How to Stop Time
Superhuman Productivity and Time Management Miracles
Why is modern society obsessed with time-management? What does that even mean?
Aristotle was one of the first to ask “Whether, if soul (mind) did not exist, time would exist or not… for if there cannot be someone to count there cannot be anything that can be counted…” (Physics, chapter 14).
Productivity and time management are relatively new issues.
And they are social issues, not personal ones!
Ages ago, if you were a worker you worked hard all day, and then enjoyed yourself a little when you weren’t working. Unless you were wealthy, then you had to manage all the workers and make sure things were going well.
Those two roles actually haven’t changed much and are similar to common employees and contemporary bosses.
But then there were the artisans and people with special skill sets. The barber, the blacksmith, the undertaker. They did the tasks they needed to, but they got paid on a per job basis. They got paid for results. Which meant, theoretically, if there was enough demand, they could work twice as hard and earn twice as much (not to mention, high value orders for customers willing to pay extra for personalized service).
But then along came America (the nation) where zealous, time-crunching Puritans mingled with pirates and financial adventurers, fueling the entrepreneurial spirit. Suddenly, social class and education didn’t matter so much. Regular folks with “gumption” and “grit” could become rich overnight, through hustle, creativity, and taking calculated risks. The American Dream was born.
At first it was a Wild West, but gradually certain individuals amassed wealth and started companies, and the vast majority settled into roles as worker bees — under some horrible conditions.
Enlightenment enthusiasm faded into dejected pessimism in the face of barbarous factory conditions, overcrowded cities and the ever-worsening quality of daily life.
As a response, naturalistic spiritual movements and literature called people back out into the country, for simple living (Pastoralists, Transcendentalists, etc). Today we’ve achieved somewhat of a balance, but I’d like to propose dividing contemporary ideologies of productivity into two categories:
The Jefferson vs. The Thoreau
Let’s start with the Jefferson ideology.
“Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time, who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.” Letters of Thomas Jefferson
Most entrepreneurs are “Jeffersons”: they want to save time. Time is money. Time is valuable.
So they try to save it up through time-management and productivity hacks through Type-A self analysis, tight schedules, monitoring and instant feedback. They use iPhone apps for to-do lists and schedules, they limit interruptions, and try to shave 5 minutes here and there through rigorous time-manipulation.
This ideology, you may or may not be surprised to learn, can be traced all the way back to pre-Christian Orphic rituals instigated by Pythagoras, which focused on carefully recording and analyzing every single action to make sure it was producing the effects we claimed to be seeking.
The problem with the Jefferson ideology is that you can’t really save up extra time to use later. Saving an hour a day for a month doesn’t give you 30 hours in the bank you can use someday when you need them. (That is, unless you use them to create value that is comparable tomore than the 30 hours themselves… but we’ll discuss that more later).
Back to Jefferson: this bustling, uber-productive period led to overworking, crowded and dirty cities, and worsened life quality, which prompted many artists and writers to speak out against it.
“I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active — not more happy — nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Edgar Allan Poe
Thoreau got so sick of it he basically took a “time out.” He moved to Walden pond and built a cabin to live in.
“I delight to come to my bearings, — not walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, — not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody… I love to weigh, to settle, to gravitate toward that which most strongly and rightfully attracts me; — not hang by the beam of the scale and try to weigh less, — not suppose a case, but take the case that is.” Walden
The Thoreau ideology has resurfaced in recent years as Minimalism.
The Rat Race is too stressful? Then quit. You don’t need a big house, or care. Move to a cottage. Cut your living expenses down to almost zero. Grow your own food. You don’t need to work really hard to buy shit you don’t need.
Proponents of Minimalism tout improved quality of life and less stress as the main benefits, but it’s also popular with Bootstrappers cutting all non-essential costs so they can invest in their start-ups.
“Simplicity boils down to two steps: Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.” Leo Babauta
Most artists and writers are firmly on the “Thoreau” side. They hate schedules and punctuality. They want to wander through nature being in The Now.
“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness―in a landscape selected at random―is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.” Vladimir Nabokov
“Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.” Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
One of the major problems with contemporary culture, is we are all artists at heart — we embrace idealistic creative values and Like, Share and Retweet quotes like this rejecting hard work in favor of passive enjoyment of life’s breathtaking beauty; but we do it on our lunch breaks and late at night while dreading having to get up in the morning.
In other words, there is a cognitive dissonance between the actual states of our very real, and schedule-determining occupations, and our beliefs about the purpose and meaning of life. We are not spending our lives as we believe we should be spending them, which is making us unhappy.
