Staying Attentive To How We Spend Our Time

Palms and a wooden cross, with the text "Lent 2023"

On Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, we hear a necessary (but painful) reminder that life is transient. Change is an inevitable part of life; at some point, that change will include our death. We don’t have forever to do what is important to us. This is a difficult message that we spend a lot of mental energy trying to ignore. Although we intellectually know that we’ll die at some point, it doesn’t feel real or pressing as we go about our daily life. Much of our culture encourages us to avoid thinking about this, leaving us ill-prepared as we get older and confront increasingly frequent reminders of the inevitable end to our days.

Ignoring the reality of our limited lifetime can lead to an underlying but ever-present sense of disquiet. We know that something is wrong but don’t have a clear understanding of precisely what this is. Metanoia (transformative change of heart) can start by acknowledging this truth we’ve been working hard to ignore.

In forcing us to acknowledge our limited lifetime, Ash Wednesday prompts us to reexamine how we spend our time, money, and energy. Are our actions indeed in line with our priorities? It’s a reminder that we must stay awake and be attentive to what we are doing and how we spend our days. Our lifetime is limited, and we don’t have time to spend on what doesn’t matter.

Metanoia starts with inspiration and a new intention, but without specific practices, the intention isn’t likely to lead to lasting change. Developing the skills and habits to live our daily lives fully aligned with our priorities is the work of a lifetime (if nothing else, because we continue to change and our priorities shift!). This is bigger than what we can fully address during this season of Lent. But we can use the 40 days of Lent to start this process and begin practices that keep us awake.

I attempt to stay attentive to my true self and what God tells me. But although I start each day with this intention, I often don’t follow through on it. Daily responsibilities consume most of my time – preparing meals, walking the dog, paying the bills, etc. It’s extremely easy to get caught up in these necessary parts of life and let my spiritual development languish with the thought that I’ll focus on it later.

The tension between what is urgent and what is important is a classic time management problem. I first heard this concisely explained in Stephen Covey’s bestseller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Here’s my simplified sketch of his matrix that graphically depicts a classification of how we spend our time.

Time management matrix of urgent vs important tasks.

It’s easy to get consumed by the urgent activities – both the important things at a crisis point (Quadrant #1) and the not-so-important things that are oh-so-satisfying to check off and let us feel that we’re getting things done (Quadrant #3). But this can all too easily lead us to ignore the things in Quadrant #2 – the things that are important to us that require planning and ongoing investment rather than crisis management.

The message of Ash Wednesday (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”) reminds us that our spiritual development is a Quadrant #2 activity we can continue to ignore. But we pay the price for this behavior. We not only miss out on the benefits (and joy) of living a fulfilling spiritual life. But at some point, it will become our primary Quadrant #1 concern, and we may run out of time before actually doing what we’ve been procrastinating on for so long.

Joan Chittister (in her book The Liturgical Year) emphasizes the opportunity we have during Lent. She states, “Ash Wednesday confronts us with what we have become and prods us to do better. Indeed, Lent, we heard on Ash Wednesday, is not about abnegation, about denying ourselves for the sake of denying ourselves. It is about much more than that. It is about opening our hearts one more time to the Word of God in the hope that, this time, hearing it anew, we might allow ourselves to become new as result of it…it is the moment of accepting what we have allowed ourselves to become and beginning to be all the rest of what we are meant to be.”

Lent is about opening our hearts to God, hearing his voice anew, and allowing ourselves to be changed. If Ash Wednesday makes you consider it might be time to pay attention to your spiritual growth, encourage this awakening, and use the next 40 days to start moving in that direction.

Remember that a little goes a long way. You don’t need to change everything; just start somewhere and begin the process of staying more awake. An excellent place to start is by mindfully looking at how you choose to spend your time and considering whether it matches your priorities or if you’ve become caught up in the never-ending stream of Quadrant #3 activities.

