August 29, 2023
My lungs burned as I pedaled up the steep incline, with my 3-year-old twin sons, River and Terran, strapped into a trailer behind my bike. Their tiny bodies bounced a little with each bump in the road as I pushed myself harder.
“Just 6.7 miles to go,” I thought, “At this pace, I’ll be home by six, just in time to eat a giant bowl of oatmeal…before dinner!”.
I was deep in the pain cave, pushing my body to its limits – training for the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I told myself the boys didn't mind tagging along for these grueling sessions. They got to spend time outside, and this way I could be efficient – killing two birds with one stone.
But was I really doing it for them, or for me?
For more than a decade, I had been in the grip of Ironman fever – devoting endless hours to swimming, cycling, and running in pursuit of greatness in the ultimate endurance event. I dragged my young sons along whenever I could, convincing myself it counted as quality time.
Reading “The 4-Hour Workweek” in my 20s fueled my obsession with relentless optimization. I sought to squeeze productivity out of each moment and actualize every ambition by crossing as many items off my to-do list as possible.
Haunted by the sense that the clock was always ticking, I pedaled all the more furiously. But the harder I pedaled, the more time seemed to slip through my fingers like sand in an hourglass.
My boys deserved better than a father obsessed with shaving seconds off his cycling time, who sometimes treated them more as a gear to strap on for training than as whole human beings. But the truth is, I didn't know any other way. I'd internalized the modern gospel of efficiency over all else. I feared that if I didn't fill each second with productivity, I'd fall behind, and miss out on achieving my ambitions before that dwindling sand ran out.
This fear has taken hold of our entire society. As Oliver Burkeman noted in a 2016 Guardian article, titled “Why time management is ruining our lives,” the quest to maximize personal productivity has become the dominant theme of our age. Overwhelmed by the mounting demands on our time, we cling to the promise that time management advice might bring relief from the stress.
You can trace this obsession with efficiency back to the Industrial Revolution – specifically, to an engineer by the name of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Hired to boost productivity at a steel factory, Taylor scrutinized the workflows and movements of laborers, armed with his stopwatch. He soon inflicted his philosophy of “scientific management” on the workers – prescribing rigid protocols intended to extract maximum output in minimum time, and chiding them for “time theft” if they operated below optimal speed.
The whole notion of time efficiency, which emerged in relation to the functioning of machines, has now been transferred to humans – with the expectation that we function with the same clockwork precision. Soon, Taylor’s cult of efficiency spread from factories to infect all realms of life – from marketing, to politics, to church bulletins. Burkeman’s article is the story of how time came to manage people, not the other way around.
A century later, technology has taken Taylor's doctrine of time management to dystopian new levels. The rise of smartphones and social media means you can now be haunted by efficiency and the “fear of missing out” (FOMO) every waking moment. There's always another Slack message demanding a response, another post to scroll through, another productivity method to try. Busyness begets more busyness, sending us scurrying in an endless hamster wheel pursuit of an impossible state of perfect productivity.
But there's a big price to pay for this frantic lifestyle. Short sleep and exhausted days. Low testosterone and sluggish thyroid. Nagging aches and pains that often haunt you for the rest of your life. Leaving every party early because you “gotta train” the next morning. Sacrificing weekends for hours upon hours in the bike saddle and staring at the bottom of the pool.
Just as industrial workers rebelled against Taylor's “scientific management,” my body was rebelling against the relentless efficiency I'd imposed on it. I'd turned myself into a fuel-efficient machine, but was losing my humanity — and a good dose of cartilage — in the process.
Getting to the Root: Fear of Death
At the end of his article, Burkeman highlights the deeper fear lurking beneath the endless quest to optimize time management: the fear of mortality.
He quotes the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who observed that on any meaningful timescale beyond that of a typical human lifespan, we’ll all be dead within an instant.
To quote the letter of James, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
No wonder you may grasp at all the latest techniques to avoid wasting a single minute. There is often an underlying belief that if you could just get control of time, you might transcend death itself.
But an anxious relationship with time is warped and self-defeating. The anxiety can’t be quelled by cramming in more achievement per minute. True peace lies in transforming how you conceptualize time and death themselves.
