How Are We Living Our Days?

A professor and student rethink time.

Posted Jul 28, 2020

When the pandemic struck, I was in the middle of my book tour for my new book and transitioning to online teaching for my classes at the university. I began to write extensively about pandemic pedagogy and ways we, as educators, could quiet down the frenzied forces of the world and really distill and simplify teaching so students could also have time to pause and reflect on what really matters. 

Aron Visuals/Unsplash
Source: Aron Visuals/Unsplash

But as soon as the spring semester ended, I was catapulted into my usual summer mode, which contrary to popular mythology about educators, actually means entering into a whirlwind of productivity. On a very heavy teaching load during the school year, I rely on the summers to work on my writing—envisioning and developing new projects, diving into others, finishing others up, and launching others for publication. The way I have found to be most productive is to have different writing projects at every stage of production. 

The spring semester ended in early May as it always does, and every year I try to remember to set aside a few days to a week to decompress from the year before launching into summer writing. I don’t always succeed at remembering how much I truly need this and how much of it to preserve as sacred time. But, this year when I started my new calendar in January, I carved out a week in May to remember to simply veg. 

But the pandemic had other plans. Like many other people, I found myself feeling like the pandemic rendered invisible any sense of time demarcation. Instead, it made visible something crucial: I tried to reassure myself that clearly delineated time demarcation was suddenly less important because what was happening was so much larger than my own little life, and that to accomplish anything and to find some joy in this dark time, I would need to seriously pace myself. I had the sense that life would be much more about the day to day. And that I would need to embrace the seemingly little things I did which in turn became big rocks of foundation and built my days. It was about doing what I needed to do for work, not going into overdo mode, and caring for myself. Did it really take a pandemic to drive home the point that how we spend our days really adds up to how we spend our lives? 

So, for almost five months, I’ve walked the line between striving to be remarkably productive and reminding myself that I’m living through a global pandemic, a humanitarian crisis of epic proportion. I have always been driven and ambitious but I also struggle with being hard on myself and being a perfectionist. For decades, I’ve worked to cultivate work/life balance, to tame my self-expectations, and to access a sense of deeper, calmer flow. 

In April, I had the good fortune of reading an article by Arthur Kleinman in the Wall Street Journal where he wrote about the impact, power, and depth of practicing daily rituals when involved in caregiving for his late wife and how that has served him to make meaning out of days in the pandemic. His words spoke to me: “By celebrating shared experiences and intensifying attention to mundane tasks, we filled those moments with passion and awareness. Exercise, cooking, eating, reading, work and even watching the news became more deliberate components of our daily ritual, giving us happy moments to look forward to, creating a mood of anticipation rather than paralysis. In a time of randomness and uncertainty, it made us feel proactive instead of reactive.” 

Kleinman reminds us that daily rituals and practices are grounding, and that they provide sustenance, flow, and steady energy. The way we structure our days enhances or diminishes their sense of shape, meaning, and purpose. I started to give a lot more thought to how I bookend my days, how I use the morning and the evening, and what brings comfort. 

I came to think about how meaningful this advice was for anyone of any age and how I wanted to communicate it to my students. In the spring, I opened up an online discussion board in my courses for students to share with each other something they were doing that injected some hope and inspiration into their day, something that was helping them feel alive and joyful. Part of my job as a professor is to mentor young people to craft better lives for themselves, and teaching and learning during a pandemic makes this a more critical task than ever. I approached a brand-new summer class I was teaching for Maymester with that same energy that Kleinman wrote about, and it made a three-week compressed class feel much more enjoyable and manageable. 

While Kleinman is 79 and has had a lifetime to think about his habits of being in the world, my experience with college students has me very interested in how they are thinking about their days and their futures and the steps we can take as educators to have them reflect even more deeply on this. In early June, I had a meaningful and memorable conversation with a man 59 years younger than Kleinman. Ben Cowan, a rising junior and psychology major at the University of Redlands, shared with me what he has come to call “choice hours” which essentially are the hours that remain after one subtracts for work and sleeping in a given day. 

