This past week, a friend and I were discussing options for starting seeds for a new joint major gardening project (more on that in an upcoming post). We talked about several options, and deciding we wanted to stay away from plastic ready-made planting pots, opted for a paper pot maker (a little wooden device that makes it stunningly easy to create paper pots from recycled newspaper). This choice, of course, is an excellent one from a permaculture perspective: it takes an extremely abundant waste product and turns it into a resource. Of course, in order to make these pots, you need the time to collect the paper and the time to create them. This simple choice–paper or plastic–along with the investment of time illustrates an underlying principle that seems to me to be near-universally true in my experience: the further away from fossil fuels we get, the more time things take. And here, of course, is the crux of this entire blog post series: if we want to do anything beyond our work (practicing permaculture, developing deep relationships with the land, developing bardic arts, or whatever it is we want to accomplish), we have to find the time to do so.
In my previous two blog posts, I explored the nature of work both historically and in the present age, which helped illuminate some of the current unbalances we have with our work–and opened up the door for us to consider revisiting our relationship to it. And it is this spirit that today, I talk about re-negotiating and re-envisioning our relationship to work and hence, to our time. As I explored over the last two weeks, historical data suggests that we worked a lot less in ages past, which allowed for more leisure time, feasting, merriment, and the learning of crafts and skills. It also gave our ancestors the necessary time to live without fossil fuels–to do work slower, with more intention, and live at a different pace. In the present age, our time is owned by our employers and continued increases in productivity have occurred with increases in work hours, meaning that we are working more than ever before. It seems that, in some cases, fossil fuels and the myth of progress is speeding us up so much–and most sustainable living practices focus in the opposite direction. The tension between them is many things, but one of them is certainly time and different ways of working.
Now to be clear, it is not that I’m saying that work itself is the problem–it isn’t. Work is a necessary part of our lives. It is a part of being alive: working to provide for our own needs and making sure our loved ones who depend on us are well-fed, happy, clothed, and with roofs over our heads. This isn’t just the human condition, but rather, part of life in general–all animals must seek out their food, find shelter, build their nests, and so on. The challenge comes with the balance between our work and the rest of our lives. So in this post, I’ll explore both some opportunities and options for us to re-negotiate our relationship with our work, bring more leisure time into our lives, allow us to more fully pursue our passions, and dedicate more time to treading lightly and joyfully on the earth.
The Time Audit
When we want to understand a phenomenon that is very close to us, one of the best things we can do is find a new way of seeing that phenomenon (think about the Hanged Man card from the tarot–this is all about re-seeing a new situation). Each day, you spend your time as you’d spend anything else–you might think of it as a bank account, but it’s a set account of time (and the associated energy that comes with that time). One strategy for re-seeing this expenditure of time is through what I’m calling a time audit. I’m adapting this strategy from Your Money or Your Life, which gives great suggestions for money spending audits. So let’s look at one possibility for a time audit:
- Begin by, on a separate sheet of paper, listing all the things you value the most that you wish you had more time to do.
- Next, for a period of time (at least a typical week, or longer; I’d recommend a month), keep track of your time and how you spend it. A good way to do this is on an Excel spreadsheet or in a notebook. Try to keep track of things as they happen, not at the end of the day, so that you have a more accurate representation of how you spend your time. Note: if you spend a lot of time on the computer, some programs exist that also help you monitor your time on the computer–I use one called “RescueTime” which monitors what programs you are running and how much time you spend on it.
- After your set period of time, review your records and categorize them. You might come up with different kinds of categories: Time spent with family/loved ones, time in nature, work time (normal working hours), work time (overtime), social media, television, gardening, etc). If you use Open Office or Excel or something, you can then add up the time you spent on each thing that week/month.
- Put a star next to any “things you value the most” (from your earlier list). Also, note any categories that you consider “wasted” time.
- Now, add up your time and consider the following questions:
- If your time is your life energy–are you spending it well?
- How much of it do you see as wasted time?
- How much of the “things do you value most” list are getting your time? How much of it?
- What is common “time sucks” that you see that you can eliminate?
- What do you want to spend more time on in the future?
- What percent of your waking hours was spent on that thing?
- Make a set of three goals for yourself moving forward and evaluate those goals after each week.
You will likely find that the act of monitoring your time itself helps you be more aware of how you spend your time. Seeing your patterns with regards to time is even more helpful. Setting goals helps you to take the next steps towards reclaiming some of your time.
