Stealing Time
Rev. Douglas Taylor

I heard of a college professor who began his economics class with a memorable lesson about time management.  He took out a large wide mouthed mason jar and placed in on the desk.  He then took several fist-sized rocks and carefully filled the jar with them.  He asked his students, “Is this jar full.  “Yes,” they replied.  He then took a bag from behind the desk and poured pebbles into the jar.  He shook the jar lightly to settle the pebbles between the rocks in the jar and added a few more pebbles.  “Is the jar full?”  The class was less certain, a few said “Yes,” but others said “No.”  The professor took our two cups of sand and began pouring the sand into the jar.  He looked up when the sand was level with the top of the jar and asked, “Now is the jar full?”  The students were on to him by this point and many of them quickly answered, No.”  Finally the professor took a pitcher of water and emptied it into the jar full of rocks and pebbles and sand.  He looked up and asked, “What lesson do we learn from this in relation to time management?”  One eager student raised her hand and said, “No matter how full your schedule is, there is always room for more.”  “No, the lesson is that you must put the big rocks in first or you will not be able to fit them in at all.”

The big rocks in this lesson represent the big stuff in your life.  The big rocks represent your highest priorities.  These are things like your health, your family, your career, your financial well being, your joy.  If don’t take care to fit those into your life first, you may find they don’t fit into your life at all.  If you don’t take care to fit the big rocks in first you may find your life full to overflowing with sand and pebbles of little consequence.

Now, I did not have a professor as interesting as the one from this story, but I did learn this lesson when I took a Stress Management course during my last year at SUNY at Plattsburgh.  I did a study on time management for the class and learned that it is not our time so much as our priorities that we must learn to manage.  And yet, it is time that everyone gets worked up about.  William Penn wrote, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”  Time is the ultimate limited commodity.  Time is what no one seems to have enough of.  We break it down into quality time and down time and overtime.

There is a one-panel cartoon showing God reviewing the slips of paper from the Suggestions box in heaven.  “Let see, ‘Needed, more time.’ ‘Not enough hours in the day.’ ‘Could have used more time.’ ‘Not enough time for everything.’ Sheesh, I know what I’ll do different next time.”

People feel crunched for time.  People feel busy.  If you don’t feel busy, you certainly feel the busy “rush, rush” atmosphere swirling around you in our society.  Yet, everybody has the exact same number of hours in a day as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King jr., Stephan Hawking, or Thich Nhat Hanh.  Your task is not to find more time but to better manage the time you do have.

Just out of curiosity, if you really had more time, what would you do with it?  This is one of those fantasy questions like: “If you suddenly had a million dollars, how would you spend it?”  So how about it?  If you really could have extra time, time when you aren’t required to do something, just free time, … what would you do?

Will Rogers once said, “Half of our life is spent trying to find something to do with the time we have rushed though life trying to save.”

Some folks are making efforts to reclaim their time from the busy fast pace at which our societies seem to want us to move.  In the September / October ’04 issue of the UU World, our denominational periodical, there was an article featuring the Slow Food Movement.   “The Slow Food movement began in Italy in 1986 as a response to the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome… The Slow Food International manifesto states that the twentieth century began and developed under the insignia of industrial civilization, first inventing the machine and then taking it as a life model.”  The Slow Food Movement is not just about taking your time in food preparation and consumption, although that is overt focus.  Really what people in this group want is for each person to have the freedom to control the tempo of his or her life.  What the Slow Food movement is after is less about food and more about life-style and ultimately sweeping cultural changes.

The alternative to changing the fast rat-race culture is to adapt to it. My wife picked up a pamphlet last week entitled “Your Family and Time Management.”  It is published by Abingdon Press and has bible verses scattered throughout, but it is not heavy handed about the religious angle.  “Each of us has all the time there is.  No one has more than twenty-four hours a day; no one has less.  You can’t make, find, steal, store, borrow, or share time.  So how do you make wise use of your time?”  The pamphlet goes on to make the point that time is a gift of God and you should use your values and principles to determine your priorities and then use your priorities to determine who you use your time.  It then lists timesaving hints and suggestions for what to do when you do find that time.  “If you commute to work, you may be en route anywhere from 10 minutes a day to as much as an hour, depending on how far away from your job you live (total 50 – 300 minutes a week).  Some of the tings you can do in the car (bus or train) include: Listening to motivational tapes, music you love, books on tape; dictate memos; think through problems; enjoy the solitude; sleep, read or write (if not driving).”

