A Test Of Time

From Boston Magazine

Sure, we all wish we could sleep late, wear flip-flops, and study Kierkegaard. but who’s got the time to go back to school these days?

What can I do right now, today, this week, this month, this quarter, this half-year, to create the most value in my life and in my work?

I was pretty much stumped by this question on a recent sunny Saturday I spent in a Harvard Square classroom. At least it was supposed to be a classroom. Unquestionably, it was a “room.” But it was some sort of pre-school playroom in the basement of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, with a wall of lockers on one side, a kitchen sink and a sand-filled wok on the other, and a clothing rack in the corner, upon which hung one dwarf-sized sailor suit. What qualified it as a “class” was the presence of some students, four fully-grown individuals seated around a table that looked to have been last used as a remedial finger-painting project. Also, there was an instructor. He was scrawling the words, “Projected Daily Lists” on a dry-erase board when I arrived.

“Are you here for time management class?” he inquired.

“Yes,” I responded. “Sorry I’m late.”

Let me explain. Every year around this time, I get the urge to take a class. I call it the September syndrome, a distinctly Boston disorder triggered by countless college students returning each fall for the back-to-school hullabaloo. “To be a pupil again!” I dream, watching them glide down Comm. Ave. to Poetry 101 as I am stuck in an afternoon rubbernecking delay behind an overturned tractor trailer, late for my third meeting, the first of which commenced at 8:30 a.m. “To spend my days contemplating Kierkegaard instead of juggling deadlines and weeding through my in-box! To spend my nights debating Aristotle instead of figuring out how to get Quicken to pay my mortgage bills!”

And every September, my renewed thirst for knowledge leads to the same thing: the catalogue for The Cambridge Center for Adult Education. You know the one I mean; there’s one for every city. It seduces you with its cover illustration—a Utopian scene of multicultural men and women lounging about in some daffodil field, reading foreign translations and playing the harp. It appears at every turn—in stacks at the health club, the dentist’s office, the takeout counter of the Greek restaurant around the corner. And, if you’re like me, it sits on your desk until you finally find time to read it in February, by which time your romantic back-to-school fantasy has been replaced by your hectic back-to-work reality.

I found the catalogue this year in my friend Ethan’s bathroom. Seizing the opportunity, I rifled through its rich cornucopia of learning opportunities, a curriculum including:

  • Glove Making
  • Introduction to Pointed Nib Pens
  • Learn German While Hiking

“Are there really enough people interested in ‘Active Imagination With the Goddess’ to fill a whole class?” I wondered, forgetting for a second that the campus is in Cambridge. But then, I wondered something else: Who has the time? Most of the classes met every week, some for up to three hours, many in the middle of the day. I can’t even find time to return a two-week-old phone message from my own brother, I was lamenting. Then I spotted a daylong seminar that promised to change everything: Time Management.

“Let’s spend the next 15 minutes sharing what we’ve written on our self-evaluation forms,” suggested our teacher, a freckled, fiftyish fellow sporting seersucker pants. His name was Mel Epstein, and he was a cross between Henny Youngman and Sigmund Freud. One of my fellow scholars, a young Indian guy who identified himself as a dental implant technician, said he had trouble managing two things at once (presumably molars and bicuspids). “Multi-tasking?!” Mel Epstein cracked, “I may as well teach you how to drink and drive at the same time! That’s multi-tasking, too, but is it a good idea? Fuggedaboutit!”A few minutes later, a heavily made-up woman in an extremely tight T-shirt confessed to being the kind of chronic procrastinator who still hasn’t hired a personal trainer. Mel inhaled deeply, shifting into shrink mode. “There are often deep, complicated, personal reasons beneath the surface for systematic avoidance, like not wanting to compete with our parents,” he explained with authority.

And let me tell you, he was an authority. When I first sat on the toilet flipping through the catalogue, I noticed he also taught
“Negotiating For Results,”
“Managing, Supervising and Leading,”
“Starting and Succeeding in Your Own Consulting Business,”
“Starting and Succeeding in the Restaurant and Catering Business,”
“Starting and Succeeding in Any Type of Business,”
“Finance for Non-Financial Managers,” and
“Coping With Difficult People.”

