School project being completed at 10PM by kid after soccer practice: not exactly what I wanted to be assisting with, but nevertheless well worth my time. Why? Read on. (Yes, that is a pyramid made out of rice krispie squares.)
On Facebook last week, I posted a photo of my daughter at one of her track meets, and expressed my pride at being there to watch her race. Among the complimentary and sweet messages in response, an acquaintance posted this comment: Can you write a book or blog about how you manage your time?
It got me thinking: could this be a book that I could write? (Kevin says no; he thinks the subject would bore me silly.) (Note: “Could this be a book I could write?” is a surprisingly common question that I ask myself.) I do have a facility for squeezing a great deal into my day, including time for watching my kids do the wonderful and ordinary things that they do. And yet I often think my facility for organization has more to do with privilege than talent, because I don’t have to spend a great deal of time on tasks that may be essential or unavoidable to others, such as a long commute whether by car or public transit, or a full-time job performed primarily for money. Truth is, I resent and rage at any perceived waste of my time, such as waiting in long line-ups to sign official forms, or sitting in traffic on my way to an event I don’t want to attend. I’ve tried my best to work at being patient in these situations, and to learn patience and stillness from them, but I feel keenly any waste.
What’s being wasted? Time. Precious and diminishing with every breath.
Yet I’m quite willing to “waste” copious amounts of time doing things like this: meditating followed by journalling / blogging.
So it strikes me that a significant element to effective time management is defining what you consider wasteful, and rearranging your life to perform those tasks as infrequently as possible. Again, I recognize that it’s a privilege to be in position that would allow a drastic life change, like quitting a job, but most of us can probably find some small ways to change the lives we’re living if the lives we’re living cause us enough pain. How does change happen? In my own experience, it happens in a variety of ways, but most often it happens because I notice a point of discomfort, pain, unhappiness, and recognize that things I am doing (or not doing) are at least in part the cause of my unhappiness.
What comes next is that the routine has to change. The structure has to change. You can’t say “I’m going to make a change,” and not create the structure to support it. Small example: None of us are getting up at 5AM to run because we feel like it; it’s because we’ve decided it’s worth doing, and we’ve arranged our schedule, our habits, our routine to support our choice: we’ve checked the weather, we’ve laid out appropriate workout clothes, we’ve gone to bed a bit early, we haven’t had a drink, we’ve set our alarm, we’ve arranged to meet a friend or friends, and with the wheels in motion, we simply show up and do what we’d planned. But without the supporting structure to carry us through—to carry the idea through to action—we’d sleep in, telling ourselves, I’m too tired right now, I’ll just do it tomorrow, or I’ll run tonight instead, or … and the imagined moment never arrives.
It’s like painting lines for bike lanes sandwiched between live traffic and parked cars and then blaming cyclists and drivers for colliding. It would be more useful and more accurate to blame the structure instead, rather than putting the onus on human beings to make rational, correct, perfect choices at all times, in all situations, in all weathers. Human failure is inevitable. Therefore, change the structure, put the bicycles in a separated, unobstructed lane, and everyone will both feel and be safer.
Structure is what shapes our lives, far more than we accept or acknowledge, and this is true right down to whether or not we floss our teeth, or eat lots of veggies. That we are “creatures of habit” is a truism because it’s true. So scan your daily life for routines that aren’t serving what you value. Maybe there’s room for a change, here and there.
I realize it’s more philosophy than step-by-step advice, but here is my time management strategy in a nutshell.
1. Identify what matters to you.
2. Be curious, be open. Respond to pain or unhappiness (and to joy too!)—recognize it, don’t ignore it.
3. Figure out what changes are possible.
4. Don’t think about making a change, actually force change to happen by altering the routines and structures that govern your daily life.
One last piece of my time management strategy: celebrate every little thing worth celebrating. The sandwich that tastes good, the kid who is telling you a story, the green of the clover coming up in the back yard, being outside, a good nap, holding a 3-minute plank, chatting with other parents beside a soccer field on a particularly fine late-spring evening, driving with a child and having a side-by-side conversation. Don’t waste your own time by wishing you were somewhere else. Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, take it in. Tell yourself: This is not a waste. This is my life.