It is hard because, for me, and probably more so for many of you, life has become so structured and programmed there is little flexibility to adjust our schedule to wiser uses of my time.  And so I read pamphlets that tell me I can’t store, steal, or borrow time but here are ten tips on how to “effectively” use of my “downtime” for healthy spiritual purposes.  It’s not stealing time, we’re liberating it.  Commuting is a favorite target of simple time management techniques.  Did you ever hear those stories of people who would do multiple tasks while driving?  Things like shaving and talking on the cell phone while driving; applying make-up or brushing your teeth, eating soup.  I’m not making any of these up.  I heard one story about a man in gridlock traffic who noticed the guy in the car next to him was sleeping.  He rolled down his window and honked to get the man’s attention.  The other driver smiled and explained that it was perfectly safe.  He always put the car in park when they hit the red light.  He would doze until the car behind him started honking, waking him up to see that traffic was moving again another 2-300 feet to the next traffic light where he would repeat the pattern.

Multi-tasking (as clever as it is) doesn’t really solve any problems.  It just covers them up.  If my attention is scattered across multiple activities with the result that none of them will get my full attention or care.  I suspect that if my attention is scattered, my patience will also be effected, at least this seems to be the effect I’ve been seeing over the years.  I remember driving past one of those wayside pulpits when I lived in the D.C. area.  It was on a very congested road that would regularly be backed-up for a quarter of a mile or so.  And a church was there along that stretch of road with their wayside pulpit saying, “impatience is a form of unbelief.”  It certainly made me pause and consider the origins and implications of the impatience I was experiencing at that time.

Impatience is a form of unbelief, it demonstrates a lack of faith.  And it is surely so easy to see that impatience in this sense is a result of busyness and overworking.  I recall the advice from one colleague who would put on his ‘Old-Testament Prophet’ voice and say, “overworking is the only sin against the spirit!”  Irreligiosa sollicitudo pro Deo, a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.  All this busyness in my life, am I really that indispensable and important?  Or have I somehow chosen to be this busy (not wanting to notice that I had a choice in the matter, but working hard because I guess I should be)?

Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and author has a book called The Contemplative Pastor.  This book is targeted toward clergy, but the lessons are applicable to most anyone who wants to lead a life of wholeness.  The primary thing he writes about is being unbusy.  According to Peterson, we are busy for one of two reasons: I am busy because I am vain or I am busy because I am lazy. (The Contemplative Pastor p18-19)

One reason to appear busy is “to appear important, significant.  What better way than to be busy?  The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and the heavy demands on my time are proof to myself – and to all who will notice – that I am important.”  Imagine entering the waiting room for your doctor’s appointment.  If the room is empty other patients, and you peek through the office door and the doctor reading a book, might you wonder if this doctor is any good.  Or if you drop your car off at the mechanic’s and the place is crowded with cars and other customers, you might grumble a bit at the wait, but you might at the same time be impressed with how good this mechanic must be.  I am busy so that I will seem significant.

Another reason I am busy is because I am lazy.  It is easy to abdicate what power you do have over your day by letting events, situations, and other people determine for you what you will spend your time doing.  “By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen different demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation.”  This is not about being too lazy to perform simple tasks.  This is about being too lazy to accept the responsibility to choose your tasks because those tasks are a priority rather than letting the tasks choose you because they appear to be urgent.  Remember, just because something is urgent does not mean it is important.

The solution, according to Peterson, is found not in the book you might expect he would lead us.  Peterson suggestion that the best tool to get unbusy is not the Good Book but the appointment book.  Yes, that infernal little ball and chain that keeps you on task and apace with the rat race is just what you need to free yourself from the tyranny of too much busy.  (Ibid p22-23)

The appointment calendar is the tool with which to get unbusy.  … It is more effective than a protective secretary; it is less expensive than a retreat house.  It is the one thing everyone in our society accepts without cavil as authoritative.  The authority once given to Scripture is now ascribed to the appointment calendar.  The dogma of verbal inerrancy has not been discarded, only re-assigned.

When I appeal to my appointment calendar, I am beyond criticism.  If someone approaches me and asks me to attend an event and I say, “I don’t think I should do that I was planning to use that time to pray,” the response would de, “Well, I’m sure you can find another time to do that.”  But if I say, “My appointment calendar will not permit it,” no further questions are asked.  If someone asks me to attend a committee meeting and I say, “I was thinking of thinking of taking my wife out to dinner that night; I haven’t listened to her carefully for several days,” the response will be, “But you are very much needed at this meeting; couldn’t you arrange another evening with your wife?”  But if I say, “The appointment calendar will not permit it,” there is no further discussion.

The trick, of course, is to get to the calendar before anyone else does.

That’s all there is to it.  Just put your big rocks on your calendar before everything else.  Even if you need to write, “one hour – do nothing” you should still put it into your calendar.  You should write it into your calendar lest you get lazy and forget it favor of seemingly urgent activities, or vain and multitask it away.

It was J. M. Barrie, author of the story Peter Pan, who said, “You must have been warned against letting golden hours slip by; but some of them are golden only because we let them slip by.”

In a world without end

May it be so.


May we leave this holy time together refreshed and renewed for the work of the world that awaits us.  May we remember to take time for the important things in life.  And may we learn to separate that which matters most from that which matters least of all.