Do you ever hear that incessant ticking noise in the back of your mind, like that crocodile from Peter Pan is slowly sneaking up behind you, reminding you of how little time you have and stretching its jaws wide to clench down on your neck?
No? Oh, good… Neither do I.
And by that, I mean that, metaphorically, the crocodile is sometimes one of my loudest thoughts. Somehow, there is too much time and not enough of it all at the same time. I don’t have enough time to write, to go back to school, to meet up with friends, yet as soon as work goes to quarantine (again) I find myself puttering about feeling purposeless as my to-do list stares back at me.
But even before all of this COVID-19 stuff, I felt it, this paradoxical confusion of time. When I worked in South Carolina, I would sometimes have a few hours in the afternoon where I didn’t have work to do. It was just an unscheduled hour or two, something I’m not sure I had ever experienced before. You see, I’ve always been the type of person to keep busy and college, and even high school before that, were perfect places to be involved in everything and schedule every moment. Seriously, when friends in college looked at my schedule, they would alternate between shaking their head and asking if I was okay. Time management has always been one of my strong suits – I function very well on a busy schedule. However, busy schedules are not always possible or healthy.
When encountered with that open hour, I wasn’t sure what to do. I hadn’t planned it. Sometimes I read a book. Sometimes I called a friend. But there was always this little fear poking at me: “You’re forgetting something.” It was like my doing something for fun that hadn’t been carefully planned in was wrong, like I was being irresponsible with my time or shirking something more important. The thing is, most of the time there wasn’t anything else I should have been doing. Most of the time, it was just unscheduled time, but for some reason, that made me feel incredibly overwhelmed.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way. I remember talking to a friend a few months after I graduated and commiserating about this odd feeling. After talking with more people, I become more and more convinced that it’s something that society, more specifically our educational system, teaches us. We are so busy, so filled with this mindset of “not enough”, that we don’t know what to do when we realize that it isn’t true. We are praised for doing extra work, for overtime, but thought lazy if we need time off. Caring for ones mental and emotional health, sometimes even physical health, is seen as a luxury. We are taught that breaks and fun need to be earned, not just taken when needed.
In college, my busy schedule was praised. I was held up, sometimes literally, as an example to follow. But I most certainly am not. I got things done and had a social life, but I wasn’t enjoying what I did. I went to choir, something I love, and could only think about what homework I had to get done. I’ve planned a week’s meals during a church service and written letters during class. As a society, we praise multitasking, but we might as well be praising distraction, unintentionality, and worry. Our high school’s stress levels are the same as asylums in the 1960’s. I find that I can’t sit and have a conversation without getting distracted or go for a walk without hearing that ticking clock.
Now that I have these open expanses of time more often, I find myself staring at them blindly, unsure of what to do. My ideas of my worth and value have become so wrapped up in my schedule that I feel purposeless when no one is telling me what to do. I accidentally sleep till ten every day and feel like I’m wasting away watching YouTube or Netflix, now that I’ve finally given myself permission to do that. It seems that “too much time” makes it harder to start anything, to keep goals, to be motivated. With no one telling me what or when, it’s almost like I can’t figure out what to do myself. The things I want to do, like write a book or alter the pile of clothes sitting in the corner of my room, still seem frivolous because no one told me to prioritize them. So there those dreams sit, collecting dust. It seems like there are two extremes: full schedules and not enough time or the purposelessness of too much time.
But what really gets me about all of this is that we’ve made it up. Time is just a measurement. Even 9-5 workdays are a relatively new phenomenon (starting with labor unions in the 1800s and not really becoming popular until Henry Ford used them in the 20’s). I find that quite a bit of this dilemma comes from focusing on ideas of when is the right time to do something, like eating lunch at precisely noon or only sitting back and relaxing after normal work hours. I’m honestly not sure anymore which of these things are personal preference and which are just what I’ve been told is “right”.
I think I focus far too much on what is “right”. By “right” I mean more what is normally expected rather than what is actually good and true. There is nothing morally wrong with getting up at 10am or watching a few episodes of a show on Netflix, but for some reason I find that I beat myself up when I do it, because for some reason I have come to think it is wrong, that I will be classified as lazy, especially if I do it early in the day. I read something the other day, I cannot for the life of me recall where, that talked about the freedom in doing things “wrong”. Not in doing things that are bad but things which break expectations. Eat cake for breakfast. Get up and write a story when you can’t fall asleep. Lie on the floor and think for 20 minutes.
