Making Peace With Time

It's about reflection and choices - not more control

One of the articles in It's About Time! (IC#37)
Originally published in Winter 1994 on page 45
Copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute

Michael Gilbert is a writer, teacher, activist and consultant. He is a founding member of GoodWorks, a nonprofit organization that offers training, consulting and other services to organizations and individuals around the country who are working in social service or social change. GoodWorks also works with people seeking right livlihood.

You can reach GoodWorks at 4223 Fremont Ave N., Seattle, WA 98103. tel 206/545-0630. e-mail:

Our culture teaches us that time is an enemy. There is never enough time to get everything done. We are pressured by time. We begin to hate the very idea of time and yet we have a peaceful ideal that we keep hoping for. Time terrorizes us and yet we cannot escape.

Our feelings reflect a powerful emotional relationship with time. If the images we use are at all accurate, the relationship is often an abusive one. The challenge is how to transform our relationship to time and dismantle the abusive patterns we’ve created. No amount of reading or theorizing will change our deep-seated attitudes and behaviors. But practice will.


How we spend our time is how we spend our lives. For me this is a sobering thought. At times my sense of responsibility has translated into alternating workaholism and paralysis. I lose my inner compass and my ability to choose how I will contribute to this world. I’ve concluded that, in fact, few of us have a peaceful relationship with time.

But where do we begin to transform this relationship? Most of us start by trying to "get things under control." We use the very same emotional time pressure that we resent to force ourselves to get things done. We make lists and lists of lists. We put Post-It notes everywhere. We make appointments and create deadlines. We surround ourselves with messages screaming "DO ME! DO ME!" all in an effort to control our desires and behavior.

But control does not work. Control is what a guard does to a prisoner. Control only turns joyful commitments into tedious obligations. This is the major fallacy of traditional time management systems.

Time management should be a tool for reflection and making choices. Only if we learn from our experience of time do we begin to make good choices. We should stop using our lists to punish ourselves with everything we’re not doing. This is the key insight that enables us to begin changing our relationship with time: that we should create tools for creative reflection and let go of our systems of control.

What would such tools look like? In the GoodWorks workshop called "Time Management for Human Beings" we present a three-part cycle: how we really spend our time, what is truly important to us, and how we can make our commitments more effective.


An understanding of where our life is going, hour by hour, is a powerful benchmark for assessing our ability to make effective choices for ourselves. The primary tool for developing our understanding of time spent is the Time Log. On a piece of paper, make three column headings: time, activity, and interruption. Make copies and carry them in some convenient form from beginning to end of a typical day.

To use the Time Log:

1. Every time you take on a new activity, make an entry on the Time Log. You may feel foolish. It will interrupt your work. Do it anyway and do it for the entire day. Pick a happy medium in defining what constitutes a new activity. (Don’t stop to note every pen stroke, but don’t have only large blocks of time entered as a single activity.)

2. Under "time," enter the time you start the new activity, to the minute. Under "activity," enter a brief description of what you’re doing. Under "interruption," explain why the activity felt like an interruption of your time, if it did. This last column is totally subjective.

When you’re done marking the Time Log, you have accomplished most of what it was intended for — consciousness raising. Some people experience tremendous stress as they face how they actually spend their time. Some people are delighted to see how much they actually accomplish.

The data on the Time Log is useful. Analyze the activities to see how much time is spent in a reactive mode, what accounts for interruptions, and what times of day you are most effective. File it away and repeat the exercise in a few months to follow your progress.


Most of us approach time management assuming we already know what we have to accomplish and we only need to figure out a way to get it all done. This is a delusion. The goal isn’t to try to figure out how to do every good thing, but to develop our ability to choose what’s important from among them.

"Important" is an overused word, that often pressures us into guilt-ridden indecision. To say that everything is important is just as useless as saying that nothing is important.

In our workshop, we present nine exercises designed to open people to their own priorities. In the two following selections the primary requirement is that you put reality aside and get in touch with your unadulterated ideals.

* Exercise I – Good News: Starting tomorrow, you have four extra hours a day! Take five minutes to answer this question: What activities would you want to add?

Don’t get down on yourself with pessimistic predictions based on how you actually spend your time right now.

Don’t get technical. There are no restrictions on the four hours. They are an invitation to creativity. But don’t accumulate the hours and give yourself extra days off; the point is to focus on daily life.

* Exercise II – Bad News: Starting tomorrow you have four fewer hours a day! Take 10 minutes to answer this question: What would you want to cut?