Re-negotiating our Relationship with Time
Beyond the time audit, it can be very helpful to examine cultural assumptions surrounding time and confront them directly. As I’ve begun paying more and more attention to this issue, I am struck by how powerful and pervasive these cultural assumptions are. I’m going to walk through a number of these (and I’d love to hear more if you have any!
You are not a machine. Modern western industrialized culture makes a very dangerous assumption: that people are just like machines. That is, we are expected to be ultra-efficient, ultra-productive, and never break down. We are always expected to work well and always be at the top of our game. Terms like productivity and efficiency are the measures that became the most central and dominant in our culture. Even today, rather than calling people “people”, we call them “human resources” like they are simply another cog in that wheel.
We are not machines. We cannot work all day long and expect to function at peak efficiency. We are not made to work that long; our ancestors certainly did not, and the current expectations are unreasonable. If we want to build a better relationship with our time, we need to be kind to ourselves and to recognize that this intense culture of overwork is not a normal state of things. And we can’t expect ourselves to be always working at peak efficiency.
I don’t know how many people think they should always be working and perfectly so. I remember having a doctoral student who was teaching a course for us come into my office in tears–she shared how there had been a very unexpected death of a young cousin in her family and the family was in shock and had to care for the children of this person. She had gone to several faculty who expressed their condolences and then shrugged her shoulders. And she said to me, “I don’t think I’m teaching as well as I was before.” I showed her compassion and told her she wasn’t expected to, and it was OK to take this time to mourn (and we could find her a sub if necessary). I was so struck by this situation–especially after she relayed that she had been advised to who had been advised to keep going regardless of what happened. She expected herself, and expected all of us, to insist she always perform at peak efficiency–like a machine.
Learning about your own relationship with time. Stemming from the above idea that we are not machines, it is useful to explore your underlying value systems associated with time and the narratives surrounding your use of time. Most of these are given to us by our culture–and so we likely have some healing work to do. You might consider your own reactions to the following words and phrases: relax, free time, leisure, good sleep, unstructured time, play, productivity, efficiency, accomplish, stamina, busy, keeping busy (and there are a lot more!) Exploring your gut reactions as a place to start–and then, question where these reactions come from.
For example, I used to get excited at the word “productive” because it meant I was accomplishing so much. But where did that excitement come from? Was it even mine? Probably it came from my education and current work environment, where being productive meant piling on the accomplishments (which are rewarded) and embracing the insanely packed schedule to keep up the accomplishments. But did I ever consciously choose that value system? Do I really want that value system in my life? Is it serving me well? After some long, hard looks, my answer was “no.” I didn’t want this value system because I felt I gained very little, and lost a great deal. These kinds of questions can help us unpack these underlying cultural assumptions surrounding time.
Letting Go of Guilt. Because we have such an unbalanced relationship with our time and often hold onto the human-as-machine ideology, we feel guilty if we aren’t working or being productive. This guilt can manifest in many ways depending on the kind of work you do, and it takes on different names: academic guilt, productive guilt, work guilt, and so on. But the underlying feeling is the same: when you want to relax, or do something fun, or just chill out, you have to first convince yourself that it is “ok” to do so, and maybe apologize to a few other people, for doing so. Or you don’t want people to know what you are up to, so you do whatever it is you want, but then hide the fact that you did so when you return to work. One of the manifestations of this is that people try to work even when they know they either won’t get what they need to get done (exhaustion, not the right headspace, etc) or they find work to do that they don’t need to do at that moment. This is something you can certainly watch out for.
For example, how many times have you felt guilty for resting for a full day and not doing work? Or perhaps, enjoying a book for several hours in the afternoon? Taking time off on weekends? I see this often in my own workplace: we are meant to be always working. To do otherwise is not acceptable. I once thought this was unique to academia, but in fact, it is not–friends who work at home, friends who are self-employed, homemakers, and so many others tell me of their guilt at not working. The one exception to this is people who are retired: they are expected to simply enjoy life because “they’ve earned it” (having already put in the work).
So take a few deep breaths and let go of the guilt. Go ahead. You can do it. It feels really good :).
Beware of “efficiency” substances as ways of letting you go on longer. There’s a difference between liking coffee for its flavor and enjoying a cup every now and then vs. depending upon it to get a tired and overworked body out of bed and moving again. Coffee, energy drinks, and other stimulating substances (even things like Ginseng) often act like a boost of cortisol to our systems–giving us a temporary “high” so we can keep moving just a bit longer or get to the weekend and crash. However, this comes at a substantial physical cost. If we stop drinking it, even for a while, we will see what the “true state” of our bodies are. These substances are like credit cards: sure, you can raise your limit and spend more now. But you do so at an extraordinarily high-interest rate, and paying back that extra debt over time is so much harder.
