By temperament, I am neither disciplined nor forgiving–I would rather spend six hours perfecting a miniscule detail of the project I care about, leaving half my work undone, than budget realistically and accept a compromise. If you have an obsessive, project-oriented streak, this can work well up to a point, but eventually, time for sleep becomes very sweet, and the baffled sense “for I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate” very frustrating.
I can get one or two things done, and done to my satisfaction, but the problem was realizing that I want to do many things. When you want, not just to produce, but live well–eat good food, answer letters, dance, speak French–the finitude of time becomes much more pressing, and you can’t succeed by treating everything as a crisis.
I was noodling this after reading Calah’s post. Full-time childcare with the majority of housework is essentially working two jobs (in which your first job actively tries to destroy your second). Part of Calah’s point is that the problem is in some ways intractable; part of the problem also seems related to impossible demands placed overwhelmingly and specifically on mothers. But working two jobs and trying to find the energy to open a beer, at least, is familiar to me. Sometimes even minor adjustments have been helpful, and here some from my frantic times.
1. Focus on habits, not projects.
People tell you to begin with the end in mind, and I do! And that end is one in which I pray daily, am fluent in several languages, have an organized wardrobe with appropriate outfits for every occasion all of which fit and none of which are ripped, go for runs in a high ponytail and those cool stretchy outfits, write several thousand words a day, return emails immediately, read six newspapers every morning, make things like “walnut crusted salmon with artichokes and lemon pesto tapenade” for dinner, and have read literally every book.
Part of this is just me, but part of it, I think, is a well-marketed concept of femininity, and the tip-off is the picture of the self as a product–clean, contained, accessorized, on brand. It doesn’t touch on the development of a continuous person as much as the assembly of a static persona.
It also happens to be impossible, because most people have to work and reproduce their labor power, and there is barely time for leisure, let alone perfection, And even if you scale down your goals, you’ll still be stuck trying to create a setting, an aesthetic, “fixing your life” as if it existed in some malleable, adjustable “hackable” remove from you, the person.
And then, so much of the aesthetic of the clean, finished life depends on money, and so much of that, unless you are rich, is out of your control. You’ll gather up the skirts that desperately need alteration, and realize the money you’d blocked out went to fixing yesterday’s burst pipe. So you go on, waiting patiently for the day you can get everything just right, become the fantasy of yourself you wish to see in the world, finally take out your to do-list and cross “life” off forever.
When I really attend to happiness, not pawn it off on some immaterial collection of future things and traits and circumstances, I still want a good life. But I want to live it now, at a cruddy job and with cruddy pens that write in ugly smears, without scented candles or the silk pillowcases on which I know, deep down, my head was meant to lie
What makes me happy is being someone who gives what time she has to good books –maybe just page a day, not enough to become an expert in anything–not trying to become someone who has read a certain quota of good books.
What I really want and need is an order to my time and the habits that make that possible, not this or that particular outcome.
2. Don’t make a to-do list, set aside time.
I like to-do lists, because they impose little discipline and maximum achievement. I can treat them as a project, and faithfully, eventually, get everything done without having to worry about what the cost was, what I did with the rest of my time, or how long I can keep it up. But if what I really want is not just to plow through a complete set of Harvard Classics, but to give my time and attention to good things every single day, it helps to pre-allot the time I want to give. If I get up at 6 and get coffee, I can read the newspaper. If it is 5pm, I can be at my desk and computer, whether I feel like writing or have any good ideas.
And the best thing about this, for me, is the discipline of failure. You slept in? You read articles instead of writing? There’s no analgesic. You don’t get to make it up later, borrowing time from sleep or work. You don’t get to excuse yourself by shoving it off on a perfect tomorrow when you’ll “get your life in order.” You committed a specific amount of time to a specific work, and you failed, and that’s that.
But it’s ok, because now it’s time for another good thing you can succeed at, and tomorrow you’ll have another chance at this one. Making the acceptance of failure a part of the discipline helps quarantine what can otherwise be overwhelming self-castigation. You didn’t just tank your whole plan for your time, you failed at one thing, and by letting yourself feel that failure without abandoning the whole struggle, you’re turning it into a success.
And the flip-side to the discipline of failure is letting stuff go when it’s out of your control. The essay needed more work to be good, time’s up and you’re only halfway through? Hit save and move on. Unavoidable freak errand popped up in the evening prayer time? That’s ok, it’ll roll around again same time tomorrow.
When my focus is on achievement, interruptions and failures make me feel out of control, or that trying to do [goal] until [future condition] materializes is pointless. But with habits, what matters is the fidelity.
This is why I like the liturgy of the hours–your prayer is set up for you around regular intervals, and if you miss one, in three hours you try again.
