Are You a Slave of Time?

“I realized during meditation this morning that a huge part of my stress lied in a perceived scarcity of time. I am so concerned with ‘not wasting time’ — with ‘living up to my potential’ — that any moment that is not propelling me towards some goal is felt to be a waste, a luxury, a sin.
That’s ridiculous.”
- Personal Journal of Gray Miller, February 10, 2017

I’ve talked before about not so much wanting to “manage” my time as much as wanting to be a “Time Lord” (and that’s only partially because I’m in love with a Dr. Who fan). I fell completely in the whole “Inbox Zero”/“Four Hour Work Week”/“Getting Things Done” seduction scheme, with the pornographic dream of a world where I could do everything and anything if only I could manage my time more efficiently.

Actually, come to think of it, I fell for it long before any of those concepts. My mother created a fictional hero called “the File” who was sort of a cross between Jason Bourne and Encyclopedia Brown. He fought crime while writing volumes of literary and scientific research, spoke multiple languages, practiced martial arts, and, of course, didn’t sleep.

I don’t remember any actual stories about the File, but I remember the character sketch. It fed into my later identification with other hyper-efficient characters: James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. “Slippery Jim” DiGriz. Tony Stark. Tim Ferriss. Jubal Harshaw. Even Heinlein’s Lazarus Long became a model, which really wasn’t fair since he was a man who lived forever. Of course he had time to do everything!

The Fallacy of Enough Time

Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.
— Ray Cummings, “The Time Professor”

It’s really kind of silly to feel a “scarcity” of time — because it’s the one thing that everyone has exactly the same amount of. No one can get more, no one can take any away from you. You have it, it’s yours, and you know exactly when it started being yours (in fact, I celebrate the 48th anniversary of my own Gift of Time today). As for when you “run out of time” — well, that’s something you can hope for, and make educated guesses and plans about, but the fact is nobody knows. Which again is a kind of “great equalizer.”

Why, then, do I feel like time is scarce, when it’s the one constant? The answer, of course, is that time doesn’t exist apart from other things. Here’s some of the fun flavors we add to time:

  • Activities to do, that
  • Result in measurable accomplishments, such as
  • Materials produced at a
  • High quality within a
  • Set “Due Date” (usually arbitrary)

That’s a heady mix to stir into our allotment of time! And if, like me, that “usually arbitrary” evokes a “No, I really need it done by a certain date!” I would ask that you really ask yourself: Why?

For example: why am I writing this blog post on a Tuesday?

Because I want to have it ready to post by Wednesday at 9am.

Why?

Because Wednesday is the day I put out Life Posts, and that’s a good time for people to read blogs.

Who decided Wednesday was the day you put out Life Posts?

Um…that was me.

Why did you pick that day?

Um…because Wednesday is hump day? And because “Life” comes in the middle of “Love Life Practice. And…well, it just seemed to be a good time to do it.

Basically, while there are a few (pretty weak) rationalizations, the reality is just “because I felt like it”. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Preference is a great justification. Often it’s the “preference” of someone who has some other power over you, and that’s motivation enough (I don’t think the “why” game would work so well with my landlord).

The point, though, is that while Time is a constant, everything else — Activities, Results, Materials, Quality, and Due Dates — are variables. But for some reason we treat it as if the opposite were true — as if we can “make more”, “find”, “waste” or “kill” time. Meanwhile we tell people “being late is not an option”, or “here’s what I have to do today”, or reach “peak productivity” — every day.

Think about that. “Peak” is a metaphor for a mountain climb, a long journey with a beginning, long journey, a climactic “peak” moment, followed by a long journey back and a rest and reflection on the experience (such as “The Hobbit”).

You know what happens when everything is a peak? It’s called a plateau. I’m not saying that having a goal for excellent performance is a bad thing — that’s great! But expecting constant peak performance is not only unrealistic but destructive.

The Solution to Time Scarcity

Ha! Gotcha! I don’t actually have a solution here — I mean, I could make one up, cobbled together from the plethora of other time management systems out there, but I like being honest with you, dear reader. I can tell you that since that journal entry, I’ve been paying more attention to some of the things that make me feel time is less scarce:

  • Natasha and I had planned a business trip to Minneapolis last weekend, which was cancelled last-minute. Suddenly we had an entire weekend that was unplanned — and the result was some beautiful together time as well as getting further ahead on some personal projects.
  • I had a day with several projects scheduled including writing, business planning, meetings, and a workout. The day was supposed to start with a breakfast meeting with my soon-to-be-wed Middle Daughter, but she cancelled it last minute. At the end of the day, I realized I’d gotten everything I’d planned done in a way that felt relaxed and flowing.

That meant I’d over-planned by at least the amount of time the breakfast would have taken — but it also pointed out something else: sudden gifts of “unscheduling” seem to be one way to make time feel less scarce. It reduces the other variables, at least until your brain comes up with other things you “have to do”.

Maybe we need to hire “Unschedulers” who will jump out at random moments and cancel meetings and tasks? Maybe we need to do something like the old fashion trick, writing out our schedule and glancing at it over our shoulders so that we can eliminate the first thing that catches our eye? Maybe what we need is to follow Chris Brogan’s idea of only scheduling to 40% capacity.

Yeah, you read that right. Forty percent. It’s a scary thought. But please let me know if you have any better ideas — because something tells me our lives might depend on it.

The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices — because there will be enough time for everything — the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.”
— Oliver Burkeman, Why time management is ruining our lives