Beware of cultural peer pressure. One of the things I’ve noticed is that certain really detrimental things are glorified–and it is easy to get wrapped up in other people’s time narratives. Overworking, being extremely busy, not getting enough sleep, being overwhelmed and overworked–these states of being are seen as at best, normal, and at worst, very positive places to be in. I hear my colleagues speak with pride about how well they can function on 4 hours of sleep, or how they worked all weekend to prepare for their conference, or how they worked all through the break. Uh, no. I have learned to resist these narratives firmly by sharing an alternative time narrative of self-care and balance.
We are more than our work. As I mentioned in my last post, at least here in the US, work is firmly tied to our own identity. But, your work is not your identity. It is what you do for pay. It might be good work, you might really enjoy doing it–but it does not represent you or the whole of who you are. It is simply work. This was a particularly hard lesson for me to understand due to the amount of time and energy I had invested in getting to the point of being able to do my current work (dissertations and advanced degrees and all). But realizing that my whole being is not, and should not, be tied up with my work helped me broaden my perspectives and re-negotiate my relationship to my work. As an added benefit–now, when something goes wrong at work, it doesn’t crush my soul because there are more parts to me than just work.
Some Healthy Alternatives
So now that we’ve gotten past some of the negative assumptions with regards to time, I want to focus on a few positive alternative narratives that can help us move forward.
Understand that physical and mental health is wrapped up in time. As I shared last week, the adrenal system and the other bodily functions are directly tied to the amount of stress and overwork in your life–which is tied to how you spend the time. The sympathetic/fight or flight nervous system is what we use to keep us going, going, going. This has a measurable, strong link to our physical health. Stressed bodies are not healthy bodies–many of their systems are functioning minimally under chronic stress. The long-term results of this can be quite serious indeed. By learning to let go of some of the insanity and learning to rest, we can much better take care of ourselves. Likewise, our mental state is also determined, to a large extent, by how we spend our time. Not having time to simply sit and process things that happen, being engaged in meaningless work, not slowing down enough to give our minds a chance to rest–these, too, strongly affect us. In other words, our time is our health.
See time and life energy as precious resources. Our time is one of the most precious resources that we have. This is simple: anything that we want to do requires–at the most basic level–energy and time. There is no getting around this fact. Other issues, like physical resources, finances, lack of skill/ability, etc, have multiple solutions. But if we lack the time and energy to do something, nothing else is going to get that thing done. Linguistically, this is now how time is framed in our culture. Typically, we “spend” our time (like spending down a bank account) or we “save” our time (like a savings account, note the efficiency metaphor again). But we don’t necessarily “protect” or “cherish” our time with the same positive qualities. This is part of why I’m talking about “time honoring” here–honoring this precious resource and all that it offers to us.
Evaluate your options. It might be that you can find ways of balancing your work and your life and coming into a more healthy relationship with it using the time audit and exploring other cultural assumptions. And for some people working some kinds of jobs, this is totally possible. But it also may be that you want to make some choices about your life (new work, part-time work, new living circumstances) that lead you to less work and more living. This is certainly an option not to be discounted. Or, if choices present themselves for you to take on more work with higher pay–consider them carefully.
Promote Positive Narratives Surrounding Time. This, for me, is a really important part of my own relationship with time–and that is serving as a good role model to others. I’m honest when people ask me how I spend my weekend: I was out in the woods, I was in my art studio, I was reading or writing or playing my flute. I don’t buy into the glorification of busyness, and I don’t make excuses for not working constantly. Because my current work has me mentoring lots of advanced doctoral students, I am working hard to model my own more healthy relationship with time with them and encouraging them to take time off when they need it. I think that the more of us who are willing to gently but powerfully share alternatives and show that we can still be functional in our work, the more we are able to help others around us also think through these issues.
I share all of the above with a caveat: I am not pretending to be a master of my time and energy. I am just another human on this path, working to balance a demanding career (which at this point due to my earlier life choices, is necessary) with the ability to have enough time and energy to live my spiritual path and live my truth. The above things are strategies that have worked for me.
The next post in this series will look more carefully at leisure time and explore the “slow movements” of various kinds, and offer some additional insights. I very much look forward to hearing from you with your own suggestions and time-honoring strategies!