How to Fit It All In

Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto Sermons and Reflections
How to Fit It All In

There’s just so much to do, and the 24 hours in a day never seem to be enough to catch up. Even retired folks find it hard to get to the end of their to-do list. And the stress seems to set in earlier and earlier in life, with even pre-adolescent children feeling the crunch. Is there any way out? You’ve heard methods from time management gurus–now hear what famed time-management-school flunkout Amy Morgenstern has to say.

Worship leader: Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

Worship Associate: Sarah Kostka

Special music: Margaret Davis and Kristoph Klover

Order of service:

Sermon How to Fit It All In Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

There’s a kind of computer game I like to play. The object is to clear a road, or build a castle, and there are lots of other tasks you need to complete along the way: build a sawmill, build a quarry, expand your headquarters so you have more workers . . . There are bonuses to pick up and some are worth getting and some are a waste of your resources.

If you complete the tasks quickly and in just the right order, you can finish before computer night falls. For this reason, this type of game is called a “time management game.” The fact that I have spent hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, hours of my life at an endeavor called “time management” is an irony that is not lost on me.

For this and other reasons, I am nobody’s idea of a time management guru. I procrastinate. I write lists of “must do” tasks that then stare at me reproachfully while I do other, more enjoyable ones.

However, with my nose pressed up against the glass of that exhibit of People With Good Time Management Skills, I notice some things that might help you.

(And I’m not going to say don’t have fun, don’t do trivial things, don’t make yourself more efficient. As Sarah reminded us, doing “unimportant” things like entertainment is actually important, and we feel really good when we get things done efficiently. These are all great things to do.)

The big rocks idea is a helpful one. I don’t know if Stephen Covey was the first person to use this image, but I like his version. Many others have morals that miss the point and misuse the metaphor.

  • They emphasize the idea that when you think you’ve filled your time, you can still squeeze something in. For example, they put in the big rocks, and ask, “Is it full?” When the audience says yes, they put in little gravel—“Now is it full?” Then they add sand, and it really looks full, but they can still add water. They seem to be telling us to cram as much into our days as possible, which I don’t think is really the message.
  • Others suggest that if you just prioritize, “you can do anything.” In fact, that’s a direct quote from one such video.
  • They don’t prioritize space: the need for time when we do nothing, when we lie fallow like a field that has produced abundantly and now needs to rest. That spacious time could be one of the big rocks, of course.
  • And they are sometimes geared entirely toward making us more efficient workers.

Stephen Covey, on the other hand, is guided by spiritual and moral values, and he encourages us to include things like service, relationships, a spiritual life.

But even the version we saw presents some problems.

  • It suggests that it will all fit if we just do it in the right order. All the rocks fit. Even all the tiny gravel fits.

Is this your experience?

And if we’re constantly told that if we just managed our time better, if we worked smarter, not harder, if we put the big rocks in first, then we’d be able to fit, at least all the big rocks, and a lot or all of the gravel—then we’re stuck on the hamster wheel. We’re convinced that we will catch up if we just do things right.

Everything about productivity culture will tell us that we can fit in everything important if we just arrange your time right. Even as our work days lengthen. Even as our school days lengthen. (They were six hours one generation ago. From my school day to my daughter’s, the day has lengthened by 80 minutes, a 22% increase.) Even as a living wage is out of reach for most people in the world, and many in this country, unless they are spending almost every daylight hour at toil. Even as the minimum wage falls, in real money, year after year and it takes decades of fighting over legislation just to restore it to what it was before we started.

But I told you I’d tell you how to fit it all in, so here’s the moment where the secret is revealed. Are you ready?

The secret is:

You can’t.

It doesn’t all fit. It doesn’t fit in the 24 hours of each day. It doesn’t fit in the 4000 weeks during which we draw breath, if we live to a typical US American age. To quote Oliver Burkeman, whose newest book is called that—Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals—”The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.”

Not only will we not fit in the small things, I doubt very much we can fit in all the big things. Maybe some people have a smaller pile of big things than I do. But let’s try this:

Reflect on a day that felt really good—a day that did not end with a nagging sensation of having failed to get the important things done. A day where you reached the end and felt good about how you had spent the time. {silence}

If you can’t think of one, that speaks for itself . . .

