Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Improve Our Time"

Three and a half years ago, when I first began interviewing for academic jobs, every school that interviewed me wanted to know how I had managed to complete a Masters and a PhD degree in just four years. Back on the job market this past January, all thirteen of the schools that interviewed me wanted to know where I found the time to write as much as I do. In these professional settings, it would have been inappropriate to offer the religious and specifically Mormon understanding of time-use that I believe has allowed me to be especially productive. But since a good friend recently asked me the same question, here's the answer I would have liked to give my interviewers.

The Book of Mormon teaches that this life is "a probationary state, a time to prepare to meet God" (Alma 12:24). Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accordingly view time as a sacred commodity to be used according to specific guidelines given us by deity. Even the very name of the Mormon church carries with it a reminder that time is precious and limited: the phrase "Latter-day Saints" is a reminder that the time of our Savior's return draws nigh and that our personal preparations for that day must be hastened. The ancient prophet Amulek warned that "if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed" (Alma 34:33), and more modern revelation in the Doctrine in Covenants declares, "Thou shalt not idle away thy time" (D&C 60:13). 

In addition to these fairly general imperatives, the Lord has given us specific directives about how best we can use the sacred resource of time. Speaking through Moses, God instructed the children of Israel: "Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates" (Exodus 20:9-10). Attached to this commandment is a promise best explained by the late James E. Faust: "The mechanic will be able to turn out more and better products in six days than in seven. The doctor, the lawyer, the dentist, the scientist will accomplish more by trying to rest on the Sabbath than if he tries to utilize every day of the week for his professional work. I would counsel all students, if they can, to arrange their schedules so that they do not study on the Sabbath. If students and other seekers after truth will do this, their minds will be quickened and the infinite Spirit will lead them to the verities they wish to learn. This is because God has hallowed his day and blessed it as a perpetual covenant of faithfulness." I can personally attest to the truthfulness of this promise. As I have diligently sought to honor the Holy Sabbath, I have seen a corresponding expansion in my ability to do necessary work during the remaining six days of the week.
The Lord has also instructed his servants in the use of time during each specific day. In the Doctrine and Covenants other blessings are made conditional on our use of time: "cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated" (D&C 88:124). Anyone hoping to be more productive in the twenty-four hours allotted to them each day needs those blessings. Of course waking up early in the morning can leave me (and presumably others) feeling groggy. Still, before I begin the day's work, I try to offer a morning prayer modeled after the counsel offered by Elder David A. Bednar: "meaningful morning prayer is an important element in the spiritual creation of each day--and precedes the temporal creation or the actual execution of the day. Just as the temporal creation was linked to and a continuation of the spiritual creation, so meaningful morning and evening prayers are linked to and are a continuation of each other." I find that trying to visualize the various tasks of a given day in prayer, while asking for the Lord to help me accomplish the work associated with my various roles as husband, father, and provider, enables me to work more effectively and with greater clarity of purpose, so that I accomplish more in my limited time than I might otherwise. Then, at night, I try to express gratitude for moments in the day when small instances of divine intervention seemed to facilitate my work.

And speaking of Elder Bednar, I will forever be grateful for counsel he gave me almost six years ago, when I was still a graduate student. I asked him, in effect, how I could best apportion my time so as to be sure that I was doing all that the Lord wanted me to in my calling while still fulfilling my various professional obligations and caring for my family. What I expected was counsel about how best to divide my time. What I received was a story about his own time in graduate school. The moral was that as he tried to do all that the Lord asked him to do during this busy time in his life, Elder Bednar felt an increased capacity to accomplish necessary work in increasingly small amounts of time, such that his wife and colleagues noticed and commented on his visibly increased capacity to do more in less time. As the Lord has commanded us to "improve our time," we should expect his help in working ever more efficiently, confident that "the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he hath commanded them" (1 Nephi 3:7). Sometimes this means accepting assignments or taking advantage of opportunities that demand more time than we currently have available. Consider, for example, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's reaction to being called as a stake president: "During my interview with him, many thoughts raced through my mind, not the least of which was the unsettling worry that I might not have the time this calling would require. Although I felt humbled and honored by the call, I briefly wondered if I could accept it. . . . There are times when we have to step into the darkness in faith, confident that God will place solid ground beneath our feet once we do. And so I accepted gladly, knowing that God would provide." 

The beautiful Mrs. Monk (I belong to a non-celibate order) often makes fun of me for reading ten books at a time, but I'm quite confident that I read more books this way than if I were to read just one book at a time. Similarly, I'm often writing five or so academic articles at a given time; I'm confident that this apparent overcommitment of time and resources allows me to finish more articles than I would if I worked on just one at a time. And working on five articles at a time means that some day I may find myself capable of working on six at a time--something that would be inconceivable if I worked on just one article at a time. To paraphrase Elder Boyd K. Packer, it is when we walk to the edge of our abilities and commit ourselves to step beyond them that we discover our abilities extend further than we had previously supposed. 

Improving our time is, as the late Spencer W. Kimball explained, a priesthood duty: "Personal improvement on the part of each priesthood holder is expected by our Father in Heaven. We should be growing and we should be developing constantly. . . . Set some serious personal goals in which [you] will seek to improve by selecting certain things that you will accomplish within a specified period of time." Setting goals may not be enough; with those goals must come accountability--the time frame President Kimball speaks of. For individuals who lack the personal discipline to meet internally appointed deadlines, commitment tools like can help increase our motivation. 

I'll close by noting that in this media-saturated age, when it's so easy to get plugged into the internet with a smartphone, many of us may fritter away far more time than we realize in the consumption of media. In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated that Americans spend 65 days watching TV, 41 days listening to the radio, and about a week surfing the internet, reading newspapers, or listening to recorded music. I suspect that time spent on the internet has increased dramatically, more than offsetting any decrease in time spent reading newspapers. All told, Americans spend almost half the year (five months!) either sleeping or consuming media--3,518 of the year's 8,760 hours. I keep these statistics, clipped from a newspaper, in my scriptures, next to the command not to "idle away thy time." While I still spend more time than I probably should keeping tabs on my beloved Boston Celtics, I would wager that my media consumption has dropped every year for the past decade--and that much of what I've accomplished in that timeframe could be attributed to this decline. 

If you've got other time-saving/improving strategies, please share--I (and my friend) will be grateful.