office setting, so I’m grateful that I don’t work in one.) My relationship with time is still evolving, but I’ve learned there are steps I can take to schedule the possible, like making a “time map,” as Julie Morgenstern suggests in Time Management from the Inside Out. Hillary Rettig has some other useful tips in The Lifelong Activist. Check them out–they may work for you, or they may not.

But that’s my point: In my experience, anyway, “time management”–scheduling–just isn’t something everyone is equally cut out for. What I have found is that much comes from simple awareness. I can increase my awareness of time so I don’t let it get the best of me, as it did on that recent Wednesday.

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But I haven’t improved how well I manage it. I now have a better sense of what’s possible (getting things done, ideally what I most care about) and what, for me, is impossible (sticking to a schedule in the process). Call it what you will, but I’ll set that down as a victory.


This article is adapted from Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton.

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