You’re Not Bad at Time Management. You’re Doing Too Much.

So stop guilting yourself

Rear view of a young woman looking out the window as she massages her neck.

Overwhelmed? Feeling scatterbrained? Missing deadlines? Do you feel like you’re constantly scrambling to catch up, but never getting anywhere? Is every day an uphill battle of chipping away at your inbox, chipping away at your chores, trying to make a dent in your to-do list, struggling to find time for the other things in life that matter (like exercise, cooking, socializing, hell, even having a hobby), and fighting against the massive tide of sadness, guilt, fear, and tiredness that’s always threatening to swallow you up?

Are the surfaces of your home covered in dust and crumbs? Are you wearing a sweatshirt that started getting funky two weeks ago, but you don’t have the energy to wash it, so you keep hitting it with Febreze? Did you miss the extended deadline to file your taxes? Have you been meaning to call your mom for a month, yet find that at the end of each week, you lack the energy and positivity necessary to update her on your life without making it sound depressing and scary?

Despite all of this, and despite all the horrors of the pandemic, does some part of you still suspect all this is your fault? Do you still labor under the belief that you’re uniquely bad at time management, particularly lazy and adrift? Have you hung all your hope on finding the right calendar app, or adopting the right “self-care” schedule, thinking that once you get it right, you’ll magically unlock all the productivity and mental clarity you seem to be missing? But when you do try to enact these time-managing, stress-reducing plans, do you find they immediately fall apart?

Maybe you aren’t bad at time management. Maybe you’re doing too much. Maybe there is no solution to all this stress that allows you to still be “productive.” Maybe the only way to move forward is to let some things drop.

About a year ago, at new-student orientation at the university where I teach, I sat on a panel with other faculty and some alumni to offer our new students advice on succeeding in school. In my department, most of our students are working adults with children, older parents, and full-time jobs, so naturally the question of work-life balance came up: How many hours per day should a student study?

“You should study four hours per night,” said one professor.

I studied more like five hours a night,” said an alumnus, laughing. “Especially when I was taking math classes.”

“I set aside every weekend to focus entirely on studying,” said another graduate. “It was a sacrifice, but my husband and I made it work.”

How can a busy, working adult find that kind of time? we were asked. A chorus of advice rang out, the same stuff I hear at these panels every year:

You have to make the time for this.

Get a babysitter.

Stay up late after the children are asleep.

Wake up early.

Read on your lunch break.

Stop going to the gym.

Stop going to brunch.

Practice good time-management skills.

You have to be all in.

You have to commit.

It will be hard, but it will be over in four years.

You’ll find the time. If it matters, you’ll find the time.

And then I, the annoying nonconformist that I am, spoke my piece:

“I don’t care how much time you spend studying,” I said. “We tend to moralize how hard someone is working, but I’d rather you guys work smart rather than hard. Spending five hours every night staring at a book while you’re absolutely exhausted doesn’t do you any good. I’d much rather you get enough sleep and spend one or two hours a week working on my class.”

What I didn’t add — what I’m always afraid to add at events like these — is that for many of my students, “finding the time” is actually impossible. Or will become impossible, eventually. One of their children will get sick. They’ll spend evenings with their aging parents in nursing homes or hospice. Their marriage will need work, or the small family business they run will have a crisis. They’ll get depressed. They will all miss assignment deadlines and occasionally flunk tests.

And all of that is actually okay. If they’re taking a class with me, I don’t give a shit if life gets in the way of managing a perfect, pristine schedule. They can make up work later. When somebody requests an extension or takes an incomplete, the world doesn’t end. So many things in life matter more. I trust my students to make a rational calculation about what in their lives matters most. Often, class is far from the top of the list. I wish we’d stop guilting them about that. I wish they’d stop guilting themselves.

I see a lot of people trying to bargain with their own needs and limitations. Many of my friends and loved ones recognize their jobs are demanding too much of them, their bosses are setting expectations that were unrealistic even before the pandemic, let alone during it, and they know all this toil and stress is not tenable — but they want to find a way to make it work.

So they reach for the tools they’ve been taught will bring them work-life balance: They set timers before writing emails. They program stretch breaks into their smartwatches at 20-minute intervals. They eat more protein, drink coffee with butter in it for an extra energy boost. They journal. They try to force bread baking, jogging, and weekly virtual yoga into their schedules, and pencil in a rousing evening of bathroom cleaning to cap off the day.

This desperate, compensatory scheduling seems to fail them almost instantly. They find they lack the energy for those late-night bathroom cleanings, or that when the time to bullet journal comes around, they simply stare off into space. They don’t get enough emails written in the 15 minutes they’ve allotted themselves. Their “self-care” goals become yet another stressful thing to schedule, another infuriating digital box to click.

