There is a protocol at New York City public schools that allows for early entrance in the morning if you sign your kids up for breakfast. Customarily, the school gates open at 8.30am (and shut, as we know too well, at 8.33am, after which you are marked late and forced to shout at your children in the street). But if you arrive 30 minutes early, you can get them up the steps and into the building for a Department of Education-issued muffin and milk and be back at your desk by 8.30am. This is the holy grail in our house, a piece of flawless efficiency that sets the stage for the rest of the day. In three years of school, we have achieved it twice.
The quest for the perfect timetable is one I’ve been periodically engaged in since high school. Then, it was a matter of coloured pens and folders. If I could find the right combination of highlighters, stickers and capitalised sub-heads, I could pass into the golden zone of faultless revision notes, gateway to the state of nirvana. This ambition faded in my 20s and for some of my 30s, when life was single-focus enough to make timetabling simple. Now, in my 40s and with two kids and their interests to manage, the desire to nail a frictionless existence has come roaring back. It is particularly strong at this time of year, when the back-to-school vibes are strong. This year we’ll do it, I think. We’ll parcel out our time into 20-minute segments, and before we know it we’ll be robot-efficient.
I have all the bumper-sticker correctives to this line of thinking to hand. Perfect is the enemy of good; life is supposed to be messy. EM Forster’s phrase the “the perfect organism would be silent” used to console me, in a smug sort of way; but since having kids, silent perfection sounds great. Meanwhile, the world has moved in the direction of encouraging our worst delusions, in the form of efficiency apps and devices. If we can measure our steps, our spending, the quality of our sleep – if we can log and rate every last breath and impulse – we can, surely, improve them.
And so, with the lumbering energy of a bear emerging from a cave, out come the pens and the homemade grids. We can eliminate stress triggers in the evening by doing weekly meal plans. We can direct the sequence of dinner, bath, book and bedtime with the efficiency of air traffic control. We can buy boxes. Boxes are key. If we can only put the right things in the right boxes, with the right labels on the front we will be rewarded with a new life of weightlessness.
The problem, of course, is that after the novelty of a new timetable, or any timetable at all, wears off, people won’t do what they’re supposed to be doing at the time they’re supposed to be doing it. Somebody wants an extra five minutes to finish playing before moving on to the next thing. Someone else doesn’t want scrambled eggs for dinner on a Wednesday, even though there it is in black and white: eggs on a Wednesday, as per our Sunday night agreement. You can’t just suddenly change your mind: it’s a contract. After three days of hitting our targets, the accommodation of small variables starts to dismantle the system. By the end of the week, I feel like the protagonist in Stefan Zweig’s classic chess story, The Royal Game, in which the world’s greatest self-taught chess player anticipates his opponent’s moves so far in advance that if the script varies, he is plunged into madness.
Here we are, again. It is 7.05am on Thursday. One of my children is still asleep. The other is finishing her homework on the sofa. No one, including me, is dressed, the lunches aren’t made, and while our improvement programme specifies choosing, the night before, what people are going to wear to school the next day, last night we forgot. In a moment, I will wake the sleeping child and inform her that if we’re going to make it into school for free breakfast, we have precisely 20 minutes to get up and out of the house. This will not impress her. There may be shouting and a last-minute scramble. Or maybe, today, we’ll make it by the skin of our teeth. Either way, I’m inclined to breathe out with relief. Another year’s delusions are over.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist