Bits of Wonder #1: How do you manage your time?

Musings on time management, recent books, and writing goals.

Hi! I'm Kasra. This is where I share reflections about life, mindfulness, reading, knowledge, and more. If you'd like to receive a biweekly update from me, subscribe here 👇


How do you manage your time?

I've always struggled with time management. Struggle doesn't feel like the right word—I think of myself as someone who can get a reasonable number of things done in a reasonable amount of time. But I've never felt satisfied with the way I use my time. No matter how much I get done, how mindfully I spend the day, I manage to feel behind. Like I'm racing against something. Death? Failure? Meaninglessness? Unclear.

My troubled relationship with time is revealed by my inability to commit to a time management system. There’s Pomodoro, there’s GTD, there’s various kinds of matrices—all of which seem either unappealing or unsustainable. I like to define my system on my own terms, which also means I'm compelled to switch it up every few months (or days). Some days I'm very prescriptive: do X until 1pm, do Y until 2, lunch break until 3. Other days I choose to not make an agenda, giving myself permission to jump from one activity to another as I please. But on all types of days, I feel a tinge of regret about not doing more.

My past self—in high school and college—was much more rigid about this, planning out a detailed schedule weeks at a time. This was partly born of necessity: when you have 37 pieces of work to finish between your classes, extracurriculars, and social life, you have no choice but to allot your hours deliberately. But it was also born of naiveté: it's easy to get excited about planners and checklists when you're first exploring the world of productivity systems.

While it’s satisfying to check items off a list, it's equally unsatisfying to watch as 547 unchecked items accumulate over time. As the years passed, my negative association with task lists became stronger. Perhaps owing to the chronic stress of five years of college, a task list now signifies much more to my lizard brain than a list of things to do. It's a list of opportunities for failure; a snapshot of all the things I'm behind on. The mere act of creating a to-do can take the joy out of an otherwise pleasant activity. "Go for a walk" or "finish that novel" isn't as fun if there’s a menacing task list watching over my shoulder, not diverting its gaze until the activity is complete.

So part of my aversion to tasks is the association between time management schemes and the anxiety that seems to accompany them. But I also hesitate to make tasks because of a genuine insight that has surfaced over time: just because you jot something down, doesn't mean you are more likely to do it. What's the point of making a to-do in the first place? Sometimes it’s just to keep you from forgetting (e.g. "buy soap"). But in our distraction-addicted, always-on-the-edge-of-burnout lives, the creation of a task is often a deferral: I'm not going to do this now, but I expect my future self to take care of it (e.g. "call customer service"). Sadly your future self is as busy and prone to avoiding the task as your current self is.

My aversion to task lists might be the only rational response to the fact that in practice, the function of a to-do item is to trigger an old avoidance pattern and then remain incomplete. It's easier to either do the task now or accept that I don't really need to do it.

More recently, I've been capturing things to do less as fine-grained tasks and more as long-running streams of work. Things like "learn a lot about neuroscience", or "write more publicly". Each item establishes a high-level objective, but leaves room for serendipity and day-to-day choice. The function of the list is just to remind myself of my priorities. This only works for personal projects: for any tasks that I have to do (like file taxes), I schedule a reminder into my calendar at the latest time that it would be reasonable to complete the task (so that I can’t procrastinate).

I’m sure my current system will evolve too. The question of how to manage time can’t be answered with finality—it inevitably leads to deeper questions about what is worth doing and how one ought to live. It requires a perpetual balancing act between spontaneity and predictability, breadth and depth, novelty and familiarity.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that focusing too much on the tactics of time management misses the bigger point that we are emotionally driven animals. Understanding my own fears and motivations better, and being more honest with myself about what I intend to do, has been crucial for getting to some semblance of harmony in my relationship to time. I'm convinced that deeper self-awareness is the best way to get things done, because it helps you see the distinction between what you genuinely want to do (or truly believe you must do) and what you merely feel a non-binding, superficial obligation towards.

But that's just me. How do you manage your tasks and your time? How has your approach changed over the years? What works and what doesn't?

Books: Invisible Lives and Wandering Retreats

I finished The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue earlier this month, and really enjoyed it. (Some scattered thoughts about it here.) What would life be like if no one could remember who you are? If after every interaction, the other person’s memory of you was completely erased? This is the life of Addie LaRue. The novel tracks her life through hundreds of years of bouncing between different cities, living through historical changes, and indulging lots of repeated one-day love affairs. It was a fun story about love, memory, and leaving your mark.

Speaking of love, I've also been reading In Love with the World, a memoir by a Tibetan monk who goes on a wandering retreat in his thirties. What is a wandering retreat, you ask? It's when a monk leaves their monastery to spend several years alone, stumbling around without an aim and essentially living the life of a beggar. Monks already live an ascetic lifestyle (hours of meditation a day, no central temperature control), but these retreats really take it to the next level. The memoir actually hasn't been my favorite book on mindfulness so far (personally enjoyed Douglas Harding or Diana Winston better), but I'll report back when I finish.

My other writings

What they don't tell you when you're applying to college

It's been seven (!) years now since I was an anxious high school student grinding through college applications. I've thought recently about how many things I had wrong at the time, so I wrote the essay above to get my high school self straight. Some of the lessons in there are applicable to more than just college applications.

40 books in 2020

I wrote a post at the end of 2020 talking about my favorite books from the year.

Changes to this newsletter

Last year I struggled to establish a consistent writing schedule. What stopped me wasn't a lack of ideas or content or time: it was a fear of putting my ideas out there. The inner critic that kept saying: literally no one gives a shit what you think lol. It's been taking a while but I'm slowly beginning to tame that voice. Last year I finally made a habit of reading consistently, and this year I hope to do the same for writing. In that spirit, I'll include progress on my reading and writing goals at the end of every few newsletters.

As you can see, I'm also experimenting with different styles and formats. I'm now leaning towards more memoir-style reflective pieces about topics that I've been thinking about, links to my other essays, and cool books/articles/things I've found. Central themes will be mindfulness, psychology, effectiveness, knowledge, and wonder. Hope you enjoy it, and let me know what you’d like to see more of!

With love,

Kasra


Books read in 2021: 2/40

Writings posted in 2021: 4/40