Mary’s Fiat is a Guide for Managing Our Time
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” —Mother Teresa
The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few, and many of us feel like we’re working overtime to get everything done. At the same time, we chide ourselves for being too busy. We think wistfully of people in less busy cultures, or we wonder how Pope St. John Paul II could run the Church, write lengthy academic encyclicals and still manage to lose himself in prayer.
It’s hard to find time for the important things, even as it’s easy to fritter our time away. Mother Teresa said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
Today, we have 24 hours. Here are some principles to help us manage our time well.
Let us begin.
Your time is not your own. “Can we imagine Mary dividing her life up into times of obedience and times of freedom? Was she not the handmaid of the Lord, living under the guidance of the Holy Spirit at every moment, from beginning to end?” wrote Father Wilfrid Stinissen in Into Your Hands, Father. Shouldn’t we be trying to live the same way?
To imitate the handmaid of the Lord in this way is difficult; it means submitting each minute to God, one at a time. There is no easy trick to giving our whole lives to God, but we can give him this minute right now, and the minute that comes after that — and hopefully more minutes today than we gave him yesterday. This attitude is the foundation of managing our time well. We naturally take better care of what belongs to someone else (cf. Luke 16:14), and the more we recognize that our time belongs to God, the more careful we will be to use it well.
Your schedule reflects your priorities. How you spend your time (and this is true of your money as well) is a reflection of what you value. We often say that we don’t have time for things when we really mean that something else matters more to us. We might say “I don’t have time to go out tonight because I have to work early tomorrow,” but we really mean, “I choose not to go out tonight. Instead, I choose to be a responsible adult and a good employee, because that matters more to me.” Not everyone makes that choice. Many people make commitments and don’t follow through; they shirk their duties and spend their time in ways unthinkable to you.
Consider how you spend your time: What do you do with your time that you consider obligatory? What are you willing to push to the side? Answer these questions and you will see your true priorities. If you don’t like what you see, make a change.
Incidentally, seeing these as choices can help ease frustration. I can say that I don’t have time for something because I “have to cook.” I spend a lot of time planning meals, taking inventory, shopping for groceries, preparing dinner and washing dishes, and I could feel like a slave to my kitchen. But I am not a slave; I am making a choice. We could have popcorn for dinner. We could go hungry. Those are options, and I don’t like them. I know how I want my family fed, and I choose to take on the tasks required to feed my family in the way I think is important. With this attitude, I’m still doing the same tasks, but I am glad to do them.
Do the important things first. If something matters to you and you can’t find time to do it, you can resolve this in one of two ways. One is to decide that it doesn’t really matter and let it go. The other is to do it first. You might say, “I want to pray more (or read a lengthy book, or spend time with my family, or exercise regularly). I have all these things due tomorrow, and I will try to finish them early so I have time to pray (or whatever).” This is a nice idea, but it’s unlikely to work. Why? Normally, work expands to fill the time allotted, and it’s impossible to finish early — and then you won’t pray. Most of us find that we get a burst of last-minute efficiency when a deadline is looming. Instead of feeling sheepish about this, take advantage of it. Pray first, or spend an hour reading, or go to the gym — do this first. When you’re done, let the deadline pressure carry everything else to completion.
Make a plan. When you finish working for the day on a particular project, don’t just stop. If your first task of the day is to figure out what to do, you’ve already lost the momentum that you could have had. Instead, make this your last task of the day, preparing for the next day. Think about what needs to be done next and when you will do it. Put those tasks on your calendar, or make a to-do list and put it where you will find it. Before you go to bed, look over your schedule and to-do list for tomorrow and think through the day. When you begin working again, you will start with focus and intentionality, and you’ll waste less time getting oriented.
Act promptly. A friend of mine teaches her children that obedience is prompt; children who do as mom says but very slowly are not obeying. In Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer, Father Thomas Dubay notes that Mary went “in haste” to visit Elizabeth; imitating Mary, when something needs to be done, we should do it promptly. Maybe it snowed last night, and I know I should shovel the driveway. Maybe it’s late and I’m tired, but getting ready for bed seems like a lot of work. Maybe I have a new project for work and I just don’t feel like doing it. I could sigh and lament and wait for some motivation to push me off the couch. Or I could get up and do it.
“All the time that is given you,” writes the author of Cloud of Unknowing, “it shall be asked of you how you have spent it.” And what will we say? That we spent a lot of it talking about how much we didn’t want to do a particular task and finding ways to avoid doing it?
Accept interruptions. Submitting to God’s will means accepting everything he permits. A few years ago, when I was a full-time graduate student, working three jobs, and doing some private tutoring on the side, I made a habit of beginning my day with this prayer: “You know, better than I do, what I need to do today. You know, better than I do, how important these things are. You know the consequences I will face if I don’t finish them, or if I finish them late. You know how much time I have today, what my deadlines are, what surprise interruptions I will face, how much sleep I got last night…” and I would continue like this, pouring out my insecurities until I was convinced that God really did know. He would listen patiently. And then I would take a deep breath and, instead of asking for anything, I would say, “I trust you.”
Some things did not work out as I hoped. I lost many otherwise productive hours when I got sick, when I got rear-ended on my way to work, when people didn’t show up for appointments, when my computer went on the fritz. Many of my projects were not completed as well as I wanted. Mother Teresa wrote, “Now I really rejoice when something does not go as I wish — because I see that He wants our trust – that is why in the loss let us praise God as if we have got everything.” If something truly mattered, God would provide a way; if he didn’t provide a way, it couldn’t have truly mattered. If I’m upset that something didn’t work as I hoped, it’s because I haven’t fully submitted it to God.
Pray. Above the entryway to a chapel near where I live is an adage, “Prayer takes time. Saints pray and get more done in less time.” It can be scary to give God some of our time, especially our best time, when there’s so much we need to do. But when we remember that our time belongs to him, our projects are not ours but his, we can be confident that he will give us the time we need to do what he asks. Giving him our time in prayer is an act of confidence.
Indeed, he often responds generously. Many people, myself included, have found that when we pray at our first opportunity of the day, our work time is typically more focused, less distracted, and generally more fruitful.
But not always. When we find ourselves easily focused, we can be grateful for our productivity, recognizing it as a gift. When we find ourselves easily distracted, we can return to the work at hand as often as we need to, peacefully, like we are taught to do in prayer, trusting that God is giving us exactly what we need. As Mother Teresa reminds us, “God has not called me to be successful; he has called me to be faithful.”
Be at peace. We may feel that there are not enough hours in the day, or that we have too much to do. But in truth, it was God who gave us our need for food and sleep, our exploding inboxes, squalling babies, demanding bosses, and needy friends. It was God who gave us our families and jobs and responsibilities and vocations. And it was God who created the 24-hour day. If we seek first to do his will, we will find that we have exactly the time we need.
Mary C. Tillotson holds an MA in TESOL from Eastern Michigan University and a BA in English literature from Hillsdale College. She lives in Michigan with her family.