It’s Time for Life-Giving Time Management: Jen Pollock Michel
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Jen Pollock MichelJen Pollock Michel is the author of Teach Us to Want (winner of Christianity Today’s 2015 Book of the Year), Keeping Place, Surprised by Paradox (winner of Christianity Today’s 2020 Award of Merit for Beautiful Orthodoxy), and A Habit Called Faith. She holds a BA in French from Wheaton College and an MA in Literature from Northwestern University, and she is also a student in Seattle Pacific's MFA program. Jen is a wife and mother of five and hosts the Englewood Review of Books podcast.
Author Jen Pollock Michel shows how to establish life-giving time-management habits & develop a grounded, healthy, life-giving relationship with the clock.
It’s Time for Life-Giving Time Management: Jen Pollock Michel
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Dave: Trying to keep up with you on a walk, in an airport, anytime we walk somewhere, you are the fastest walker.
Ann: There’s things to do.
Dave: Last night we were walking to our neighbors’ house. It was a half mile away, and I felt like I was running.
Ann: It says so much about my internal clock. That’s how fast it runs. Isn’t that scary. “We need to get there.” “We need to go” “We need to get some steps in” “We need to burn some calories.”
Dave: I get on those moving sidewalks in the airport and she’s still beating me. [Laughter] I’m running and every step I take is multiplied where you are.
Ann: Isn’t that sad though, because I don’t always enjoy the process.
Dave: We’re going to talk about that today. [Laughter]
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson.
You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
We’re going to talk about time and slowing down. I don’t know what all we’re going to talk about today. [Laughter]
We’ve got Jen Pollock Michel with us. Jen, you’ve written a book on this, so we’re looking at you like you are the guru, expert on time.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Jen: Thank you so much.
Ann: Do you walk fast, Jen?
Jen: You know what, not as fast as my husband on hikes. If I’m on a hike, I want to just look at the scenery. [Laughter] It’s all about the destination especially for my husband and our younger boys.
Dave: By the way, I haven’t even mentioned you’ve got five kids. You talk about fast. You’ve got to be fast.
Ann: Well, her youngest two are twins, twin boys.
Dave: But they’re 15, so it’s slowing down a little bit, or no?
Jen: It took me a while to write the book on time with the twins. [Laughter]
Dave: You had no time. [Laughter]
Jen: No, I didn’t.
Dave: You didn’t have any time.
Anyway, the book is called In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry—see that’s where I’m going—and Practicing Peace.
Ann: I need this book. Did you need this book; did you need to write this book?
Ann: You did?
Jen: Yes, I think probably most of my books have been written primarily, at least initially, for me just trying to solve some questions. I say in this book that I was a reader of time management books for 30 years. I was definitely that person who thought, “If I could just get some more strategies and figure out how to have a little bit more time, all will be solved.”
Dave: Did it help? Did it work?
Jen: I think that there are some wonderful strategies to be learned. They’re not really time management strategies. I think it’s just basic executive functioning. We could also say it’s “adulting” kind of skills. [Laughter] Because I think I have come to conclude you just can’t manage time. That assumes a level of control that I don’t think we have.
Ann: Which is scary and creates anxiety in some of us.
Dave: I can’t imagine your saying that really.
Jen: I know.
Dave: After reading and studying time management you’re saying we can’t manage time.
Ann: Even in the beginning of her book, she starts out with “My alarm went off at five. I give myself 30 minutes. I’m reading the Bible.” You’re very scheduled.
Ann: Is that because of the time management books that have helped you?
Jen: It’s kind of funny; it’s like the chicken and the egg thing. Do you read time management books because temperamentally you are suited to time management books? I think that’s probably part of it.
I started reading time management books in college. I think that was when I—I can remember my last year of high school feeling really busy: “I’ve got to get all this done.”
Ann: I’m so impressed. I feel that busyness, but I’ve never read a time management book. [Laughter]
Dave: It might help. [Laughter]
Ann: I need one. That’s why we’re talking today.
Dave: You know when I hear that, I’m not wired that way, I’m not saying that’s better or worse. I’m just saying that is not how I’m wired. Although I love going to leadership conferences. But I’m not wired that way.
I hear from both of you this pressure.
Dave: Is that true? You feel like “I need to be efficient; I need to use my time well.” I feel the opposite. [Laughter] “I don’t need to be efficient.” I’m kidding.
Jen: I’d like to step into your shoes.