PS I feel like this post has a slightly preachy or evangelical tone. Please don’t think I think you should be getting up at 5AM to run; rather, I think you should be getting to do your own personal version of an early-morning run, that is, the thing that’s kind of hard but makes you feel alive.
Every now and again, I think, well this is a bit much. Last night, the power went out after Kevin and I had gotten the kids to bed … which was already really late in the evening. It had started to rain (though not enough to counter this drought we seem to be staggering into.) I showered in the dark, climbed the stairs to bed in the dark. Then, just as we were ready to sleep, the power popped back on, and with it all the lights we hadn’t turned off; and an annoying alarm began to sound loudly and regularly.
Kevin dashed to the basement to try various switches. Kids started coming to find me, one in tears: “I’m so tired, and I can’t sleep, and I’m scared, what is that?”
“I’m tired, too, and I can’t sleep either, but don’t worry, we’ll figure this out.”
But the alarm went on and on and on. Finally, fighting inertia, I went downstairs, where I discovered Kevin perched on a stool in the dining-room about to violently dismantle a smoke detector — except I realized in that moment that it wasn’t the smoke detector making all that noise, it was the carbon monoxide detector, plugged in to an outlet nearby.
“Wait!” I said.
Kevin paused, screwdriver in hand, curses temporarily stalled.
I unplugged the device from the wall.
Silence. Blissful peace and quiet.
Then Kevin had to clean up the mess he’d made from knocking the smoke detector around, and I plugged the carbon monoxide detector back in again, and all was well.
Because it had been a very long day already, this all felt a bit like the proverbial straw. But it wasn’t, I guess. I keep thinking the straw has landed, yet life goes on. We figure it out.
I went to CJ’s grade one class yesterday and read The Candy Conspiracy, and talked about writing and storytelling, and watched them make up their own stories about imaginary worlds made of candy. CJ and I walked home together, CJ chatting all the way. I ran twice yesterday, with a friend in the early morning and by myself at a soccer practice in the beautiful light of evening, covering 14km total, which is far and away the furthest I’ve run since last fall. Kevin took Suzi to the vet for a minor infection. I made quesadillas and beans & rice and asparagus for supper, and somehow we all managed to sit down together at 5PM to eat and share stories about our day, before rushing off to soccer and gymnastics. It was the usual jumble of quiet and rush, and being with others in so many different ways. So many different conversations I get to have every single day. Today I’ve done a radio interview to promote the launch, and met with my party planners to finalize logistics for Saturday. And that doesn’t include all the emails and texts to various friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances.
On today’s menu: samosas and pakoras for supper; piano lessons this afternoon; and this evening, two soccer practices and one rather-far-out-of-town game, necessitating reliance on the help of one grandma (my mom) and at least one friend (my co-coach Marnie). Maybe rather than worrying about needing to rely on others (for rides, for babysitting, for carpooling), I should embrace how much necessary connection it brings into my every day. Connection is good. Connection is community. Hopefully the giving and receiving is mutual or evens out in some cosmic way. It’s humbling to need help and to ask for it; I’ve gotten much better at it.
All for now.
Girl runner, yesterday, school track meet: won her age group in the 1500, 800, and 400.
I’ve got a six sticky notes affixed above this computer, with reminders about where to funnel my writing energies, should I sit down at my desk in the morning at a loss. Four of the notes have been stuck up there for a year; two are new this year.
Here is what they say:
* Blog 3x/week + photos
This reminds me that I rarely take photos with my real camera anymore. There’s a practical reason for this, and it isn’t just because I’m short on time, or prioritizing differently, though that may play into it too. The practical issue is that the computer on which I process my photos is dying a long slow death, and frequently and suddenly conks out, taking with it any work I’m doing. It conks out most often when the work is processing photos. Further, the device I use to connect the camera to the computer is faulty and it takes multiple frustrating attempts to download the photos so that I’m even in a position to process them, at which point the screen inevitably goes black. It’s all rather discouraging, and time consuming … so the quality of photos on this blog, and therefore the quality of photos recording my family’s life, has dropped steeply. Nevertheless I’m still blogging two or three times a week, with images via my cellphone’s camera.