Suggestions for Further Reflection

Over the next week, I invite you to be attentive to how you spend your time. Here are some suggestions and thoughts to consider.

  • At the end of each day, set aside a few minutes to review how you allocated your time today. Consider whether you’re spending your time consistently with your priorities. For instance, if relationships with family and friends are highly valued, have you made time for this today? If prayer is an essential part of your spirituality, is there time in your day dedicated to this? (Note that it’s unrealistic to think you can address all your priorities every day. You’re looking for areas you may consistently neglect, which is why it can be best to do this for a week or more.)
  • Is there a spiritual practice you feel drawn to try this Lent? This might be something new or something you did previously but haven’t continued. If so, can you incorporate this practice into your schedule during Lent? You don’t have to commit to doing it forever – just try it out during Lent. And this doesn’t have to be a significant time commitment; it’s OK to do it once or several times a week rather than daily and for just a few minutes rather than a marathon session. You’re just experimenting, so keep an open and curious mindset.
  • When deciding how to allocate your time, thinking about how you’d feel about your choice as your future self looking back in time can be helpful. Imagine yourself a year or two in the future and consider how you’d feel about your choices. Would you regret it or be glad you made this choice? (In the Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius encourages us to think about how we’d feel about our choice imagining ourselves looking back from the point of death. I find this tricky since imagining myself at the point of death evokes too much of an emotional response. But I get a similar benefit if I look back at this choice from my viewpoint a year from now.)

Closing Prayer

God, the reminder of my mortality on Ash Wednesday makes me feel vulnerable and scared. Give me the wisdom and strength to use this reminder to make positive changes rather than either retreating into denial or using it as an excuse to live only in the moment, grabbing all the good things the world can offer me right now.

Help me see Ash Wednesday as a reminder that I must periodically take stock of my life and make necessary corrections. Give me the grace to examine my life gently, knowing I can’t change the past. Support me when I need it along the way as I make changes. Guide me as I make adjustments to allow my life to reflect my true priorities. Help me stay awake and aware as I make decisions about how I spend my time, knowing that these decisions determine who I become.



Chittister, Joan. The Liturgical Year. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

If you like the topic of time management or feel stressed about even attempting to add something to your schedule, you might want to consider a different approach to managing time. The book Four Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman offers a different perspective. You can find my summary of the book here.


  1. I loved the Stephen Covey graph! What a simple yet powerful way to understand where we would classify how we spend our time. As you noted, Quad #2 tends to be neglected until those activities either disappear off the list, or become Quad #1 due to procrastination. I have learned (in large part thanks to you bc you used to do this at CR when I was either on the computer or out running) to start my day with prayer bc if I don’t, my time with God will be swallowed up by other tasks. Thank you for the reminder to reset ourselves daily and choose to spend our limited time wisely.


    1. I often think of that useful task categorization by Stephen Covey. And while checking the book to make sure I had the graph correct, I realized that although his book is dated, it still has a lot of good info. I might have to add it to my pile of books and reread it to see what other gems I have forgotten!


  2. Thanks for all the hard work, sharing your personal spirituality, and pointers to more info, Cathy!

    Sometimes I feel like discerning and then acting upon what God wants me to do is horribly complicated to understand and difficult to do. Father Rohr shared the words of Oscar Romero yesterday ( I’m saddened at what happened to Bishop Rolando Alvarez Mostly I’m in awe of the immense faith shown by both.

    But then God reminds me if I ‘stay attentive’ as you suggest, He will lead me where He wants me to go. Provided I invest personal energy to be open to God and meet Him, He will show me what He wants and will give me the strength to accomplish it. In the end, my part isn’t so complicated, and I can relish (and not dread) my Lenten journey!


    1. I agree that it can all seem very complicated and difficult, but I think returning (again and again) to the basics is all we really need to do, and God will help us with the rest. I hope God inspires you to relish your Lenten journey this year!


  3. this is the third time in a week this graph or a variation of it has crossed my path, seems someone is telling me I should be paying attention!


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