“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.” –Charles Darwin
I was recently “invited” to a meeting at my place of work to discuss work matters with my coworkers and a superior. The twin catches were that 1) it was not during my contracted work hours, and 2) I would not be paid to attend. I considered it for less than a second before deciding 1) it was a waste of my time, and thus 2) I would not be going.
I knew my co-workers would be going, though, and so it got my mind stirred about my position on (not) attending the meeting and how I might defend it if challenged. Not that anyone was going to challenge me, but I enjoy these mental exercises. This is where my journal comes in to help me understand how I feel. So I played it out.
First, I am a big believer in the idea that when we agree on the terms of employment, we stick to them. I am also big on if you want me to do extra work, you give me extra money. But I realized that neither of those principles had anything to do with my instant and fierce rejection of the invitation. I knew it was a meeting where nothing would be achieved. And even bigger than that, IT WAS A MEETING.
For my money, meetings are probably the single biggest time-waster in the world. I loathe them in the core of my soul. When I was a manager, I hosted as few of them as I possibly could for my employees. As an employee, I attend as few of them as I possibly can. I understand that there can be some benefit to camaraderie and team-building and such. I think those things are important. But most topics in most meetings all over the world are pointless and could be sent in an email that requires a few minutes to read rather than an hour of meeting time. As for the people who hold them just to hold them or make them last the full hour just because they blocked off that much time in their calendar, I resent them with an earnest passion.
DON’T WASTE MY TIME!!!
I turned 50 this year, and though I don’t think this had anything to do with my attitude about time-wasting, I don’t rule it out. I guess I have felt this thing in my bones most of my life, but the point on it has grown finer and finer over the years. At this stage I might even say it is the dominant theme of my mental life. Every proposition—how to spend the morning (or the hour, or the vacation, or the Summer), whom to pass the time with, what to talk about, what to learn about, what to create—has to be filtered through that essential prism: Is this worth my precious time?
What has become so much clearer to me in recent months than ever before in my life is this basic belief that I can only now say out loud: I don’t have much time left.
This is not a revelation of some deadly disease or anything like that. I truly don’t have a clue when I am going to die. It’s just my intellectual reality. Even if I live to 100, that is simply not much time. It seems to be flying by me like a high-speed train in recent years, and that trend does not show any signs of reversing itself. The next 50 years, even if I were to be so lucky, will go by in a blink. So, what if it’s only 5 more years? Or 25? Those are micro-blinks. Nothing. That’s how I am thinking these days. I simply don’t have much time left.
You might be thinking, “That’s a horrible way to look at things. Doesn’t that give you anxiety? Or sadness? Just relax and enjoy all of these years you have to go!” I disagree. Sure, it puts more pressure on me to be certain my priorities are clear and to make wise decisions with my schedule and the company I keep. It can make me a bit hard on myself for poor choices. But what it really does is keep me focused. I know that when a situation arises in my life, it is immediately going to be run through my priority filters. Is this going to enrich me? Is this going to be fun? Will I be happier or wiser for this experience? Does it get me excited? And possibly most critical, Is this going to keep me from something I want more? I don’t have to mentally go down a checklist of these questions, as I have already internalized the process and just let it happen naturally. If I had to make it into a question that required a formal answer, though, I’m guessing the question would be: Is this a good use of my time?
If it is something like that work meeting, my system is as efficient as can be. That’s an automatic NO. On more complex questions, I generally have an immediate feeling but then am open to persuasion, whether by me or other people. I like to hear a good argument. I like logic. I also like an emotional plea. I am sympathetic to both. Both elements can make something a good use of my time.
I’ve had this ongoing battle in my head over the years as to what is enough in terms of what I am doing. Again it boils down to the answers to certain types of questions: Am I helping enough people? Am I using my gifts enough? Have I pushed myself enough? Am I being brave enough in the face my doubts and challenges? Am I laughing/learning/loving/adventuring enough each day (or year or decade)? Will I be satisfied enough with my run when it is time to die? All of the questions framing this battle again return to my use of the limited time I have to maximize my potential. Their collective weight makes it seem completely natural to weigh every decision through the lens called Time Well-Spent???
This Summer and last Summer have had, for me, totally different vibes attached to them. By the time last Summer began, I was mostly committed to the attempt to write my first novel. With each passing day and each passing chapter I wrote, I became increasingly committed and excited about it. It was doing all the things for me: enriching me, exciting me, challenging me, inspiring me, drawing out my creativity, being fun, and letting me dream of a beautiful future. And even though it kept me from doing some other things that I love each day, I knew it was so worth it. Quite simply, it was a good use of my time. Not at all a waste. This Summer has been so different. I have not had a major personal project to drive me, no labor of love that gets me to sacrifice my other priorities. I have been busier with other things than last Summer, but it has been just regular Life busy, errands and tasks and the like. Necessary stuff, but nothing that I would describe as enriching, exciting, challenging, inspiring, creative, or fun.