In his book The Reality Revolution, Brian Scott offers a metaphysical exploration of parallel worlds and “reality hacking” that turn out to be especially relevant to parents who are anxious about how they are managing their time. Scott hadn't always been a metaphysical philosopher. In his former life, he was focused on ordinary worldly success – until the night he found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
Intruders broke into Brian’s home in the middle of the night as he watched TV. They had expected no one was home, and were likely just as startled as Brian was. But as the assailants opened fire, Brian felt a profound sense of calm – as if he already knew the outcome. He saw bullets flying in slow motion – Matrix-style – and managed to flee to the garage and call the police, unharmed.
While such a close brush with death might have left others traumatized, it gave Brian a new lease on life. In near-death experiences, many people report emerging with a radically shifted set of priorities, having seen the broader picture. Brian saw how he'd frittered away precious hours on productivity and achievement. His new outlook was formed by questions about his lasting legacy – what would he leave for his kids?
The inverted relationship to time experienced during Scott's home invasion may seem like a quirk – a misfiring in the brain due to elevated adrenaline perhaps. Albert Einstein begs to differ.
“The distinction between past, present, and future,” Einstein said, “is only an illusion, however persistent.”
Quantum physics reveals time to have a ripple-like nature, not linear. Here’s a parable to make sense of this.
When you drop a pebble in a pond, waves ripple outward in all directions – forward into the future, and backward into the past. Your intuitive feelings and “gut instincts” in life-or-death situations may actually be waves returning from potential futures, where you warn yourself against certain courses of action.
Brian speculates that practices like prayer and intense visualization can reframe past events by sending new waves backward.
When you cling to a linear concept of time, you shackle yourself to a ticking clock. If instead, you learn to flow with a more fluid notion of time, you free yourself to recalibrate your priorities in light of the ripples you are receiving and transmitting in real-time.
This starts with letting go of the illusion of control, allowing you to float with time’s currents – present to each moment as it comes.
Of course, this presence takes effort. I’ve come to realize that it’s not laziness that allows me to relax my white-knuckled grip on managing each minute of my day. It’s discipline.
In my early days of balancing parenting with running multiple businesses and a grueling race calendar, I was always wary of lapsing on my duties – wasting time. This “let go and let God” approach went against my hardwired tendency to force solutions through sheer exertion of willpower. But I’ve since come to see that my first duty as a father is to be fully present with my boys, not laser-focused on the latest productivity hack. Paradoxically, I’ve found that I’m more effective when I strive less – trusting instead in a higher power to guide my vessel down time's mysterious non-linear stream.
In my early years of parenting, It’s taken years of parenting practice to strengthen my “letting go” muscles to the point where the “get up and go” muscles can stop contracting when they need to.
The Paradox of Getting More Done in Less Time
Looking back at many of my most time-intensive goals and training routines from early parenthood, I now realize how little they added to my true bottom line. My income never depended on winning triathlons. Who knows how many miles I spent running in the pain cave before it dawned on me that I don’t particularly enjoy running.
I've discovered a paradox that some of the best time management “hacks” tend to involve dedicating less time to work, not more. For example:
- Sleeping more. Resting deeply each night, instead of burning the midnight oil, allows me to return to work refreshed and operate at peak energy levels. Even an extra 30 minutes of sleep makes a noticeable difference in my productivity.
- Setting limits on work hours. Working 12 unfocused hours devoid of energy isn’t better than working six focused, inspired hours full of creativity and insight.
- Taking frequent exercise breaks. Far from “wasting” time, frequent exercise breaks enhance my focus when I'm working. A quick set of push-ups or walking in the yard lets me return to my desk with renewed concentration.
- Prioritizing date nights. Guarding time for intimacy strengthens the foundation of our family. The occasional dinner out or weekend getaway with my wife deepens our bond for the long term, allowing us to be the parents we need to be, and serve as a model marriage for our sons.
Having less structured time and granting more space for leisure creates the conditions for both enhanced productivity and joy. I’ve come to embrace “JOMO” – aka the “Joy of Missing Out.”
Trust me: If you try to do it all, you’ll never have enough time.
The best book you can read to better wrap your head around this concept is also by Oliver Burkeman – titled 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. I wish that I had read this book earlier, as a working professional but, especially, as a parent.
Before I had kids, people used to always warn me that life as I knew it would end – that I’d never have time for the things I care about. They were half right. The hyper-ambitious triathlon competitor I once was died years ago. But in the place of those lofty goals, I’ve discovered a higher purpose that drives me to new heights beyond mere ambition.
