The way we experience time is the direct result of how we spend it.
One hour in the hands of a person who uses it intentionally can seem like ages, each second noticed, held, weighed, and tasted before it flutters off to be replaced by another.
That same hour, used in a flurry by someone trying to cram too much into it, or who uses it in a scattered sort of way, who spreads it too thin, will barely notice its passing. Every single day can seem like a non-event to this latter person, though not because they’re misusing their time, per se. It’s more that they’re trying to accomplish things in a disorganized, frantic way rather than an intentional, organized fashion.
When I bring this up to some people, they tell me that they are very organized, thank you very much. They have pocket calendars and reminders on their phones. They’re GTDing and Inbox Zeroing and Pomodoroing and making use of every other clever time-optimizing trick they can find. They’re the most organized people they know; it’s time that’s the problem. Time doesn’t seem to want to fit into one of their boxes, which leaves them drained and unsatisfied most nights as they struggle to get to sleep because their brains won’t slow down and their bodies are running on fumes.
There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious. I’m a very ambitious person, and I do my best to surround myself with people who want to get the most out of life.
That said, I believe that many of us have been brought up with very harmful ideas of how we’re meant to achieve the things we want to achieve. We’re told that we have to wring ourselves dry of energy and balance in order to get what we want. We’re told that we have to fill every moment of every day with frantic busywork, lest we fall behind someone else who’s willing to do more with that spare second they find themselves hoarding. We’re told that to be successful is to be perpetually goose-stepping faster than the person next to us, and that in order to be a winner we have to light things on fire and blow things up, starting with our own health, relationships, and sanity.
This harmful extreme is common in some types of ambitious people, and it’s a cautionary tale for those who wish to pursue anything big, while at the same time assuring those who are less ambitious that there’s no need to take more control of their lives: down that path are sacrifices not worth making.
From what I’ve seen, though, one needn’t dynamite their lives in order to succeed. Some of the most wildly successful people I know take a more balanced approach, allowing them to pursue what makes them happy while maintaining a healthy body and successful relationships.
This necessitates a better use of one’s time. More specific and careful use. These people tend not to have the TV on while trying to write while talking to their assistant about another project. They write. Or they space out in front of the TV. Or they delegate. They do things intentionally and with focus. Every moment of every day, they’re completely engaged.
Beyond that, there aren’t a lot of commonalities in how they spend their time. Some of these people fill their days with work or familial responsibilities, while others take frequent off-grid retreats into the woods. Still others fill their lives with non-work-related social activities, or TV/video games/books/other forms of entertainment.
How you spend your time is determined by you and what makes you happy. But what you get out of it, and the way in which you experience it, is predicated on whether or not you’re engaged and focused.
Burnout is common in a world where communication with anyone on the planet and complete access to any piece of information you might want to have is available all day, every day. This is a wonderful, nearly miraculous asset if you can filter it to suit your needs.
Experiment frequently, expose yourself to new ideas and experiences, and figure out what makes you happy. Engage in more of those types of activities and make those sorts of lifestyle choices more frequently. Immerse yourself in them without trying to multitask or using tricks to fit more activity into a moment than that moment allows for.
We all have the same amount of time to spend each day. Assess how you’re spending yours, and be sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck.
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Update: April 20, 2017
Monotasking is a difficult thing to explain to someone if they’ve never encountered the concept before. It’s become a relatively well known statistic, that is takes a little over 20 minutes, on average, to pull your attention back and refocus after it’s yanked away by a distraction, but some people fail to recognize that this means if they’re multitasking, they’re essentially just staying in that unfocused limbo throughout their entire day. Feeling busy, but not actually accomplishing as much as they could be accomplishing.
Don’t make that mistake. Do one thing and get to a stopping point before moving on to another thing and focusing on it to the exclusion of all else. Repeat.