Managing Time (and Expectations)
“What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” - Charlotte Joko Beck
I like to say yes to things. I get excited about new ideas, new books, new and amazing people I meet, new TV shows, new places. It’s so exciting to be excited about a new thing!
But I also tend to go through a predictable cycle in which I get excited and say yes to everything, only to eventually realize it’s too much and force myself to pause and cut back.
And sometimes the demands on our time do not come from a place of fun and excitement but rather from the realities of life, which can feel sometimes like a manageable trickle and
sometimes like a flood.
In Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman points out that there is often a dangerous myth lurking in the background of many
time management approaches. The myth is that if you only find the right routine, system, or “life
hack”, you will always be able to conquer your to-do list and fulfill all the expectations that you
and others have placed on you. But when we try to do everything, we actually lose the ability to
connect with what is really important to us.
As a therapist, I often hear people berating themselves for the things they haven’t done, either
in the week since our last session or in life in general. I sometimes respond by pointing out that
there is an infinite number of worthy things we can do with our limited time and energy. But we
can’t do all of them, and it is easy to fall into the trap of devaluing what you did do and beating
yourself up about what you didn’t do. Especially when you are dealing with the energy-draining
effects of depression, healing from trauma, or grieving the loss of a loved one, it is tempting to
wish your needs, your energy level, or your circumstances were different. This can lead to
getting frustrated with yourself and ignoring what you truly need (often things like rest,
compassion, support, and comfort), insisting that you can do it all and that your needs shouldn’t
change and flow as your life changes.
So, instead of berating ourselves for the things we didn’t do yesterday and the things we won’t
do today, what if instead we paused to connect with what we value most and what we need
most in this moment?
Try this exercise: Start with something you did with your time recently. What need did it meet for
you and/or others? If it didn’t seem to meet any needs very effectively (doom scrolling, for
example), what was the need your heart was trying to meet? Were you trying to feel safe,
connected, informed, at peace, motivated? Once you’ve named the need you were trying to
meet, pause for a moment, close your eyes if this feels safe, and gently place your hands over
your heart or make another gesture that feels meaningful to you. Notice what it’s like to pause
and sit with this awareness. When you’re ready, come back to your surroundings and set an
intention for how you will continue through your day. How will you use your time, attention, and
energy to honor the things that matter most to you?
If this practice resonates with you, experiment with your own version of it throughout your day
today. And if you would like to read more on the topic of time, the book Four Thousand Weeks
is available at both the Grand Rapids Public Library and the Kent District Library. Or for a
shorter read, try this article by Oliver Burkeman: Endless to-do list? Here’s How Not To Waste Your Life.