Because the problem was never a lack of smartwatch notifications and bread-baking time blocks. The problem was always that they were overwhelmed. More scheduling can’t fix that.

I would like to propose a new approach to understanding time and time management. It’s an approach rooted in radical self-acceptance and informed by my belief that whenever a person fails to meet a goal or seems “lazy,” it is because they are facing massive barriers and challenges that others can’t always see. At the heart of my approach to time is this core message:

Your time is already accounted for.

Your days are already full, no matter what your calendar says. You’re already trying to do too much, no matter how much guilt you feel about not doing “enough.” Your every waking moment is already filled with activities (both passive and active) that are essential to keeping you alive and functioning. So if you feel like you are failing to get things done, it’s because you’re discounting just how busy you truly are, and how essential all of your activities are to your current life.

Some of your daily activities have a very obvious impact. When you write emails to your boss, you’re doing clear, documentable work, which can help ensure you get paid, so you can buy food and pay rent. But procrastinating on a writing assignment by cleaning your kitchen can also be an essential life activity. That kitchen was gonna have to be cleaned eventually. And complex tasks like writing often require a long period of incubation before creativity can really happen. Maybe cleaning the kitchen is an essential part of the writing process for you!

Other activities are even more stealthy in their importance, like staring off into space. We need time to daydream. And our minds claim that time, whether we want them to or not.

Many of us have periods of the day where we just can’t focus or stay on task. For me, that’s every afternoon at around 3 p.m. when I become a total zombie. I can’t grade students’ quizzes or focus on my own writing. I’m cranky and spaced out in meetings. I can’t will myself to call the dentist and schedule an appointment. No matter how much coffee I drink, or how much I berate myself, I’m an unmotivated lump at this time of day.

I’m trying to stop resisting this fact. I want to accept it. Maybe I need to zone out for an hour or two in the afternoon. Perhaps my lack of motivation is my brain’s way of telling me I desperately need a break. Rather than seeing that time as “wasted,” I could learn to value it as a natural and necessary part of my schedule. My body schedules times for rest, even if my calendar doesn’t.

If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or complex trauma, “zoning out” is probably even more essential to your well-being. Fighting against mental illness symptoms is a full-time job, and a grueling one. But a lot of that work happens behind the scenes. It’s not showy. It doesn’t look “productive” in a conventional sense. But the time you spend sleeping, snacking, and escaping reality via video games may actually be essential to your well-being and functioning. Time spent coping and fighting to stay alive is not time wasted.

Imagine what would happen if we stopped blaming ourselves for needing time to sleep in, to pick at our chipped nail polish, to play, to eat popcorn, and cuddle with our cats. How might our lives change if we accepted that we were already busy, no matter how “idle” we looked to other people? What could we learn to say “no” to if we truly accepted ourselves? Which “shoulds” could we learn to let drop?

If you truly believe all your time is already accounted for, you won’t try to take on new responsibilities without first finding something to let go of. You won’t blame yourself for failing to “make time” out of nowhere. You’ll recognize your every waking moment is already budgeted. Your energy is already allocated. And you’ll recognize that if you’re repeatedly failing to meet an obligation, it’s because you’re already doing far too much.

This approach empowers us to be keen observers of our own lives; we can look to our feelings and impulses as important indicators of what we truly need. If a calendar invite from a colleague leaves me feeling frantic and irritable, maybe it’s not because I’m an antisocial asshole who’s too lazy to do more work. Maybe my day is already “full,” even if there is time available on my calendar. My calendar doesn’t know what my body needs.

Similarly, if I spend all morning refreshing my social media apps instead of prepping my next class, I can take that as a sign that I desperately need stimulation and social contact. I don’t have to beat myself up for being unfocused and “wasting” time. I can give my brain what it truly needs, instead of hating it for having needs. I view taking a long walk and chatting with a buddy as an essential part of being alive, as necessary as eating, breathing, and working to make rent. I can stop feeling like a slob for putting off doing my laundry.

If like me, you are struggling with stress, trying to cram too much into your days, I want you to know this: Your time is already fully accounted for. You are incredibly busy, and your every activity is valuable and important. If you want to throw a new obligation onto the pile, you should probably find something else to stop doing. Hell, you should find something to cut back on regardless. You deserve to feel at peace. You deserve to accept yourself as you are — with all your needs, impulsive habits, limitations, and flaws. You were not made for working.

You don’t have a time management problem. You’re just trying to do too much.

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