And so we lament, and whine, and reminisce about how inspiring all those dead artists and writers were — who refused to play the game and lived and died for Art Itself; even though we’d never choose to live our lives in such financial insecurity. And unfortunately, our powers of creation die off while we are focused on the trivial pursuit of life-maintenance, and end up with no time or energy left for creating more meaningful work. Emerson recognized the same challenges in his 1844 essay, Experience.
“Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality of nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to use that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or invest. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius!”
But the problem is not “being more creative” or “having more time.” The problem is our dichotomous and self-defeating modern understanding of art. We work to buy ourselves enough time to make creative things — hoping for the possibility that somehow our work will become valued. But we refuse to try and deliberately reverse that cycle, by making creative things that we can sell, freeing up our time to make more creative things.
In a rather excellent NY Times article published on Sept. 26th of 2014, Anna Della Subin points out that since procrastination appears to be a societal epidemic, it probably isn’t a personal issue at all, but a symptom of a larger problem.
“But if procrastination is so clearly a society-wide, public condition, why is it always framed as an individual, personal deficiency? Why do we assume our own temperaments and habits are at fault — and feel bad about them — rather than question our culture’s canonization of productivity? (…) Are we imposing standards on ourselves that make us mad?”
However, after identifying the problem, Anna merely wafts into interesting counter-examples of personalities who “defeated” productivity by reveling in extreme procrastination and sloth. Melville’s Bartleby, and his infernal “I choose not to”; Oblomov, a character from a 19th century novel that rarely moves from his bed through the whole story; Cossery’s French novel of “Laziness in the Fertile Valley in which a family sleeps all day in passive resistance against British influences of business and winding clocks.
“Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers?”
Anna concludes by holding Cossery up as a creative example, for his leisurely Parisian lifestyle, suggesting, “it was idleness that led Cossery to true creativity, dare I say it, in his masterfully unprolific work.”
But is idleness necessary for creativity? To produce great work, do we need to be less prolific and more lazy, unproductive and adverse to schedules? Must we nap, sleep all day and stubbornly refuse to work as much as we can — not by guilty procrastination, but in a deliberate refusal of society’s iron grip on how we must spend our time?
Fascinating questions, challenged in the article’s comments by “Arianne”:
“How wonderful to have the money to live in Paris and wander around indefinitely. Sadly most of us must work for food & shelter, and unlimited time procrastinating in Paris is not a choice our scant resources will support. Perhaps there is a less privileged role model? Surely this paragon will not be a responsible person who must earn their own meager keep. We all procrastinate in one way or another, but the extent suggested in this article shows a level of privilege many cannot imagine. I say this as someone who has reduced working hours (and thus possessions) to have time to breathe. Even so, only the wealthy can indefinitely procrastinate. Most of us must get a move on to pay the rent.”
To be more creative, to make things of real meaning, we need to slow down, appreciate more, experience more, reflect and absorb. For artists and writers, productivity is not necessarily a mark of success — they need to produce work of extraordinary quality, and it is usually fueled by awareness, life experience, sensory appreciation of the universe. They are spending their time cultivating a frame of mind that will enhance their work.
“It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.” Vincent van Gogh
However the minimalist, lifestyle is unsustainable for anybody but the wealthy. Regular people can do it on weekends, or on vacation days or holidays. We might even take a few months (or a year!) off and travel the world. But then, after emptying our bank accounts, we need to find whatever soul-crushing job we can to support ourselves.
And producing more is not necessarily the answer either, because working faster to save up more time isn’t like burying pots of gold. So what if you can save up and store a whole bunch of extra time by doing things faster? What’s it worth? How are you using it? Is it lasting?
Consider retirement: the main idea is to save up 20 or 30 years worth of extra money so you can stop working entirely when you get older. But it’s usually based on a bad model of hourly wages. What if you could triple your income and retire 3x sooner? Or work 3x as many hours per week and do the same?
The question of income — how you are trading your time for money — does not often figure into conversations about productivity and motivation, but it is absolutely essential.
To get MORE time, you need the same results with less time invested, or you need to scale back the results you’re accustomed to.
Let me repeat that, because it’s important.
TO GET MORE TIME, YOU NEED THE SAME RESULTS WITH LESS TIME INVESTED, OR YOU NEED TO SCALE BACK THE RESULTS YOU’RE ACCUSTOMED TO
Productivity is not really a problem of how many things you do.
The real problem you’re facing is the way you trade your time for money.
Remember those three categories I mentioned before? If you’re a boss, increased productivity can mean both more time AND more money. If you’re a skilled worker, working on a project basis, you can work faster or raise prices (less work, but more income).
