I recently got a Monk Manual, a daily planner that seeks to incorporate some of the intentionality and structure of monastic life in order to establish “peaceful being and purposeful doing.” I can’t say it has transformed my life (yet), but I suspect that has more to do with a general un-monkishness on my part than with the merits of the planner, which is by all accounts excellent.
However, I have very much benefited from the the emails I have received from Monk Manual founder Steve Lawson. In a recent email/blog post called “The Impossibility of Saving Time,” Lawson offers a helpful shift of perspective on the matter of time management.
We speak of “saving time” and “spending time” as if time were money (which is something else we say). But time, of course, can’t be saved the way money can be saved. To save money is to stop its flow and collect it in a reservoir to be used later. But time keeps on flowing at the same rate, no matter what we do. There’s no such thing as a time-dam. That’s a lot of figurative language: Time is like money, money is like a river, savings are like a reservoir, and the saving-for-later aspect of a reservoir relates back to time.
When we’re talking about time (not to mention money), we have no choice but to use figurative language. So Steve Lawson proposes that we change our figurative language and speak less about “saving time” and more about “investing time.”
The language of saving time leads to the language of efficiency and/or the language of “finding time” in one’s day—both of which are better than wasting time, but neither of which speaks to purpose or meaning. If your efficiency finds you an extra hour a day, and that hour fills up with more tasks, urgent but unimportant—or, worse yet, tasks that somebody else gives you because they notice you’ve got an extra hour—what have you gained?
To think of “investing time,” on the other hand, is to ask “How can I get the most significant return from these hours that have been given to me?” The idea return on investment no doubt involves being more efficient and not wasting time. But it starts with the big questions (up to and including “What is this time of mine, this life of mine for?”) and trickles down from there. Also, the idea of investing time is likely to make you rethink your categories of “efficiency” and “wasted time.”
Here’s how Lawson defines what it means to invest time:
As “time investors,” we ask, where can I put my awareness, attention, and energy to make this moment — which is a finite resource — the most meaningful and impactful?
These ideas are especially relevant to the work of writing, which requires a big investment of time. If you aren’t thinking about the big picture—that is, what you really want to offer to the wider world—the next-most-urgent thing is going to slide into whatever time slot you free up. And writing (or any other big, slow, important work) is only rarely the most urgent task in front of you.
Lawson speaks of “consciously choosing how to invest [each] once-in-a-lifetime block of time.” I’m still chewing on that. In describing each block of time as “once-in-a-lifetime,” his main point, I think, is that time keeps moving and we never get any of it back once it’s gone. But it also occurs to me that every hour is once-in-a-lifetime insofar as its unlike any other hour of your life. Money is fungible: every dollar is equivalent to every other dollar, and every rupee is equivalent to every other rupee. That’s the whole point of money. But days and hours aren’t fungible. Each one represents its own opportunities, resources, propinquities, and obligations. Today is the day to do one thing. Tomorrow, perhaps, you will be called to something else. This truth has significances that I haven’t sorted out yet.
As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” May we invest our days and hours well.
Follow-Up on Jon Hendrix’s Pit of Despair
A few weeks ago I wrote about illustrator John Hendrix’s infographic, “How to Survive the Arc of Every Long Project.” Last week the Rabbit Room posted a video in which John discusses the arc of the long project (and the Pit of Despair!) with fellow visual artists Jamin Still and Kyra Hinton. Here’s the link to that conversation. Also, I didn’t realize it when I last wrote about this infographic, but you can buy a full-color signed print, in case you need to hang it on the wall of your workspace as a daily reminder to trust your process.