Schedules, Routines and the Tyranny of Time

Salvador Dali's painting, The Persistence of Memory
Salvador Dali's painting, The Persistence of Memory. Image via wikipedia.


I have a difficult relationship with clock-time.

This will come as no surprise to those who have tried to make an appointment with me. I make appointments reluctantly, resent them when they arrive, and frequently arrive late (although usually only a few minutes so). One thing on my schedule at 2 in the afternoon can completely eat my day, because I have to spend so much energy on remembering it, finding childcare, arranging logistics, and just getting there, that I can’t really accomplish much more after 10 in the morning (or so). My relationship with the clock borders on the pathological, antipathetic. I swear at the alarm clock for ringing, and once insisted on having no clock in the bedroom at all for several months.

So, if you are one of the people for whom I am perpetually late, I apologize. It’s not you. It’s me.

The Technology of Time

There is nothing wrong with time, or time-keeping. It is not unreasonable to expect me to be at a particular time and place that we have agreed upon. I don’t carry a cell phone partly because it removes the ability for us to modify plans at the last minute. Regardless of how stressful I find it to conform to it, I appreciate the value of a schedule. It is part of the way that we structure our relationship with the world. Underneath it all, we are building world-models, and we like our outside world to conform to those models: for people to behave the way we expect them to, for things to do what they are “supposed to,” and (in our culture) for events to happen “on time”. It is comforting.

But there is nothing natural, or given, about the idea of running a culture on clock time. I recently read “A Geography of Time“, an exploration of the different cultural assumptions regarding time. The author assures me (well, not me in particular, but you know what I mean) that there are places in the world in which my own approach to time would be considered uptight and rude because of a tendency to cut things short as dictated by the clock. Some societies run on “event time”. Things happen when they need to happen, and they take as long as they take.

Time, and time-keeping are technologies. Yes, time exists. But the passage of time (as marked by our perception of increasing entropy in the universe) and the passage of time (as marked by the changing of the seasons) and the passage of time (as marked by the clock that bounds the time that is payed for by somebody else and demarcates it from our “spare” time) and the passage of time (as marked by the three-year-old being done in the bath) are all very different things. The very concept of spare time, spending time, and ownership of time are only possible when we mark, demarcate, and circumscribe time. It is reified (that is, treated as thought it is something real, even though it is an abstract concept) and therefore can be commodified, traded, shared, and spent. We have a finite amount of time on this world: how are we going to use it? (“Most efficiently” is frequently implied.)

Hence arrives The Schedule.

Forced Choicelessness

I have a friend who is a Buddhist nun. She is not cloistered, but she doesn’t come out of the abbey often; in fact, I only know her because we have practiced together, and I had the opportunity to spend a weekend on retreat with them. Arising to the clackers at 5:00, going to morning chants in silence, doing the chores before breakfast, more meditation, lunch (finally allowed to speak), more meditation, free time, afternoon chores, supper, more meditation… each day is pretty much the same as the one before. My presence was a break from the everyday, and I corrupted the poor woman by keeping her up talking into the quiet hours (8 p.m.) It was, she said, the forced choicelessness that she appreciated about the abbey. Every day was the same, and there were no decisions to be made. The clothes are always the same, the chants are always the same, the chores are as assigned. There is nothing left to work with but the mind and the practice. The schedule is a technology to remove distractions.

I settled into it remarkably quickly, awaking before the 4:30 call after the second morning (even though I usually am bitter about getting up much before 8). “I could do this,” I thought. Although, of course, I can’t. For a couple of days, though, I was blessed with this magical forced choicelessness. The additional magic of the retreat, however, is that you are isolated. Getting to meditation on time at the abbey does not include getting three children out the door, with their shoes on, and snacks, having gone to the bathroom, and carrying all the necessary components for whatever activity it is that you are trying to get to this time. Getting to meditation on time from my own house DOES include that list. Also, having made plans for dinner so that either somebody else will meet you at an intermediate location and take the kids back home, or will have the ability to leave work early so that they will get home in time for you to get out the door without having to do all of those things… and… and… and…

And sometimes, even enlightenment doesn’t seem worth the effort.

At that point, the schedule is no longer a tool that is serving me. It becomes the ruler in the relationship, something that I am serving. My relationship with the technology is stood upon its head. Forced choicelessness becomes instead a matter of feeling an utter lack of control in my life. I become reluctant to start things because I fear that they will be interrupted. I look at the schedule and it is so full that I don’t have a block for yoga, or meditation, or writing, or even thinking: my life does not belong to me. It belongs to the clock and the people who run it.

There was a time Before

It’s not like my kids make me late. It’s not like I became disorganized and late after having kids. It’s more that… it all became obvious. There are too many things to juggle. Sometimes, before all this (or at least before number three) I could get it together, not forget the most important thing which I was supposed to be delivering. In my most bizarre professional happenstance, I wound up  working (rather successfully) as a project manager, keeping OTHER people on schedule. (It helps, for cat herding, if you happen to be a cat.) I can do it. It just doesn’t play to my strengths. Keeping calm in a crisis, playing it by ear, adapting, contingency planning, cat herding, making do… these are all easier for me than deciding when I’m going to do something next month. Or next year. Let’s put it this way: We did all our wedding planning in the last three weeks. And then had to make MAJOR revisions in the last 24 hours because even the bits we did plan were disrupted by situations outside our control. And at the time, I remember thinking, “Boy. I’m sure glad that I didn’t spend more than 15 minutes on my flowers if I wasn’t going to have them anyway!”