But what about the regular workers? What if you have a normal, 9 to 5 job? You put in 40 hours a week. If you work twice as hard, do you get twice the pay? No — if you’re lucky you’ll get a raise every once in awhile. If you finish everything early, can you go home? No — there’s always more work to be done (or at least you need to look like you’re working).
For most people, having a job necessitates a tight schedule — you’ll have to wake up early, prepare breakfast, commute, maybe hit the gym after work, and you’ll be so tired at the end of the day you’ll relax with a beer and a movie.
What will you gain by increasing your productivity?
You could pull a Walden and disappear to some Thai island, but unless you have a way to earn your own money, soon you’ll need to find another job.
If you feel like I’m lecturing — don’t worry, I’ll we’ll focus on helping you stay productive and super-motivated later. But this point needs to be made first:
Why do you want to be more productive? What do you want to produce? How will it improve your life?
I want to impress upon you the importance of making things that you can sell, or at the very least building your own online platform which you can use after you have a following.
Because the #1 thing killing your productivity is your job.
Which means the #1 productivity tip in the world is to quit.
But you can’t do that unless you’ve found ways to either
A) Make the same amount of income on your own (we’ll discuss ways to do that)
B) Reduce your needs to match your available income (which isn’t sustainable unless you have recurring income that comes in without you doing any work.)
There’s a video of time-lapse scenes of Oregon trending right now on the Internet, which is popular for all the confusing and button-pressing reasons I mentioned above. In it, set against beautiful nature shots, a stern voice is pontifying:
“If you don’t understand that time is a convention, of course you take it seriously, and you are driven by time. Time is money. Time is of the essence. And we do, live in a culture, where we are literally driven by time.”
The Thoreau-rooted point of the film is that time doesn’t exist, that there is only this moment, so we should enjoy it.
But as I’ve mentioned, we can’t do that indefinitely, because we need to make money.
You need to realize that time-management, in itself as a means to make you more productive, is a wasted effort unless it is focused on providing value to others — as Emerson says, to impart and invest. Not all creative work is equal.
Far too many creative people are being told to produce their creative work without considering any financial remuneration; to create “Pure Art” untainted by public expectations. But if you want to gain power over time and defeat its stranglehold over your life — you need to focus on creating things that others are willing to pay for; products that you can trade of money; money which will free you from having to trade more of your time working on things that don’t matter.
It begins by making choices and re-evaluating your values and beliefs about creativity. The more popular models of creativity are excellent for defeating fear and uncertainty and finishing the work, but unfortunately are very bad at getting people to finish work that anybody else cares about, which is why we have an epidemic of failed, unhappy writers and artists creating work they can’t sell. In almost every case, successful creatives are the ones who fail a few times, and then start making content that connects with popular genres or motifs.
To become a master of time, and a truly creative individual who can focus on the Great Work, you first need to pre-emptively fulfill the requirements of sustenance, by creating income-producing things of value so that you can stop trading your time for money.
“Creativity occurs in the moment, and in the moment we are timeless.” (The Artist’s Way)
Zeno, Plato, Spinoza and Hegel all agreed in various ways that time is an illusion. Early 20th century English philosopher F. H. Bradley argued, “Time, like space, has most evidently proved not to be real, but a contradictory appearance….The problem of change defies solution.”
This is basically the point referred to by Heraclitus, one of the earliest philosopher-poets, when he said “You can never step in the same river twice.” It’s always a different river. Everything is always changing. The now is a magical, miraculous moment of change, when things that are can become naught; and things that are not can be created.
There is no past, or future. There is only right now. Every moment you live, everything you do is a vote for the kind of life you want to be living. It’s the only vote you get. And you are the only person voting.
But you have to make choices.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” Thomas Jefferson
Taking time off of work to appreciate nature isn’t sustainable — because the more time you take off work, the more time you’ll have to make it up later (or face, at the very least, the humbling prospect of moving back in with your parents; or at most, homelessness and starvation.)
But working hard is just as much a waste, because it’s a perpetual cycle: the more you earn, the higher your living expenses will climb — it’s a treadmill you can’t get off, and it just goes faster and faster. Financial ruin is often just two paychecks away.
The solution is to spend time right now, building things that will produce profit for you later, of much greater value than what you would have been able to trade your time for. If done well, you will eventually truly be able to step out of time and mediate on the beauty of nature, indefinitely, because the money will keep rolling in.
But it will take action. And not just any action; action that produces the right results.
This is an excerpt from How to Stop Time, available on Amazon — but still rough and in need of polishing.