It’s about time


This was a merchant who sold pills that had been invented to quench thirst. You need only swallow one pill a week, and you would feel no need of anything to drink.

“Why are you selling those?” asked the little prince.

“Because they save a tremendous amount of time,” said the merchant. “Computations have been made by experts. With these pills, you save fifty-three minutes in every week.”

“And what do I do with those fifty-three minutes?”

“Anything you like . . .”

“As for me,” said the little prince to himself, “if I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of fresh water.”

from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

One of the paradoxes of the modern age, I suspect, is our attitude towards time. We expend a lot of time and effort trying to ‘save’ time, and then expend an equal amount of time and effort trying to kill the time that we saved. Don’t believe me? Look around you. Practically every new invention is a response towards the obsession with doing more for less time. In terms of convenience and efficiency, the email beats the fax machine and direct mail hands-down. And yet we don’t seem to have more time on our hands for doing other things. We have become slaves to time-management.

Also, we don’t seem to quite know what to do with the time we ended up saving. Many of us swing between the two extremes of just whiling it away or packing so much into the to-do-list that it feels no different from a work schedule.

Actually, there is nothing wrong with doing a lot with one’s spare time, or doing ‘nothing’. There are happy people content with not doing much with their time. And there are those who derive immense pleasure from getting a lot done in a day. The issue is less of what one does with one’s time and everything about his or her attitude towards it.

Matthieu Ricard, the author of the book Happiness, has this to say about the concept of “killing time”:

The idle person talks of “killing time.” What a dreadful expression! Time becomes a long, flat, dreary line. This is leaden time; it weighs on the idler like a burden and cripples anyone who cannot tolerate waiting, delay, boredom, solitude, setbacks, or sometimes even life itself. Every passing moment aggravates his sense of imprisonment or dullness… To paraphrase Herbert Spencer, the time they are unable to kill ends up killing them.

As for people on the other extreme, spending time becomes a personal challenge, as if one’s sense of well-being and worth is determined by how much one can achieve within a given timeframe. I suspect it is a question of ego – there is something to prove. Sometimes we tie ourselves up in knots because we think that if we don’t get something done, we are less of a parent, or a worker, or a spouse, or a boss. Because many successful people are also highly effective people, we end up equating efficiency with success, and failure to be effective becomes associated with lack of success. It isn’t just ‘ordinary’ people who think like that, it’s a problem with people who think they have stepped out of the rat-race as well, because we all want results, be it in material form, or otherwise.

So it’s always refreshing to stumble upon quotes like that of Lennon’s (actually he was paraphrasing Bertrand Russell, but being a Beatles fan, I’m partial towards Lennon) that remind us that while time is valuable (since we all will die one day), its value cannot be measured by how much one does, but by how one does it.

According to Lennon, ‘enjoyment’ is key. So the question becomes one of asking what enjoyment really means. Many of us are accustomed to seeing enjoyment as a luxury, to equate enjoyment with ‘fun’ and ‘play’, and that the real business of life isn’t ‘fun’. We are taught that enjoying yourself is something you put aside for those moments only when the chore of getting through the day is done.

But true enjoyment isn’t mere ‘fun’. True enjoyment is really about being absorbed with what one does, with being in the moment. In other words, not what you do, but how you do it. Or as psychologists and therapists Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi wrote:

“A good life is one that is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”

Admittedly, these quotes can be quite a mouthful to remember. I know of a friend who was able to condense this philosophy into something that serves as a constant reminder of the right attitude towards time – she tattooed on her wrists the words “Here” and “Now”.

Two words.

Here. Now.

It’s not that hard to remember.

(Plus, there’s always the tattoo option..)




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