But what about time? I know, I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent, but I promise it ties in. And to do so, I shall tell a story. A few years ago, two of my dearest friends and I went on a very crazy spring break trip. It was full of chaos and adventure – I would have had it no other way! – and usually takes me a good 15 minutes to explain, so I’m going to tell a shorter version here to make my point. I tend to be a very detail-oriented traveler. I have all my trains booked in advance. I research each place. I know where to get tickets, where to eat, where we are staying. Every minute of my time is booked, something I have realized others don’t like very much. My friends, well, they preferred to be in the moment, something I have always struggled with. While I wanted to stick to plan, they wanted to wander across Paris. While I wanted to check five cathedrals and a museum off of my list, they wanted to sit in the square in Munich and eat ice cream. Amid all the mishaps of that trip, which included missing several trains and buses, I learned something very important.
We were headed to the airport out of Munich when it happened. I speak a little German and was, perhaps, overconfident in my ability. Through several people told me I was at the wrong stop, I pulled my friend off at what I assumed to be the correct place. Big surprise, I was wrong. This one action sparked a course of events that included a train stopping short, a high-speed taxi ride with two random Spanish guys, and nearly missing our flight to Ireland. I was so wrapped up in my schedule, so confident in my plans, so focused on time, that I failed to listen to the people around me. Earlier that day, we had wandered through the city after discovering that most of the museums on my list were closed. We saw cathedrals and ate delicious food, but by far the most memorable was wandering into an open-air market where people were selling fruit, flowers, honey, and all sorts of trinkets. I had been forcibly left with time to explore and it did not disappoint. Sitting in the airport pondering my mistakes later that evening, I realized some of the value in not having every moment booked and in clutching my schedule a little less tightly.
In pondering what to do with this too much not enough time problem the other day, this memory came to mind. During that trip, the answer had been to select just a few things I really wanted to do, to allow the rest of the time to be used however felt right at the moment. I wouldn’t have such fond memories of nearly climbing cliffs in a downpour or last minute going to Evensong at St.Patrick’s if it wasn’t for that. If it applies so well to travel, then what not apply it to daily life. So, on those empty days, picking a few things that are mandatory, but giving myself permission to do other things in the rest of the time, even if they feel unnecessary or unearned. And on those days where it feels like there is altogether too much to do, leaving even just a few minutes free. I have to give myself permission to not book every second. If my to do list consists of laundry, an appointment, and grocery shopping, I may have open time before that, making it okay to do something fun or relaxing in the morning. It has been drilled into my head that I must do work before I earn the time to do things I want, but that isn’t true. If I want to read a book in the morning and can be productive getting my work done in the afternoon, then why not? This is an expectation I find that I have to break. I’m allowed to have a new schedule, to do things differently. So often I feel like I have to earn everything, but that is a false narrative. I do not have to earn a break or whatever I like to do for fun. Life is more than just our work or jobs. Of course, those are important, but our lives consist of so much more than that. Goodness, what would happen if we felt like it was acceptable to prioritize creative hobbies, talking to friends, or self-reflection?
The world doesn’t give us permission to do those things most of the time. We have to do it ourselves, give ourselves permission. It takes courage to break narratives that I have lived with for so long, to remember that the way I look at time has been shaped by 23 years of being on someone else’s schedule. Even the paradigm of too much or not enough time is something that has been created. I need to remember that my value is not in what I do, that I do not always have to earn things. Structure is important, but so is freedom, so is space. I get to choose what I prioritize. I get to choose how I use my time. Yes, I have things I need to do, like be employed and make dinner, but I still have a choice in how I use that time. I’m not sure that crocodile will ever go away, that the clock will ever stop ticking, reminding me of how little or how much time I have, but I do know this: I refuse to be made to feel guilty for using my time in ways that society does not endorse or expect, to believe the lie that time is either something I’m running out of or something I cannot escape. I choose to forget my fears about time and embrace freedom.