There are some topics I find myself reading about as often as possible. Time management is one of them. When a new magazine article about it comes across my news app, I pounce on it, read it and bookmark it so I can read it again.
I gravitate to articles and books about time because research is how I soothe my own anxiety and frustration about things I don’t understand or can’t control. Like many people, I feel like I’m locked in an ongoing battle with time. Why is there never enough of it? How do I stuff more tasks into it, and how do I squeeze more enjoyment out of it? Am I spending it on the right things? Or am I wasting it on tasks that don’t really matter?
I keep hoping I’ll stumble across a simple answer — one that will make it easy and clear-cut. One that will make me feel satisfied at the end of the day instead of guilty about the things I should have done but haven’t found time to do yet.
This week I came across an article in The New York Times about being a “time realist,” and perhaps it holds at least part of the answer for me and maybe you, too. Author Julie Morgenstern says that, when it comes to time, there are two types of people — “time realists” and “time optimists.”
Here’s how she describes each type: “There are time realists and time optimists. … Time realists look at a task and break down the math of it. They’re conscious of how long things take, and they factor that in to their plans for the day. Time optimists, by comparison, are just that: Hopeful about things they would like to do. It leads them to overstuff their days and become frustrated when their list of to-dos doesn’t get completed.”
After reading those descriptions, I knew immediately into which category I fall. I’m a “time optimist” — the kind who believes I can knock out at least three of the things on my to-do list before I need to leave for an appointment. Then inevitably, when those three things on my list don’t get done as quickly as I’d imagined, I become even more optimistic about how much time it takes to drive to the appointment.
For example, one time two years ago on a random Wednesday, I made it from my house to my kids’ school in 12 minutes. This was not a typical drive time, mind you. It was one of those unicorn-type of situations where all the lights were green, the sun was shining and there was almost no traffic. But in my time-optimist mind (where unicorns rule the world), the drive time to get to school became locked in at 12 minutes.
Now truthfully, the drive to school is much closer to 20 minutes or maybe even longer if there’s bad weather or I get stuck behind a sluggish dump truck along the way. But a time optimist’s mind doesn’t think about rain or road construction. It only imagines green lights and wide-open roads. If I were a time realist, I’d always allow for at least 20 minutes to get to school, and I wouldn’t be one of those crazy people alone in her car, yelling at a red light to “Just change, already!”
The problem we time optimists have is admitting how long things truly take and doing the math to figure out how much we can reasonably fit into a day. It’s tricky because, as Morgenstern writes in her book, time can be slippery. Thirty minutes in the dentist’s chair can feel more like an hour. Two hours at the movie theater can feel more like 30 minutes.
But getting real with ourselves about time might be a crucial first step for those of us who feel like we’re constantly failing our own expectations. Morgenstern advises that, just like a limited number of things can fit into a closet, there are also a limited number of tasks that can fit into a day. Cramming too many things in just ends up making a mess.
Since I was intrigued by the concept of “time realism,” I’ve downloaded the author’s book and I’ll report back to you if I find other useful revelations. But in the meantime, it’s good to know that perhaps a “pie in the sky” agenda for the day isn’t doing me any favors. Maybe … it’s time to get real.
Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Her book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile,” is available on Amazon.