Crafting a Better Relationship with Time

Productivity, procrastination and the endless pursuit of balance: Concerns of modern life put pressure on time management to the point of personal philosophical collapse.

Good Busy

"Good Busy" by Julia Scatliff O'Grady examines issues of busyness and the everyday battles with time.

Cover Courtesy RCWMS Press

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We say we want to better manage our time, but what do we really mean? Do we mean we seek to tame the daily chaos? Are we afraid of how time seems to fly?  

In Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination and the Endless Pursuit of Balance (RCWMS Press, 2012), author Julia Scatliff O'Grady set out on a journey to discover how we might experience the gift of time on our own terms. She met with many, settling on 10 singular people with a variety of professions and life circumstances. She listened and she questioned and she listened some more. What she heard was not just a clock ticking, but something perhaps even promising, something as prescriptive as it is philosophical. The following is an excerpt from O’Grady’s introduction, examining the origins of her thoughts on the secret to effective use of time. 

Saint Augustine stands under a cloak of stars on the North Africa coast in the fourth century CE. Known for his powers of oration and charisma, he has one gnawing problem: He is flummoxed by his relationship with time. “What is time, God?” he asks as he paces along the shore. “I know what it is if no one asks me what it is; but if I want to explain it to someone who has asked me, I and that I do not know.” As he walks and talks, he continues, “My soul is on fire to solve this very complicated enigma.” Soon, however, Augustine realizes that God cannot help him. He must learn how to relate to time on his own.

Fast-forward to the late twentieth century CE. Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, stands in front of an audience with the following props: two transparent plastic buckets, a bag of green gravel, and a collection of multi-colored rocks, labeled as Important Client, Exercise, Major Project, Relationship, Family, Church, and Community. Next to Covey is a volunteer from the audience, a businesswoman wearing a red suit and pumps. Her hair is pulled back to reveal professional gold knotted earrings. “Do you ever feel like you’re getting bogged down in the thick of thin things?” Covey asks of the woman. As she says yes, Covey picks up the bag of green gravel and nearly fills one of the two plastic buckets with it.

Covey then asks the woman to read aloud the labels written on each rock as she attempts to fit them into the bucket on top of the green gravel. Dutifully, the woman begins the assignment, soon realizing she cannot fit all of the rocks into the bucket. As she moves the gravel, attempting to situate the rocks deeper in the bucket, the camera pans to the audience bursting with the laughter of self-recognition. Covey says to the woman, “You can work out of a different paradigm altogether—you can do anything you want.” She starts all over again, putting the big rocks in the bucket first. In this second effort, she fits both the big rocks and the gravel into the bucket with ease.

In my mind, Covey’s “big rocks” exercise is somewhere on the other side of the spectrum from Augustine’s plea on the beach. Where Augustine struggles to understand what time is—and, implicitly, its meaning for finite creatures—Covey illustrates the dilemma of temporality with buckets, gravel, and big rocks. Time management seminars like the one I describe address people’s frustration with the busyness of modern life. In ersatz worlds of peppermints, notepads, pens, water pitchers, planners, and perky trainers, participants vow to practice greater efficiency in their public and private lives. Inside hotel ballrooms across the United States, trainers project an optimistic certainty that time can be managed through deliberate acts of control.

Participants are taught to place all of life’s concerns and responsibilities into one of four quadrants and to realize that not all urgent matters are important. Time becomes a quantifiable resource to be mastered through better technology, products, goal-setting, and personal organization skills.

I have been a regular in the “time ballroom.” At first, I attended these seminars with a desire to fix myself, expecting the trainer to help me build a better relationship with time through the acquisition of skills. I had hopes of being more punctual and organized as I sought to end my entrenched habits of procrastination. But as I returned to my everyday life, I found I did not use their time management systems. The certainty I felt in the ballroom evaporated as unused planners piled up beside my desk. After a while, I came to terms with the reality that having a better relationship with time does not require shortcuts or systems. Instead, it requires a patient practice of trial and error and taking advantage of opportunities for reflection.

