Two years ago, I interviewed an American time-management expert named Julie Morgenstern. I embarked on it in a playful and unserious spirit, thinking I would most likely waste time discussing time with a time expert, only to ignore her advice and get back to wasting more time. Instead, she absolutely blew my mind.
A couple of things she said were so self-evident, yet so rarely acknowledged, that I still regularly preach them even now, a mini-evangelist army of one. For instance: “How much time and attention do kids need to feel loved and secure? The answer is this: short bursts of five to 15 minutes of truly undivided attention delivered consistently – not big blocks of time delivered erratically.” This completely changed my parenting. Overnight, I stopped hovering about, dispensing non sequiturs while checking my phone, and gave them the full beam of my gaze in much shorter units. I would say this has made me a lot less annoying, although, inevitably, it has increased the proportion of our interactions that are spent on them telling me how annoying I am.
There is so much more: Morgenstern is not so much a time management expert as a philosopher of the race against mortality, although, arguably, that is what all philosophers are. Let’s just call her the Hegel of the to-do list.
Anyway, she recently said she had some tips on time management in a pandemic, and this is content I am totally here for, as the young people say. Our Zoom was set for 7pm our time, 2pm hers, and Mr Z was trying to give me a glass of wine. I said I didn’t think I could – that might be interpreted as me drinking through a meeting, of which American time-managers would take a dim view.
“Americans don’t care if you drink as long as you give them a varietal,” he insisted. It was 6.57pm and I didn’t really have time to find out what he was on about, yet I did want to know what he was on about. “What are you on about? And make it fast.” “Well, you can’t say, ‘I’m drinking wine.’ But if you said, ‘My husband’s just poured me a glass of merlot,’ that would be fine.” I don’t know why he’s right, but he is.
“Do we have any merlot?”
“We have a fleurie.”
OK, I am about to change your life: that 15 minutes of attention for your children? It works on everything, according to Morgenstern. Stop waiting until you have 90 minutes to exercise, or a whole evening to pretend you are at a restaurant, or an afternoon to lose yourself in big thoughts – those things won’t happen. In order to remain passably normal, you need sleep, rest, exercise, love and fun. Sleep, you should continue to plan for in large units of time. It’s just a lockdown after all – you are not sailing the Atlantic. Everything else, throw 10 or 20 minutes at it. You can always find 10 minutes. I just lost seven minutes staring out of the window (which I am filing under “fun”; I wouldn’t really call it “rest”).
I was chewing over whether this would work – it definitely would for exercise. It is quite a well-established behavioural observation that if you promise yourself it’ll be short, you’re much more likely to do it. But would it work for hobbies? I don’t really have any, so there’s that. I don’t think 10 minutes is enough to lose myself in a big thought. I tried to remember the last time I had a big thought, and started laughing. Is this the right time to mention the fleurie? It’s so easy to mishear, and then it just sounds random. If only it was merlot.
“If you have kids that are five or under, the only way to work and manage that is somebody else has got to manage it,” Morgenstern continued. It doesn’t make things any easier, since there isn’t a somebody else. But at least it sloughs off the great lie that you can home school and also work, and that BBC Bitesize or Oak Academy are going to help you with that. The reality is that everybody with children of primary school age or under who has any flexibility in their job is trying to do all their work between 8pm and 1am, leaving them barely enough time to fight with their partner, let alone drink fleurie wishing it was merlot – which is good, in a way, since they have a large number of home school incidents to fight about.
For older children, get a whiteboard, stick it somewhere communal, put everybody’s timetable on it: it is incredibly good for avoiding minor mishaps and understanding one another’s rhythms (“This is the time it would be good not to wander into my room naked, as I’ll be on a live lesson”; “This is the meeting I’ll be in a bad mood after”) and it gives you “grist to make you closer”, which is Morgenstern’s elegant way of saying “something to talk about”.
It’s not really about time management, I realised afterwards. It’s about averting conflict. When you can’t see anybody else, getting on with the people you live with is your only genuinely urgent task. I went in looking for a to-do list, and I came out with just one job. And a glass of fleurie that was still full.