Wasting Time

I worry a lot about time. And whether I’m wasting it. Whether what I’m doing is productive, whether it “counts” towards one of my many to-dos.

Because if it doesn’t, then what’s the point? I will have squandered this precious commodity. There is only so much sand in the hourglass. That laundry isn’t going to do itself.

This is one of the main reasons I tend to avoid writing. It feels like wasted time. I won’t finish whatever it is I’m working on in the amount of time I have, so what’s the point? Better to clean the toilet instead. Then I can cross something off my list.

When I tell people I’m a writer, I want to cringe. A voice inside me says, “You liar. You would rather clean the toilet than write any day!”

Writing feels like deciding to wander around in a maze. I go into it knowing, I probably won’t get to my destination in my allotted time; in fact there is a good chance that I will probably just get more lost.

I read two pieces of advice today from two very different sources, but both of them seemed to be speaking directly to me about how I spend my time.

The first was from a devotional on my Jesus Calling app. In case you’ve never heard of Jesus Calling, it’s a daily devotional based on selected Bible verses and written as though Jesus is talking to you in the first person. Here’s what I read today:

“Talk with me about every aspect of your day, including your feelings. Remember that your ultimate goal is not to control or fix everything around you; it is to keep communing with me. A successful day is one in which you have stayed in touch with me, even if many things remain undone at the end of the day. Do not let your to-do list (written or mental) become an idol directing your life. Instead, ask my spirit to guide you moment by moment. He will keep you close to me.”

Then I also read this piece of writing advice from Anne Lamott:

“The most important advice I would give my younger writer self is what I’d give my younger woman self: What other people think of you is none of your business. And I wish I had believed when I was a young writer that I had some time to find out who I was and that I was going to find a precious community of older colleagues who would help me. The American way is to do it yourself, figure it out yourself, stick to the decisions you make — and all of that was a lie. I was taught as a child ‘we don’t waste time; we don’t waste paper.’ If you stared off into space when I was eight, a grown-up said, ‘Don’t you have anything to do? Is your room clean?’ I’d teach my younger self to stare off into space more often. I would tell her to waste more paper. I would tell her she doesn’t need to stick to a decision; she can change her mind.”

Could it be that my to-do list is controlling me instead of me controlling it? I had never thought of it as an idol before. But maybe all this focus on executable tasks is keeping me from what is really important. Perhaps wandering around in the maze a little lost is a much better use of my time and not a waste at all. God is with me in that maze and will likely guide me exactly where I need to be if I am willing to hand over the reins to him. The more I enter the maze, the better I will be at letting God direct my steps.

When I’m not writing I don’t feel whole. When I’m not seeking God, I feel lost, rudderless. I can tackle all the to-dos in the world, but if I’m not “wasting time” writing and connecting with God, my life will still feel unfulfilled.

My prayer: God, I want to give up the need to control my life and my time. Please help me trust that you will be there with me when I sit down to write. Give me the courage to write even when it feels safer to clean the toilet. Give me the desire and the discipline to carve out time that has no defined purpose other than to connect with you. I will enter the maze. I trust that you will direct my steps. Amen.


How Much Time Have You Got?

I have been reading the book You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam. Well, re-reading because I originally started this book back when my kids were younger, and I think I just gave up. My time was just so unstructured and at their mercy at that point in my life that it was too frustrating to try to act like I had much control over it.

This is the first year that all of my kids are in school, and I am not working outside the home. If ever there was a time that I could put some structure around my time, this is it. So I’m turning to Vanderkam’s book once again for help.

The thesis of the book is twofold: Given that there are 168 hours in a week, “you can choose how to spend your 168 hours and you have more time than you think.”

The first exercise the book asks you to do is to track your time for a week. You account for every hour of the day, including when you are asleep. According to Vanderkam’s research people sleep a lot more than they think and work a lot less than they think. We overestimate time spent on things we don’t like to do, such as emptying the dishwasher or paying bills, and underestimate how much TV we’re watching. We tend to avoid activities that take initiative or thought, things like spending quality time with our kids or exercising, and we try to squeeze these things in as after-thoughts, making us feel pressed for time. When actually we aren’t.

Vanderkam poses the question: “what if we viewed every minute as a choice?” How would we spend our time differently?

It helps me to think of time as a concrete thing, like coins or tokens. Let’s say you have 168 tokens for a week. How would you spend them? Would that make you think differently about spending an hour mindlessly clicking on Container Store storage baskets you will never actually purchase? Ahem, just to give an example.

