What a gloriously busy, delicious, satiating long weekend I’ve just had. It was filled with sun-basking, bike-riding, hot-tubbing, wine-drinking, funny-story-telling, German-feasting, French-feasting, Easter-feasting, and one small but glorious nap. Man, am I happy, and full. And now, as it winds to an end, I stare at the piles of laundry, the dirty dishes, the empty fridge, and my never ending to-do list. Those three days of blissful busyness, the kind of aimless, joyful distraction we all crave in our structured day-to-day lives, is enough to make me revolt. No gym! No cleaning! No errands! No writing! No work! I want to grab a crusty baguette, a bottle of vino, and throw myself onto a grassy knoll. And I don’t want to get up until Labor Day. But get up, I must. Get up, we all must, if we’re going to accomplish anything important. We have one shared commodity in this life, and that is time.
If you’re anything like me, struggling to order the million tiny tasks that take you from Point A to Point Z on your list of aspirations, you’ll find Steven Pressfield’s breakdown of time management incredibly useful. In his book, “The War of Art,” he proposes that the key to successfully managing one’s time is to differentiate between the urgent and the important. And to do the important first. Laundry is not really important. It’s urgent. So the equation goes something like this:
Meaningful Work > Basking in the Sun > Laundry
Laundry is the least important item on this list because it is the most urgent. “Really?” you ask. Yes, really. And yet, time and again, we tend to the urgent before we get around to the important. Ironing, catching up on TV shows, preparing well balanced meals—these all seem like important, necessary tasks we undertake in order to remain happy and sane. But the fact is, if we’re fully engaged in meaningful work, we’ll probably be content with a piece of toast and a wrinkled shirt. The important thing is to get down to work. It will fill us up faster than any thoughtfully prepared meal or sudsy reality show. Yes, we will eventually need to wash our clothes and eat some salad. But getting the ball rolling means sacrificing, in the short term, what we think is important in order to do what truly is.
The ugly truth is this: we can daydream about what we want out of life until the cows come home, but the chances of us falling into a bucket of success are about nil. We have to pick up a pen, a hammer, a phone, write the code, schlep the novel, launch the company. Solitary, ego-less work is the most important rung on the ladder to success. It’s a simple concept that’s taken me thirty years to truly understand. For too long, I invested my energy in the immediate instead of the long term, in what I could or should be doing instead of what I knew was right, deep in my bones. I’d like to say I was a slow learner, but I know people twice my age who still haven’t come to terms with this reality. Good things, they’re sure, will happen to them. One day, they will finally write that opus; they just need a bit more time and breathing room. And then there are those who believe nothing good can ever happen to them because they’re not smart, rich, or fortunate enough. Whichever side you tend towards, it boils down to the same thing: time. And just like a pretty face, it’s not about what you have–it’s how you use it.
There are countless things we choose to do with our time: fall in love, pay the mortgage, watch “Modern Family,” feed our babies pureed organic yams, learn to Hula Hoop, read “The Hunger Games”. These are worthy pursuits. But the people who succeed at turning their dreams into reality are the ones who understand the precious nature of time. They funnel it in the right direction. Some of them, like my theatre professors in University, never have children. They understand what a huge commitment kids are, and choose instead to parent their art. They make room for what is important to them, and it’s not pureed yams.
But before I mislead you into thinking that you must sit at home, childless and eating toast, in order to enjoy a fruitful creative life, let me make something clear: perfect work conditions aren’t a necessity, they’re an excuse. Last fall, I was pretty much knocked over the head with my own time-management ineptitude. I was taking a writing course, and the topic of finding enough time to write inevitably arose. Our professor, very quietly and matter-of-factly, explained how he managed to compose his first book. After a full day of work, he would go home, spend time with his children (whom he was parenting solo), do some admin, put his kids to bed, take a nap, wake up in the middle of the night in order to write for several hours, take another short nap, and then get up and do it all over again the next day.
J.K. Rowling wrote the first installments of the “Harry Potter” series as a single mother on welfare. Stephen Hawking makes all of us look like lazy, uninspired lumps. On overcoming the limitations of ALS, he says, “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research.” If you wonder where you can find time for your aspirations, look no further than the sacrifice of a bit of sleep. If ever I feel too tired or overwhelmed, I think about the inspirational people who have tread the path before me, and of my professor who, literally, carved that precious writing time out of his dreams.
In my apartment, the laundry pile is growing. It will get done, eventually. But first, I start with the work. I tackle whatever is most daunting. Then I move down the line. Soon enough, there will be time for another blissful weekend devoid of obligations. But for now…..
“Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.” —Adam Hochschild