Since 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!