This Mel Epstein must know a little something about time management, I remember thinking. How else could he teach all these classes?

When it was my turn to share, I said the problem was I spend so much time tending to the mundane tasks of daily life that there’s no time left for things I want to doÑlike taking a class, for instance. Mel speculated that I couldn’t distinguish between tasks that were “urgent” vs. those that were “important.” He had a point. The whole reason I was late to class, between me and you, was because I decided that getting a Scandanavian cinammon swirl at the High-Rise bakery upstairs was “urgent,” whereas getting to Time Management class on time was merely “important.”

In one of his more Freudian moments, Mel put it this way: “It is essential to avoid being driftwood on the river, letting the currents of life control you.”

My classmates and I spent the following 47 minutes and 36 seconds learning how to avoid being driftwood. And if it’s true that “time flies when you’re having fun,” I am here to tell you it lapses into catatonic paralysis when you’re learning how to manage it. It began when Mel scribbled a chart on the board, one side of which said “Methods,” the other, “Menthol Altitude.” I was frankly baffled by the latter heading until I realized it actually said “Mental Attitude.” (One hopes he will brush up on penmanship before he starts teaching Intro to Nib Pens.)

The Menthol Altitude necessary for effective time management was “priority thinking,” according to Mel. This was attained simply by jotting down a master list of—and I quote—”everything you want to do in your life, every idea, assignment, task, phone call, e-mail, errand, event, seminar, movie, absolutely everything large or small.”

I have to pause here for 17 seconds to say that my personal master list normally consists of a PostIt note stuck to the windshield that says, “Trader Joe’s.” You might see why I found this “everything you want to do in your life” business a bit daunting. You also might see why my menthol altitude plummeted to an all-time low when Mel referred us to page five, handout packet I: “The Tickler File Method.” At first, I wanted to laugh because this method sounded kind of dirty. But I couldn’t laugh, because this method caused me to recoil in terror. It entailed taking 31 manila files and numbering them for every day of the month. At the beginning of each month, you were supposed to fill every single file with a projected to-do list.

I was suddenly struck with the urgent (as opposed to “important”) impulse to raise my hand and engage in class participation.

“If you’re someone who can barely keep your head above water as it is, where are you possibly going to find time to sit there and plot out a day-by-day, ya know ‘whatever’ tickler file?”

The girl in the tight T-shirt recommended a Palm Pilot. A Cambridgey guy wearing those little round eyeglasses suggested some special computer software. “You should do what I do,” remarked an old lady whose only distinguishing characteristic (appropriately enough) was a giant silver wristwatch. “Every night, I write a list of stuff I have to do the next day and I put it on the fridge with a magnet so it’s the first thing I see at breakfast because otherwise-”

“Excuse me, this is not meant to be a buzz session,” Mel Epstein interrupted, putting the kibosh on what he saw as a waste of precious time. “Dan just has is an attitude adjustment problem. All he needs to do is go to Staples, buy some files, and boom, he’s done.”

When our 55-minute lunch break rolled around, I decided to go to Staples, buy some files, and boom, be done. I didn’t yet realize just how “done” I would be. On the walk over, I finally called my brother back, and asked if he wanted to meet for a quick lunch. We met a few blocks outside the Square at Darwin’s, a neighborhood gem where locals linger over sandwiches named after streets. I was speed-eating my Brattle and worrying about getting back to class when I began feeling like a living case-study question in one of Mel’s “self-quiz” handouts:

Question: Your younger brother, Richie, whom you haven’t seen in forever, is rushing through an awkward, abridged response to “what’s new?” because you have granted him only 17 minutes of your time. Using the tenets of “priority thinking,” do you:
(a) return to the spooky basement classroom of Mr. Mel Epstein or
(b) cut class and take advantage of the gorgeous afternoon

Richie and I wound up at the arboretum in Jamaica Plain. We got lost on the drive over to the arboretum, got lost walking around the arboretum, and got lost driving back from the arboretum. At some point, we also managed to find Central Street, where I bought an “important” pack of cards at a very cool store called Pluto, and Richie bought an “important” Chris Brokaw disc at CD Spins. It was getting dark when we eventually stopped into JP Licks for some “urgent” chocolate ice cream.

Go figure. We’d lost all track of time.

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