For The Someday Book

Time Management and To-Do Lists

Posted on: January 11, 2012

But when our emphasis on using time displaces our awareness of time as gift, we find that we are not so much using time as permitting time to use us… We forget how to luxuriate in time that is not filled with tasks. We delude ourselves into believing that if we can just get everything done, if we can only tie up all the loose ends, if we can even once get ahead of the crush, we will prove our worth and establish ourselves in safety. (Receiving the Day, by Dorothy C. Bass, pp. 2-3)

What my Google Calendar usually looks like.

J made fun of me the other day, when he discovered me making a to-do list. “You’re on sabbatical,” he guffawed, “and you’re still making lists!” In my own defense, I have officially stopped using a calendar during sabbatical. And the list was mostly about preparations for B’s birthday party and follow-ups to Christmas (like thank you notes and such). But it also included my to-do list for sabbatical-related tasks for the day: write that review, finish this book, write the other blog post, make bread, shop for trip.

In reality, I just didn’t know how to live without a list. I have a special note pad for that purpose at work, updated weekly (or more, if it’s particularly full). I make a home list every weekend that combines all the household tasks that need doing (laundry, dishes, vacuuming) and all the “just-for-me” things I want to accomplish (paint toenails, finish book, exercise). The lists offer a sense of control over time and its use, and a delightful reward as each task is accomplished and crossed out.

For the first week of my sabbatical time at home, I felt each day like the hours were too fleeting, that I hadn’t had enough time to do what I’d hoped, that I needed more time to get time to relax, that I wasn’t able to calm my mind and heart enough to feel like I was on sabbatical. Even though I was accomplishing most of what was on my list every day, I never felt any sense of spaciousness for the Spirit. “Pray” just doesn’t work as a task on a list.

I turned to Dorothy Bass’ book, hoping it would steer me into Sabbath space. In the opening chapter, she talks about the danger of datebooks and to-do lists.

The flat pages of a datebook can become a template not simply for organizing time but for visualizing what time is: a sequence of little boxes, each waiting to be filled. As the owner of this time, I imagine, my role is to look down on these boxes from above and determine what goes where. (1-2)

I love this image. For me, it has been like the act of writing and completing to-do lists is written into my body.

That is exactly how I have been treating time, even on sabbatical. I had so many hours between dropping B off at school and picking him up, and I was going to accomplish a certain number of things appropriate to the time allotted. I was seeing sabbatical as time to undertake a different series of tasks. They were tasks of choice and pleasure, like reading and writing and praying and exercising, but tasks nonetheless. I had a limited number of hours and weeks to accomplish them. Consequently, I was frustrated whenever anything took longer than expected, or when family life encroached on “me time,” or because sabbatical time didn’t feel any more special than regular time.

Finally, yesterday, I tossed to to-do list. I can already feel a difference in my spirit, and my attentiveness to the Spirit. While I still have things I want to do, I am no longer driven by the desire to complete them. Instead, I am starting to see those items as things I want to attend to, to give focus and energy to in the course of this day. It’s not about a task that needs completion, but about paying attention to certain things that will give meaning to the gift of this time I have been given. The value and meaning of a given day does not come from what I am able to accomplish in it—the value of a given day comes from God, and its meaning is found in the moments of life it holds, no matter what does or does not get completed.

This is the true purpose of Sabbath, whether a day or a series of weeks on sabbatical—to rediscover the gift of time, to let go of trying to “earn the air we breathe,” (Bass, 3) to know God’s love for us does not depend on how much we accomplish, and to receive each day as it comes. It is a lesson I am still learning, and one that I pray will continue to give shape to this sabbatical time and, more importantly, to the time beyond sabbatical. The to-do lists will return of necessity, but I can work to prevent them from wielding the power of judgment over the value of a day, or the value of me.

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2 Responses to "Time Management and To-Do Lists"

[…] have already written about how this book has impacted my sabbatical journey by helping me to let go of my to-do lists […]

[…] reflection, and so I am. I have made my list of tasks for the week (my first to-do list since I gave them up for sabbatical). I will include in my schedule a large block of time for sermon preparation before […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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