We are all blessed with the same 24 hours in a day. Father Time is unbiased In this regard (though some may question His fairness in His numbering of our days). Whether rich or poor, young or old, big or small, male or female; we each get the same 24 hours to apply to a day.
We explicitly say apply here because some may choose to inefficiently lose it, some may choose to squander it, some may choose to invest it, and some may choose to thoughtfully spend it.
Being unintentional with one’s time
When one doesn’t thoughtfully consider how to apply one’s time and apply good intention and boundaries around it, we may inadvertently lose much of it without having anything to show for it in the end.
We all know of that person who may have the greatest intentions to be incredibly productive with their afternoon, but on her way out she remembers that she had a half written email from the night before she wanted to finish, so she sits at her desk to finish that up. In doing so, she sees an ad for that thing she had been wanting, and, seeing no harm, clicks on it and spends a little while tangled up in articles and videos about It. Realizing that a half hour has gone by, she then gets up, resolved to go about her day, but in the 30 minutes since, she notices that the clouds have come in more than she had thought, so she decides to put on a sweater. In going to her closet, she realizes that the laundry needs to be done, so she begins that. Starting her laundry reminds her that some dishes from the previous day are still in the sink, so she begins to clean them. Pretty soon, her entire afternoon is gone and she still hasn’t gotten out of the apartment to do the productive things she had intended to do in the first place.
You might argue that some of those things are good. The laundry needs to be done, the dishes need to be washed, so why is our heroine being frowned upon?
The answer lies in our ability to direct the course of our lives.
Back to our heroine. If we take individual time slices of what she ended up spending her time on and simply tally the time she has “wasted” (more on wasting time later), she may measure up quite favorably. Doing the dishes, doing the laundry, finishing her email correspondence - those are all useful and necessary things, and do effectively move her life forward. Time spent on ads and videos may be arguably useful as well, especially if those activities lead to more clarity and ultimately a purchase decision on something.
When we take a step back however, we see that our heroine has not intentionally moved life forward in any measurable way. Her initial intention was to be productive with her afternoon, which we assume to be an afternoon spent in activities that move the macro needle of her life forward (for example studying, learning some new skill). We may be tempted to give her a pass this time, as her overall time was spent usefully, and in this single instance it may be fine for us to do just that.
The problem arises when we look not at this single slice of her life but when we apply the principle to all (or at least, the majority) of her days. Without the skills and the tools to combat this type of approach to life, we may quickly find weeks, months, or even years have gone by without our explicit direction. Worse, we may decide that the ability to have any input into the grand scheme of our life was a farce to begin with and remove our hands from the wheel altogether.
So what do we do?
Increasing our time
When it comes to our professional lives, it is pretty common for us to think about how to maximize our time. We have trainings and seminars about how to be more productive, and our teams are always trying to optimize processes so that we can be the most efficient in our application of the time we allocate to our professional endeavors. (I’ve recently shared a few thoughts myself on the matter: here and here).
How do we apply similar principles to our personal lives so that we can get the most there as well?
Think Big first
This might be a bias from me working at Amazon long enough to adopt the “Think Big” terminology, but it’s the right term to use here. We must first start by thinking big, thinking long term, thinking grand. What is it that brings us satisfaction and fulfillment in life? What is it that causes us to have that Joie de vivre we’ve heard so much about? What is it that makes us tick, the thought of which brings a smile to our face and an inner warmth in our hearts?
Once you’ve figured out what your “big” is, remind yourself of it daily. Whether you like mantras, sticky note reminders, hung phrases above entryways, or scheduled conversations, you need to remind yourself of your “big” frequently. It needs to be always hovering close to the top of your mind so that you can channel it and recall it instantly.
Our brains need regular reminders of what’s important. We are lazy by nature. Humans are creatures of inertia. When left to our own vices, we always choose the path of least resistance, both physically and mentally. By reminding ourselves of our “big” regularly, we create an environment that aids us in our thinking big and gives us natural prompts to orient our lives accordingly.
It’s worth calling out that there can be many big things in your life, and some of those things can be contextual. That’s totally okay! Put your reminders and in appropriate places in your life so that you have the right frame of mind for the right context.
Once you’ve determined your big things, you then need to ruthlessly prioritize everything else under them. I say ruthlessly because it’s often easier (and much less effective) to say that a number of things are as important as one another.
This is the burning house test, but for your own initiatives (if your house was burning down and you could grab one thing, what would it be?). Remember that if everything is important, then nothing is important. You can only have one best friend. You can only have one top priority.
“But wait!”, you say. “What if I have qualifiers? I have a best work friend and a best childhood friend!”. That’s all fine and good, but taken to its logical conclusion, every person could be “best” in their own category, which means that every friend you have is some type of best friend. This of course makes the title “best friend” utterly meaningless.
The same is true of our priorities. While it is tempting to say that my top work priority is such and such, and my top personal priority is this and that, this still fails the burning house test. Given you have a finite amount of the singular most precious resource in the world (ie time) which you can only allocate once, where will you allocate it?
Now, I’m explicitly not suggesting we starve any of the lower priorities. This isn’t a serialized, only work from the top down type of list. But when push comes to shove and we have conflicting things to do, ruthlessly prioritizing will allow us to drive our life’s course in a direction consistent with our values.
Plan for (and value) rest
The Good Book tells us that on the seventh day God rested “from all His work which He had done” (Genesis 2:3). He instructed His people to observe the Sabbath. He intended for us to rest. For some reason that has gotten lost in translation in modern day America, and we’ve somehow begun mistaking slacking off for rest.
First, we think that after a long week’s work, we owe it to ourselves to veg out in front of the TV and call it rest. It isn’t.
Next, because we think resting and slacking off are the same thing, we think that those who rest are slacking off, which our workaholic culture tells us is an ineffective use of our time.
I had a European coworker say once that they don’t want our American workaholic culture to be carried over onto our Europe team. (For those of you who read that and think, “those Europeans are slackers”, I hope this section speaks particularly strongly to you)
Let me begin by asserting that:
Resting is not slacking off
We need rest. We were made to require it. It is healthy, necessary, and nourishing to our bodies and our souls.
Rest is not simply ceasing to work. It is not slacking off or shirking one’s responsibilities, nor is it passively sitting on the sidelines and letting life do its thing.
It is active. It is intentional. It is thoughtful. It is practiced.
We are all wired differently. We have different motivators, different passions, different fears. And we all rest differently. What is restful to one may be stressful to the next, and vice versa. Just as we must spend the time and effort getting to know what our dreams are, what “big” means to us, so too must we spend the time to know what rest looks like for us, what that soul-nourishing, rejuvenating rest is.
My sons, our world is increasingly hectic. We are bombarded by countless vies for our attention. The world gets smaller, more connected, and more noisy everyday, with a million and one things trying to steal your time. My hope is that you learn to manage your time well and stay in the drivers seat of your lives, so that you can live the lives that you dictate, that you desire, and that you strive for.