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Are You as Busy as You Think?

Living more graciously and meaningfully within time.

Key points

  • With the world on pause, there has been an opportunity to think about time differently.
  • The consensus appears to be that we need to create our ways of organizing our time.
  • It is helpful to think of time in a gentler way and to pay attention to the rhythms of nature and season.

The last two years have given all of us a chance to think about what can happen when there is a lack of structure to our days. Without our usual markers and social consensus time can seem to collapse in on itself.

This can lead to the “what day is this?” “did I forget your birthday? ” and other panic-inducing questions. We all know the syndrome – staying in pyjamas, track pants day in and day out when the brushing of one’s hair becomes purely perfunctory.

At this time I have gained a whole new respect for free lancers who deal with these challenges all the time. It also helps explain why the first years of retirement can be challenging even if we are looking forward to escaping from the grind of work.

The truth is that for many of us work structures our days and years. This has become increasingly important as other forms of marking time have fallen away. In our book, The Sacred in Exile Gitte and I wrote a whole chapter on the role of structure and limitations that is understood by the world’s religious and spiritual traditions.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution ideas of factory discipline entered into the lives of much of the world’s population and these forms of time management were all about productivity and efficiency imposed from the outside.

In reading some of the thoughts of others struggling with expanses of time helpful advice has been emerging from various sources. The consensus appears to be that we need to create our own ways of organizing our time. Reports from the trenches suggest that to-do lists and self-imposed “commutes” (i.e. a coffee run before starting work), getting dressed, yes really dressed, all are ways to signal to our psyches that we are shifting into work mode.

In her beautifully written book Still Writing, Dani Shapiro offers sage advice for anyone who is working on their own schedule outside of traditional institutions. Full-time writers have all had to develop their own forms of structure that allow for creativity and meeting deadlines.

There is no doubt that human beings thrive on healthy forms of structure and routine. In their 2019 article “The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine” Arlinghaus and Johnston note that healthy routines contribute to better sleep, social skills and academic success. By developing routines we limit the amount of small choices that have to be made and don’t simply default to what is “easiest, quickest and most enjoyable.”

As human beings, we have evolved to be extremely sensitive to time and its ebbs and flows. However, the increasingly unnatural nature of modern life often works against this innate sense of rhythm. With the world on pause, there has been an opportunity to think about time differently. It has been interesting to consider the ways that being able to work at home takes us back to modes of work before the Industrial Revolution.

E.P. Thompson has demonstrated that the movement of workers into factory settings removed the people from more organic ways of working. The outlines of a more humane approach to time can be glimpsed in many countries of the world that still retain “tea time.” When Gitte and I were teaching at a retreat centre in Denmark a cart would be rolled in every day around three with tea, coffee, and “cake of the day.” This wonderful practice recognizes that our energy drops at this time of the day and rather than pushing through calls for relaxation and recharging in recognition of the cycles of time within a day.

So as I myself have attempted to create a healthier, happier relationship to time it has led to a great deal of reflection and trying to maintain these rituals. In his book, Creating Sanctuary Abbot Tony Jamison writes that many of us engage with time as though it is an enemy. He points out that we talk about being busy as though we have no control over our time. It is no surprise, then, that increasingly people are taking themselves off to retreats in an attempt to break through this increasing inclination to rush through life.

The worldwide slowdown that we are experiencing has offered an occasion to really think about this. As someone forged in the crucible of big-city attitudes to time i.e. “why are you dawdling??” I come up against my own impatience time and again. So I have decided to try to live with time in a gentler way and to pay attention to the rhythms of nature and season.

There is no doubt that our colleagues, friends, writers, and YouTubers have much to tell about ways of approaching time constructively. I have learned a great deal from all of them.

But it turns out monks and nuns have a great deal to teach us about living more graciously, and meaningfully within time.


Abbot Christopher Jamison. Finding Sanctuary. Monastic Steps For Everyday Life

London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006.

Alinghaus, Katherine R. and Craig A. Johnston. “The Importance of Creating Habits and Routine.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2019 Mar-April. 13(2): 142-144.

Shapiro, Dani. Still Writing. The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. New York :Grove Press, 2013.

Thompson. E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth:

Penguin Books, 1963.

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