I’ve fallen off the internet lately, and that’s because I’ve been sleeping. More on that in a bit, but I thought you might be curious.
Way back when the SuperHusband first started working in junior-level management, the company sent him to a training day for junior managers. There was one of these professional presenters whose job was to tell the fresh-faced victims all the bad news about their new life, and how to get through it all without being fired or divorced.
It was a pretty useful session, and his talk on time management was this, and I paraphrase:
You can read all about different ‘time management’ techniques. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that you figure out what you need to get done, and you do it. That’s all there is to it. Make your list, do the things on the list. No special technique required.
That’s pretty much true.
Except that I propose, and this is why I fell off the internet, that for stay-at-home moms and homeschoolers and other similar vocations, you really do have to actually manage time, not just do things. This is because, in your state of life, there is no such thing as a generic kind of time.
Take that Calendar and Shove It, Ecclesiastes
The people who know how to manage time, and so they deserve your attention, are the Benedictines. It’s just like the Bible says: There’s a time for sleeping and waking, eating and fasting, praying and working and sitting around. In communal life, a schedule is the tool that keeps you from killing each other. Heaven help Sister Inspirata if she were to go all spontaneous and rouse the community for three hours of impromtu nighttime prayers just because she felt like it.
So we can learn from the monks and nuns that when you live with a group of people, that if those people organize their time in advance to agree on what will be done when, then it’s a whole lot easier to sit down together and eat dinner.
The difficulty is that family life is not like this.
Family life is having a breviary that follows you around twenty hours a day, whining for just one more psalm? Just one?? Family life is like showing up that chapter meeting, and discovering that half the community has decided to go on a picnic, the other half is sleeping, and there’s a note from the abbot wondering why you spent Matins praying Matins, and also your mother called she needs you to send her that casserole recipe, maybe you can do that while you’re dusting the sacristy, that’s an easy job, right? Can’t you double up or do it faster or something?
Also, every six months you’ll need to radically rewrite the horarium to accommodate a major life change.
Working for the Saboteurs
On top of all this, if your own weakness isn’t enough to do you in, the people you work with all day are actively trying to prevent you from doing your job. Imagine being a manager with an employee who spent all day shirking his work, and half that time was spent pulling out every sort of manipulation possible to persuade you to change his responsibilities, “I hate you and you’re a terrible boss!” being the early effort, and gradually moving up to general surliness, crying jags, and long drawn-out arguments about how backwards and cruel you are for even thinking these particular things need to be done.
If you’re a manager, sooner or later you fire that employee.
If you’re a parent, basically your job is to just keep at it for twenty years despite the relentless sabotage, all in the hopes that a decade after the kid leaves the nest he’ll remember a few of the things you made him do under protest, and he’ll turn around and make his kids do those things.
Humanity is Your Friend
So these are the conditions under which you are trying to manage your time, and it has to be managed. This is why not being with your children is one of the preferred career options of parents everywhere. Let someone else manage the hooligans at least long enough that you can catch your breath and do the things you need to do.
But someone has to watch those kids, and if you are that person 24/7, there is no off button. What there are, though, are human beings. These little people are not entirely unlike the Benedictines — they need to eat and sleep and pray and work, and there’s a rhythm to how it all works.
When you are a parent, of course, you don’t get to just be the nanny. The nanny does the kid and very little else. You do the kid and everything else as well.
This means that you have to match up the things you do, other than the kid, to the things that the kid does.
Kinds of Time
This does not mean ‘multi-tasking,’ which will drive everyone mad. What this means is more like Monastic-tasking, Parent Version. You try to get the community to be all doing compatible activities at the same time.
Here are some examples.
Compatible: Breastfeeding the baby while reading a magazine.
Not Compatible: Breastfeeding the baby while changing the oil.
Compatible: Eating your lunch while your toddler mashes his sandwich into interesting shapes.
Not Compatible: Eating your lunch while your toddler throws the interesting shapes at your head.
Compatible: Talking to your children while driving them to soccer practice.
Not Compatible: Talking to your children during soccer practice.
Eating dinner while your children eat dinner is workable. Having an uninterrupted conversation with your spouse while all of you eat dinner together is not so compatible. You have to find a different kind of time, a kind when your children don’t require your attention, and use that time for having the uninterrupted conversation.
Parents have to do time-management because all the kinds of time are not equal, and the amounts of time are limited. If you spend your minutes of, “I could be changing the oil,” sitting and reading a magazine, later your magazine will be read (ha!) and you’ll be sitting there unable to change the oil and wishing you could.* Or something like that.
You Are the Parent Because They Need You
When rearing children, the kind of time called “Nobody Needs Me” is at a premium. If they didn’t need parents, they’d get a job and an apartment and pay for their own dance lessons.
Different cultures solve this problem in different ways, with varying childhood survival rates to show for it. Common sense tells us modern parents that we neither wish to be arrested nor wish to spend all our grocery money hiring nannies, so we spend most of our “free” time on call, either watching the kids or at least pottering around in the vicinity until it’s time to break up a fight.
Further whittling down the uninterrupted time is the trouble of locations. You might get thirty minutes of uninterrupted time while your kid is in dance lessons, but unless dance is taking place next door, you won’t be home to clean the garage.
You have to make subcategories of kinds of time: Is your “Uninterrupted Time” six hours alone at home with your tools, able to conquer the garage or the taxes? Or is it an hour of quiet, but in a location where you’re lucky to do much else than read a chapter of a decent book? Are you so tired by that hour that actually you can’t read decent books, just embarrassingly trite newspaper articles?
There are thus two kinds of parents in the world who aren’t going slightly mad attempting to manage their kinds of time: Those who are extraordinarily good at time-management, and those who have an easy life.
(If you are either one of those, um, what are you doing here?)
And Thus I Fall Off the Internet
School is back in session with a vengeance, which means most of my time is spent either actively managing kids (homeschooling, chores, family time) or shuttling kids to their activities.** Time at home with prolonged periods of relative quiet averages about two hours a day.
That was all fine, see monks, horiarium, etc., until I suddenly needed to sleep an extra hour a day. Sleeping is not compatible with driving, cooking, or grading homework. You can’t do it during dinner without making a mess, and if you do it while keeping score at a volleyball game, people get upset at you.
So that’s why the blog’s been silent these last couple weeks. The same kind of time that’s good for blogging and checking e-mails and making phone calls and generally behaving like a social being is the kind of time that’s good for sleeping. There’s a limited amount of that kind of time in my life, and sleeping won. Sleeping always, in the end, gets its way.
And that is what I know about time management.
*I don’t know anyone this has ever happened to. But if your desires were rightly ordered, it could happen.
**Today the eye doctor asked me, concerned about homeschooling, if my kids get to socialize. I told him I wished they didn’t socialize quite so much.