Dave: Yes, that would be something.
But do you guys—
Ann: You should try being married to him. [Laughter]
Dave: Okay, we’re not going there.
Ann: —which is awesome because he’s good for me.
Jen: Yes, absolutely.
Dave: But do you two feel that? Because I know Ann does.
Dave: When she’s not productive it’s “We can be using our time better.” Do you feel the same thing?
Jen: Absolutely. I think even in my own Christian formation for the last 30 years is that idea that time is one of those resources that you have, and you better figure out how to steward it well.
I think there’s a good in that. I think that is true. I think time is a gift, and like any gift we are responsible to offer it to God, back to Him, faithfully.
But I think that pressure to use absolutely every minute for something measurable is where it starts to go off the rails a little bit. That’s what I realized in the pandemic. The pandemic is a huge context for this book. You remember we were all stuck inside—
Dave: Oh, yes.
Jen: —not busy in the same ways. Supposedly that should have solved all of our problems, because I always thought, “If I could be less busy, it would all be great.” Suddenly, I was less busy, and then I just tried to make myself busy with other things; like cleaning out my closets and my garage and all of that.
Ann: That’s when people were doing all their home projects.
Ann: Yes, so they did just replace that time with more “to dos.”
Dave: You had a term in your book that I’ve never seen before: “time anxiety.” What is that?
Jen: It’s funny because people will ask what it is, but I think we all could say we know what it is. We have an anxious relationship with time. I think that can look different for different people.
On the one hand, we all do feel anxious about the to-do list. I think that women often have so many different kinds of tasks on their to-do lists.
Jen: Often, if you’re in a season where you are caring for someone, you’re not really getting things done in the sense of you get it done and it’s done. You get it done and then tomorrow you do it again and, in another hour, maybe you do it again.
That’s where we start to get into trouble with the category of productivity, which is about measurable output in our lives. I think that there are seasons of life where we don’t create anything measurable or maybe it’s measurable for an hour. [Laughter] And then the next hour you have to do it again.
Maybe you’re in a season of ill health, and you are not able to get things done in the way that you are used to getting things done. That’s where I was at the beginning of the pandemic. Not that I had any of those health crises or anything, but just to see the world in a global crisis. Then to see how I was manufacturing a kind of urgency withing my own home because—
Ann: What do you mean?
Jen: Well, getting busy with different kinds of things. “If I’m not going to travel, if I’m not going to have to take my kids, chauffeur them around to their activities…”
I really should have been rejoicing and celebrating. I want to situate our family. We have older kids, so while they were home doing remote schooling, they were pretty independent in terms of managing that. But I was left feeling like “I don’t even recognize myself in this new life where I don’t have to hurry around and bop from here to there and end the day breathlessly, so I’ll just invent some things.”
I was reading more time management books. I was making all kinds of lists. I was making lists of people that I was going to check up on and who was I going to call. I was literally writing questions for my mother and my mother-in-law to help them write their memoirs. These are the kinds of projects that I was inventing.
On the one hand, maybe it was a good thing. But on the other, it was just “Why am I so tied to a version of myself that is busy, that being part of my identity?” I mean how many times do we narrate our lives according to busyness:
“How are you?”
“Was it a good day?”
“Yes, I got a lot done.”
That actually has become the measure for “the good life.” I think it has to be reexamined. You don’t know if what you—especially as Christians, who’s to say that what you put on your list is the thing that God wanted you to do.
Jen: Then what about when God calls you to receive interruptions that you didn’t expect?
When I look back at the years of being a young mom, I see if I could have adjusted to the time, the pace of that a little bit more quickly—and I remember when I had my twins. My oldest was almost seven and we had seven, five, three essentially and then the twins. I remember receiving that time as a gift. Having a little bit of perspective: “This is only going to last so long. They’re only going to be babies so long. They’re only going to learn to talk once and learn to walk,” and all of these things.
I think I enjoyed it a little bit more. That’s the hard thing. When you’re in a season, often times, you can’t appreciate it.
It’s interesting that as I talk to people who have been through seasons of caring for their parents, what I hear from them is “You’re never going to regret this,” and “Enjoy every moment,” especially with someone who is facing cognitive decline. Just enjoy every conversation that you’re able to have now knowing that won’t always be possible.
Dave: Is there a way that you two would coach young moms who are in that phase you just talked about, Jen, where they feel like every day is “I’m just serving people. I’m not really feeling like I’m doing anything but changing diapers and cleaning up messes and making meals”?