Moving Beyond "Just" Time Management

For a while, I led time management seminars on my own. I discovered that if participants could think more intentionally about how to bring incremental or organic change to their lives, a system was no longer necessary.

The secret to effective use of time appeared to be not so much teaching new time management systems as helping people think creatively about their existing frameworks for getting things done. Intrigued by the breakthroughs I witnessed during these seminars, I began to interview people to discover their relationship with their own busyness.

I reasoned that the best practices I witnessed could serve as inspiration for other people’s lives and my own. I learned how people I admire dealt with the challenges of managing time by listening to their stories about their everyday lives. As I listened, I honed in on one or two words that each person used to express the challenges and strategies for getting through their days. Each word or phrase became one of the ten lessons about the experience of busyness in this book.

Busyness, for many of us, has come to characterize our relationship with time. Just notice how we respond to the most basic everyday question, “How are you?” with some rendition of “busy” instead of “Fine.” We count the many ways we are busy instead of reflecting upon our current state of being. If being busy is now the predominant paradigm for our relationship with time, then surely there is a way to experience a good busyness in our everyday lives. Perhaps a more reflective approach to time management can help us develop a more thoughtful relationship with time. In reflective time management, we situate ourselves somewhere between the open-ended query of Saint Augustine and the technical confidence of Stephen Covey. I call this the search for good busy.

Understanding "Good Busy"

So what is good busy? Good busy is not an oxymoron. The phrase represents the experience of the moments in everyday life when our actions come close to matching our intentions for ourselves and for the world around us. While the experience of good busy is not always present in the ebb and flow of everyday life, we can be patient and carry on in its absence, while planning for its return. My point is that good busy, a balance between action and reflection in our everyday lives, is always possible. We get better at it as we go.

The words and practices of the people I’ve interviewed have helped me deepen my ongoing search for good busy. In each conversation, I asked people to describe their relationship with busyness. Without exception, people could distinguish good from bad busy.

Good busy represented some period of time—an hour, a day, a week or more—when life went well. Their days were full and fulfilling. They had a lot to do, and yet they were at peace with their daily motion. By contrast, people spoke of a bad busy that was the opposite—a busyness that was frenetic, exhausting, and not sustainable. Bad busy was motion without thought and was detrimental to individuals and to the world around them. The trick is to reach toward good busy and steer clear of the bad.

I went in search of good busy, not because I wanted to stop being busy, but because I wanted to learn how to make better choices in my own daily life. The practices I learned from the people I write about are now anchors in my life, meant for days that have become disorganized, turbulent, and even chaotic as a result of the many demands and stressors at work, at home, and in my community. While no one I interviewed professed to be a time management expert, and everyone balked at the suggestion, they each have a lesson to share about their own approach to busyness. I know because I am the first adopter of these practices in my own life and in my role as a teacher.

This search for good busy has further educated me on the role that social class, educational level, and earning potential play in shaping the experience of busyness. If you earn the minimum wage or are financially insecure, your ability to experience good busy may be encumbered by economic forces beyond your immediate control. That said, almost all of the people interviewed have faced financial challenges, and their stories incorporate their particular responses. For this reason, I believe each example to be of relevance to most readers.

I am passionate about the topic of time, in part because I see so many people suffering from feelings of guilt and incompetence that arise from our everyday choices.

While multitasking and efficiency have their place, they are also threats to our health. My hope is that you will find greater peace as you try out some of the practices I’ve suggested. Ultimately, reckoning with time is a personal journey. While the people profiled may serve as inspiration, you must discover practices of your own.

What would you say if I interviewed you? What words or stories would describe your journey? Everyone has wisdom and life experience. What will you do?

Reprinted with permission from Good Busy: Productivity, Procrastination and the Endless Pursuit of Balance by Julia Scatliff O’Grady and published by RCWMS Press, 2012.