This reminds me that I am not just a novelist, but a short story writer, and that every once in awhile, if inspired, I should write a new one. I try to keep at least one unpublished story in reserve, in case (fantasy!) a literary magazine comes calling with a request. (Actually, this has happened twice in the past year, so it’s not a complete fantasy.) In time, I expect to have enough stories to fill a new collection. How much time? Who knows. It’s not like the world is clamouring for new collections of short stories, so I will give this project as much time as it takes. No rush.
* Poem a day “Light” + write + attention
This refers to my 2015 meditation journal. I aim to write in this journal for 15 minutes every day, often immediately after meditating. Some days, 15 minutes turns into much much much longer. Some days, I save this journaling as a reward for completing other writing. Truth is, I really love writing in this journal, and don’t need the reminder. However … very few poems have emerged. It’s mainly stream-of-consciousness prose. The title “Light” refers to the file name for this year (last year’s file name was “The woman formerly known as”). “Write” is my word of the year (and a very good word it’s been for me, so far), while “attention” is my secondary word. I’ve applied my secondary word mainly through meditation.
* Memoir on learning how to swim
This is a personal essay I’ve been working on, off and on, since last summer.
* Essay on being edited, relationship with editors
This is a personal essay, the idea for which was given to me by the editors of The New Quarterly, which has never developed into more than an idea. Yet I leave it up there, just in case it sparks something.
* Novel Forgiveness in Families
This refers to the novel I’ve been working on. Funny thing is, that isn’t the title, and I have no idea why I ever thought it might be. (But I know exactly where I got it from: it’s the title of an Alice Munro story, one I think about from time to time, from her collection “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” another marvellously evocative title.) (Also, it occurs to me just now that “Forgiveness in Families” would be an excellent title for an essay that perhaps I will write someday.)
I have room for two more sticky notes above my computer.
I’ve decided to add a seventh called * Dispatches, personal essays. In fact, without needing any reminders and completely unprompted, I’ve been steadily working on a collection of personal essays, off and on, using a variety of raw material, some of which has arisen out of daily journaling. It’s interesting to me that most of that journal material is dead wood, yet every once in awhile something blooms from it, or mushrooms up. It’s a reminder of how patient one must be to see a long, deep project through from beginning to end. How do the little fragments cohere? It’s a lovely mystery. Looking back, retrospectively, I sometimes wonder how I’ve had time to do the work that gets done. And yet, I do, and it gets done. Inch by inch, brick by brick, seed by seed, sticky note by sticky note.
I may even add an eighth sticky note. This one will be called * Children’s project, but I’ll leave it undefined for now. My nine-year-old would like me to write a children’s chapter book; and I’ve got plots and plans for more pictures books, too.
Which reminds me, details about our local launch party for The Candy Conspiracy are being finalized as we speak! Here’s the short-point version: Saturday, May 30th, 1PM, Waterloo Public Library, and yes, there will be candy! (How could there not be?) Poster and more details coming soon. And apparently I’ll be on local daytime television talking about this tomorrow. Eek!
Waiting for the school bus.
Funny postscript to my last post on my forgetful daughter. Yesterday, the school bus arrived, she said goodbye, I watched her walk across the street and board the bus. A couple of minutes later, the front door slammed open and she rushed into the house. “What’s happening?!” we said. “No time to talk! I just forgot a few things!” “And the bus driver BROUGHT YOU BACK?” “Yes!” Rush, rush, slam.
I ran to the door to see what she’d forgotten — backpack, lunch? Nope.
SHOES. Running shoes.
And the bus driver brought her back. Now that’s a special bus driver.
Here are a few other things we do in the morning, before leaving for school (with apologies for lousy cellphone photos).
Practice piano and violin. Read.
