You know how time expands and contracts? The feeling that you’re living your life in the middle of a cosmic accordion, and some force of the universe is working the bellows. Contracting—Where did the day go?—expanding—I can’t believe I just drafted an entire chapter!—and sometimes just chugging along normally.
Although who can say what’s normal?
One of the best places for me to meet and experience expansive time is in my journal. I like to think of it as my little readymade time machine. Open the pages of my marbled-cover composition book and I can stretch a few minutes into something meaningful.
For example, I have appointments today at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. In those in-between spaces I won’t be able to focus on anything because I’ll know the next thing is hovering. My day is trashed, and it’s only 9:15!
But that kind of self-talk is not helpful. So it often makes sense, almost paradoxically, to make some time, from 9:15 to 10:00, for sitting comfortably with my journal. I can think out, with my pen, how to maneuver the day. Where will I be between appointments if some of them involve travel? If they are all virtual, and I’ll be under my roof all day, what to-do items will fit into the gaps and be flexible enough to allow for last-minute changes? When will I take breaks? Eat? Make some tea? Go for a quick walk? Write?
For years, I imagined I might be the only person who gets like this—who takes a passive stance as to the passage of time. Then I got into conversations with other people, often writers, who knew all too well that same sense of having “lost” or “wasted” chunks of time that they wanted to have filled with work. Bad enough that we’re graceless with our use of a day. Then the second arrow aggravates the loss when we berate ourselves for it.
There’s an overlap here with another phenomenon—the delaying tactic or mistaken belief that the only usable time for creative pursuits comes in big chunks of hours at a stretch. I won’t go there now except to mention all the essays and blog posts out there from authors who wrote entire books in the little moments they made: waiting in the car for their child to get out of school, stopping for ten minutes before going into the grocery store, etc.
We ARE time
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman goes deeper. He suggests, as have others before him, that we ARE time. Not something outside of us that can be contained, managed, segmented, or mastered, time is inseparable from our embodied selves. From this stance, it’s even more up to us, right? There’s no point trying to objectify time as something outside ourselves that speeds up or slows down or sneaks away or runs through our fingers. It’s entirely up to us. So in that case, I’m for using my journal to savor the time that is my life.
Someone is due to arrive at 11:15 to look at the washing machine, and it’s now 10:57. I can’t DO anything because I’ll be interrupted as soon as I begin.
In this scenario, I’m pre-agitated, and the repairperson’s van hasn’t even pulled up yet. But I can perch near the front door and open my journal. Ahh. Something useful to focus on, disperse nervous energy, and—who knows—come up with an idea or two. And if the person due at 11:15 is delayed, that’s fine with me, because I’m occupied with something positive and useful.
Research indicates people nowadays “have” more free time than in previous eras, if the time is measured cumulatively over 24 hours. This may seem hard to believe. But it feels like we have less because available pieces of time are tiny slices of only a few minutes per slice: time confetti. That’s Brigid Schulte’s apt term for the little bits of time that are unprogrammed for people in western societies these days.
I’m supposed to leave at 5:30 and it’s 5:17. I can’t DO anything because there’s no time.
While tidying up is an option for those thirteen minutes, another option—especially attractive if the day so far has felt more like a forced march than a carefree saunter—is opening up my journal. I can stand, blank book in hand, and jot down ideas, lists, narratives, memories, questions, reminders, and more before I head out the door. When I go out, I’ll be feeling a little buoyed up from having given myself a few minutes of expanded time in that brief interlude between all the scheduled things.
Learning what to do with those little slips of time can be a challenge. One main reason Schulte gives for how we wound up with confetti-size pieces of time is our incessant connection to email, social media, and other 24/7 communications. Spare time, even in tiny slices, is a boon. Often I find the best use of a sliver of time is to drop into an awareness of my breath and shift into a lower gear. One way to make that shift is to put pen to paper in my journal. I’m not interested in becoming a productivity fiend, driven to wringing the last second out of every minute. Reaching for my journal at odd moments feels calming, not “productive.”
When you begin to count on your journal as a companion, you may notice ideas surfacing that you want to be sure to add to the pages. You can develop habits to support that impulse. You can start to apply some of those awkward short bits of time to jotting things into your journal. Bits of time confetti, no longer thieves of your day, become useful, yet calm, moments.
Finally, with time and distance, the pages of your journal offer another kind of time machine—a portal that transports you from the here and now to multiple snapshots of your internal world, over the years.
Go ahead. Step into the time machine.
A M (Anne) Carley is a writer and creativity coach at annecarleycreative.com. Journaling is an important part of her practice. Continuing the themes in her book FLOAT: Becoming Unstuck for Writers, Anne’s forthcoming handbook, FLOAT Journaling, offers practical ways to introduce or develop a journaling practice to support your writing.