When my oldest son was a tornado of a toddler, I learned to set timers. I had imagined motherhood as an idyllic time involving long morning walks pushing a stroller through the neighborhood, quiet afternoons of crafting, and bedtime story snuggles. Some days looked like I had imagined, yet this child of mine crawled at six months, walked at ten months, and ran laps around friends at his first birthday party, most of whom were firmly planted with diapered bottoms on the park’s grassy lawn. I was a low-energy mom entrusted with a boy who would not be contained in my arms, in a stroller, even within four walls. He wanted to be outside, in motion, all day long.
So I made an exhaustive list of his favorite pastimes (riding his tricycle, collecting and racing snails, arranging building block zoos for his plastic animal collection), interspersed with activities he enjoyed less though I enjoyed more. We took turns picking from the list and I set a kitchen timer for appropriate lengths of time: five, ten, or fifteen-minute segments. At times, one or the other of us stared longingly at the countdown, willing the time to pass. The cliché says the parenting days are long and the years short, and in my experience, five minutes can feel like an hour.
Wrestling with Time
I first learned about the Pomodoro Technique while researching procrastination for a presentation. I had extensive experience with procrastination going back to my high school years when society scribbled on the To-Do list a seemingly endless number of accomplishments necessary for life success. Time and again I worked through the night on school projects, seated side-by-side with my mom at a table covered in books and paper, art supplies, and tangy-smelling rubber cement. To this day, that intoxicating smell evokes memories of creative collaboration with my artist-mother, not an insignificant reward for having left my work to the final hours.
Pomodoro helps break down the tendency to procrastinate. Named for a kitchen timer resembling a tomato (pomodoro in Italian), Pomodoro asks you to commit to one distraction-free task for twenty-five minutes. Take a five-minute break, and repeat the process. Every four Pomodoros, you earn a longer break. The idea is that most of us can do anything for a short burst of time. We concentrate our focus in one direction with the promise of an upcoming break, at which point either we will have found flow or we switch tasks. Proponents claim that instead of fighting time, this technique has helped them learn to cooperate with it. The prospect intriguing, timers entered my adult life once again.
To be certain, I am not alone in my attempts to wrestle, wrangle, and hack time. Consider some of the ways people talk about it: we save, invest, manage, and spend time. We use it wisely and we waste it. We count down until time’s up. We keep time and record times. We block off time and schedule appointments for certain times in our planner systems or digital calendars. We measure time, and we pray that God will teach us to number our days. We feel pressed for time, harried and hurried, and we suggest that others take their time, implying that they should not be concerned about time. We bemoan the passage of time and feel anxious about the future while we live in, or race through, or endure, the present time. The wheel of time keeps on turning. Ecclesiastes tells us we have time for everything under the sun: life and death, planting and harvesting, mourning and dancing. We trust that all our times rest safely in God’s hands.
Dwelling in Time
In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle gives us another way of talking about time. L’Engle provides a helpful distinction between chronos and kairos time. She writes, “Chronos: our wrist watch and alarm clock time. Kairos: God’s time, real time. Jesus took John and James and Peter on the mountain in ordinary, daily chronos; during the glory of the Transfiguration they were dwelling in kairos.”
When my son and I set timers to focus on one activity, we employed a chronological technique similar to the Pomodoro I use to work efficiently. However, then and now, I have experienced kairos—when the play became so engrossing that we stopped watching the clock, or when my work completely absorbs my imagination and I turn off the timer to keep at it. To be in kairos is to be in flow, a glorious experience.
L’Engle continues her definition of kairos: “That time which breaks through chronos with a shock of joy, that time we do not recognize while we are experiencing it, but only afterwards . . . In kairos we are completely unselfconscious . . . In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.”
We can consider seasons of life in kairos terms. The season of mothering young children, for example, differs significantly from my current season of mothering young men and there have been delightful shocks of joy in both. I am still my mother’s daughter, though now she’s under hospice care several states away and our visits have become poignant gifts of time. Even the pandemic has been a season of pause in which we have the opportunity to reevaluate our priorities and goals. Our family has received an unexpected gift of time to walk our dogs together, to play board games and put together puzzles, and try new recipes. We have time to share lunch in the middle of a school/workday.
When I slow down and look at my life I begin to wonder how I might live my chronological times with greater care if I take time to recognize and appreciate my kairos seasons. I wonder how I might consciously seek to add activities to my chronos that could lead me into kairos and so enrich my experience as an individual within a family. Worthy wondering, the wondering itself a kairos opportunity.
So each day as I sit down to work in our bedroom recliner, my claimed corner of the house shared with family members similarly engaged in school-and-work-from-home, Pomodoro clears the way for productivity. I remember with gratitude how the toddler timer helped structure our days and treasure the moments the timer went forgotten. Then I enter into small measures of dedicated time appreciating that they make possible small-scale accomplishments that gather momentum: words become sentences become paragraphs become writing that, I pray, merges the time on the clock with God’s real-time.
Cover image by Patrick Langwallner.