I used to be a lifetime reader of time management books. After the world shut down in March 2020, I got out of my pajamas to meet the challenge of an open schedule. I believed every article telling me that this was the propitious moment for cleaning out my closets, for organizing my pantry, for culling my photos.
And early in the pandemic, I loved my newly organized garage; I was glad to have tackled the towers of paperwork I usually avoided. Productivity is, of course, a modern source of existential consolation. A good day is the day you get things done.
But this new year, I won’t be hunting for a better planner. Nor will I be searching for the best new productivity app. For the first time, I will suffer no illusions this January that a new technique or a better consumer product will help tame the wild beast of time.
Time management is illusory. Though time might be money, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, we cannot grow our portfolio. Sure, we can try to maximize the yield of the minutes, but as the pandemic continues to teach us, tomorrow is never guaranteed. Rather, we must steward our attention.
Despite all my renewed productivity efforts early in the pandemic, I never managed to silence the beating bass of my anxious heart. I had plenty of time, productive time—and still suffered time-anxiety.
As a Christian, I know time matters to God, but I’m beginning to think it matters less to him in the frantic ways I’ve imagined. It’s certainly true we’ve only recently conceived of time as measurable and instrumental, as something to be used or wasted, saved or spent. But even before the invention of the clock—in the medieval monastery—human beings have long been time-anxious creatures.
As David Rooney writes in About Time, a few years after the first sundial was installed in Rome in 263 B.C., a character in a play exclaimed, “The gods damn that man who first discovered the hours, and—yes, who first set up a sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits for poor me!”
Time management can’t solve the crisis of mortality, this foreboding sense that the days and the years prove short. To be sure, I’ve developed some helpful skills from the many time management books I’ve read: planning ahead, breaking down larger projects into smaller tasks, ruthlessly eliminating the nonessential. But as Melissa Gregg argues in Counterproductive, it’s probably also true that I could have read one good time management book, given how few new ideas have been proposed since the early 20th century.
What seems far more important than disciplines of time management are disciplines of attention management. The minutes are not ours to multiply. We receive them as a gift. What we can do, however, is cultivate the ability to inhabit those minutes with attention, or undiluted unfragmented presence. Simone Weil noticed the gains of attention in her spiritual life, when she began repeating the Lord’s prayer in Greek every day. Whenever her attention wandered, she started over again. “It was during one of these recitations that … Christ himself came down and took possession of me.”
Many have noted we live in an attentional economy, which is to say that what is most valuable today are the seconds, the minutes we linger online—time that is sold to someone for profit. When Facebook went public in 2012, for example, they did not have a clearly articulated plan for generating revenue, but they knew that they owned the world’s time.
Matthew Crawford notes in The World Beyond Your Head that one challenge in modern life is that our attention is not always ours to direct. We sit in an airport, stand in the line at the grocery, browse the daily headlines—and someone is there to blare their aggressively loud bullhorn, begging us to buy, subscribe, believe. Attention is a contested resource, and like a city without walls, it will be overrun unless we build walls and post sentries and fortify it against attack.
The conditions today make it hard to attend, especially with a smartphone buzzing in our pocket. But just as time-anxiety is old, so too is the fight for attention. It was attention the apostle Paul admonished the Philippians to cultivate: “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8, ESV, emphasis added).
Paul was saying: Your attention is valuable. Develop it for the good. When Paul instructed the Corinthians to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5), I don’t think Paul believed that attention was merely a rational faculty. I think he was more broadly gesturing toward the moral exercise of attention of loving the good and habituating ourselves toward it: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil 4:9).
Crawford argues that attention requires submission, which seems like a peculiarly Christian understanding. He knows the word is jarring, given that autonomy is often considered the highest good in modern life. Attention requires “submission to things that have their own intractable ways,” he writes, “whether the thing be a musical instrument, a garden, or the building of a bridge.” For Crawford, attention is never self-enclosed. It is not self-gaze. It is a form of devotion to the other. Attention requires not simply that we look up (from our phones) but that we look out—beyond ourselves.
I’ve become more interested in projects today that are preoccupied with the cultivation of attention—books like Justin Whitmel Earley’s The Common Rule, which our church small group is reading together. Earley’s book isn’t devoted to the management of time. Instead, it suggests regular rhythms—in time—that call us into submission to our Creator, the one to whom all time belongs: daily habits like kneeling prayer and digital ascetism and weekly habits like Sabbath and fasting.
This framework—of habits and a governing rule of life—is monastic. It’s an attention project. It’s not simply an individual exercise, however; it’s a communal one. Which begs the question of what churches can do to help their congregants cultivate the faculty of attention. In my own church context, I’d love for us to become less reliant on phones for operational business on Sunday mornings, making it possible, especially for those involved, to leave them at home, or at least silenced and effectively ignored. I’d love to see us corporately endeavor to think more carefully about our digital habits and practices throughout the week—because attention seems like an analog skill.
I think attention is what Brother Lawrence learned to practice in the monastery kitchen, as he washed plates. He didn’t concern himself with time and its elapsing, but rather considered that all time was valuable insofar as it was inhabited with devoted attention:
The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.
Time management marketing preys on existential dread: that life is short, that we are mortal. Its tips and tricks might help us manage some of the unwieldly aspects of contemporary life and work, but it will not teach us how to, as Brother Lawrence said, “do all things for the love of God.” For that, we will need practice in attention.
Jen Pollock Michel is a writer, podcast host, and speaker based in Toronto. She’s the author of four books and is working on a fifth: In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, 2022).