Time Management: an Orthodox Perspective
By Albert Rossi, PhD and Julia Wickes, MA
The first thing to say, from an Orthodox perspective, is that there is no such thing as time management. We don’t manage time. Time manages us if we allow the Lord to have a place in our schedule.
Whose time is it?
Christ is everything, including the giver and owner of our time. He is the Way we format our schedule, the Truth about the meaning of time, and the flow of Life that moves us through time.
C. S. Lewis makes a profound point about time. He says that we usually regard time as our own. We start our day with the curious assumption that we are the lawful possessors of an upcoming twenty-four hours. With that hazardous assumption we then plot a matrix for our day, filling in time slots with tasks or restful moments. We might hope that we are managing our time in a way that will somehow please God. But when we begin with the assumption that time is ours, inconveniences and unexpected interruptions become intrusions into “my time.”
By contrast, we can begin with the assertion that time is not our own. Time belongs to the Lord and He has a plan for time that He desires us to accept for our own peace and joy.
Adjusting our expectations
Those who are trying to use their time to do the Lord’s will must begin every day, and every moment, with Jesus Christ. One question might be, “Lord, what do you want me to do, now?” But an even better question is, “Lord, what do you want to do through me now?” This takes the emphasis from the ego and places it on the Lord.
If we believe that God has a plan for each moment, we can then be sensitive to each moment as it unfolds in unexpected ways. When we receive each moment as from the Lord we will begin to experience our time on earth as a series of small deaths and resurrections.
Every loss is a gift that God gives us so that He can give us more. It might be saying goodbye to high school or college days, a move from the old neighborhood, the loss of a job, the loss of physical or mental health. We might lose loved ones through separation or death. In degrees, the reactive thought might be, “This is the beginning of the end.” A more truthful thought would be, “This is the beginning of the beginning.” Death is the beginning of a new relationship with Christ, a fresh beginning of an entirely new life. Each loss and little death is a new beginning towards our ultimate beginning—heaven.
As we adjust our expectations time takes on a new meaning.
Sacrament of the present moment
Simple awareness of the presence of God is the power within the present moment. The present moment—now—is the only place where God is. He discloses Himself through the reality of the present moment. Nowhere else. This is a mystery we can participate in by simply trying to be aware of His presence.
Awareness, conscious contact with God, is the key.
The Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret
An Orthodox morning prayer by Metropolitan Philaret says: “In unforeseen events let us not forget that all are sent by Thee.” Here it is helpful to refine exactly what is meant by the idea that God sends all moments. God did not send terrorists to fly planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. Rather, God allowed terrorists to fly those planes. What, then, is implied by the all in Metropolitan Philaret’s prayer? An Orthodox perspective would say that events outside ourselves are subject to God’s allowing will, and moreover are beyond our understanding. However, by faith we believe and confess that God sends all of the events that pertain to us. All events in our day, even those that we anticipate in a human way, can legitimately be described as “unforeseen,” because they bear a divine potential which is not revealed to us in advance. But even “unforeseen events,” in the most mundane sense of the term—the unforeseen phone call or the inconvenient request—can take on a new meaning, simply because our time is not our own.
Our freedom consists in embracing all that happens to us, exhaustion and all, as a blessing in divine disguise.
Making the most of time
There is a paradox inherent in the Orthodox approach to time. We do not “manage” our time yet we must be prudent and skillful in the way we use our time. We must plan without being a slave of our plans. So, we are back to basics. We need to allow the Lord to flow through us all the time, as best we can. Sometimes we must use the present moment to plan for tomorrow and the long-term future. But, again, it is the Lord doing the planning through us. When we finish the planning we can’t obsess about it or allow the plans to become larger than life. We must be stable in the present moment and flexible enough to change plans as the Lord directs, at a moment’s notice. One saint said she wanted to be a ball on a table top in the hands of the Lord, allowing Him to move her anyway He chose, for His pleasure.
