“He had no ‘time of his own’ (except in his bed-cell), and yet he was becoming master of his time; he began to know just what he could do with it.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle

Many of the greatest traps of our day appear in the guise of simple math. One of them concerns time management.

If I just become more efficient—i.e., ‘produce’ more in less time, then I can both ‘get more done,’ AND have more free time. Simple math, right? Well, perhaps.

There is of course an undeniable truth here: greater efficiency means producing more in the same or even less time. This much is obvious. The trap comes in our assumption that therefore greater efficiency is the fundamental principle in time management. But here we should look deeper and begin with the end. What is our time really for? And in view of this, what really makes time be productive? Or free?

Large topic. I want to suggest that while productivity and efficiency are important and worth careful consideration, the more fundamental angle in how we look at our day is whether all our time is deeply imbued with what is meaningful-in-itself. Another way of expressing this—though certainly not a new one—is whether true leisure gives meaning to our time, including and even especially our work time. Here we encounter the possibility of there being a kind of ‘freedom’ in all our time.

Josef Pieper’s assertion that leisure is the basis of culture implies more than the primacy of leisure. It means that work and amusement are only authentic and fulfilling to the extent they are formed from the inside by activities meaningful-in-themselves. At issue here is a whole understanding of human flourishing as consisting in moral character and centered in richly contemplative activities—even if for most of us the latter explicitly occupy but a small corner of our day.

I am suggesting that the most important kind of time-management is to examine our daily routine with this question: how does what has first importance give form and feel to all segments of my day?

And I’ll make a wager about a paradox of productivity. Yes, people focusing most on productivity, getting more done, and efficiency, can indeed have ‘success’ in the narrow lane on which they focus. And they might keep making new discoveries and new methods of pushing their success further.

But there is productivity, and there is productivity. The satisfied, peaceful—dare I even say ‘leisurely’ in the root sense—laborer will have a productivity that is real and different. The difference is hard to quantify but is nonetheless profound. Sure there will always be distractions, stress, deadlines, and failures. But how do we quantify a day of fruitful work, a profoundly human day, with everything in its place exercised in the glow of what matters most?

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, a masterful short story, the main character struggles with being constantly interrupted and pressed for time. Through an unforeseen agency he gets some assistance in addressing his challenge. Eventually he comes to be something of a ‘master of his time.’ And then lo, “He got through quite a lot in a day, now; he finished small things off neatly.”

Whether he would have won an award for efficiency, I will not wager. But this much is clear: in the work of such a man is a freedom beyond earthly measuring. ~ ~ ~

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