When I teach about time, I begin each group by asking, “Do you have enough time in your everyday life?” Invariably only a few hands rise, frequently only those who have already retired though often when asked how they feel about having this time, there’s an expression of anxiety, guilt, or sadness.
In today’s culture we’re defined by what we do and how productive we are. Stripped of this we can feel lost and purposeless. We’ve become human doings instead of human beings. Regaining our joy and purpose in life requires a new relationship with time.
Everything in life has become scheduled—our work, family time, social responsibilities, everyday chores, and even when we play. Having more time is something we all want, but when it shows up unannounced, we fill it with our “to do” list or feel anxious about having it, rather than luxuriating in a little “free” time.
How do you feel when stuck in a traffic jam or waiting at the doctor’s office an extra 30 minutes beyond your appointment time? Life inevitably gives us these moments, yet instead of relaxing and enjoying the pause in our busy life, we complain and get upset or anxious. I don't drive around looking for traffic, but changing the modern relationship of fighting against time to relaxing into and enjoying it requires that we learn to savor the “pause.”
A friend recently confided that his only time to sit and comfortably read these days is during his frequent plane trips. It’s one of the few times during his day when he feels alone and out of reach from being “always on” and "always available." There’s no longer downtime. There is very little time for a quiet meal or a few moments of leisure with nothing to do.
Attached to a cell phone, people no longer stroll down the street enjoying their day. Instead they’re consumed by their phone, Facebook, or other messaging apps.
As a consultant and physician, I teach programs about time and longevity—both topics that gain greater interest as we age. Yet, no matter how well and healthy we live, the consistent experience for all who’ve been born is that give or take a few years, life is a limited time event, for everyone.
While money, fame, projects, and work to be done are limitless and can be replenished—not so with time. The modern strategy to overcome this issue has a semblance of success, yet is an illusion that progressively causes more stress, unease, and even disease as life progresses.
Many of us have adopted the constant strategy of multitasking and believing that if we get everything done more quickly and efficiently, then we’ll have more time. Notice this folly in your own life. We get onto the treadmill of fame, fortune, and accomplishment that only gets faster—and we don’t dare to step off, even for a cup of tea or friendly chat with a neighbor or loved one. Since childhood we’ve been encouraged to “become someone,” success in life being measured by our outward achievements in the world. While so much worthwhile has been accomplished, I often consult with high-achievers who nonetheless feel empty inside—like a “hungry ghost”—voraciously productive, yet never feeling satisfied that it’s enough. We invest so much of our time maintaining this identity that there’s very left over for the simple joys of life.
In the agrarian age people worked hard, yet studies show less time was devoted to work than is the case for the modern human. The few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes existent today show more time devoted to play and leisure than our modern advanced contemporaries.
No one’s last words reveal their desire to have spent more time at the office. What has meaning in life is not the quantity of our time rather its quality and doing what matters most to us. What are you doing with your day? How are you spending your time, especially knowing this very moment will never come again?
Our busyness is like learning to juggle 3 balls and then mastering 4 or 5 balls. Once accomplished, what’s the reward? A 6th ball. There’s no end to the number of these balls in life and it’s no problem throwing them up into the air—the stress is keeping them all up at once.
Now is all that exists. Cultivating a greater awareness of the present moment is the first step toward greater relaxation and appreciation of our lives. Without this capacity we’re continually feeling stressed about something that’s not turning out the way we want it.
Stress is a reaction and thus ultimately we have the ability to release it. Stress is simply our resistance to what’s so in this present moment. All of our stress relates to wanting things to be different than they are right now.
The ability to plan and alter our conditions for the better is clearly a remarkable trait that humans have developed. Though getting better at altering our surrounding reality leads to less acceptance of life being okay just as it is right now. And unless we can master this acceptance, stress will be a major issue in our life. The author Alan Cohen captured this predicament well in the title of one of his books, Are You as Happy As Your Dog?
We’re all aware that life seems to have gotten faster. The anthropologist, Edward Hall declared that you can know the rhythm of any society by listening to its music. Needless to say, we don’t live in a time of Bach or Beethoven. The pace of life follows a rapid disco or rap beat like the sound of a machine gun firing.
The good news is that there is a simple antidote and relearning it is easy. It just requires changing our habits in how we relate to time.
Finding balance in life is similar to riding a 20-speed bicycle. True success, deep satisfaction, and longevity are promoted by learning to shift gears to find the best rhythm for each moment. Whether riding up a steep hill, down an incline, or along a winding trail, one can shift into a gear and pedal with ease. Life is a marathon. Continually running like a dash at full speed is what leads to the heart attacks often associated with the stressful Type A personality, and thus dying before the finish line.
Learning to switch gears let’s us show up differently and more appropriately in each moment. The most frequent time when couples argue is when one of them arrives home from work. Being in different rhythms causes friction and in the end it’s why negotiations break down or relationships end. Yet we all know the feeling of “being in the flow,” whether in sports, conversation, work, or even strolling down the street. We feel good and relaxed. All is right in the world. We feel happier with everyone around us—at ease—and it seems our problems dissolve more easily and our path seems more open, without concern or worry. This can be learned and become more frequent in our lives. These moments of grace when time flows with ease add a buoyancy to our lives, they re-energize our often depleted internal batteries and we become more creative without any rush.
The renowned pianist Artur Rubinstein was once asked by an ardent admirer,"How do you handle the notes as well as you do?"
He answered, “I handle the notes no better than many others, but the pauses—ah! that is where the art resides.”
I literally just finished writing the line above while waiting for an international flight back to the United States where appointments await tomorrow. Instead of boarding being announced, we were told the flight will be canceled until tomorrow morning. But what about our plans when life intervenes? Initial annoyance and upset can be the immediate experience, but for some this may last all night and ruin tomorrow as well. I took a few breaths to relax and took note that all was still fine in the world. I was overcome with a delightful sense of freedom.
During my younger years I would have remained upset and angry when something like this happened. While society is youth-focused, over time we can learn to accept life with all its twists and turns. Life actually becomes easier and more enjoyable. Successful aging is pacing oneself. Wisdom comes through our many life experiences and learning how to accomplish more with less effort and greater ease. And as you open in this process to accepting life as it is, there’s more joy and peacefulness—and more time.
There are a few time shifters that can dramatically change your relationship to time and yourself, thus creating more joy and freedom in your life.
1. Become a master of the pause—whether saying grace before a meal or taking a few quiet unrushed breaths before a meeting or phone call. Find pause breaks during your day to reset to a relaxed rhythm. Listen to some classical or peaceful music. Learn to shift your rhythm instead of being caught in high speed all the time.
2. Take time for yourself. We prioritize all our responsibilities with very little time left over for us. Make it a daily routine to have time for something you enjoy with no productivity attached to it. Simply find something that “lights you up” and makes you feel good. And if nothing comes to mind, practice slowing down until you find it.
3. Turn off your electronic devices for an hour when having a meal or spending time with family, or simply for some quiet time with yourself and whatever moves you in the moment.
4. Schedule spontaneous time. You know the wonderful feeling of a “snow day”? You can create one. Leave the office at midday with no plans and just explore.
5. Try yoga or meditation to find balance in the frenetic pace. Go sailing, or to the opera, or take a walk in the woods. These are investments in yourself that reenergize you and create a healthy and vital longevity.
This article originally appeared in THE JOURNAL, AARP's global thought leadership publication, under the title "What are You Doing with Your Time?" It is reposted with permission.