Time strategy #1: Tend your garden

IMG_1213Since becoming suburbanites five years ago, my family has been experimenting with gardening. We planted produce in the same spot for a few years, then realized tomato plants and other such things needed new soil from time to time to thrive. This spring my husband constructed two raised wooden gardening boxes, and we planted a host of vegetables in them. It got a bit crowded on one side; I think we are just getting zucchini out of that because zucchini could survive the apocalypse. The tomatoes on the other side are doing great. We harvested our first bright red ones this weekend.

Gardening is often used as a metaphor for life, but I think it has particular resonance for how we spend time. Good time management is fundamentally about mindfulness. Being mindful of your hours is much like tending a garden. What blooms in a life is a result of what the gardener plants there. Certain major decisions (career, starting a family) create the structure of ordinary life, much as choosing to plant tomatoes vs. carrots will have its own ramifications. But even after these decisions are made, near daily adjustments are still necessary during the growing season. If you don’t pay attention, it is easy for weeds and rot to set in. Or for the plants to get parched. Or for the zucchini to take over. The gardener is constantly pruning, staking, fertilizing to have more geography devoted to what she wants there, and less to what she doesn’t.

I love my time sheets, of course, and I will tell anyone who will listen of the great insights to be gained by tracking time. If you don’t want to do a spreadsheet, you can use an app. Or pay for your very own Boswell to follow you around! I think it is eye-opening to know exactly how much time gets spent on various activities. In life, there is data and there is narrative, and often the narrative trumps data because we don’t know the data. If we know the data, that’s no promise we’ll change the narrative, but if the narrative has some flaws in it, it certainly helps.

That said, if you have absolutely no interest in time-tracking, you can get many of the benefits by approaching your schedule as a master gardener. You are in charge, over a multitude of seasons, of what is planted and what grows there. It’s your life! Why not honor it with a sense of agency? You can commit to checking in daily with four questions:

Looking back on my day, did I make time for things that were meaningful or enjoyable to me and the people I care about?

How much time did I spend on things that don’t fall into these categories?

How can I spend more time on the things that are meaningful or enjoyable to me and the people I care about?

How can I spend less time on everything else?

Looking at my own life, yesterday was decent as these things go. It was a hot day (97 degrees!) and we are relying on patchwork childcare this week. On past days like this, I have checked in at the end of the day and been unhappy about not getting to certain things (e.g. running) that make life feel doable for me. So, knowing this, I quizzed my husband about his schedule and made sure I got out the door to run from 6:45-7:20 a.m. When the day’s high is 97 degrees, it feels much nicer to run at 6:45 a.m. than later! I made sure to make time for something that was enjoyable to me. Because I exercised first thing, I didn’t face the choice of trying to bring the toddler to the gym during the day, and so we could do something that I know was enjoyable for him (the Please Touch Museum! He loved it so much he was howling Nooooo as we left because we needed to go pick up my 4-year-old from camp at noon).

To be sure, while all of our gardens are the same size (168 hours a week), we do not all start with as blank a slate as my raised beds. Nor do we start with rich Pennsylvania soil — the sort that worms wiggle around in with wormy glee. We could extend this metaphor as we wish, and envision a garden that is half taken up with thick tree roots, or has some bad clay patches, or is particularly prone to weeds because the gardener next door refuses to deal with them. I do not argue with the assertion that life is far more difficult for some than others. I do believe, however, that over time, even with these limitations, most of us have the ability to expand the space devoted to the good stuff while shrinking the space devoted to other things. A little patch of fecundity is worth cultivating and celebrating, even if it is just a corner.

In other news: I am working on a story on how to take advantage of slower business during the summer to grow your business long term (or your career, if you work for an organization). Is there anything you have tried in the past or are doing this summer? As always, you can email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

In other other news: This is the first of a series on foundational time management habits. More to come over the next week or two!

7 thoughts on “Time strategy #1: Tend your garden

  1. What a great metaphor. It reminds me of the “You can do anything, but not everything.” If you really love watermelon, but they take a ton of space, the zucchini may have to get pulled. I think your metaphor could even be extended in that sometimes we plant things because we feel like we have to. We all have things taking up “space” that could better serve our needs, but we feel like we have to reserve that space out of tradition, guilt, or because we forgot to pull it.

    1. This was the biggest takeaway I got from the book “The Fringe Hours”, that I hadn’t really thought about before. The author talked about quitting a Bible study because it wasn’t the right time/season for it, even though it was important and valuable to her. I loved that perspective – that something could be really important and part of your core values, but RIGHT NOW might just not be a good time to include that activity and you could revisit it later.

  2. I love gardening as a metaphor for life… although I apparently tend to focus on the weeding part of it:

    That probably says something deep about me…. Anyway, when I first gave my time management workshop, one of the activities that people really liked was the one where I had them list their long term and medium term priorities, and then look at their time logs for the last week (if they’d done them- otherwise, just think back on how they’d spent their time) and see if they were spending time on their priorities. I think that exercise works for the same reason your gardening metaphor does: it focuses us in on what we want to “grow” with our time.
    One more gardening lesson for life: be open to surprises. One of the best thing about the small container garden that I planted this year has been the volunteer tomato plants that popped up. I confess I didn’t recognize the first one and pulled it out. Luckily for me, four more came up! (I used our compost in the planting soil mix… I guess we compost a lot of past their prime tomatoes….)

    1. @Cloud – weeding can be satisfying. And yes, the act of a simple check in can do a lot. Does my schedule look like I want it to? If not, what can I do about it? These questions go a long way.

      (And how fun to see I left a comment on that post on your blog — I have been reading you for a while!)

  3. This is a great metaphor, although my own real life garden tends to be a distraction — I catch myself lingering to deadhead plants or rotate pots at times I should be doing something else! One other thing about gardens and life is it really helps to figure out what you want before you jump in and start scattering seeds. It doesn’t help to fill your garden up with vegetables only to realize you really wanted a flower garden.

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