Part of our cultural indoctrination, one message among countless others, is the idea that there will be a period of time when conditions are not so favorable. When that happens, we are told, there will be a chance to do a few things that on a normal day you would not have time to do. This is the “rainy day” of English-language lore. And while there is a grain of truth in this idea, the opening is much smaller than we have been led to believe.
My favorite example for this is the extended power failure. The last time the lights went out, did you take the opportunity to wash all the windows in your home? Or did you do whatever important chore it is that does not require power?
Everyone I put this question to tells me that they did something with that time, but they did not come close to catching up on everything they would have wanted to do.
There are other versions of this question. During an unexpected 10-hour airport delay, did you clear your email inbox? I know someone who did this on one day this year, but his story was the rare exception. I know I would not be able to do that. Given ten hours, I might be able to clear a few thousand messages, but that would come up far short of actually clearing the inbox.
My latest case in point is the experience of a sprained knee. I did not know what an inconvenience this minor injury could be until I got out of bed one Monday morning and could barely walk. Three weeks later, I still have to be strict in limiting how much walking and standing I do in the course of the day. On some days, even sitting in a chair is limited to a few hours. This, I have learned, is typical enough in knee sprain cases, which may limit ordinary activities for an average of five weeks, even though they do not require any interesting medical intervention.
Given a limited range of mobility for a period of weeks, unable to attempt most of my usual weekly routine, have I caught up on the things that don’t require the use of the legs? Not exactly. Not by a long shot.
Yes, I have caught up on some things, but I have not yet even opened some other things. I completed quarterly accounting and tax forms. I sat at my desk for many hours across several days and scanned thousands of pages of documents that are better stored in electronic form at this point. I sifted through and wrote up pages of course notes from years ago. These are big accomplishments. It is good to have them done.
At the same time, I have been keeping up with things that I do not always keep up with. It is now easy to find the time to do meditation and writing — for example, I wrote this blog post.
But after three weeks, what I have not yet done is opened the novel that is my current work in progress, about 80 percent complete and probably needing another month of effort before I can start polishing it. Nor have I opened the several online courses that I am in the middle of. That will come in a few more days, I tell myself, but my chances of finishing the courses and novel writing during this brief period of injury are nonexistent. And let’s not even talk about the 40 books that are stacked up waiting for me to find time to read. Well, I did read one, but you get the idea.
In gauging my progress, you have to consider the scale of the usual routine things that I have not been doing. I have been mostly unable to do gardening and housekeeping. I have cut back by more than half on shaving and showering because, yes, that amount of standing can hurt. I have not been shopping, running, or doing my usual exercises at all. I physically cannot take the trash to the street. I will have to catch up on all of these things later, when I am physically able to. With so many things I have not been doing, I have freed up an enormous amount of time, and this major reallocation is getting me only so far.
And that is the way it always is. It is easy to aspire to a lot of things, easy too to underestimate what they will require.
The lesson to learn, as always, is that life works better if you keep it in realistic proportions. Anytime you find yourself falling behind in your efforts and telling yourself you will catch up someday, it is a sign that you have taken on more than you can do. It does not matter whether the catch-up time in your story is a canceled flight, a rainy day, a power outage, or a minor illness — that time is neither as likely nor as large as you are imagining. The only way you will ever catch up is if you will admit to yourself that you can do only as much as you can do — and then start letting the other things go.
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