Some of the common misconceptions:
Myths of productivity. It is commonplace to assume that if you managed to be more efficient and clear your to-do lists faster, you will get ‘on-top of things’, achieve a better work-life balance and get more time to use as you please. However, what is more likely to happen is that when you find a way to get more things done, more things will come up to do and your work will expand to fill in newly acquired time. You get a few more tasks assigned to you, even if it comes with a bit more money. Similarly when you make enough money to meet your needs, you'll find new things to need. Once you are aware that work and needs expand endlessly to fill any spaces that open up in their pursuit, you can stop looking for fulfilment upon accomplishing your current needs or clearing out your to-do list.
Doing more work vs doing more important work. Burying your head in the busyness of your days will often leads you to omit the crucial task of deciding what is important and what is not. And as long as you are filling every hour of the day with some form of striving, you get to carry on believing that all this striving is leading you somewhere – to an imaginary state of perfection. Doing this, you (inadvertently) abdicate the responsibility of deciding what to do with your finite time, as getting all done means you do not have to go through the difficult task of sorting out what is important and really worth doing from what’s not, hence what to sacrifice. In the meantime, telling yourself it has to be done this way.
Saving the best for last. Believing that doing more work quicker, opens up space to do more of what you love, you also run the risk of pushing the more important tasks which may take more time or effort to the end of the queue, to when you finally have time to properly do them. Only, the queue gets filled up with more of the less important items, which you still take on because you feel you'll clear them and get to the important ones. Vicious circle.
The value of time is not in its quantity. Time is not a resource wherein the more you have for yourself the better. Having more time does not inherently make us happier. Its value is in the activities in which it is embedded and how it is coordinated with others. An illustration of this is in research that showed that people who are long term unemployed also report boosts in levels of happiness on the weekends (as those who are employed). This is because they get to spend it with others who were at work during the week, and now available.
When time is perceived as a fixed resource whose value is in its quantity, it is seen as a thing to be used, with the pressure to use it “well” and to try to pack in things to do. On the other hand time could be perceived through a task-oriented lens wherein the rhythms of life rather emerge from the tasks and activities at hand - without the pressure or rush to get them to completion, hence the activities undertaken are made of time.
Some helpful tips for having a better relationship with time
Do not live primarily for the future. We need to approach more activities in our lives the way we approach taking a walk. The goal is not to get to the end – else the easiest way would be to not leave the house in the first place. The meaning is in the activity itself. The process. The walk. We should strive to do more of the things we do for their sake alone, focusing on the experience, not only to achieve a goal. Often the reason hobbies are rewarding is because we do not hope to excel at them nor seek a particular reward. Rather, we get to do them just for the experience and have more freedom to fail, hence do not feel we are wasting time when doing them. “Results aren’t everything.”
If you focus too much on the future and obsess with “using time well”, the present becomes a means to an end – and you will miss it - and never really get to that satisfaction you thought existed in the future as when you finally get there, you will be in the present, only this time, focused on the new future. You never get there. You’re never alive.
Do not be deluded into thinking that you will relax and find meaning at some point in the future once certain goals are met. Focus your finite time on a few things that matter to you now. This is not an argument against planning for the future, but a statement that even those things planned for the future only ever matter now, in each moment of the work leading up to them, whether they are realized later or not. Treating the present as a vehicle to a future state of happiness is chasing the wind. “We will never get the upper hand in our relationship with the moments of our lives because we are nothing but those moments.”
We also tend to judge many experiences of the present by evaluating what consequences might lie in the future – and for some experiences, that makes us miss their importance in the moment. Some things need to be weighed by the effect they have now. “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment.”
Accept your finitude and let go of the fear of missing out. The list of things you could do is infinite, yet your lifespan is finite. So doing any one thing means you miss out on another. Similarly, choosing to be in one place means choosing not to be in the other. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot attend to every charitable cause. Consciously choose, aware of the alternatives and let the others go. Not because they are not important, but because you realize that your attention and capacity are finite.
Don’t wait to be ready, take a leap. Do not hold back until you feel like you know what you are doing. In marriage, work, parenting, we are all just winging it. Put one step forward at a time and then the next. “There’s no one right way to live.” Not doing because you are worried it won’t be good enough hence waiting, is a way of life to avoid. Make a choice, accept that you will never be perfectly ready and acknowledge the options you are sacrificing. Not making a choice, is making a choice to go with neither option until you decide to choose. It’s easy to think of the ideal partner or thing you want, putting in simultaneously all your desired traits. But some of these traits cannot coexist in the real world. There is always going to be compromise, so make the habit to deliberately choose and love what you pick as the alternative is searching indefinitely. Aim to realize the joy of missing out of rather than fear of missing out. Make a commitment. Because once you can no longer turn back, you love the choice you made more and there’s only one way – forward.
Use the end as a reminder to live now. Near-death experiences have been known to give people a better perspective on their finitude, causing them to approach life with more gratitude and consciousness, knowing that today might be their last day – as it almost was recently. A trigger to summon more presence and more gratitude when faced with situations that cause anxiety and worry is to ask yourself, what people who are suffering, old, sick, or dead, would give to be in your situation.