I can only go so long without doing something that stirs up my soul before I start to question the path I am on. I get not only restless about the capital-P Purpose of my life but also suspicious of my work ethic and focus. I like “production” to point to as proof that I am getting somewhere. I start to question how I will ever be satisfied with my accomplishments if I am having such a period of stagnation in my soul. I get antsy. This is where I have been this Summer.
As a defense mechanism against this onset of existential doom, my brain has concocted a new argument as to why I can go on with this Busy Life mode for a bit more without being overrun with guilt or submitting to a life of eternal dissatisfaction. It goes something like this: maybe it doesn’t always have to be that I am working on that super-inspiring project that is giving me an adrenaline jolt and meaning to my life—those projects will ebb and flow naturally as I stay vigilant-but-open to them–but it DOES always have to be that I am not including things in my schedule that feel in my heart and mind like a waste of time. It’s not always going to be writing a book or painting a masterpiece, but it can’t be sitting in a pointless meeting. Obviously this explanation requires a little psychological tapdancing in order to convince my ambitious, “true” self that the Busy Life things I am doing are necessary for bigger priorities—like a happy family—rather than actual time-wasters cleverly disguised to allow me to be lazy.
It seems to be a matter of constantly being honest with myself about whether I am being disciplined enough with the projects that stir my soul and keep wind in my sails, balanced with some grace to allow for periods when Life just doesn’t allow much time for all of that. I can’t be constantly chiding myself for not doing enough to advance my dreams. That’s not healthy. On the other hand, I refuse to waste time.
Thus, it becomes: Which things can I cut from regular Life? The meetings are the obvious answer. But then it gets tougher. There are not hard and fast answers. General guidelines might be better. Most gatherings I find wasteful—too much small-talk and nonsense, not enough true connections and passion shared—but certainly not all. Limiting television and social media seems wise, but I don’t want to eliminate either completely. I would like to figure out a way to spend less time driving. Perhaps a work-from-home job would make me feel more productive. I’m sure there are others. I just have to be present and hyper-aware of the value of everything on my itinerary as I pass through the day so that when I come across a waste, I make the mental note and skip that the next time.
Because there aren’t so many next times left. I keep going back to that again and again in my mind: I don’t have many Summers left. Even if I could talk to my 20-year-old self right now, I would tell him, “You don’t have many Summers left, kid. Don’t waste a single one.” Autumns, Winters, or Springs, either. They just go so fast. The value of each one gets higher with every passing year, because there are that many fewer to go, no matter how long your lifeline is. It’s not getting longer, only shorter. What’s the line? “We’ve been dying since the day we were born.” Something like that. I don’t really like to think of it as we are dying so much as that we have less and less time to live. I am here to LIVE! All the way to the end and not just once in a while. It’s time to be efficient with it all. I better get busy living.
How about you? How much of your time feels wasted? Open up your journal and take a walk through your schedule and what your actions say about your current priorities. Is your life full of activities and people that are in line with who you want to be and how you want to be spending your fleeting years? Are you working toward something that, even if you aren’t exactly doing it now, you know that this path you are on is a positive use of your precious time? When I am driving my kids around, I remind myself that even though it looks boring and so time-consuming, this is valuable and very important to me because of the commitment I made to being the best, most present parent I can be and raising them well. What are the things in your life that look trivial and wasteful but are actually in the service of your highest priorities? What are your habits or items in your regular schedule of activities that look most obviously like excellent uses of your time? Which priorities do they satisfy? Are there any of your “buckets” or priorities that simply do not get attention on your calendar? Why is that? What things on your schedule could stand to be removed and replaced by things that would better match what you believe your priorities to be? Would you go so far as to say these possibilities for removal are time-wasters? What kinds of things—meetings, social media, bad company, etc.—make you think, “Well, I will never get that hour back.” Are you ever bored? Would you say boredom is a sign that you are wasting your time? Is it easy or hard for you to admit when you are wasting your time? Do you get antsy like I do when you haven’t “accomplished” or “produced” anything in a while? If so, does that pent-up feeling cause a reckoning like this one in which you re-examine your time and kick yourself in the butt to get going on something more productive? When I say to you, whether you are 25 or 85, “You don’t have much time left,” how does that strike you? Are you more inclined to defend and be like, “Oh, sure I do. I’ll be around for a long time.”? Or are you more like, “Holy crap! You’re right. It’s getting away in a hurry.”? Do you feel like they are both true, or is only one true and the others are either delusional or pessimistic? Do you always answer the same way, or do you go back and forth depending on the season of your life? At the moment, are you content coasting along under the assumption that you have loads of time left, or do you perhaps need a little jolt of urgency about the length of your stay here and what you ought to be doing about that? Leave me a reply and let me know: How could you better spend your numbered days?
P.S. If this topic resonates with you today, please share it with your community. Let’s help each other to clarify our position on the timeline.
P.P.S. If this type of introspection appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal Of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.