Use the same guidelines as the first exercise. Give in to your ideals and don’t get too technical. This second exercise is difficult. It involves saying "no" to things – something few of us are good at. But it is an essential complement to the first exercise. Time management is about making choices and there are only 24 hours in a day.

These two exercises can serve as a simple time management system. Do the exercises regularly and post them conspicuously. You’ll be faced with things you would ideally like to add to your life and things you would like to cut — an instant framework for making choices.

Other self-discovery exercises are useful here: list 20 things you like to do; describe what you would do in the next six months if you knew you were going to prison after that; design a "business card" to describe who you are.

The key to success with these exercises is to incorporate them into a regular routine. Reflect regularly upon your life and then put the results where you can’t miss them. Keep your ideals visible.


This is where traditional time management focuses, by assuming that our priorities are already set, or perhaps even set for us.If time management is a tool for reflection, just deepening our understanding of our true ideals and the results of our choices would work. Nevertheless, most of us need some tools to remind us of our commitments and to free our minds from worrying. I divide these tools into three categories: for working with tasks, for inner work, and for working with relationships.

First, before we get intrigued by tickler files and to-do lists, we need to make a fundamental commitment: To improve our relationship with time, we must devote time to time management! The commitment doesn’t have to be huge: 15 minutes each day, 45 minutes once a week, and an occasional longer period of introspection would be an excellent foundation for change.

* Task Tools – These are the traditional physical accouterments of time management — lists, file folders, notebooks, etc. To design our own systems, we need to be able to take apart the flow of tasks and activities that we face and make some sense of it all.

Imagine a task to be a tangible thing. I use the metaphor of an airplane flight, with three parts: Take-Off, Holding-Pattern, and Landing.

* Take-Off is the origin of a task — where does it come from? Tasks are generated by such things as meetings, telephone calls, documents, plans, and your own mind.

* Holding-Pattern is where a task goes before it gets done.

* Landing is where a task goes to get done. This is where you make a commitment to do something on a particular day or time. This is where tasks get checked off.

At take off, you need something with which to note the task’s existence. I recommend using a single spiral notebook for every meeting, telephone call, and personal priority setting session. Mark it by date and you’ll have a single place to look for every task that you might have identified. This tool is useless without a regular routine. You must regularly scan through the notebook and extract tasks for moving on to a holding pattern or landing.

Where can a task go before it gets done? Two useful tools are the tickler file and the master list. A tickler file can be an organized way to put things off! Set up a file with 52 folders in it, one for every week of the next year. Every time you come across a task that can be safely ignored until some future date, drop a note (or the paper associated with that task) into the folder for the week you want to look at it. Of course, you must empty out the current file at the start of every week.

A master list is a single long list for tasks not associated with a particular date. It’s a kind of safety net; no matter what, a task that has been noted has some place to go. This is the place for all those good ideas that you haven’t committed to, but don’t want to forget. Again, you must have a regular routine to look at this list.

Finally, for landing or actually completing the task any kind of calendar or to-do list is suitable, if it meets your unique needs. Only write things down you are planning on doing (use holding pattern tools to track tasks you’re waiting to do later) and associate tasks, as much as possible, with a specific time that you’ll do them. Make appointments with yourself that are just as important as appointments with others.

* Inner Tools – In our workshop we teach an array of inner tools designed to help people make effective commitments around time. My favorite is called One Thing.

We lose focus easily. Our unfinished tasks call out to us in voices much louder than the task we are currently working on.

Any time you feel yourself losing focus, ask yourself, "What one thing am I working on right now?" Fill your field of vision with only those items related to the thing you are working on at that moment. Try clearing your desk of reminders of other tasks.

* Relational Tools – Here’s an example of a tool for developing your relational time management skills. It’s called Saying No. We can only say "yes" to something by saying "no" to something else, but most of us have profound trouble saying "no" to people.

One solution is to practice saying "no." Practice in the shower, saying "no" over and over again in different ways, as though your mouth needs physical therapy. Practice ways of saying "no" that make you laugh, and try them out on trusted friends. Support others when they say "no" and compliment them loudly.


There are several things to remember as you work on changing your relationship with time: First, that it’s a never-ending cycle of learning, and that cycle includes all three of the parts described above. Second, that these are tools for reflection, not control. Third, nothing changes until you get started. When you finish this article, make an appointment with yourself to do the Time Log, or any other exercise or tool that caught your interest.

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