Vocation and the folly of “time management”

In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett talked with Oliver Burkeman about time, specifically all the ways that we try to organize time when we engage in the project of “time management.” Burkeman’s observations are a helpful reminder of something with which existentialists have wrestled for over a century.

What are we assuming about time when we consider our vocations or work to help students in discerning their callings?

The metaphors we use when we talk about time reveal some of those assumptions. In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett talked with Oliver Burkeman about time, specifically all the ways that we try to organize time when we engage in the project of “time management.” It puts us into a very strange relationship with time. Burkeman’s observations are a helpful reminder of something with which existentialists have wrestled for over a century.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as living in time, we approach it as a resource to be used. We try to maximize it through our efforts to be ever more efficient. We fear running out of it, like milk, or gasoline.

We tend to praise students who diligently work out a schedule for the current semester or the next one, and who have a seamless four-year graduation plan. We laud those who have five-to-ten year plans, and who are clear about their next steps after graduation. They make our work as advisors much easier.

But, as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, there is nothing efficient about vocational discernment. Advising students in this regard is less a matter of problem-solving and more a situation of being present to a mystery (to borrow a distinction and image from the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel).

Such an approach to time impairs how we live, and can actually impair our ability to live according to our most important deepest values. As Burkeman observed during this interview, we try out new tricks in order to manage time, thinking that if we “clear the decks” we will finally be able to do what is truly important.

I think this is a really deep and important metaphor, this idea of “clear the decks.” … I think that you can spend a lifetime “clearing the decks,” because actually what happens is they’re never clear, and the act of clearing them causes them to fill up again faster, for various reasons. And that way, you can just never get around to the things that you know or believe are the most important things.

Oliver Burkeman, “Time Management for Mortals,” On Being (13 January 2022).

In her response, almost with a hint of embarrassment, Kirsta Tippett invokes the language of calling and offers the reminder that doing what matters may involve letting go of some things that we would really like to do (what Jason Mahn has described as the tragic aspect of vocation):

And that gets back to that point that each and every one of us, to do what we actually mean idealistically, when we say “manage” time, structure our lives in a meaningful way, not merely a productive way. We’re going to have to not do a lot of things that we would like to do, in order to really invest and really be present to the things that are going to make our lives worth living and that we are — I don’t know, I use this language — that we are specifically called to, either by where we are or who we are, what our gifts are, or just the place we find ourselves in and its needs.

Krista Tippett, “Time Management for Mortals,” On Being (13 January 2022).

Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals was published in August 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Later in the conversation, they consider situations were we encounter our insignificance (such as gazing as a sky full of stars), and how that pertains to our thinking about how we spend (note the economic metaphor!) our time. Here, Krista Tippett reads aloud from Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021):

No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance. It’s the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself all this time to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet. And this realization isn’t merely calming, but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a life well spent, you’re free to consider the possibility that many more things than you’d previously imagined might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time. You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed and that until now, you’d subconsciously been devaluing them on the grounds that they weren’t ‘significant’ enough. From this new perspective, it becomes possible to see that preparing nutritious meals for your children might matter as much as anything could ever matter, even if you won’t be winning any cooking awards, or that your novel’s worth writing if it moves or entertains a handful of your contemporaries, even though you know you’re no Tolstoy, or that virtually any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life, if it makes things slightly better for those it serves.

From Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (as read by Krista Tippett).

Like the 19th and 20th century existentialists, Burkeman is reminding us of our freedom and of our finitude. And, as Meg Jay has observed, young adults especially need to be reminded that what they do “in their twenties” matters a great deal.

While this episode of the podcast was thought-provoking, I am not recommending it for use with students. I suspect they would hear in this exchange nothing but the regrets of two people over the age of forty! (They might find meaningful this 12-minute clip of Oliver Burkeman talking about the problem with thinking in terms of time management).

But I do think it is worthwhile to pause and consider the metaphors we use with respect to time and to encourage young adults to begin reflecting on this. What kind of conversation might come out of the simple question, “How do you think about time?”

Related posts: On time and vocational discernment, see John Barton’s three-part series “Back to the Future” and Daniel Meyers’ “Telling Our Future Stories: Hope, Loss, and Possibility.” On the power of metaphors, see “Minding Our Metaphors.” For one manifestation of the above with respect to advising, see “Telling Our Students’ Stories” by Tim Lacy about writing letters of recommendation.

Image above: Salvador Dali, “The Persistence of Time” (1931); WikiArt Fair Use.

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see her other blog posts.

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