Time is the only resource in life that you can never get back. This fact makes it one of the most valuable resources in the world. It is also one of the most controversial and complex resources in the world.
For example, when one is young, time seems to be the thing we have an abundance of. Aside from the required daily school and occasional parent-inflicted extra curricular activity, one has very few demands on one’s time at an early age such that we’re often left with an abundance of it. “I’m bored” is probably the most common complaint among children, and is one that spans all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and every other imaginable distinction.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have people in their 50s and 60s who spend all their life’s savings and energies on trying to get back more time. Whether that’s by offloading things from their lives that demand too much time, or by attempting to prolong their life and add more time to it, there are many in their sunset of life that seem to never have enough time.
Why is that? What’s the catch here?
What is valuable?
One very unfortunate reality of our current social norms is that in our developing years we are taught (often implicitly) that our primary purpose in life is progress along a fairly well-trodden path.
From our first breath we are put on this neverending conveyor belt of progress and expected to spend our lives entirely on it. We were taught to walk so that we could run. We were taught to run so that we could play. We were taught to play so that we could interact with other children at school. We were put in high school so that we can get into a good college. We strove to get into great colleges so that we can get good jobs. We strive for good jobs so that we can make money to start a family and support them. We have children so that we can teach them and help them speed up their process along the same conveyor belt.
Every step along the way, we were told that our accomplishments and achievements are the things that we should be striving towards, and yet no one ever explained to us why these things hold value. Nowhere on that belt are we taught to take the time to discover what is valuable to us. Instead we’re taught that the next step, the next thing, those are what’s important.
Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t plan for tomorrow, that we shouldn’t have goals and progression paths that we want to be on. Quite the contrary. Plans and goals are great. However, the problem of too much planning for too far in advance is that we don’t focus on the here and now. Living constantly for tomorrow means that you will never enjoy today, will never actually “get there”. There will always be another “there” to go!
When we were children we assumed our parents’ values. But because we were never taught to discover our own values in our developmental years, many reach adulthood still on the conveyor belt their parents set them on. As children we’re told that the future has value so we should work towards that.
That unfortunately causes us to miss the reality that childhood is not a training ground for adulthood! We rob our children of half of their lives when we treat it as such, and we set them up to perpetuate the same cycle with their own children in future generations. When we treat everything we’re doing - life itself, in other words - as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else, we miss out entirely on the beauty of the present.
Instead, we need a range of inputs, learnings, and experiences. We need to balance the time we push to the future with the time that we enjoy the present.
Our society is structured such that we rarely think about the present. Our immediate choices don’t create meaning in the here and now, but rather create the possibility for meaning later. Many live as though the present moment is an obstacle which they need to overcome to get to the “right” moment in the future. The present is never quite right, never quite good enough.
We must learn that the present is not only a gateway to the future - It is an end unto itself!
At some point along the journey we realize the hidden wisdom in the old riddle, that the thing that is always coming but never comes is tomorrow. Enter the midlife crisis.
This is a time where many realize that the incessant striving towards tomorrow is not the mark of a life well lived, that the pursuits of wealth, fame, fortune, and success do not satisfy as we had hoped. We therefore seek to find ourselves, to find the things that we believe we should pursue for the remaining half that will give us meaning.
It is typically not until the sunset of life that we realize the truth behind the matter - that regardless of our choices, our experiences, our relationships, and our chosen career paths, things have value because in choosing them we could not choose any alternative. They have value because in pursuing those things we had to explicitly choose not to pursue everything else.
When we accept this, and accept that life is finite, then things become meaningful. If we had infinite time, choices don’t matter, as there is no sacrifice for them. But because time is finite, each choice we make explicitly is at the expense of another choice, and therefore makes the choice itself valuable. The fact that we have a limited amount of time when our children are young, that we have but 4 years in our college experience, that we have only two weeks for our upcoming vacation - these are why our choices matter, and what gives them meaning.
Managing your time
It therefore behooves us to consider the question of time management. How does one do it? How should one prioritize the finite time that one has on this earth?
There are many time management philosophies out there, and I will neither pretend to be aware of them all nor will I provide any prescription on what I think is best. Rather, I will suggest that if your time management philosophy doesn’t help you neglect the right things then something is wrong! In this life there will be infinitely more things that you don’t have time for than those that you do. Any effective philosophy you adopt must therefore help you choose what not to do as much as it helps you choose what to do.
Effective time management is about more than just slotting in the right things into convenient time slots and playing calendar Tetris. It is about prioritizing, and about realizing that you will never have enough time in a day to accomplish all that needs to be done for the given day, so you need to prioritize. It ought to allow us to face our limitations, our time constraints, the finite nature of our lives, and our inability to control it.
When we don’t thoughtfully and intentionally apply an effective system we find ourselves giving up control. This is natural - having some other external force take control and make a choice for us which precludes us from making some other choice is much easier than owning the responsibility of that choice ourselves.
Sadly, many of us choose to escape the fact that we in fact are responsible despite our desire not to be, so we relinquish control and allow ourselves to be swept away by the currents of the day. This allows us blame something else for our misfortunes and allows us to save our pride.
For if we never try, we can never fail, right?
Unfortunately the reality is that this relinquishing of responsibility often ends up with us being bored. Boredom ought to lead to a realization that we are in control of how our experience is unfolding, and thereby bring about a visceral understanding of the reality that this is it, this life, these choices, these experiences - these make up the sum of human experience.
This is why we must train children to figure out what to do with their own boredom. We must teach them to self-motivate, because without that ability, they will inevitably turn to something else - social media - to fill their time instead of taking control of it and wrestling with their own finitude. We must teach them to better manage this valuable resource that each of us gets a finite amount of in our lifetimes.
Time is a networked resource
Time is a valuable resource, no doubt. And it is absolutely better the more we command it (ie similar to money). However, it is also a networked resource, which means that it has more value the more people have control of it as well (ie telephones, internet etc).
This means that despite our desire to have absolute control over our time, it actually benefits us for others to have some control over it as well. When we have friends and family that feel like they can impose on our time and help direct what we do with it, our lives become much richer. When we have shared experiences, they have the potential to have much more depth than our individual ones.
This, like many things, requires balance and good boundaries. We cannot exert complete control, but we also cannot relinquish complete control to others. We must have balance for how we manage our time, whom we allow to make demands, and what our criteria are for granting those demands.
Regardless of how we label the axis - patriarchal vs individual, eastern vs western etc - we must find the balance along the axis that allows us to have healthy boundaries with our relations. It is not a surprise then that in her book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, author Bronnie Ware finds many on death’s doorstep regretting living the life others expected of them instead of having the right boundaries to live the one they desired for themselves.
And so my boys, my hope for you is that you learn the value of time, that you learn of its role in determining value and meaning in your life, and that you establish early on a great set of boundaries that will keep you on a balanced filled with great relationships along with great freedoms to forge your own way. I love you boys!