I confess: Time management advice is irresistible. I’m like a junkie for the stuff, looking for that perfect high, that organizational nirvana that will bring order to chaos and separate darkness from light.
I keep thinking that someone, somewhere has the answer to the meetings, the tidal waves of emails, the meetings, the tweets and blogs and Facebook posts, the meetings, the texts, phone calls and snail mail. Did I mention the meetings?
I can’t be alone in this hope. Workshops on time management, email management, clutter management abound, and for a reason. Those of us fortunate enough to be working in this economy are all drinking from a fire hose, a cliché that is appropriate both in describing the pain and the impossibility of the task.
Over the years, I’ve read some good advice, most of which was recently summed up by time management expert David Allen in The New York Times. “To be successful in the new world of work, we need to create a structure for capturing, clarifying and organizing all the forces that assail us,” he wrote. Who can argue with that?
But whenever the gurus get down the nitty-gritty, it all sounds pretty much the same: list, file, filter, prioritize. Ah, if it was really as simple as they all say, we would all be little time management gurus, instead of caffeine-fueled zombie cube dwellers.
So I’m taking a break from time management to read a book that is the polar opposite of all those tomes of the highly productive. It’s called “World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down” by Christian McEwen (Bauhan, $22.95).
This is a gem of a book. It is drenched in cultural wisdom, the stuff we now eschew for factoids and the news crawls that rush by us on the bottom of our television screens. McEwen is a transplanted Scot, a wise woman who writes and teaches poetry and travels the country doing workshops for people too busy and too rushed to be creative. She’s a diagnostician for our times, and she argues ardently that we are all suffering from near terminal cases of “hurry sickness.”
McEwen captures the essential paradox of so many of us: “Most of us are not so comfortable with slowing down.” Pride, as always, is the first of sins, and it secretly boasts what it bemoans: O woe is us with our 200 emails a day. How important and busy we are.
McEwen punctures all of that, challenging us to recapture the joys memorialized in so many poems and memoirs and novels, those times and places when people were young enough or wise enough to see the value in going slow, in play, in whimsy and reading and nature, in taking walks and really listening to people. She sings the virtue of patience, and urges us to practice a series of exercises: writing a letter by hand, choosing a new route to work just to notice something different.
It goes without saying that McEwen casts a skeptical eye on the new media that its advocates claim has revolutionized communications. All of the time spent in front of screens is devouring our free time, she notes commonsensically, and this means “we lose the time we need to recover ourselves, to hear ourselves think, time to talk to each other and listen to each other’s stories.”
There is so much that is wonderful about this book, yet it left me with a lingering sadness. It seems both more profound and more impossible than any time management recipe.
Yet I’ve tried to slow down just a bit, to take walks while being attentive to the bursting open of spring. Maybe the key isn’t a new filing system or a new list. Maybe the secret is as simple as turning off the computer, taking a deep breath and stepping outside.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.