So, I logged most of my time for a week and learned a lot. One thing I learned is that I really don’t get enough sleep. I get about 6 hours a night. Life with teens starts early in the morning and goes until late at night when our oldest is still completing homework. She has A LOT of homework. She then also has to get up at 6 am to be at school across town at 7:30. So, in order to have a little time to myself before she wakes up, I get up at 5:45 am. When you go to bed at 11:30 and then read for 30 minutes as I have been doing, this is not enough sleep. So this is an area where I am not spending enough of my time tokens, and my body feels it big-time. I am really dragging most weekdays.

Another thing I learned is that I spend way too much time cooking dinner and cleaning up after dinner. I enjoy cooking. And I enjoy eating, so I don’t mind spending some time tokens in this way. But there were several days last week where I spent 3 hours cooking and cleaning up dinner. I’m not even sure how that happened. I think I made more complicated stuff than I normally do. I get interrupted a lot, which makes any task take longer. I always seem to want to add one more roasted vegetable, which requires 10 minutes to wash, peel and chop, or I think to make a salad “real quick,” which turns into looking up a salad dressing recipe I remember reading about online, printing it out, oops, printer’s out of paper, where is the laptop? Who left the laptop unplugged and open so that the battery is drained, etc., etc. Somehow a little salad that no one will eat but me has cost me 30 minutes.

Want to know the dinner my family absolutely loved last week? Quesadillas. Those took about 15 minutes. They were a desperate plan b when my Instant Pot French Dip sandwiches took about 2 hours longer to cook than I expected.

In other words, I could spend a lot less time on cooking and spend it sleeping instead. The world would keep spinning on its axis if we didn’t eat such elaborate meals, and I would probably be a happier, more well-rested person.

Also, and this is painful for me to admit, for someone who has big dreams of publishing a novel, I spent a whopping one hour writing last week. Sad face. I’m not a total bum, I promise. I spent my would-be writing time doing other, good things. I made a meal for a friend who lives an hour away who just had twins. I spent two hours driving and two hours holding babies. About three hours went into shopping for and making the meals and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I also went on a Silent Retreat my church offered. I spent two hours driving and talking with a friend and three hours of silent prayer, journaling and Bible study. These pursuits didn’t result in additional chapters in my novel or a cleaner house, but they time well spent in my opinion.

I’m not here to beat up on myself or congratulate myself for how I used my time, but looking at the raw data of how I spent 168 hours has already inspired me to make some changes.

An exercise that Vanderkam recommends doing once you’ve completed a week-long time log is to make a list of 100 dreams, a list of activities you’d like to try or accomplish during your life. She encourages you to cross off the ones you’ve done and note how they made you feel. Here’s a few entries from my list:

  1. Run a marathon  This made me feel like I can do anything if I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and don’t quit.
  2. Write a novel. This made me feel like I am a “real” writer, not just an aspiring one.
  3. Publish a novel.
  4. Spend a week alone writing, reading and being outside.
  5. Travel to a foreign country with my whole family.
  6. Go on a family vacation at a working farm.
  7. Have an organized, clutter-free house.
  8. Run a 50-mile race in a beautiful location.
  9. Have close, authentic, fun relationships with each of my children and my husband.
  10. Write a book of essays.
  11. Start a gardening program at our elementary school. This made me feel empowered and made me feel like I was making a meaningful difference in a place that is very important to me.
  12. Create a beautiful native landscape on the hill in my front yard.
  13. Do a pull-up!
  14. Blog about topics that help other people grow and feel empowered and more joyful.
  15. Read the whole Bible.
  16. Raise kids who grow up to make the world a better place.
  17. Go to the Grand Canyon.
  18. Learn how to snowboard.
  19. Have a regular front yard gathering with our neighbors.
  20. Ride my bike rather than take my car.
  21. Have fresh flowers around the house.
  22. Go on a trip with each of my children individually.
  23. Host more dinner parties.
  24. Start a supper club.
  25. Live in a foreign country.
  26. Rent a house somewhere completely different for one month in the summer.
  27. Have a big garden that could feed our family.

Next, Vanderkam says you should answer these two questions:

What do I do best, that other people cannot do nearly as well?

Well, no one else can write my novel or have close relationships with my kids. That’s only something I can do.

What things do I spend time on that other people could do, or could do better?

Someone else can cook, clean, do landscaping projects, make cookies for the bake sale. I don’t have to spend time on these things unless I choose to.