Whereas I used to want to try everything, I’ve given myself permission to focus on the handful of pursuits I enjoy most: like podcasting, writing, tennis, hunting, and playing guitar – while ignoring the millions of other activities that might distract me from being a good husband and father.
Instead of sacrificing my passions entirely, I have found ways to involve the boys in these activities so we can deepen our bonds while honing our skills together. Turns out, guiding your kids’ hands as they learn to shred on the guitar leads to far more meaning and memories than playing alone in your room.
Parenting has become my opportunity to leave a legacy by pouring into my sons each day. I’ve eliminated tasks and distractions that didn't involve quality time with them. I’ve figured out how to outsource the administrative busy work to a virtual assistant and governess. And I’ve also given myself permission to delay my loftiest solo ambitions until after they'd moved out.
When I do carve out time for ambitious projects like writing books, I try to “stack” tasks on top of each other rather than eliminate all leisure. For example, I might schedule phone calls while on a long dog walk through the woods. My best creative insights always seem to arrive when I let my mind wander a little, especially while moving through nature.
Finally, my wife Jessa and I have instituted daily routines and family traditions that root us in what matters most – morning devotionals and meditation, family dinners, evening stories, and songs. Just five minutes of shared stillness, Scripture reading, or breathwork can become oases of peace amidst the daily bustle. You can find the full list of these traditions, along with my broader parenting philosophy, in Jessa and my chapters of the Boundless Parenting book. These practices of letting go and trusting a higher power have granted me the sense of completeness I'd been seeking from those grueling rides and training sessions in my 20s and 30s. And we're not alone – most of the amazing parents in the book also talked about the importance of routines and traditions in their own families.
Each day, my to-do list is negotiable. These structured traditions are not. When we pray as a family, I am sending ripples forward and backward – strengthening our family’s future legacy, and “pinging” my former self to wake up to the folly of my old, ardent ways. (Thankfully, 30-year-old Ben got the message, and dropped some of his more grandiose ambitions, like being a professional triathlete and obstacle course racer or checking off just a few more “Death Races” to instead be snuggling with sons at home before bedtime, and strumming on the guitar for my wife a self-written song on the back porch).
Perhaps the greatest value obtained from stepping back from chronic busyness – whether in prayer, quiet time, or a nature walk – is that it forces you to think, even if only momentarily, about your mortality.
Endless to-do lists are a great distraction from this ultimate fact of life, but they put you at risk of becoming like the workaholic dad in Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
“When are you coming home, Dad?” my boys have asked me on more than one occasion as I’ve prepared to give a talk or fly to some foreign hotspot to keynote a conference once again. (those lyrics hit me hard).
My financial obligations to my family still require me to travel from time to time, but I no longer confuse these temporal commitments for my eternal duty as a father.
Matthew 6:25, instructs – nay, commands – us “not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.”
There is time enough for everything that matters if you approach it with the right perspective. Worrying about some incremental financial gain or biomarker improvement threatens to distract me from the blessings right in front of me that money can't buy. What matters most is being fully present with my family – not training for the next Ironman, reversing my biological age, or marginally increasing my rankings according to Google’s latest search algorithms.
Breaking free from the modern cult of time management starts with accepting our mortality. My name will someday be forgotten, and my legacy will fade to dust. The surest way for Jessa and I to live on into the future is by leaving a legacy of laughter and love through our kids. (For an in-depth look at what we're doing to build that kind of legacy, read this article.)
I’m not saying you should ditch your to-do list altogether, or stop chasing after your dreams. Instead, focus on aligning your actions with your highest purpose. It’s from that place of alignment that you can finally manage your time again, instead of letting time manage you.
Finally, think about it this way (and for more on this kind of thinking, check out this recent podcast “Childhood's Lost Years” from my friend N.D. Wilson): It's perfectly fine to put some elements of your big, hairy audacious life goals on pause until your children are grown and out of the home. I'm not telling you to give up your entire life, your social events, your hobbies, and so forth, but rather to bend over backward to make your children a part of as many of those activities as possible, while understanding that making a million dollars, writing a novel, learning to golf, etc. are all far less important than making a mark and a lasting series of memories for a young human being. Don't worry: the business, the keyboard for that novel, and the golf course will all still be there when your child is waving goodbye from the car as they drive off to college.
I'd love to hear more from you about your thoughts on time management, family traditions, and facing your own mortality. I read all of your comments and (remind myself to slow down to :) respond.