I know I’ve heard Ann—it felt like “I’ve missed some of that.” You’re acting like “I’m now starting to see some of those moments.” How would you coach a young mom to be able to see that better in good time? How would you help her to make her time better?”
Jen: One of the things that we can see in those young years is how formative it is for us. Often, we look at that season as a time out: “I’m taking time out of my life to care for these little ones; off ramping what I was doing before,” if that is the case. In some ways it changes our lives, and the attention focuses now on the kids in different ways.
I just want to celebrate for young moms how formative that is. The kind of resilience and endurance and steadfastness; those are words that I use in the book that [have] become so important for me, where you’re in a waiting season. The things that you do regularly are forming you. I would encourage young moms to be hopeful about their own formation in Christ as that is happening in those young years.
Man, if I could go back and tell my younger self to get more help. I’m not even talking about hiring people. I’m just talking about looking around and maybe even getting a bit honest about how hard it was. I didn’t admit that even to my own husband sometimes.
I wish I had admitted it to him. I wish I had looked [for] more help from my church family. Because intergenerationally, I could have looked to some older moms to maybe get some wisdom or some perspective.
Dave: What would you say to husbands? How can we help? Obviously, I can step in and just be hands and help, but I think sometimes we as husbands are “I don’t know exactly what would be the best thing.” I’ve got two moms here that could maybe give us a word.
Jen: I think about how much control I was devoted to. I wanted to receive help but also was sort of divided about that.
Ann: Oh, I loved being in the martyr complex. [Laughter] “I do everything around here. I’m amazing, and you are horrible.” [Laughter] “You don’t even see me or help me.”
Dave: There were times—I still want you to answer the question—but there were times where I would step in and then get criticized for not doing it right.
Jen: ‘You’re not doing it right.”
Dave: Then as a guy we say, “Okay, I tried. I’m going to go play basketball,” or whatever.
Dave: I think a lot of us men are saying “I want to help. Tell me how.” You guys still haven’t answered the question.
Ann: I wish I would have said exactly what I needed to my husband.
Jen: Yes; absolutely.
Ann: “Could you please do this? I could use your help.” Maybe even make him lists: “When you come home today, it would be so helpful if you could get these couple of things done for me.”
I was so reluctant to ask for help, just as you said, not only from Dave, but from those around me.
It would have been a gift to me, and it also would have been a gift to the people around me. I know that if people ask me something, I’m so happy to help, especially those young moms. “I’m there for you. I remember that; I get that.”
Jen: Yes, I think asking those specific things. I think we have to face even our own guilt in asking. That’s how I felt. I was home with the kids. So, I felt guilty to ask my husband to do things.
When I look back on it, that wouldn’t have been a wrong thing to say, “Every Saturday morning I want to lace up my shoes and go for a really long walk by myself.”
Maybe even having some patterns as a family, so you’re not asking all the time. It can become a rhythm of your family that “Mom goes out for a long walk on Saturday mornings, if it’s possible, and Dad takes the kids for donuts.
Ann: That’s exactly what one of my friends did. Every Saturday, he piled the kids in the car. They’d do donuts or Panera. They’d do a carwash. They’d go to the drugstore.
I remember telling one of our sons that. So, every Saturday morning they do their runs; they go get donuts. It’s the first time his wife can just take a break. She doesn’t take a break. She runs around the house and does—
Jen: —and cleans up.
Ann: Yes. [Laughter] –gets things done.
Dave: That’s her break.
Ann: But I think those are good questions.
Dave: We did what we called “Boys Day Out” where I’d take the three boys. Again, that was one of our rhythms. That was a gift. You looked forward to it. “Two more Fridays and I get Boys Day Out.” The boys loved it.
Ann: That was good for Dave and the kids. I’ll usually tell young moms “You are giving your husband and your kids a gift—”
Ann: “—by just saying ‘Guys, go have fun.’”
Dave: Talk about this: It’s easy, as you’ve already said, especially if you’re trying to manage your time well, to not be fully in time. Does that make any sense?
Dave: There would be times when I’d be home and I’d think, “I’m not really in this moment.” Do you experience that a lot as moms because you’re doing so many things and you’re not fully present?
Jen: It’s a funny relationship we have with time. In a lot of ways, when you’re managing the house and running things and you’re very acutely aware of time. [For example], “We have three minutes, and your shoes are not tied. We have to be in the car because I know that the carpool line….” I have everything timed out perfectly in some ways. That’s how it ran for me.