I really enjoy our mornings. Kevin and I both get up before the kids. I run or go to an exercise class. He runs the dogs and does yoga and strength exercises in our living-room. He makes a giant smoothie for the kids’ breakfast (yogurt, kefir, almond milk, bananas, frozen fruit). Various people take showers. Dishwasher is emptied (by the kids; this is a new routine). Big kids pack their own lunches. Kev packs his lunch, plus lunches for the younger two (I think they could manage it on their own, but if he’s willing to do it …). What else? First load of laundry goes in the washer. Musical instruments get practiced. Forms get signed. Dogs get fed. Weather gets checked. Music is played.
It’s a sweet start, and worth the early hour, says the woman who remembers being a night owl, once upon a time.
I’m trying to get more organized, she told me this morning. To which I replied, I think you’re already pretty amazingly organized. Even if you forget your shoes at school sometimes.
She performed three times at the Kiwanis music festival this week, placing in every category. This required months of work to learn, then memorize, then master the intricacies of each song, not to mention to perform under pressure. Yesterday, she handed in a major school project she’s been researching and writing for months (on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the subject she chose). Next weekend she’s performing in a play, representing several months’ commitment to rehearsals. And she continues to play/practice soccer several times a week, and will start refereeing games this month. I think she’s also singing/playing ukulele with friends at a school coffeehouse. How she’s not curled up in a fetal position in a corner somewhere is beyond me. Instead, she seems pretty chilled out. I would swear she’s having fun. If she looks a little nervous in the photo above, it’s because it was taken right before her first performance on Monday. She was a little nervous. (So was I.)
Here’s what I’d like to say to her. Yes, you’re a bit scatter-brained sometimes. Sometimes you tune everything out and daydream. This can be annoying when the bus is waiting for you, or it’s past bedtime. But I think you’re plenty organized. You see the big picture. You know how to get where you’re going, and that it takes patience and steady effort. You also seem to know what matters: all of the steps along the way. So how about this: You keep doing what you’re doing. And I’ll help you remember your shoes.
PS But even I am not so organized as to iron your shirt…
“There’s a big white flower behind one of the stumps, Mom, I’ll show you.”
Dream: I am at a long conference table set up in my mother-in-law’s back porch. Two women sit at the other end of the table, conducting an interview about art for live national radio, but I’m just here because it’s a convenient place to work. Earlier in the dream I spent way too much time anxiously trying to figure out why my children missed the school bus; the children are everywhere, all around the house, when I know they should be in school. So I’m sitting here, trying not to be too obvious or interrupt the interview, trying to work. I think that my work is writing, but when I look down, it turns out that my work is chopping potatoes. End of dream.
Things I’ve done since 5:30AM yesterday: ran with a friend, helped children practice violin and piano, made supper in the crockpot, washed three loads of laundry, meditated twice, blogged, edited an essay, answered emails, texted with friends and family, picked up and dropped off kids for piano lessons, worked on novel while sitting in car between pick-ups/drop-offs, visited with a friend while at piano lessons, attended a soccer coaching clinic, had tea with husband (talking soccer, hockey, and Fun Things We Want To Do), read books and newspaper, listened to radio (news and songs), slept, did strength exercises. Waited. Hurried. Tried not to fight with time.
I think of time in blocks and chunks and sections. I think of myself as travelling between these blocks and chunks and sections and trying to negotiate the transitions as smoothly as possible, trying to settle in wherever I’m at and not resist what’s happening. But sometimes it feels like what I’m resisting is time itself. These chunks of time, this careful measuring of hours and minutes, calculating these small openings and anticipating these sudden slammings-shut gives me a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency is very helpful when working to complete a big project. But to enjoy being alive, to relish it, savour it, swim with it, you need to be flexible, you need to let go of the sense of urgency in the moments when urgency would only serve to make you anxious or frustrated.
Because life is full of many many tasks and events and rituals that are long slow dreamy, unrelenting, without obvious beginnings or endings, mundane, repetitive, completely necessary, or completely unnecessary, often lovely — not projects. Not artifacts. Just unmarked rivering moments in the flow of time. If there’s a balance I seek, perhaps it’s between these two states of being: the urgent efficient ambitious project-driven state of creating something new; and the flow of life as it unwinds through its time, through its here and now, and being here, present and without the need to make anything of it.
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