Time confetti and the urgency of flow for women

A close friend of mine sent me a text a few weeks back that asked me a sincere question. Like me, she’s a writer, and like me, it’s not her primary or paying job. She wanted to know how I personally find time to write these essays that you’re reading (Have I told you lately how absolutely gobsmacked I am that you are reading these? Okay, that’s for another day, but I am honored and THANK YOU.)

She remarked that my essays tend to be well thought out and well-researched, a compliment I’m sharing not to humble-brag (I obsessed over this, so please believe me here), but because I hope that’s true and because it’s part of the point. She sees that I’m not just spitting out a few random thoughts that I had on my drive to work, but really sitting with some nuanced topics and trying to enrich the conversations around them. Because she’s a reader and a writer and a thinker, she recognizes that this takes time.

“So,” she asked, “how do you find the time to write quality? What does that look like for you?” Having three kids makes it hard, she noted. And because she’s a friend and I know her life, I’m also aware of the paid work that she does, as well as the ways she pours into her friends and community. “I’m having a really hard time finding a rhythm,” she wrote. Imagine that.

Now, lest you get to the end of this piece and feel jilted, I’m going to tell you right now that I’m not going to solve this problem for any of us. I could share with you my morning routine, my nighttime routine, or my nine favorite life hacks (haha, I wish I had that many), and you might feel intrigued or inspired, but then you would go to apply them and realize that your life or your people or your needs are totally different than mine and at best you’d be frustrated and at worst you’d think you were doing something wrong.

So I’m not going to give you some prescriptive formula here for how you need to structure your days to do more of what you love. Instead, I’m going to do what I think I do best. Explain why it’s so fucking hard.

Sitting down to write this essay that you’re reading may in fact be as good an example as any of the phenomenon that makes producing something meaningful so hard. It also might give you a window into my process. Let’s see.

I’ve been thinking about writing about this topic for somewhere between six months to five years. It’s been on my list – like an actual list that I keep in Trello – and circling my brain more actively for a few months. There have been literally dozens of moments I’ve thought about starting it over those few months. I’ve pulled up a Google Doc, where I start most of my writing, made a title, and then stared at the flickering little cursor taunting me like an asshole.

It’s not exactly that I can’t think of what to say that tortures me. Though as any writer or artist or person that tries to make something out of something that wasn’t there before knows, the process itself aching. It’s not that, though.

It’s that I have a meeting that starts in seven minutes. It’s that it’s bath night and if I don’t start the process in the next fifteen minutes, the cascade of calamity that will result will most certainly bury me. It’s that I have ten minutes before my partner gets home and we start our kids’ sports Uber service. It’s that oh! I have 45 whole minutes, but in that time I need to eat a burrito, pee, check for replies to three important texts, make an orthodontist appointment, and register for ballet.

I don’t expect that any of this sounds new. I’m busy. We’re all busy. That’s just what it is to raise kids and to work and to be part of modern life, or so they tell us. Nothing too special to see here.

But what I notice for myself, and I wonder if you notice too, is that these little slivers of time in between the meetings and the baths and the sports and the bazillions of other obligations almost feel like teases to me, at least as a person who wants to create.

On the surface they’re saying, Look! If you add up all of your “down time,” you have 78 minutes in your day that you could write! Gosh, what some people wouldn’t give for 78 minutes!

But in reality what they feel like are these little slivers of time that add up to not much at all.

Brigid Schulte, the journalist and author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When Nobody Has the Time (a book I devoured shortly after my second child arrived), gave a name to these slivers. I use the term regularly, usually in explaining to my partner why I feel like a cracked out Tazmanian Devil. She calls them “time confetti.”

Time confetti is the way that Schulte conceptualized the way our time, once considered in an expanse, gets chopped up by things like small tasks, notifications, and other interruptions. It was her response when faced with the feedback that she technically had a certain amount of leisure time in the day, if you were to look at a very precise analysis of open minutes. Sure, there are a minutes scattered here and there between other tasks, but what the hell is one supposed to do with all these fragments?

When I first heard Schulte’s term, I found myself imagining a giant piece of butcher block paper spread out over my kitchen table. On it I’d written and sketched all of the pieces of me that weren’t directly in service to someone else; the things that lit me up kept me going, like writing of course, but also music and walks and deep conversations with friends. These activities and ways of being are spread all over the paper, reaching to the edges, and then I imagine modern life and, yes, motherhood, coming in and tearing the paper into teeny tiny pieces.

One could argue that the time is still there, scattered among the confetti. But to piece it all together in a way that gives any coherence to what it once was feels, well… impossible.

Time confetti gives the illusion of time. It gives that illusion to the researchers who are studying women’s time and the American workweek and daycare hours and political policy. But it also gives that illusion to us, the ones who exist within the confetti constructs and are subject to it’s crazy-making and yet still look at our days and say, “I don’t know why I couldn’t just get more done today.”

For a very long time I tried to make due with the confetti model. It didn’t honestly feel like I had any choice but to work within it, after all. If I wanted to churn out Instagram posts for the business I was building or to maintain friendships with people I cared about, I’d better stop complaining about a lack of time and start seeing what I could accomplish in five minute increments.

