What is time?
In this book “On The Shortness Of Life”, Roman philosopher Seneca wrote “This spell of time that has been given to use rushes by so rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we are getting ready for it”. This will sound familiar to too many people who have reached their ‘golden years’ only to look back and wonder where all the time went.
Time is a complicated concept, and though we try to make sense of it through hours, days and years, ask any physicist and their explanation will be a lot less digestible or easy to visualize.
A day is a day, but some seem to fly by quicker than others. It all depends on how we use that day. Our friend Seneca also says “We are not given a short life, but we make it so.”
Getting some perspective:
We often treat our life in the same way we would treat a typical workday. ‘I’ll leave the emails until 4:30, because it will just take me half an hour before I clock out at 5’.
But imagine this scenario:
It is your first day working at a new company. During the induction your new boss hands you a long list of tasks you need to complete before the day is finished. In order to organize your day effectively, you ask ‘What time does the workday end?’.
‘I don’t know.’ is her reply. ‘Each employee has a different finishing time. You will find out when it arrives. Now get to work on that list. Good luck!’.
What are you supposed to do with that response? How can you possibly manage a workday if you have no idea how long it will last? I think you can guess where we are going with this…
The visual approach:
In his fantastically entertaining blog WaitButWhy and its accompanying Ted Talk, Tim Urban discusses the idea of how we manage our time when working on a project. How so many people procrastinate until the last possible moment and then in a flurry of panic and coffee they just about complete it at the last second. He also touches on how we view the time we are given in life as a whole, and how that can be difficult to comprehend.
This lack of comprehension can lead to bad management of that time. The ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ virus infects a lot of us far too often and there doesn’t seem to be a vaccine.
With this in mind Urban created a simple but clever template called the “Life Calendar” to help us visualize how much time we ‘might’ have available to use. He now sells it on his site in a large poster format, but realistically if you could create a smaller version for yourself.
His poster is a series of small boxes, with 52 boxes going across representing weeks, and 90 rows down to represent the years. Find your current position on the template and color in each week as it passes you by. This is often quite a profound experience for people to see their entire existence up there on a wall.
If you were paying attention earlier you might notice this seems to contradict the point we made in the ‘workday scenario’. We are not guaranteed 90 years or anywhere near it, so why would we schedule our life based on this if we could end up under a bus next week? The point of it isn’t to look forward at what is left, but to look back at all those little boxes we have used so far. How many have you colored in and what have you got to show for it? What does each box represent in terms of what we could achieve or experience? We may not be guaranteed 90 years, but most of us are at the very least guaranteed that next little box on the wall. What will you do with it?
Making the most of our time:
You are probably sick of Seneca by now, but indulge me with one last short reference: “Our lifetime extends amply if we manage it properly”.
We recently wrote about how Elon Musk seems to be able to achieve the impossible; work 80 hour weeks and still have quality time with his family. A single week for Musk seems to magically expand to a fortnight. This is because he is very conscious about how much time he has available to use, and then milks it for all it’s worth.
Making the most of a week is one thing, but what about making the most of a life?
Well, why not treat it with the same urgency and attention to detail?
When you are in your final moments, what memories do you want to be able to look back on?
Do you have a ‘bucket list’, and if so, what is on it?
Many people create these lists of experiences they want to have, or goals they want to reach. But quite often that is all it is: a list. No times have been assigned and no appointments made.
They are simply things that we will ‘eventually get around to when the time is right’.
Schedule the fun stuff:
Although it is not generally advisable to seek life advice from a murderous psychopath, Stephen King’s protagonist in ‘The Shining’ makes a good point when he says “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Only making time for work in your life is unlikely to result in you chasing your family with an axe like Jack did, but you will not be fully living. When you are old you won’t look back fondly on all those deadlines you met.
Make time for the good stuff: the time with family and friends, the travel experiences, and the new hobbies you always wanted to try. In fact, don’t just make time for them, schedule them in the way you would schedule a dental appointment.
Do you want to try rock-climbing? Find a climbing center, book a time and put it in your calendar.
Are you a tennis fan, but don’t play very often because you just don’t seem to get around to it? This last one is a common trend with regular hobbies. We tend to let them slip because we know we will get around to another tennis game eventually. But will we?
In his ‘Walking Up’ course, Sam Harris discusses this idea in a lesson called ‘The Last Time’. There will be so many times in life where we do something for the last time, and mostly we won’t even realize it will be the last time. He uses the example of parents getting up in the middle of the night to calm their crying baby. Although at the time it seems like hell, one of those nights will be the last time they do it, and after some time passes they may grow to miss that connection. There will be a last time your child kisses you before leaving for school, the next day they will think they are too old for this behavior.
Sam himself is a fan of Skiing, but hasn’t gone in many years and says he isn’t sure if he ever will get to again. Make time for the good stuff, because this is your life.
- Pick something fun that could be achieved this week; maybe lunch with a friend.
- Pick another that could be achieved this month, or next; maybe a weekend camping trip.
- Open your Sorted³ calendar and schedule it in. Treat it like an obligation.
Some of you may think this seems quite strict, and that's one way to think of it. Another perspective is that you are treating your personal life as an equally important thing as your career. Your life should not be an afterthought. You deserve better.
Perhaps some of you are already living your life to the fullest, and this is hugely admirable. There will also be those who don’t even realize how fast time is flying by, and maybe this will prompt you to examine it a little closer.
James manages the Twitter account for Sorted³, and periodically contributes to the Blog.