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Moral Moments

Things Take Time: The Schedule

by Joel Marks

The motivating question of these Moral Moments columns has been: How shall one live? Well, what could be more to the point than how we get through the day? I have in mind particularly how we manage our time. This may not seem like a philosophical issue, just one of efficiency. Yet I am prepared to argue that everything hangs on it. In the state of nature, as Hobbes informed us, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In the state of (so-called) civilization in which you and I live, life has become longer; but it is also rushed, at times chaotic, and as a result can seem meaningless. Why bother at all if you are never able to do all that needs to be done, or to do any of it well? The competing tugs of countless tasks may make genuine accomplishment, not to mention enjoyment, a mere dream. This is true of our personal well-being and our moral obligations alike.

The Schedule to the Rescue! By surveying your activities, commitments and goals, assessing and prioritizing them, and finally, assigning appropriate and sufficient slots to them on your daily (and weekly, etc.) calendar, you will find, I maintain, that you are able to do and achieve what matters most, including derive satisfaction from the doing and achieving.

This totally obvious (once you think of it!) even tautologous revelation came to me in one of those ‘God’s-way-of-telling-you-to-slow-down’ moments: I began to have severe, incapacitating back pains. Finally (after about a year – duh!) I traced them to sitting at my computer too much. This was my first clue that I needed to rearrange my life.

Actually, I was not a complete novice at this sort of thing. Decades earlier I had figured out that television is the scourge of modern life, if only because it sucks up all your discretionary time, and so I had banished it from my existence, and have never looked back. But the computer had since snuck up on me, so that, before I knew what was happening, I was sitting in front of a tube all day anyway! I realized that I had to limit the computer time. This was a painful thought because the computer enables for me an activity I love to do without cease: writing. Yet I also realized – once I paused to reflect – that there are other activities I love to do too – as well as ones I ought to do and even needed to do, but which I had been neglecting. So it made sense to curtail the one in order to create possibilities for the rest.

But there isn’t enough time in the day or week or life! Yes and no. This is where the necessity of prioritizing hits you. You can ’t do it all, so get rid of some of it. Do this wisely, of course; ponder what matters most, in itself, and to you. One tremendously valuable trick, which my colleague David Morris taught me, is to ‘combine and simplify’. For example, I was able to spend more quality time with my stepson simultaneously with starting up a radio talk show by enlisting him as my technical assistant at the control board. Still, some things simply must go: and in my personal line-up that has meant television, as noted, since I value reading books and talking with friends and taking walks and going to concerts a thousand times more.

Next to consider: do not short-change legitimate time needs. This will be a matter of trail and error. Thus, ‘pre-analytically’, I had assumed I needed all day, every day for my writing. But experimenting with durations and times of day while attending carefully to the results has shown me that I am most productive at the keyboard when I maintain a steady regime of writing three hours every morning. Less than that is not enough to immerse myself fully in a line of thought. More than that gives diminishing returns, and also impacts negatively on the following day ’s creative energy. Meanwhile, postponing my writing until later in the day would permit distractions to enter my creative consciousness from whatever immediately preceding activities I had engaged in. It would also shift me into a time of the day when more distractions would be likely to arise from external sources. Also, I am a morning person, so my energy is peak at that time for my most important project.

Essential to the success of this strategy is discipline. Having arranged my personal work schedule to allow for writing most mornings, I became liable to the temptation to sleep in, or linger over the morning tea and newspaper. The idiocy of that soon became apparent as I saw my precious writing time shrink in both productivity and personal satisfaction; so I trained myself to heed the alarm clock and chuck the newspaper. This had the additional benefit of making me sleepier at the appropriate hour of night to go to bed so that I would awaken each morning with a fresh mind, and even in due course anticipate the alarm clock by a minute or two. There is also the need for discipline within the schedule. For example, when the writing time is over, I quit, because the activity assigned to the next time slot has its own importance that must be respected. The mantra is that, once established, the schedule should ‘lead’ the work, not the work the schedule.

This may seem an exceedingly regimented way to live, but, on the contrary, I find it a marvelous exercise in non-attachment and mental control, sources of genuine liberation. In line with my column on Zen in Issue 55, I submit that the Schedule can be thought of as a way of implementing Be Here Now. In a word, it is a meditation. It is not so rigid as to prohibit divergences, which would be most un-Zen! Again on the contrary, the Schedule makes it that much more likely one will be able to seize the occasional opportunity or respond to the sudden emergency, precisely because ‘everything is being taken care of’ on a continuing basis. And of course one’s personal schedule is subject to infinite tinkering as experience teaches and circumstances (and oneself) change.

I believe the Schedule is the ‘secret of living’, at least if one’s life circumstances are fortunate enough to permit some threshold level of control over one ’s time. A properly devised schedule provides the double blessing of assuring that what most needs to be done will be done, and (hence) of relieving one of anxiety on that score. Hence also, one will be able to focus maximum attention on each activity, thereby enhancing both the quality of and pleasure in the work or play. Over time, as one relaxes into the routine, one ’s soul can shine forth in ever greater awareness and compassion. Om.

© Joel Marks 2008

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at http://moralandothermoments.blogspot.com

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