I can’t keep rowing upstream: Why ‘time management’ has so spectacularly failed us.

There was a solid year during which my friend Whitney declined every social invitation that came her way. If you asked her, which I eventually did, she would let you know unequivocally that her opting out of social life wasn’t a personal rejection. Far from it, in fact. Part of her longed so deeply to be there for the birthday celebrations, the coffee dates with new professional connections, and the happy hours to blow off steam. 

When we met up for lunch at the art museum one Wednesday, a rare outing for her at that point, she acknowledged that this season of sticking close to home saddened her in many ways, though not enough to convince her that this wasn’t the right approach to her current circumstances. 

These circumstances felt strikingly close to my own, and so I found myself especially intrigued by her decision to opt out of a social world. She had a couple of school-age kids, a toddler, an entrepreneurial career, and a wide circle of loving friends. She’d been rocked by the experience of Covid, as so many of us mothers of kids at home had been. During that time, she had felt the full weight of the world and her own home’s expectation for her to manage the emotional and logistical toll of her family’s well-being. 

Despite the re-opening of the world, Whitney, like me, wasn’t feeling the promised reprieve. The kids kept getting sick – sometimes Covid and sometimes not – and the constant re-juggling of schedules and priorities meant that the scrambling never seemed to stop. At our lunch, she described just how anxious, tense, and helpless she would feel every time her toddler’s 99-degree temperature signaled another week of canceled work and connections for her. 

“I just can’t keep rowing upstream,” she said, taking a sip of her water. “So I’ve decided I’m going with the current. And the current of my life right now is this family life. It’s too hard to constantly reschedule and disappoint people and myself. So I’m just saying no. It’s better for me.” 

I nodded as I moved the chicken salad around my plate. “That makes sense,” I told her. And it did, sort of. I supported her in making whatever decision was right for her, but at the same time couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the idea that at least some time with friends wouldn’t offer nice respites from the intensity of parenting and work. 

“I know all the opportunities will be there when this season shifts,” she added. “My friends will be there, and so will all the work opportunities.” 

And that’s when I realized both that my friend was wiser than I was, and far more patient. It’s also when I realized what it was about her approach that seemed to push on the limits of my own mindset. 

As I walked back to my office after that lunch, I thought about how my own struggle to say no to invitations and to opportunities came not from the people-pleasing hang-ups that seem to get the most airtime in discussions of “boundaries.” They were from this sense of urgency and scarcity that I brought to most things, but particularly to my time. 

It wasn’t so much that I felt pressure to do all these things that I didn’t want to do. It’s that I did want to do them, and I didn’t want to acknowledge being unable. Or perhaps not unable, exactly, which was part of the problem. I didn’t want to choose. I didn’t want to acknowledge that my time was finite. 

And so instead I continued to row – hard – against the current. I jumped through hoops to find sitters for sick kids and to reschedule coffee dates for later dates that were already busy themselves. I stressed myself so much to make it to a friend’s birthday dinner that I ended up spending the entire time running through my to-do list for the next morning and could barely follow the conversation. When a new professional opportunity arose, the kind that lit me up, I’d say yes knowing that it would mean reshuffling at least fourteen other things. 

On paper, I was getting to do every single that I believed gave me a full life, a fulfilled life. It was certainly full. It was certainly filled. But I was too tired and far from fulfilled. 


Like any diligent and over-extended human in the modern world, I approached my exhaustion with life in the most reasonable way possible: I added multiple productivity books to my Audible (so that I could listen while commuting, obviously) and scheduled time for coaching with a time management guru. 

This part sounds almost too cliche to bear telling, but I recognize that obviousness of my own errors is only apparent to me in the rearview mirror. And if I’m honest, that rearview mirror has only recently come into any such focus. But back to my efforts. 

The time management coach recommended a variety of practices that seemed both reasonable and urgent. Notably, she pointed out that my to-do lists were spread across all the corners of my life. I was using everything from post-it notes, my notes app, iPhone reminders, a whiteboard in my kitchen, and emails to myself with tasks in the subject line, all to allegedly organize myself. She urged me to consolidate my lists and scattered tasks onto a unified platform. I diligently downloaded Trello, and quickly realized that perhaps there was an unconscious reason that I’d historically kept my to-dos in dozens of different places. Seeing them all laid out in front of me felt like the start of a panic attack. 

