Here at the beginning of the year, it's easy to get hyped up on time management strategies. The siren song of productivity gurus is alluring, especially for those of us who desire to be intentional with our time! After all, there are so many good goals to pursue, so many people to care for with intention, so many books to read and things to learn and beautiful places to see.
But a truth that has grounded Cultivate What Matters from the beginning is this: we can't do it all and do it all well, but we can choose to cultivate what matters. This means that, as a team, we're committed to emphasizing both the clarity that comes from big-picture vision AND the power in using smart time-management strategies. We spend a lot of time on the latter here on the blog—we'll help you wake up earlier, develop habits with ease, create an ideal week—but perhaps not so much on the former.
To right that balance, today we're talking about four time management mindsets, or truths, to ground you in a new year of intentional living. Acknowledging these truths is part of what makes you a Cultivator, not just a do-er. We hope you find them helpful!
1. Time is finite.
We each have one precious life, and—compared to the vast span of history—even the longest human life is almost insultingly short. This is a painful truth no matter how you slice it:
It’s painful to recognize that you'll inevitably have to make hard choices over how to spend your time.
It's painful to recognize that you won't be able to fit in all the dreams you have or things you want to do.
And it's painful to recognize that the time you get with the people you love is brief.
The silver lining? When you live with the understanding that life is short, you live your days differently. "Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time, it gets easier to make better ones," writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks. "You begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count." Sound familiar? :)
2. We have little control over the time we do get.
We are born with certain aptitudes and limits that effectively close off a whole host of possibilities for our lives. Over time, we gain relationships and responsibilities that close off even more. And all along the way, outside forces and events are constantly banging into our carefully-laid plans and knocking them off course.
This is hard to accept for the planners among us, isn't it? (Hand raised!) But the solution isn't to banish planning all together—no, planning is an essential tool for constructing a meaningful life. The real problem isn't planning, it's in forgetting that "a plan is just a thought," in the words of the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.
"We treat our plans as though they are a lasso," writes Burkeman, "thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command. But all a plan is—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply."
The more we can put the practice of planning into its right place—as a helpful tool, not a guarantee we need to keep a death grip on—the more life-giving it will be.
3. Almost everything worth doing involves opening up our time to others.
And releasing even more control. Yes, that again! :)
Today's culture often encourages us to seek out mastery over our own time—to reach a place where we alone control our schedule, doing what we want, when we want—but most of us would agree that in the end, that is not an impulse that leads to happiness. After all, almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to entrepreneurship or scientific research, depends on collaborating with others.
A better life, Burkeman suggests, is "to be found not in achieving greater sovereignty over your own schedule but in allowing yourself to be constrained by the rhythms of community—participating in forms of social life where you don’t get to decide exactly what you do or when you do it."
As you think about how you might like to spend your time this year, how much margin you might like to leave in your schedule, and how tightly you want to hold to your plans, this is such a valuable perspective to remember.
4. Hard choices over how to spend our time are inevitable—but they imbue our decisions with meaning.
We cannot do it all.
Because time is finite, we will all have to make hard choices over how to spend our limited time. That in itself is not the problem—in fact, it's actually a gift. When we make a hard choice with intention, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, we have very clearly made a stand for what matters most to us. "'Missing out' is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place," writes Burkeman. "Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time."
This holds for choices both big and small: choosing between multiple options adds an extra layer of meaning to something as small as an afternoon spent playing board games with your niece, or as big as marrying a particular person or taking a particular job. It's thrilling to realize that "you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything," in the words of Burkeman. Yes, indeed.
We'd love to hear: Which of these truths resonates most with you? Which has been hardest to accept?