Truth? I have learned to assume that things are not going to go the way I expect them to, so I don’t put an awful lot of effort into planning. And it is for this reason, above all else: The more effort I put into planning something, the more upset I am when it doesn’t work out as expected. I don’t like the person I become when I am trying to make the world around me conform to my plans, when I am caught in traffic and yelling at the other drivers, when I am screaming at my kids because I’m late for something and it has taken them 40 minutes to put on a pair of shoes and walk the 10 feet to the car.  I don’t like not being able to immerse myself in something because I’m afraid I’m going to forget whatever it is that comes next, and I don’t like having to leave things unfinished because I have a meeting to go to. I don’t find the schedule to be liberating, I find it oppressive. I don’t do as good a job at anything when I am being ruled by the clock, and I don’t like the person I become.

Nonetheless, I think that I would benefit from having parts of my life automated. I am assured that doing particular things in a particular order can hugely simplify my life. That routines (rather than schedules) can support my growth. That I can eventually learn to check the calendar for the next day and arrange everything at the top of the stairs. I take this on faith, since I’ve been trying to do it for several years, now, and I have no evidence to support those claims. Somehow, if only I try harder, do better, make myself into the somebody else who is able to live comfortably by clock time, I will be successful. Wait. That’s not how that paragraph was supposed to go.

Every time I try to think about organization and time, it becomes wrapped up in the moral fervour of our day. Organization, like time and schedules, should be a technology that improves our lives, yet it becomes an end in itself. “Get Organized, Finally”. Right next to Lose that Last 10 Pounds, and How to Know If He’s Really the One for You! It is the sign of a competent woman.

Ahem. Let me try that again.

I recently discovered Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits, and started out with his book The Power of Less. That’s why I spent 2 days dealing with my email inbox last week. It is also why I’m trying routines again. He terms them ‘Habits’, rather than anything more  loaded, and he suggests that you only try to change one at a time. For 30 days, change one habit. That’s it. He’s very gentle about motivation, and admits that he doesn’t have the answers, but he has suggestions about what might be more effective. Also, more recently, he’s moved away from typical approaches to goal-setting etc, and towards being very self-aware, conscious, and spontaneous (as a result). I’m so convinced that I made his “Start Here” page my browser home. (Replacing the very distracting gmail, facebook, twitter combo that could eat 2 hours of my day before I finished my first coffee.)

At around the same time, I happened upon Jen Louden’s lovely audio-post, Minimum Requirements for Self-Care (it’s half way down the page), and the first thing I came up with was, “I need to get enough sleep or everything else in my life is utterly without joy.”

I’m giving this routine/habits thing one more shot. The habit I’m starting with is Going to bed by 10:30. That’s it. Going to bed by 10:30. I didn’t make rules about what I’m allowed to do, I didn’t say I have to turn out the lights, and I didn’t try to make a great, complicated routine all at once. But somehow, magically, I’m waking up refreshed. I’m getting off the computer earlier, spending more time with the people I love, doing more yoga and meditation, and I’m even alert enough in the morning to make my bed. After a week, I came down the hallway and thought, “My room is tidy! When did that happen?” But I picked everything up after my yoga, rolled up the mat, and have it immediately to hand for the next morning. We’ll see how this works after another couple of months, but for now, he’s already given me two really good weeks to work with. Which is enough for now.

9 responses to “Schedules, Routines and the Tyranny of Time”

  1. Too right…I think its an artist/mystic thing. I’m checking out these reads, they sound pretty cool. Lovely, lovely blog…you are an inspiration to me, hugs!

    • Well, thank you. It is likely a left brain/right brain thing as well. Possibly yin/yang. Masculine/feminine. Being/doing. Whatever it is, it’s not my game, this clock thing.

  2. My (not-so-secret-anymore) secret fantasy about Leo Babauta is that he is actually a slovenly wreck of a man, drinking beer all day, and that the online persona is all fake. Why do I nurture such a fantasy? Good question. I don’t know.

    I’ve also wondered why I generally don’t have a bit of trouble with the schedule when I’m at Zen Mountain Monastery, though really the answers are obvious: (1) Everyone is following the same schedule, and (2) no kids.

    • That’s funny, that fantasy. Maybe he’s just a little too perfect? Every time I read it, though, I think I’m a little in love with this man. Just a wee bit.

  3. I was cursing my inability to be on time this week as well. I try to do too many things before getting out the door, because I’m at my best in the morning and want to tackle the dishes, the laundry, making bread, etc, etc. But all of these things (and two small children) always end up taking much longer than I think they will.

    One of the things I look forward to about being old and retired is letting that whole clock time thing slip if I want to.

    • I was thinking that very thing (about retirement) and then this week one of my retired library patrons came in to use the computer. She picked up a book by the front desk, and then turned to her husband and said, “Oh, when would I have time to read this?” and put it back. Retired, living at the cottage… what is she doing with her time, I ask???

      And then I thought, “Oh, if *that’s* the outcome of the path I’m treading, I think I’ll be making some changes just about now.”

  4. […] One of these days I’m going to write a post about my not-so-secret fantasy about him; as I commented a while ago at The Practical Dilettante: My (not-so-secret-anymore) secret fantasy about Leo […]

  5. […] his fear “that people will discover I’m a fraud.” I felt ashamed. Once upon a time, in a comment at The Practical Dilettante, I confessed to my “(not-so-secret-anymore) secret fantasy” about Babauta: “that […]