3. Scale down.
Obviously, some things do not admit failure–some things are on a deadline, some of children’s needs are urgent.
In my experience, applying the discipline of failure to these non-negotiables, insofar as you can, makes them more manageable in the long run. If I have a paper due, rather than say “Saturday, I will write this paper,” I can begin, way before it’s due, giving myself half an hour a day to work on it. And you can fail at all those half hours, or use them with less than maximal efficiency, sure, but–wasting manageable bites of daily time explicitly set out for a task feels, to me, more difficult, harder to ignore, than dicking around when the only constraint is “get it done sometime today.” And even if I end up really using 15 minutes of that half hour productively, in a week I might still surprise myself with half a paper.
But I’ve found that it is a learning curve, and when you’re at the beginning, or you have many non-negotiables, or very difficult and time-consuming ones, it helps to massively scale down. Right now I exercise for three to five minutes a day, right before I shower and go to bed. It takes less energy to make myself do it when it’s only five minutes, and if for some reason I don’t get to it, it’s easier to jump back into the routine. My tiny workout won’t make me any kind of cross-fit champion, but I exercise more than I would with more ambitious goals; when I miss it, I notice.
4. Make bed-time a non-negotiable.
I tend to waste less of my allotted time if I know I’m going to bed at 9:30 whether I’ve finished it or not. I can’t always do this, obviously, but it helps, more than almost anything else. I’m happier and more capable, I don’t sleep in, and instead of finishing my to do list at an ever-increasing rate of inefficiency and exhaustion, I have to let the day go.
This applies, actually, to physical stuff in general. Prioritizing my goals by a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy is very helpful, and my top priority is the physical. Getting up on time, going to bed on time, my tiny workout, making myself drink water and stand up straight.
Putting it first and foremost provides a structure that keeps me from charging randomly at a free-wheeling vortex of obligations, never knowing which ones I’ll fulfill on any given day. If there’s just not enough time for everything, or I waste some of my time, or I fail at lower priority tasks, having my small, daily, absolute baseline physical regimen prevents me from feeling like I’ve lost all order so nothing matters after all..
I keep harping on this, because for me, it’s the key: understanding that I will sometimes fail to get everything done, especially at first, and having a structure that can absorb and neutralize that failure is how I build good habits.
And for some reason, putting the physical first offers a balance that enables me to attack the other stuff without being overwhelmed. Maybe because it’s relatively easy and therefore a low-cost way to keep your sense of order intact, or maybe it’s just that everything’s easier when you’re healthy. Either way, taking care of myself, even at the cost of other more important things, helps me stick to the hardest part of a discipline: not doing it perfectly every day, but doing it, like clockwork, the next day after you’ve let it slide.
My hierarchy goes something like this: physical care, liturgy of the hours, work, writing project A, writing project B, personal writing, reading, other miscellania.
It’s not what’s most important that comes first–prayer, writing, and reading all more important to me than sleep–it’s what allows me to stay disciplined in the pursuit of the important things.
5. Figure out what you actually need.
I enjoy cooking, and for me “eating well” was tied up with cooking a meal from scratch every night, chicken thighs and rice pilaf and a glass of red wine, etc. But that, you will no doubt be surprised to hear, is a massive time suck! I do need to eat well, but right now that doesn’t mean having fun in the kitchen, it means making a giant salad with chicken at the beginning of the week and storing it in five tupperwares.
6. Figure out what you want to do daily and what you want to do regularly.
For me, reading, writing, studying, answering mail, and exercising are what I need to do daily, and the first three are what I give the majority of my time to. Once a week I want a block of time for bills and budget, one for groceries and cooking, one for cleaning and laundry, and one for scheduling appointments and other miscellania. I don’t need to do those things every day, and I don’t need to devote a certain amount of time for them in the same way in the same way as reading and writing, but if I know when they are going to be done, I can put everything that accumulates into that block and bracket it off, so I don’t become bogged down in small tasks during the rest of the week, or put off what I really should do by telling myself I’m still being productive.
Some things I let slide for long periods of time, because I just don’t need to, say, have a busy social life right now. Some things I really can give to future–if my aunt says she’s going to teach me how to sew this summer, I don’t need to be looking up how-to videos on my own. And some things I have to be satisfied with making slow progress on, because I’ve given most of my time to more important things, and there’s really only ten minutes a day to learn X. But slow progress is still progress.
All this makes sense for the life of a single person with no dependents, not someone in Calah’s situation. But this post isn’t really for Calah (although she’s great). It’s for me. If it’s likely, one way or another, that changed circumstances in the not terribly distant future will render me much less mistress of my own time, it makes sense to work on ordering it now, and think consciously about what techniques are helpful in doing so. Hopefully, even if what works changes, the ability to come up with a modus vivendi that lends discipline to failure won’t.