The coach compassionately reminded me that this step was the hardest, as I was lining up all of the items needing my attention, but I didn’t yet have a plan for how to give my attention yet. Okay, I thought, but what is this magical plan that will allow me to attack this seemingly endless list? We’d cover that at the next session, she told me. 

It’s entirely possible that the next session would have given me the keys I was so desperately looking for, but in an irony that can only be all-too-familiar for coaches such as her, I never scheduled the follow-up. I couldn’t find the time. 

And such is the death of most time management hacks, even the purportedly effective ones. They are being employed by people who are overworked, stressed, and have their hands in an endless number of endeavors. It’s no wonder that consistency goes out the window after an initial honeymoon phase. 

But what I want to suggest here is actually not that time management is a failure of consistency, or really anything employed or not employed by individuals. What I want to explore instead is the notion that time management itself is built on a faulty premise, one that permeates our culture and isn’t even in fact all new to modern life, depending on how one defines modern. It is, however, a premise that is paradoxical, which may be why it’s been so damn hard to escape. To hear about it, you’ll have to give me just a bit more time. 


In the last few months, I’ve read two different books that explore the notion of time, work, and our relationship to both, this time not to figure out how to work faster or harder, but because I’d been promised they both offered a paradigm shift. The books were Slow Productivity by Cal Newport and Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. 

It feels important to me to note that both were written by male journalists, both of whom share at various points in their books that they have a female partner. I had my reservations, frankly, about reading about the dynamics of time and productivity from the lens of men. I went in with a critical eye, hoping at the very least to see the acknowledgement of gender dynamics in their ideas. Both did indeed, albeit far too briefly in my view, recognize that differences can and do exist when it comes to women’s time and the pressures culture imparts.  

Slow Productivity was written especially for people with relative control over their employment and focused on approaching work from a quality over quantity perspective. To create truly great work, we need to do less, Newport argues. He urges us to narrow our focus to a few core areas and then to relentlessly pursue excellence in said areas. There’s much more to it, as you might imagine, including some helpful, practical ideas for things like managing your email inbox and building in seasonality to your work. 

But what stuck with me, and what was fresh on my mind as I went into reading Four Thousand Weeks, was the simple encouragement to do fewer things. It might sound banal, but in the realm of productivity books, it’s sadly a novel idea. Almost all time management systems are focused on doing more with less, with the notion of maximizing our minutes and hours and days. Newport said to stop that. 

Burkeman said to stop too, but approached the notion not from the premise that doing fewer things would necessarily make us better producers, but instead would make us better humans. Perhaps not even better humans… just more human. It was his disentangling of time culture that really got me. 

Burkeman honed in on how we’ve come to see time as a resource, like a dollar or a unit of energy to be used in service of producing the biggest return on investment. What happens, he asks, when we shift from thinking about time as a countdown or a conveyor belt moving more quickly than we can possibly keep up to thinking about it as, somewhat simply, part of who we are as humans? 

As I turned his ideas over in my mind, what felt sharp and demanding of my attention was the way in which my own approach to time had been interlaced with the perpetual idea of the need to maximize it. Not necessarily in service of more money or accomplishment or success, but just very fundamentally in service of making the most out of life. This idea of making the most of my time on earth, I realized, had shaped my sense of everything. But I realized, I’d never stopped to ask what most really meant. And why getting the most out of it felt so vital? 

Now I realize that because this notion is so absolutely fundamental, it’s hard to look through the glass sides of the aquarium to see it. Instead, we are the proverbial fish swimming through it and asking, “What water?” But if we can get some distance, if we can play philosopher for a moment, we can start to see that there may just be other ways of considering what we’ve taken as truth – the idea that maximizing our time will bring us closer to happiness or even meaning. 

Do as many things as you can do without burning out or doing them terribly (and sometimes even doing them terribly feels like a good trade-off) seemed embedded in my DNA. But it wasn’t, I was learning. 