Frequently surrounded by anxious and depressed college students who all too often characterize their lives as stressful and feeling out of their control, I found myself impressed by Cowan’s urging: “Breaking up your 24 hours into the three categories (sleep, work/responsibility, and choice hours) can be a liberating way to view managing your time.” He correctly acknowledges that choice hours may vary day to day or week to week, and his overarching point is that we are not victims of time and instead can make choices that actively reclaim our time to transform our lives. 

I became more curious, and so Cowan offered these strategies to conceptualize how to optimize choice hours: 

Physical activity: Fitness and exercise.

Mental health: Getting outside, limiting unnecessary screen time, engaging in mindfulness/meditation. Taking the time to be clear on how you want to allocate your choice hours. 

Intelligence: Any topics or areas of study that you either want or need to know more about. Hit the books. Find films, documentaries, and lectures. Be a sponge and give yourself an edge on most people who aren’t doing so. Set a timer for even 20-minutes a day to learn, discover, or practice something new. 

Personal skills: Anything you always wanted to learn how to do. Playing the piano? Drawing? Cooking? Biking? Taking up a new sport? Could you gain/improve a skill that would benefit you at school, work, or in general? The list is infinite.

Projects/activities/at-home hobbies: Any specific items you’ve wanted to get to? Sorting through old stuff? Organizing your desk or closet? Writing a book or song?

Social: Meals, eaten with attention to the people you’re with, and the food; board games and movie nights with family. Phone, Zoom, or FaceTime calls with friends to decrease isolation. 

Of course, besides work and sleep, most of us must engage in some amount of housework, errands, appointments, caregiving, driving, etc. that would necessarily encroach on these choice hours. Yet, Cowan’s point is still useful because most of us would benefit from thinking about how we manage even those hours that involve making our lives run and especially so we don’t let that monopolize and distract us more than necessary.

Cowan doesn’t simply just write the goals down but also records what he has accomplished. I have been doing the same thing, and I can say with great certainty that a done list is a lot more freeing than my typical, tyrannical to-do list, and this may be even more true in the throes of a pandemic. 

So far, I am not the only one compelled by Cowan’s call to action. He shared with me a conversation he had with a friend who asked him: “So, what have you been up to since having to leave school in late March?” Cowan replied, “I took a May term psychology class, produced two beats, picked up writing as a hobby, read 21 books front to back, watched every Harry Potter movie, completed seven full sixteen game franchise seasons on Madden 20, created two short iMovie clips, and every day I work on my golf game a bunch to get ready for the fall season (assuming it is not canceled) exercise for at least 30-45 minutes, do two fifteen-minute mindfulness/meditation sessions, and spend time hanging out with my family in the house or going on bike rides with them.” He turned to direct the question back onto his friend who was in shock and replied, “Is there really that much time in a day to do all of that?” he asked.

Rather than dismiss this advice about becoming a better version of ourselves during a pandemic as some form of toxic positivity, Cowan seems to understand that this is indeed a grim and difficult time but as long as he and his family are healthy, he wants to focus on that which he can control and improve. He told me: “…this pause in our normal way of life and inability to be out and about ‘doing’ as much as usual gives us a chance to reflect on how we can better spend our time, rethink our goals, and most importantly, focus on our own personal interests, health, and overall well-being. The outer world may be in chaos, but now is the perfect time to give proper attention to your inner world: to your goals, health, state of mind, etc.” 

Cowan seems to see what is at stake and what is lost if we just cruise through the surface of our days on autopilot without accessing greater depth within ourselves, the very depth that anchors us to our creativity, wisdom, and capacity for joy. 

Convocation ceremonies on campus that introduce students to the college vibe may be canceled or may look very different this semester, but one thing is for sure: Cowan’s stabilizing perspective serves as a buoy and ballast that belongs in our minds and our daily routines as we embark on what is almost sure to be a topsy-turvy new school year.