I won’t say that there is nothing that can be accomplished in a few minutes. A lot of the time hackers out there selling their overpriced programs and spouting on podcasts will tell you that this is the ticket. Break your tasks down into the micro-components, they’ll tell you. Strength train for six minutes and just look the results! You’ll be amazed at home much of a book you can get done getting up 20 minutes earlier!

And yes, there is something to be said for doing a little bit each day. Not waiting for the perfect situation or amount of time to get started. Not taking the all or nothing mentality when trying to move closer to something you love.

But I don’t want to get up any earlier. And my own experience of trying to “optimize” my time meant something that I’ve come to find important: I was always pivoting.

The pivot is something that women tend to be fantastic at, or at least we certainly make it look that way. The way that I can transition between filling a prescription, confirming the time for soccer tonight, and answering a work email is actually quite impressive. Pivot, pivot, pivot. My brain is well trained to catch all of the pieces of confetti without letting them hit the floor.

But what I’ve learned is two things. First, all that pivoting is the source of burnout, at least for me. Pivoting requires enormous amounts of cognitive resources, a reality that goes unrecognized because these are just so-called little tasks. It’s not that hard to hit “1” to confirm the pediatrician appointment, in theory. But in practice, it’s another pivot, and that stresses our brains.

The second is that writing doesn’t work in a time confetti model, at least not for me. Pivoting is the very antithesis of flow, that lovely state of creativity in which real and good things happen. And I think that almost any activity that holds meaning for us, any activity that requires presence, is the same. We don’t have the raw conversations with our kids in the span of a piece of confetti. We don’t stumble through a new piece of music or find our rhythm in the movement class or discover a new insight about ourselves when our minds are revved up on pivot mode.

Don’t get me wrong, I still live in a time confetti world along with the rest of us. I haven’t yet relocated myself to a mountaintop or Denmark. My awareness of this doesn’t meant that I’m not still usually pivoting – I am. But I now am quite clear that I want to find ways to live outside of the time confetti model.

So back to writing, as I still have yet to respond to my friend’s text message with a solid answer. How do I manage to write things that feel high quality to me? As I sat with that question over the last few weeks, I realized that I didn’t want to give the answer, because it doesn’t feel possible or right for everyone. But I’m now recognizing that the takeaway might not be my answer for me, but located within it.

My answer is that I became much more able to write with some level of depth after getting divorced. Here we go again, I imagine some readers saying. Getting divorced was the key to balancing the mental load, and now it’s also the only way you can do good work? 

Not exactly, would be my answer. But as I sort through this for myself, I realize not parenting 100% of the time has been what’s given me the chance to think, to imagine, to create. I remember writing a Facebook post shortly after the birth of my third son where I jokingly (not so jokingly), remarked, “So long quiet days to read and write!” I was falling achingly in love with my most recent child while mourning what felt like another nail in the coffin of a part of me.

And then suddenly, years later, I had a wide expanse of a weekend open before me. A couple quiet evenings each week. The baths were happening still, but not at my house, and someone else was doing the two-hour nighttime routine. I don’t want to paint this as liberation, because at the beginning it felt like someone was taking an ax and chopping me in two. But when that feeling started to soften, when I found my own emotional rhythm with co-parenting, I looked around and realized that there was time that wasn’t confetti.

Eve Rodsky, most well-known for her Fair Play system, talks also about what can happen when home life is a bit more equitable. Aside from justice, it’s kind of the whole reason we need better domestic systems. She calls it Unicorn Space. It’s the literal and figurative space that all of us need to play, create, and share our gifts with the world.

Unicorn Space is where we come alive, Rodsky tells us, and the possibility for mine seemed to come alongside the death of my marriage. But to be fair, I hadn’t tried to create Unicorn Space in the context of my marriage. The concept wasn’t in my awareness yet, and we hadn’t even gotten to Fair Play when we called it quits.

I say this because I’m certainly not suggesting divorce is the only path to finding this space. I also won’t sugarcoat the reality that for women, marriage does tend to make it extraordinarily difficult. The data is in and it shows us that the typical marriage in our culture pretty much completely zaps a woman’s time and energy.

Which means that if you are committed to your own Unicorn Space, if you want to write or dance or just have meaningful conversations that aren’t shoved in the six minutes you have open today, it means, I believe, rejecting what our culture sees as typical.

To make it more concrete, that might look like confronting all of the accumulated mom guilt and carving out three or four hours every weekend to be away from the family and doing something you love (I cannot help but state the obvious here about men golfing… I’ll leave that there). It might look like saying no to a child’s request for another sport or activity, even though you feel terrible not supporting their interest (you deserve to have interests too!). It might mean working through your own anxiety about someone else watching your kids even if they aren’t perfect at it. It might mean outsourcing things you could technically do yourself, reducing your work hours if financially feasible, or accepting that peanut butter and jelly is a perfectly acceptable dinner option.

Gah. I know. Some of this sounds hard. Some of it might be impossible depending on your circumstances, which is why I said in the beginning I’m not going to be prescriptive. But I also know that the world needs what we as women want and need to create. Whether that’s a piece of writing, a piece of art, thoughtful solutions to big problems, or deeper relationships. And to do that, we need more than some scattered piece of time confetti blowing in the air.

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.

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