If you can, may I ask this?: did all of your big rocks fit into that day?

Here’s a recent example for me: just last Sunday. It was a lovely day. I took a long walk and got as much exercise as I need for a healthy body. I came to church and had a couple of hours with you all. I spent several happy hours with my family. I played the piano. I made some art. I read. I got enough sleep. No unimportant things cluttered up the day, and I ended it with no regrets.

But did everything fit? No. One of the relationship categories on my calendar is friends and family, but I didn’t talk to any friends or family that day except for my wife and daughter. Not my mom, dad, sister, or any friend. A member of my household noted the next day that I hadn’t done any of the dishes that were one of my responsibilities for the day. And another of the categories I put in my calendar as a reminder is “citizen,” and I didn’t do anything much as a citizen of a wider community that day. I didn’t write postcards to voters or call an official. For that matter, I didn’t even work that much—just a few hours, far short of the average daily number—which, let’s be honest, is why everything else fit.

“Did all your big rocks fit in one day” may be a bit of an unfair question. Maybe our most important priorities should be considered more like the nutrients in a balanced diet. It’s fine if you go a whole day without getting your US Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamin D. Just don’t let it go for too long.

But still, I question whether fitting it all in is realistic. Recently, given the time of year, I’ve had conversations with new college students who see that menu of possibilities called the course catalog—hundreds of courses! After recovering from the giddiness and maybe the overwhelm of all the wonderful things they would love to learn, they accept that they will have to choose just 30 to 40 of them. That’s all that will fit in four years.

Maybe you feel the same about careers. Is there a dream career about which you occasionally think, “If I had another lifetime, I’d do that”?—Because this is a thought that can occur to many of us who are living a dream career. We’ve already put that big rock in place, but others are left on the table. A very satisfied middle manager may think, “But it would also have been wonderful to be a child psychologist.” A teacher who has spent as much of her “spare time” outdoors as possible might think that, given another few decades, she would love to have a profession that took her into nature all day: marine biology, say, or working for a park service. Not to mention the majority of workers, who don’t have the luxury of choosing a job, but just do whatever is to hand that will let them survive.

No matter how much we prioritize, not everything worthwhile will fit.

So we have to do more than prioritize among the rocks we have assembled. We have to take time to reflect on what rocks we want to have on the table to begin with. What isn’t even there?

This is a little scary, because if we add a rock, we know something else is going to have to move aside or not go into the bucket at all. But we’re just experimenting, here. We aren’t committed to anything. We’re just considering. So consider with me:

If you had all the time you needed, what is one thing you would do that you’re not doing now, or not doing much? If the gut response, “I just can’t get around to that right now,” could be set aside: what would you most want to do, this year? This month? Tomorrow?


If we don’t take the time to ask that question, and heed its answer, then we’re like me playing a time management game. We collect the right bonuses and leave the ones we don’t need, and we do the important things first, like building the sawmill and upgrading the quarry, and by working smarter, not harder, we get three stars for completing it all, and on time, and at the end, we’ve . . . played a video game.

The dominant conversation about time in our culture steers us in that direction. It’s about productivity, planning, efficiency, fitting things in like a carefully interlocked puzzle—and while those processes have their place and can be very helpful, they are so dominant that we hardly know another way of thinking about time. In the wide universe of ways of thinking about the time allotted to us as the lucky clusters of matter who have been granted life, these dominant ways have worn a rut. And it’s hard to get out of a rut.

Can we pause, realize that we’re being steered a certain way, and ask the question: what is really most important to us? Not the top priority of the options presented, but maybe another option altogether?

This isn’t something that can be realigned in a few seconds of silence. We all need more time and space. So I hope the questions will stay with you. Most of all, I’d like to leave you with the questions Mary Oliver asks here, especially at the end of this poem for a summer day, “The Summer Day.”

(Here Amy closed by reading the poem, which in respect for Ms. Oliver’s copyright we will not reprint. You can complete the sermon by reading it in New and Selected Poems [Beacon Press, Boston, MA, 1992], or here.)