It’s about time

Written by Avril





This blog post is about time. And it’s been a long time coming. I’ve started it several times over the past few months, and each time I’ve run into a dead end. But having recently passed a Milestone Birthday, it feels like it’s time to try again. Mainly because it was a birthday that reminded me rather forcefully that I have considerably less time ahead of me than I do behind, and – in the immortal words of the poet Mary Oliver – “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

What, indeed?

Please don’t worry that I’m feeling morbid about this. On the contrary. The fact that life is finite doesn’t bother me except to the extent that I know I’ll have lots of unfinished business when I finally blink out. (And I’m not talking about my endless “to-do” list.) Indeed, it’s the very brevity of our time here on earth that makes life so precious. Eternity is boring. If you don’t believe me, watch the final season of The Good Place. You’ll see.

No: what concerns me – and apparently most of us, judging by the plethora of books and articles on the subject – is what I do with my time while I’m here. How I fill my minutes, my hours, my days. Annie Dillard, this time: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And I’m here to tell you that those days fly by awfully fast, until we find ourselves standing on the threshold of yet another Milestone Birthday looking at our lives and asking, like David Byrne, “Well? How did I get here?” What have I done with my one wild and precious life so far, and what do I propose to do with what’s left of it?

If most of those books and articles are to be believed, we’re supposed to manage our time and use it productively. Well…I don’t know about that. Time management has always struck me as a slightly strange concept. Time is an unruly beast and seems quite resistant to being managed. Me: “Hey, time: please start operating along this set of principles, beginning today.” Time: “I don’t think so. Here, I’ve got something else for you! Catch!” As the old Yiddish saying has it: “Mann tracht und Gott lacht” – “Man plans and God laughs.” Maybe God is Time.

So maybe what we’re really talking about is not how to manage time, but how to manage our approach to it (harking back to Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard, above). What is the best use of our time? Well, that varies from one day to the next. Some days we certainly need to use it “productively” in the usual workaday sense: attend to our work, complete tasks, check off items on our to-do list – that sort of thing. But some days we need to release our tight hold on time and let ourselves wander – physically, mentally, or both. Go for an aimless walk, giving ourselves time and space to notice what we see, hear, smell along the way. Lie down in the grass and watch the clouds drift by. Grab a piece of paper and a fat pen and doodle while listening to a piece of music. In other words, let life in and see what it brings us.

Above all – above ALL, people! – make time for the people we care about. If I have any regrets in life (and I’m happy to say I don’t have too many), it’s that I haven’t always given my loved ones as much time as they deserved. I have a reminder on my wall that says “Inconvenience yourself.” I took that from Oliver Burkeman’s wonderful book Four Thousand Weeks, in which he says a lot of wise things about time, one of them being that, contrary to the popular cliché, what counts in our relationships isn’t the thought, but the effort we put into them – i.e. the inconvenience. It’s inconvenient to do something that takes time and effort, but the fact that we do take the time and effort renders the action more meaningful, both to ourselves and to the person on whom we’ve bestowed the gift of our precious time.

So what is all my rambling about time about? I guess, in the end, it’s about being conscious about how we spend our time, and filling it – to the extent we can – with the activities (or passivities) that make our days meaningful and beautiful.* And of course – to the extent we can – to make the world at least a marginally better place for having had the incredible good fortune to spend some time here.

And now I’m going to go to my local supermarket and shop for groceries to make a delicious and time-consuming dinner for my sweetie, because it’s Valentine’s Day as I write this, and what better way to spend my time today than doing things that show him I love him?

*Of course, I need to acknowledge that I write this out of a place of incredible privilege, being someone who is in a position to choose how I spend my time. I recognize all too painfully that this is not the case for way too many people in the world, and so part of how I spend my time must be to do what I can to change that in whatever ways I can.


  1. Jeanne

    As someone who also is also deeply interested in the experience of time I appreciate so many things about this. I especially appreciated the nugget from Burkeman’s amazing book and that you have a reminder on your wall: “Inconvenience yourself” AND I especially loved this, “so what is all my rambling about time about? I guess, in the end, it’s about being conscious about how we spend our time, and filling it – to the extent we can – with the activities (or passivities) that make our days meaningful and beautiful.*”

    • Avril

      Thank you, Jeanne! I was thrilled when I went to your website and saw the Mary Oliver quote front and centre. It’s inspiring to me to read how others like yourself are thinking deeply about time – how we experience it and how we “use” it. As you can imagine, I also resonated strongly with your observation that “you can’t manage time but, you can re-imagine it.” Yes, yes, yes!!

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