The time of your life?

18 Nov

Even as I sit down to right this post, I am thinking Do I actually have time to do this? I have to remind myself forcefully that the answer is yes, yes I do. I don’t have to check my emails again – they do not evaporate if I don’t look at them within twenty minutes; I don’t have to clean the mirrors (well actually I do, but not right now); and I absolutely do not have to check if I have any new activity on Facebook or Twitter. Those are both vaguely work-related, by the way (most things are if you’re an author), but not urgent or even essential.

In Time - an interesting take on extreme time pressure.

In Time – an interesting take on extreme time pressure.

The thing is, I feel like I don’t have enough time in the day, as I’m sure most people do, but I’m not convinced that I actually spend my time very wisely, or that I assess how I have used it very accurately. I got to thinking about it today because of a BBC article about the new meal-replacement drink Soylent, which can save time cooking and eating. (There’s a case in point – clicking through to online articles from social media can be an interesting, but rarely productive, use of time.) It said that if it was all about saving time, then people would certainly replace meals with a dodgily-named drink (look up Soylent Green if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but it’s not. The writer of the article thinks it’s about excessive busyness distracting us from the human condition. I’m not about to get that deep and philosophical here (although I think it’s an interesting point). I just want to think a little bit about good, bad and better ways to spend time.

As a freelance writer, domestic skivvy (sorry, wife) and occasional jack-of-all-trades, I feel particularly pressed for time because I have so many competing priorities. If I’m food shopping I feel that I’ve got to hurry up because I should be writing. If I’m writing I feel like I should be writing something else, or doing housework, or researching. You can see the problem: whatever I achieve in one category, it means I achieve less in another, so I always feel like I’m catching up. In the last few days I’ve submitted the final draft of a manuscript, finished a chapter of the biography I’m working on and handed in an assignment for a distance learning course, which should give me a glow of satisfaction, but I haven’t cleaned the mirrors (I can see them out of the corner of my eye – I’m not usually this mirror-obsessed) or baked biscuits, so I feel like I have not finished what I need to do. This isn’t a problem of time, I would suggest; it is a problem of attitude.

I think it’s possible to go to extremes in opposite directions, and either push yourself too hard to achieve all of the things you want to do before you die, because time is a finite resource for mortal human beings, or to put these things off indefinitely and get on with day-to-day living, as if achieving what you would like to achieve, or even attempting it, is a foolish dream. It’s not a myth, by the way, that there are loads of people who would love to write a book but have never got round to it; I’ve met enough of them to believe it. The old “what would you like to read in your obituary” technique can be pretty useful if you tend to just drift. But at the same time there’s no point in pushing yourself to extremes, because part of the point of life is to just live – otherwise they might be writing your obituary too soon.

There’s a guy called Ramit Sethi who runs various online courses designed to improve your life and particularly your finances. He actually distributed a video on saving time, which was very useful, and which I will watch again if I get the time 😉 (Seriously, it’s worth a watch. Key insights for me were not to fight against my natural rhythms  – I’m rubbish at mornings – and to work in places, like coffee shops, that increase my productivity.) But what I think is particularly interesting is what he says about saving money, which also applies to saving time. He says there’s no point in cutting out that latte every day, or whatever it is, as most money saving advice says you should. It won’t make that much difference, and you’ll be giving up something you really enjoy for not much reward.

With regard to money, the answer, according to Ramit, is to make more rather than spend less. That doesn’t really work with time (although you can become more productive), but I think his less dogmatic, more relaxed attitude to little pleasures can be applied to the use of time, too. I shouldn’t necessarily cut out all uses of my time that aren’t productive or laudable, because while I might fit a few more ‘worthwhile’ things into my life, it would be less of a life and more of a chore. One of the things I particularly struggle with, from a Christian point of view, is feeling that I’ve got to justify my very existence by working hard. This is not what the Christian life is about, and that’s something I have to constantly remind myself of: I don’t need to do anything to justify my existence, I’m already justified. I think Ramit’s “don’t give up the latte” advice is a useful corrective to this extremism, too.

I’ll leave you with a line I love from the Mumford and Sons song Awake My Soul: “where you invest your love, you invest your life”. That doesn’t sound like a bad way to organise your time. A little of what you fancy does you good, and a little of what you love, or like, turns an existence into a life. After all, wasting time may not always be a waste of time.

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