You can’t take advice from someone too different from you. You would feel like a dog learning how to be a cat. I might have engaged politely with Julie Morgenstern’s time-management advice — spelt out in various books over the years, including last year’s parenting opus, Time to Parent — but I wouldn’t really have been listening with my whole spirit if the life she described, before her conversion to efficiency, had not been so recognisable. It was like looking in a bloody mirror.
“For the first quarter-century of life, I lived in chaos,” she says. “I lived out of piles. I was always late for everything, a real time optimist. Not even time-conscious. People used to lose things in my house — they’d take off their shoes and not be able to find them when they left.”
This hit a nerve. I just dropped 200 quid on a new thermostat; who loses their thermostat?
Such a life, she says, is never entirely unchosen: when you are always 17 minutes late for everything, constantly procrastinating because you don’t even want to start looking for a vital scrap of paper in case you can’t find it, it feels like a triumph every time you are punctual.
“I felt like a conquistador of chaos,” Morgenstern says. “As much as I craved order, I was also really afraid of it. I thought it was going to squelch my creativity, make me into this restricted person.”
Her enlightened moment came when she had her daughter and spent three hours trying to get out of the house because there were 18 things to remember and they were all in different places.
“I said: ‘I have to get organised. I can be the hero of my own story, but I can’t do this to another human being.”
Morgenstern took it very slowly: she spent six months just organising her nappy bag, before she moved on to her kitchen, her house and, ultimately, the fabric of time itself. I, conversely, want to do it all in a week, instituting one of her principles a day and becoming a functioning human who is not imposing her chaos on others by next Thursday.
1. The principle of time is like the principle of space
“The biggest obstacle we have to organising time is our perception of it,” Morgenstern says. “We think of it as intangible, relative, qualitative. But it’s impossible to manage if you think of it like that.”
Instead, think of your day like an overstuffed closet. First, you need to tidy it: group like with like; get rid of stuff that is broken; put everything in consistent places; excise things that you don’t have room for. This is quite abstract, so it is best to start with space, somewhere you use a lot. Don’t just organise a room you never go in.
It felt hubristic to start with a room when the management overlord had started with a nappy bag, but I couldn’t start with a bag because I never use the same one twice. Perhaps this is part of the problem — that the house is rammed with interim hessian bags, each with one thing at the bottom (a hairbrush, a portable charger, a passport) that I never need enough to decant and consequently will never find again.
I decided to start with my coat; it would become ground zero of my new life. On Friday, I made an inventory for it: keys, wallet and phone in the left pocket; vape, vape juice and school-authorised blue pen in the right; multi-socket charging cable on the inside, with a lipstick with a tiny mirror. Never anything else, never anything missing.
Reader, this changed my life. The final 25 minutes of any house-leaving event, it turned out, were usually spent with me looking for a vital missing item. Out of nowhere, I had nearly half an hour free every morning. I started saying yes to impromptu morning requests — arguing with Nick Ferrari on LBC, making pancakes — that I previously would have laughed out of town.
“Research says that the average person loses an hour a day looking for misplaced items,” Morgenstern says. “I’ve been in this business 30 years and, for a disorganised person, it’s easily three hours.”
She has given me the gift of three hours, one-sixth of which I have already noticed.
2. Decluttering is not the same as organising
On Saturday, I hit the Gordian knot: I couldn’t organise anything bigger than my coat because I didn’t have time and I couldn’t organise my time until I had done my space. But I had a lurking resistance deeper than time, which was the fear that this would end with me having to throw a load of stuff away. It is like calling 111 and knowing they will tell you to go to A&E: someone will always want you to get shot of your third beige T-shirt or your second colander.
Except this is not what Morgenstern wants.
Without order, I had all these talents and skills, but only 20 per cent of them could be expressed in a day.
“It’s impossible to declutter if you’re not organised: you don’t know if you have 17 versions of that thing, you don’t know that’s the best of them. And you declutter by category, whereas you organise room by room.”
With that reassurance, I had another stab at organising. Naturally, decluttering is really easy when nobody is making you do it. By the end of the day, I had got rid of an electric piano, some prunes and loads of books that weren’t mine.
3. Break your day into buckets of time
“A day is a limited amount of time. We have 24 hours. You’re sleeping eight hours. Let’s say you’re spending 10 hours at work; you have six hours of personal time. If you plan more than will fit, you’re just shoving things in. That haphazard arrangement, like a closet, becomes chaotic and intimidating. You don’t even look at your to-do list, you’re just freestyling, because you already know your day is impossible.”
On Sunday, I started to cluster similar things. “Work” doesn’t count as a bucket because some of it you will want to do, some you will have to do, some you will dread, some will seem distant because nobody is hassling you for it, and some is very boring. Don’t divide by urgency. Figure out when in the day you feel most creative, when you feel most physically energetic, when you feel most plodding but effective. I ordered tasks by the mood they required. In the space of a single day, I had noticed the difference: a load of expense claims done, for train fares the administrators of niche organisations must have thought I had forgotten; two scenes completed of a screenplay about a world where a feminist supervillain has eradicated men, due in September. I even did some ironing! I had forgotten what ironing smelt like.
4. Bestow upon loved ones your full-beam attention in quarter-hour units
“Here is a revolutionary insight,” Morgenstern says. “It’s very important; it comes out of eight years of research. How much time and attention do kids need to feel loved and secure? The answer is this: short bursts of five to 15 minutes of truly undivided attention delivered consistently — not big blocks of time delivered erratically.”
When they wake up, when they come home from school, when they are going to bed, when they get back from work (turns out this is true of adults as well as children): stop what you are doing and concentrate on them, then leave them alone to do what they want. Constantly hovering over your children, while simultaneously trying to have a fight on Twitter and find a food recycling bag, frazzles everyone.
Ah, what a revolution. Finally, I could unleash my ceaseless questions — “How was your day?” “Who was annoying?” “Did anything happen that would amuse me?” “What did you have for lunch?” — and nobody minded because they knew it was time-limited and, at some point, there would be no follow-up.
At bedtime, I managed to start reading my favourite book to my son, after months of meaning to but getting derailed by homework and looking for things. It is ‘The Chrysalids’ by John Wyndham, about people who become telepathic following a nuclear apocalypse and are persecuted for it. My son said: “This just sounds like a hard-left WhatsApp back channel.” I may have missed his wonder years.
5. If you learn to say no, you will be able to say yes
If you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing, it is hard to refuse things. And — this is a bolt-on observation from me, the non-time-expert — if you have never known what you are supposed to be doing, you won’t even have the vocabulary. So, sod it, borrow Morgernstern’s: “I’d love to do it, but my time is accounted for right now.” If it makes you sound like a robot with an American motherboard, the upside is that at least you reply to people fast, rather than leaving them hanging for six weeks, agreeing, then pulling out at the last minute, which is my current MO.
By Tuesday, I knew not only what that day held, but more or less the entire week: I knew that I was free to go on a school trip with my daughter. Once I was in the National Gallery, I carved out five minutes of parental eye contact to fire at her, which I used to show her the skull at the bottom of the Holbein painting The Ambassadors, explaining how you could see its nose cavity from one angle and its evil from the other.
She said: “That’s not a skull, that’s a towel.”
“They’re ambassadors. They would have very clean, fancy towels. Also, who takes a towel to a meeting?”
“It’s in that one’s bedroom and he’s just had a shower.”
I am deviating here from the time-management point, but if you think of Holbein’s core message as being that all things will crumble to dust and that the only everlasting truth is death, it brings us back neatly to Morgenstern: “How we spend our time is how we spend our life. This couldn’t be more important.”
6. Self-care matters
The phrase is hateful, conjuring up a self-indulgent fragility, along with hippy smells and meditative loafing. But if you banish all that from your mind and find 20 minutes, twice a day, for something that you want to do — stare out of a window, do a quiz on how well you remember the 90s, file your mini-marshmallows by sell-by date — you experience a heady sensation.
It is the hardest instruction, though: when you still haven’t organised your living space, when you are still routinely setting off for things 10 minutes after they started, when all your adjustments have yet to dent the impression that every day is a race against its end, it is just not that easy to dive in luxurious surrender into a novel about an ice-carver who runs a kebab shop and accidentally cuts off his finger.
7. Your time-management journey is life-long
You could spend two years creating the perfect system, but it will never last because everyone in it will change, your work will change, your priorities will change, your children will become larger, your pets will die and you will get new ones that are worse. “It’s not like you’re ever perfect: you’ll be honing and refining this for the rest of your life,” Morgenstern says.
So, even a week in, I forgave myself for asking: what is the point of a quest that never ends?
“The way I look at it is this,” Morgenstern says. “I am able to make more of my unique contribution to the world. If I have more time, and more clarity and more calm, I can be more fully engaged in life. Without order, I had all these talents and skills, but only 20 per cent of them could be expressed in a day because they were mostly used getting through the chaos.”