Remind yourself too that it’s the last occasion for a lot of things you do – in fact everything. You’ll never be able to do the same activity in the same conditions. Even for the activities you repeat, next time your entourage will be different, or the location, the day of the week, the state of your health etc. The timestamp will certainly be different. Every moment is the last of that moment, and once it has passed, you have fewer moments left.
Accept your limited scope of control. Succumbing to external distraction when working on tasks that matter usually starts from an internal urge, because these difficult tasks force us to confront our limited control over how life unfolds. So we seek such outlets as social media that are a gateway to an unlimited world out there. There is no easy cure for this urge. Acceptance is key. Acknowledge the inevitability of the discomfort and your powerlessness to determine it. As in many other situations of suffering, Buddhism teaches that suffering results when we resist paying full attention to how things are, and wish they were different. We will only feel liberation when we accept that we are limited and don’t get to control how the world unfolds.
Get comfortable with doing nothing. We are accustomed to lives of speed. Doing one thing and starting the next immediately we finish the first lest the urge in the interval gets uncomfortable. Yet ceding to the ‘discomfort’ of letting things take their time; not trying to rush them, but out of patience, resisting the urge to hurry, brings us more into a state of presence. When you stop trying to determine the pace at which your experiences move; when in an activity you stop trying to escape the discomfort of time passing slowly, the discomfort abates. This discomfort you feel when you stop your current activity but do not start any other is a feeling to be familiarized and accepted. It’s a feeling you should seek to master, as it teaches you to accept the present moment rather than fight to control it.
Rest should also not always only be seen as a time to recuperate from work or to work on personal growth – sometimes it should be spent just for the pleasure of the experience of resting.
Let your cosmic insignificance humble you into appreciation of the little things. Remind yourself that in the grand scheme of things, if you stopped existing, the universe would not be affected one bit. You are probably not the fastest runner on the continent, nor the one who will create the invention that revolutionizes your industry - there is a very miniscule number of people who will ever attain such heights of achievement and even they, and their achievements from a cosmic view, will soon be forgotten. Hence you can stop holding yourself to expectations of having remarkable standards and embrace your insignificance. This recognition should enable you drop your unrealistic definition of how huge an effect you think you will leave on the world and of a “life well spent” and bring you to consider that the small things - some of which you are already doing – matter as much hence you can and should give more time and attention to them.
Acknowledge wholly that life has its flaws and you have limited influence on how it unfolds. There are some things about ourselves that we don't like yet which we won't be able to change. Learn to accept life as it is rather than fight to control such constraints. Resist the belief that problems are obstacles you shouldn’t have and the tendency to think that one day you will arrive a state where there are aren’t any problems. It’s unachievable and even undesirable, as such a state would mean there is no point in doing anything. Appreciate life as the process of engaging problem after problem, giving each one its due time. Adopt an “I do not mind what happens” mindset and it will free you from expectations of certainty that all goes right in the future, and ground you in a fuller experience of now. Be careful however, not to erroneously interpret this as advice against planning for the future.
Be aware of what you give your attention to. Wherever you place your attention determines what reality is for you. So, when you pay attention to something you don’t value, you pay with your life. Literally. Not only do you give your time as the currency in exchange, what you experience during that time shapes your future experiences. Your time and experiences are your life. The social media ‘attention economy’ operates by hacking your attention, distorting your view of the world by giving you more of what you like to see and changing your thoughts on what’s important online and offline, because you think what you are seeing is what is happening. Using such techniques, it keeps you coming, and uses you endlessly as you return, to sell your attention to whoever can benefit from controlling it.
Work on a fixed number of things at once. If you try to do everything on your wish list simultaneously, when you feel stuck on one you’ll jump off to the other and end up with numerous incomplete tasks rather than a few complete ones. Keep two separate to-do lists – one with everything you would like to do, the second with a fixed number of items. Only move an item to the second list when another gets closed and moved out. Also, keep a “done” list where you can see the tasks you completed and hence reward yourself for small accomplishments. While you’re at it, avoid trying to do less important things to get them out of the way in order to come to the more important things. As a rule of thumb, do what is important first. Start with a small fraction of the important tasks on your to-do list. Put money into your savings account before spending. Pay yourself first.
Increase your experiences by trying out new things and re-experience the mundane by doing old things in different ways. Be deliberately curious about the person you are talking to. Act immediately on urges to be generous or thankful.
Trust the process and enjoy small increments. Practice developing yourself and your work in small increments. Writing in twenty ten-minute sessions daily rather than one binge is a demonstration of patience over the creative process, and letting it take the time it needs.
"Time seems to go faster as we grow older."
“Technological advancements also ensure that it takes less time to accomplish lots of tasks. But this makes us rather more impatient as we just want them to take further less time."
“The constant urge to reach out for our phones is a failure to make the best use of a small supply of time.”