For those who aren’t essential workers clocking long shifts, this should — theoretically — mean more time for the things people often claim to have no time for: learning Spanish, writing sonnets. Yet real life feels closer to the caption on a recent cartoon in the New Yorker: “Day 6! Couldn’t decide between starting to write my novel or my screenplay, so instead I ate three boxes of mac and cheese and then lay on the floor panicking.”
Even people who aren’t panicking about the virus may be floundering without the usual markers of time — the 7:27 a.m. train, the kids getting off the bus. Days bleed into one another. Those sonnets? Soon it’s 10 p.m., and they didn’t happen. Again.
In years of studying time, I’ve learned a few strategies for staying productive through upheaval. But I also keep in mind advice I once received from a woman who seemed to manufacture time — six kids, thriving business, you know the type. Saying “I don’t have time,” she explained, really means: “It’s not a priority.” This truth is bracing. But it’s also the key to building the lives we want, with or without the coronavirus.
So how should we prioritize? First, an obvious point: The measures required to slow the spread of covid-19 affect people’s time in different ways. A young couple with no kids will have more flexibility than a single parent whose 3-year-old is now home from day care and announcing she needs to go potty five minutes into every video call. People accustomed to minimal interruptions will find these forced breaks make their usual tasks take longer, as plenty of research has found that task-switching zaps productivity. We lose time in transition, and getting back into the flow with each task takes time, too. If you lose five minutes on each interruption, and get interrupted four times per hour, well, you do the math.
Still, in more than a dozen years of collecting time logs from thousands of people, I’ve seen that no matter how busy people are, there is always some discretionary time. I’ve seen time logs from parents who — during normal times — were working full-time in remote jobs and home-schooling their children, while also making time for hobbies. Working for 40 hours a week and home-schooling for 20 adds up to 60 hours. A week has 168 hours. As for people without caregiving responsibilities, even if they’re working 70 hours a week — about the limit people clock on time logs — and sleeping eight hours a night (56 hours per week), this leaves 42 hours for other things. Sure, those other things include necessities such as chores, showering and eating. But absent a commute, that’s still more than enough time to stream daily barre classes.
If you would like to use quarantine time to achieve personal goals, a few strategies can help. First: Focus and limit your ambitions. Tackling a screenplay and a novel leads to mac-and-cheese binges. Aiming for 800 words a day — about the length of this op-ed — on one project is doable. Or you can try my favorite strategy: Imagine that you’d managed to lobby Congress to include a $100,000 payment to you in the recent stimulus bill, contingent on your finishing a 50,000-word draft of your novel in the next 10 weeks. My guess is that even with a job and children underfoot, this kind of cash would move the novel up your priority list. If you have a co-parent, you’d get serious about coordinating coverage so you’d have time to write on weekends or in the hours before work. With your eyes on the prize, you’d muster the energy to stop panic-reading headlines and write at night after the kids go to bed.
Sadly, your personal lobbyist dozed through the vote. But this exercise shows possibilities.
Of course, it also shows this: If it would be possible to make time with $100,000 on the line, then time itself is not the culprit. The time is there; the will is not.
And that’s okay. You can acknowledge that your top priorities right now are hanging on to your paid job, keeping your kids from hurting themselves, and relaxing by spending two hours a day scrolling through dollhouse furniture photos on Instagram to keep yourself off CNN. You have time to write that screenplay. You just don’t want to.
This realization is liberating. Saying “that’s not a priority for me” reminds us that much of time management is a choice. There are consequences and there are limitations, but there’s a lot of freedom, too. And if time is a choice, then you can make little decisions that vastly improve the experience of time. You can leave the inbox festering for 15 minutes to go outside and enjoy a gorgeous spring day. It’s not writing a novel, but if you’re doing something you actually want to do, then that is time well spent.