The truth is that we have all the time we need, and abundantly more, to do all that the Lord has us on the planet to do. He gives us our tasks and ministry, and resources with sufficient time. “And my God will supply your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19)
We, however, often have other ideas. Enter stress and dissatisfaction. We make our own stress, in large part.
Ready for virtually anything
We can only be ready for virtually anything if we know what else we have to do and choose to not do. Then we can do or not do what appears in the moment, based on a deep intuition of what the Lord is calling for now. All too often we walk through life responding to the “latest and loudest” voice clamoring for our attention.
David Allen in his interesting book, Ready for Anything, emphasizes a few key points. We need to have some system where we have written down everything we need to do. These are called projects, anything that requires more than one step to accomplish. We also need a list of next action steps, those things that can be accomplished in one action. These next actions can be grouped into categories that make life better organized. We might group together all the next actions which require a computer, or the phone, or when talking with my boss. Then, when we are at the phone or have a slice of free time, we will know what calls we might or might not make on the spot. All this helps us think less about what we need to do.
The brain is a fine instrument for creative thought but a poor container to remember all the outstanding commitments and projects that are ours. When projects and next actions are written down, and backed up, in some trusted system, we can allow the system to remember for us. For computer users, an external hard drive can serve as a trusted backup system. For those who prefer pen and paper (and this number is growing), a copy should be made of all that is written down. A backup is necessary because we must feel free from the possibility that we wrote down everything we need to do and that list got misplaced, or thrown out with the trash, or mauled by a well-meaning pet.
The idea is to free our mind from worry about commitments we have made with ourselves and others. Then we can use our brain for other things. If we try to keep our commitments in our head, like a computer with too much in the memory, the entire system slows down.
We need to take copious notes and be willing to process and organize these notes at least weekly so we have more freedom in the way we use our time.
To be free in the Lord requires that we are as free as we can be from internal baggage and preoccupation. David Allen calls this “Mind like water,” that is, a mind ready to receive the next pebble thrown in and naturally allow the ripples to move out.
To let the Lord work through us means that we give him space, and, of course, time. All too often we act reactively. Our responses often take the form of a stimulus-response reaction. Too many times we want to say, “Yes” to all the requests that come our way, and they all may have great merit. But then, one can get so overloaded and overburdened. However, it is not always easy to discern to what we should say “yes” or “no.” It does require growing closer to the Lord, to hear His voice and His direction. Often, we do not go in the direction to which He has pointed. However, we take comfort in the knowledge that He is the Great “GPS”. He is always ready to “recalculate” and reroute us.
One handy suggestion is to push pause as often as we can. We can pause between the stimulus and our response, thereby gaining perspective. The pause itself is usually sufficient to break the reactivity cycle. We can become aware of something else going on besides the unconscious reaction. This is a fine opportunity to try to remember that we are in the holy presence of God.
A way to gain more conscious contact with God is to gently and quietly say, “Jesus.” His holy Name is an expression of belief, adoration, expectation of salvation and unity with Him and all the members of His body. His name is sacred and is a power He asked us to use. “Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23) We need to know that when we use His Name we are acknowledging that we are his disciples. We pause and say His Name, as an act of obedience and surrender of the present moment. We can match this with an awareness of our breathing, centering us more inside our body.
We can simply say the one word, “Jesus,” to transfigure what is in front of us, or in our minds. The name Jesus can be a filter through which our thoughts, words and deeds have to pass to be freed from their impurities. Needless to say, this is severe spiritual warfare. It requires a forgetfulness of the self, a dying to the negative thoughts the ego wants to indulge.
Time manages us because the Lord lives within the time He gives us. So, it is He, through the reality we call measured time, who manages, leads, nourishes and strengthens us. We don’t live life. Life lives us.
Time is our friend, not our burden to endure. We need only remember that we are in the holy presence of God. We can pause and say the Name of Jesus, thereby bringing us into His very life within us. While on earth we have an opportunity to “sanctify time.”