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King Arthur's Circles: Thoughts on Time Management

I talk to a lot of people who struggle to bring sanity to their schedules. Time management is one of those areas in life where we can become very ingrained in our patterns of thought and behavior, like King Arthur's thoughts at the very end of The Once and Future King. He sits in his war pavilion, having lost two battles, his round table, and the people closest to him. Struggling to make sense of his life and the ways that he has failed to create a just kingdom, Arthur's "exhausted brain slipped into its accustomed circles: the withered paths, like those of the donkey in the treadmill, round which he had plodded many thousand times in vain."

Figuring out how to be productive in your work, while also managing to grab breakfast, read the news, do your yoga, and spend time with your friends may not be as earth-shattering as the old king's noble ambitions--but persistently feeling behind, haunted by the idea that you "should" be able to do more, or paralyzed by stress can trigger a similar sense of existential despair. You try to stay on top of things, but your brain becomes like Arthur's when his "thoughts went laboriously. They were leading him nowhere: they doubled back on themselves and ran the same course twice: yet he was so accustomed to them that he could not stop. He entered another circle."

No one can ever fully break out of the human tendency to let our thoughts spiral on unproductively, but we can at least notice that it happens, accept it, and find ways to manage it. Therein lies the reason that good time management skills center not on your ability to plan out your hours in the day, but on your ability to apply your cognitive resources effectively. I'm not talking about how smart or organized you are, but about how well you recognize the circles that your brain lapses into, how deep those ruts are, and how they impact your behavior in your day-to-day life. This article from offers a useful distinction between clock time (which is the objective measurement of hours, days, and so on), and real time, which "is mental. It exists between your ears." Psychology Today notes the importance of play, which is fun because "it brings us into the present moment, which is the only place we can feel happiness." When you don't schedule time for play and cultivating social connections (because you feel you don't have clock time for it), you are cutting out the very thing that can help pull your brain out of its entrenched circles, at least for a little while.

Once you grasp that you are working on yourself and your habits, and not on the clock, your ability to notice how you spend your time (and to make good choices about how to spend it) increases tenfold. You may even find that you can muse about whether humankind can truly be good, and whether justice is really possible, hopefully without the war pavilion. Because, after all, wouldn't you rather spin your thoughts in circles wrestling with the nature of the universe, than with the nature of your calendar?

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