In the days and weeks following the births of each of my children, I sunk into the timelessness that defines this disorienting season. Not only do babies’ lack of day-night differentiation make us dizzyingly tired, but it eliminates the normal markers of time that have come to give us routine and grounding. For me, this erasure felt almost impossibly difficult. It’s only now, years out, that I see that the pain of it wasn’t so much in the timelessness itself, but rather in my constant rejection of it. 

I worked so hard to find time as I knew it in the timelessness. I tried to create structure where I could. I tracked time between feedings in my notes app. I scheduled playdates (clearly for me and not for the pile of squish I’d be dragging along) for particular hours and prepped the night before so as to ensure my punctuality. As if to say, “Look! I can make time work for me! Parenthood cannot destroy me!” 

I imagine a scenario in which I could redo those newborn seasons with an appreciation – or at least an acceptance – of the timelessness of it. In my mind, this looks like savoring sweet moments, but it also looks like being more fully present in the (literally) shitty ones too. It would mean, I think, letting myself put down the oars that seemed to define my early parenthood experience, and fall into the vastness. I was too scared at the time about what that meant for my identity, felt too afraid I wouldn’t make the most of these early days, to let myself do so. Maybe I still get scared of that. 


I’ve come to learn recently over time – In too much time? Just the right amount of time? – that my wrestling match with time has never been a matter of needing more of it. It has certainly not been a lack of skill in how to manage it (though the post-its in six different places was probably never going to work). It hasn’t really been about managing time at all. My own struggle has been much more existential in nature, you might say. My struggle has been with limits. 

I’m realizing that the notion of limits feels frightening. I grew up in the era of “women can have it all” and fully endorsed that notion even while drowning the tsunami of its wrongness. But even when I shifted from thinking that women could or should try to serve every role, I unconsciously retained the idea that I could still have most of the things I wanted in my life. 

And if I’m honest, I want to do a lot of things. I told my partner the other day that my list of prompts for the essays I want to write is in the 400s these days, and it makes me tear up to know I’ll never get to write them all. I want to go to every friend’s special celebration and I want my kids to get to explore every interest. I want to try every new restaurant and be in eighteen places at once at any given moment. And my high stress and perpetual sense of maybe not having made the right choice for my time at that moment proves it. 

What stunned me about my friend Whitney’s choice to accept the current of her season and stop pushing so hard was her acceptance of the limits of her circumstances. In one phase of my own life, one of which I’m not proud, I would have thought she should just row harder. But she had exactly the right idea. 

This isn’t to say that it came to her without grief, and that big resentment wouldn’t have built up if she felt that she had no long-term agency over how she was spending her time. But she found a peace within herself when approaching the limits that existed on her own time. 

In Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman gives the devastating but also reassuring news that we fear missing out on things we could be doing with our time, but that the reality is that by the very nature of being humans with finite lives and finite circumstances, we will each miss out on the vast majority of experiences. I read that and felt a little nauseated. And then, somehow, I felt a little freer. 

These ideas are showing up most right now in me in recognizing the moments where I am failing to be present to what is because of either wishing or fearing that I should be spending my time in another way. I have a hunch that I’m going to keep struggling with the notion of limits for a very long time. There’s so much I want to do. My hope, however, is that I can wrestle with – and eventually sit alongside – my inherent human limits and the infinitesimally small number of days we have on earth, instead of berating myself for not getting more done in my one hour between meetings. 

I also hope that I won’t waste any more of those precious days trying to do more with less. If I’m going to read a book, I hope it has nothing to do with productivity, and that I can read it on my back as I float on the river, with the current.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

Get your free Mental Wellness Self-Assessment

For guidance, inspiration, and the scoop on our goings on, join our community list. You'll also get your "Mental Wellness Self-Assessment (+ Our Top Five Tools to Up Your Mental Health Game)" in your inbox right away.

The information and resources contained on this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to assess, diagnose, or treat any medical and/or mental health disease or condition. The use of this website does not imply nor establish any type of psychologist-patient relationship. Furthermore, the information obtained from this site should not be considered a substitute for a thorough medical and/or mental health evaluation by an appropriately credentialed and licensed professional.