***UPDATE****

Since this is sort of a secret blog at this point, I forgot to publish this post and am coming back to it a few months later. I think I’m doing much better with how I spend my time. Like, for example, I’ve figured out how to get myself to write everyday and I’ve been making some good progress on my novel. Two of my writing group friends are fashioning a silly hat that I will have to wear at the coffee shop where we meet to write if I do not write 500 words a day. Talk about motivating! I am not a silly hat person, so this is working like a charm! Also, the last few times I’ve brought a meal to someone who was sick, I have brought them takeout. I used to think that wasn’t allowed, but then I thought, would I mind if someone brought me takeout if I were sick? No, I would not mind one bit. In fact, I might prefer it actually. Anyway, these are some small changes. Letting myself off the hook in some areas, and then not not letting myself off the hook in others.

The key mindset change for me is realizing that I do not have all the time in the world. I have 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week, 8,760 in a year. Now this is starting to sound like a song from Rent, but you get the idea.

We only have so much time, but how we use it is up to us.

 

 


Velocity

I love road trips. I love watching the landscape change from rolling central Texas hills to desert mesas within a matter of hours. And then eventually those mesas turn into actual mountains if you drive long enough in the right direction.

It feels like a magic trick. You get in your car in one place and hours later end up somewhere completely different. Same car, same you, different everything else.

I have a series of pictures taken over the last decade of my kids buckled up in their seats in our minivan for some long journey or another. We’ve had the same model minivan all of those years, so the interior of the car remains the same, but the kids change drastically. They start out in car seats and boosters and gradually morph into the almost fully grown people they are today. The most recent one is from a month ago when they are 14, 12 and 9. Same car. Same me. Different everything else.

When it comes to my kids getting older, I always think of that Matthew McConaughey line from Dazed and Confused–except in reverse: they keep getting older, and I stay the same age. Time seems to be going in fast-forward for them, whereas I am on pause.

Time is strange. You can’t see it. You can’t touch it. But you can see what it does to a place, to a person, to a landscape. A few weeks ago we drove from Austin to Colorado by way of Carlsbad, NM. We visited Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which is essentially a giant cave. Do you know how caverns happen? Water + time. Carlsbad Cavern was formed by an inland sea, which existed 265 million years ago. So, at one point over TWO HUNDRED MILLION YEARS AGO there used to be a sea in the middle of New Mexico. Just to put things in perspective, New Mexico has been a state for a little over 100 years. Our idea of New Mexico as this land of Georgia O’Keefe, turquoise jewelry and adobe airbnbs feels very real, very grounded in reality, but there is a whole nother version of New Mexico that existed a long, long, long time before Santa Fe and Taos and Breaking Bad. Visiting Carlsbad National Park was like walking around in a giant fossil–a cavernous reminder of how small our little dot is in a much bigger, much longer story.

This time of year, we are acutely aware of the passage of time. We don’t really pay that much attention the rest of the year, but maybe we should. Because time is a constant that is always shaping us, weathering us, and changing us for better or worse. Was there an ocean in you that is now a cavern? That didn’t happen overnight. It happened minute by minute, drop by drop–the way stalactites form.

The beginning of a new year reminds us to take note of where we are on our timeline, in our story, and where we want to go. Some people make resolutions, some people set intentions. Really what they are choosing are the next stops on their journey.

I think that’s one reason I love road trips–they provide a rare opportunity to actually feel my body moving through space in a sped-up exaggerated way. Because we are all always going somewhere–whether we realize it or not. The clock is always ticking. We are all on a road trip all of the time.

In the Billy Collins poem “Velocity” the speaker is trying to write on a train. Instead of writing, he sketches a picture of a windblown motorcyclist. He compares himself to to the motorcyclist, as he is also in motion on the train, which is “pulling him toward Omaha and whatever lay beyond Omaha…

We must always look at things
from the point of view of eternity,

 

the college theologians used to insist,
from which, I imagine, we would all
appear to have speed lines trailing behind us
as we rush along the road of the world,

 

as we rush down the long tunnel of time–
the biker, of course, drunk on the wind,
but also the man reading by a fire,

 

speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book,
and the woman standing on a beach
studying the curve of horizon,
even the child asleep on a summer night,
speed lines flying from the posters of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillow cases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body.”
                                            (From “Velocity” by Billy Collins)

We all have speed lines coming off our shoulders. They are there whether we feel ourselves moving or not. Two hundred sixty-five million years ago New Mexico was an ocean. Everything is always on its way to becoming something new.