Some of the interesting research on time says that when we become least aware of time is when we are fully entering into joy, that it’s your most joyful moments where you completely lose the sense of the clock.
Nobody is looking at the clock when you’re hanging out playing a game, having friends over, whatever you’re doing. You lose track of time. That is a huge practice and a habit that all of us can enter into. As we think about time anxiety, we think sometimes we will solve our time anxiety by barreling through the list, getting to the end of it. “Woo. Great! Now I’m all done.” Whereas sometimes you just have to accept the fact that you’re probably not going to get through the list, and really be intentional about joy, moments and habits of joy in your life.
Ann: I love that your book is packed with Scripture because there’s a lot of Scripture on time. How do we bring this God-component into this area?
Jen: A lot of times I start with Psalm 90, which I think gives us a helpful perspective on time.
Dave: I put it in my notes.
Jen: Did you? Very good.
Dave: You want me to read part of it?
Dave: I’d love to have your thoughts. I tried to condense it a little bit. But David wrote:
For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night. 
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
we bring our years to an end like a sigh. 
The years of our life—and this is the one I think a lot of us have heard—
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away. 
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom. 
Jen: When I talk about this Psalm, I say I’d like to think of it as a musical score. The beginning of the Psalm is all happy major chords. We’re talking about God:
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
from all generations.
Before the mountains were formed or,
or ever you brought for the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting, you are God. [Psalm 90:1-2, Paraphrased]
You are immediately introduced in the Psalm to God’s “time plenty,” which is, I think, where “time faith” begins. This idea that God is outside of time. God is not panicked by time. Whatever God plans and purposes, He’ll give the time that’s necessary for that.
But then the score changes and the major chords start to feel like diminished seven minor chords and all this lament grappling with the brevity of our lives. Ultimately, that’s where time anxiety is rooted.
Time management, if we were to be most honest about it, it’s not just about getting things done, it’s about creating meaning, lasting meaning in our lives. As human beings we want that.
That Psalm introduces us to the paradox of time: that on the one hand it’s plentiful, especially as Christians, because we know that the door is going to close on this life and it’s going to open simultaneously into eternity, but we still have to grapple with the fact that our human lives are brief and we’re not going to get everything done, we’re not going to accomplish everything. There are going to be losses and griefs in our life that remind us “Okay, we’re inhabiting the not yet.”
Ann: At the end of a lot of your chapters you have some thoughts to consider and then you have a prayer to pray. As we end this time together, what’s our application? What would you hope the listener takes away?
Shelby: Hi, I’m Shelby Abbott. You’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Jen Pollock Michel on FamilyLife Today.
We’re going to hear what Jen thinks is the most important take away from today’s time. But first, she’s written a book called In Good Time. It’s a book that unpacks eight practical habits to help you resist hurry, transform any time anxiety you might have and practice the presence of God in the here and now. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Now let’s hear what Jen thinks would be a great take away from today’s time.
Jen: I hope people will start to think about this wisdom that’s required in time: “Teach us to number our days.” That really does cause us to look up, to say that I can’t know how to number my days apart from looking for a wisdom that doesn’t belong to me.
Ann: You’ve prayed that, Jen?
Jen: Oh, 100 percent: “Teach me to number my days.” I think in many ways my life story has taught me that, that life is very brief. But it’s the wisdom that I’m really—because I’m in midlife now—realizing “That’s what I’m really hungry for; for God to give me that wisdom that I need to make the choices in life that are difficult for all of us.”
I think that amazing thing about that Psalm is that that’s our invitation, to make that petition of God and to know that He does give wisdom and He gives it generously as we know from the apostle James.
Ann: James 1.
Dave: When I read that verse for many years, “So teach us to number our days,” I read it like this: “I’ve got to seize every second. I can’t waste a minute; I can’t waste an hour.”
“Teach us to number our days.” They are short and the rest of the verses where you went “to gain a heart of wisdom.” It isn’t to run around crazy.
Dave: “I don’t want to miss a minute.” No, it’s actually slow down enough to have wisdom to say, “How do I best use this day. I might be slowing down.”
Shelby: Many of us have an antagonistic relationship with time. But time really is a gift from God. Tomorrow, Jen Pollock Michel is in the studio again with Dave and Ann Wilson to help us understand what the Bible says about the importance of what she calls “eternal time.” That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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