Five Ways to Stop Spending Time Managing Time

I have been on a 35-year pursuit of the killer app of time management. I started with to-do lists, graduated to categorized index cards, a fully filled-out Franklin Planner, then to a series of new software apps on desktops, laptops, and the palmtop. I’m not unlike a Silicon Valley executive who recently said that he manages his time best by re-entering tasks into new time-management applications.

For most of human history, time was thought of as mainly the cycles of nature — night and day, the positions of the sun and moon and stars, the changing of the seasons. The agents of the hunting, gathering, and agrarian economies needed only look to the world and its weather to discern what time it was: time to get up, to track, to forage, to plow, to seed, to harvest, to sleep. They were less engaged in managing time than they were in managing their sustenance and storehouses through years that were sometimes fat and other times lean.

Inventing “Productivity”

In the late 1870s, a laborer and machinist at the Midvale Steel Works in Philadelphia noticed that the other millwrights were not using their machines properly, and were driving up labor costs in the process. Frederick Winslow Taylor produced the first efficiency study and in doing so created the practice of “scientific management,” from which we ultimately were given the concept of “productivity,” a linguistic construction of the words product and activity, or “product activity,” as it were.

Cultural critics and political activists have warned for years of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. As we moved from taking our timing cues from the natural world around us to taking them from line bosses with stopwatches, men and women were reduced from being God-commissioned subduers and dominion-keepers of their well-provisioned world to that of being mere cogs in the gear works of so many industrial processes.

Work Without Boundaries

In today’s knowledge-worker economy, no longer are we so much in danger of being cogs in a machine; we’re now in greater danger of becoming little more than in-out switches in the light-speed movement of binary information over networks. Work has poured over the boundaries that once confirmed it. Being “at work” no longer refers to a geographic location, but is a state of mind. Work follows us wherever we go.

The common plea in recent employee satisfaction surveys is for “work-life balance.” All seem desperate to find some app, methodology, guru, or new job from which they can derive the elusive nirvana of such work-life balance. In the process, too many have been led to automate too much of heart, mind, and soul.

Even in Christian communities, a new type of soul-sapping Taylorism is prevalent among the iPhone and Android set. Scenes like:

“I program my computer to send me an email to remind me to pay attention to my wife.”

“My time is ‘programmed’ in very strict blocks such that I have regularly scheduled time with my family at the same time every week.”

“I rarely answer a ringing phone, unless it’s someone I expect or with whom I need to speak. I depend on Caller ID to ‘filter’ the information flow. If people want to talk to me, they’ll need to first text me so that I will first know what it is they want to discuss. Then I’ll decide if and when I will talk to them.”

“I haven’t responded to that invitation because I need to see if a better use of my time may yet present itself.”

“I get really bothered by ‘unscheduled’ visitors at my door or workspace.”

“Did you hear me? I couldn’t tell. You had your nose in your phone.”

There is a gossamer-thin line that separates our devices from being the tools of our own productivity and our becoming the tools of someone else’s productivity. We ignore this line at the risk of fullness of life, human relationships, spiritual health, and gospel witness.

Five Ways to Redeem the Time

“Look carefully then how you walk,” says Ephesians 5:15–16, “not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of time, because the days are evil.” The word translated “making the best us of” is literally “redeem.” Redeem the time. Buy it back from the course of this world. As Calvin explains,

Everything around us tends to corrupt and mislead; so that it is difficult for godly persons, who walk among so many thorns, to escape unhurt. Such corruption having infected the age, the devil appears to have obtained tyrannical sway; so that time cannot be dedicated to God without being in some way redeemed.

While in no way exhaustive, here are five applications Christians might employ for buying back time for the purposes for which they were given it by God.

1. Know you are never going to run out of time.

You have eternal life. You are never going to run out of time. You not only will get to do, see, have, experience, and enjoy all that you hope to. You will do that, and much more.

You are under no compulsion at all to grab in desperation all the gusto you can get now, before it’s too late. For those in Christ, there will never be a “too late.” Create some natural elasticity and margin in your life. Every minute need not be programmed. Life is not a project.

2. Remember that people are the objects of your Christian vocation, not the means.

The Christian in vocation is an ambassador dispatched from the King of all kings, cleverly disguised as butcher, baker, or candlestick-maker — or Linux programmer as it were. The demands of ultra-high performance (like task management), fast and uninterrupted flow of information, and the evergreen temptations of greed, lust, and idolatry can cause you to see other people as, if not cogs in a machine, then as just nodes in a network, units of operation in a process, or just a patch of code.

Try putting someone’s name in front of every task and appointment on your lists. Putting a name and a face to the activity might cause you to see your ministry opportunities more clearly.

3. Seek to de-automate your relationships.

Pursue good, old-fashioned, in-person friendships, not interactions on some user interface “wall.” It may come as a surprise, but you really have nowhere near as many “friends” as Facebook says you do. Spend time with people face-to-face and voice-to-voice. Visit. Call. Defy the filters. Come alongside, physically not just virtually.

Seek to see interruptions to your workflow as divine invasions, God’s placement of living, breathing, wonderful people on your path, according to his own plan, with laughing indifference to your own plans. It could be a God-sent angel who asks, “Do you have a minute?” or “Is this a good time?”

4. Detox on output, and thrive instead on the Greatest Commandment.

The Taylorites would have you focused on tasks, and you judge your progress against the shortening of the list and the quality of your outputs. Jesus would have you focus on him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then on other people — not tasks.

Pray that he will lead you to the place at which your satisfaction flows from how well you know him, and how many other people you love and how deeply you love them.

5. Make the glory of God the goal of all your activity.

Aristotle posited that every activity has a goal. Taylor’s practice of scientific management posited that every activity yields a level of productivity. Paul exhorted that “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The goal of all your activity is neither purpose nor product; it is God. Whatever it is, do it to make much of God, not to get a promotion, publish the next book, craft the next algorithm, splice the next gene, and so on. The products of your human work may all perish, but by God’s merciful grace, not all souls will perish. Life in Christ endures, forever. The sooner one starts living that life, and sharing it, the better.