Time Is Not On Our Side
But a little of it can be
I have hundreds of files cluttering my computer. So many forgotten stories. So many barely started projects. Some of the files plead for attention. Some of them wheedle. Some of them remain silent.
I opened one, titled “Time,” the other day. I suppose I started writing this doc with the idea of writing an essay on time, and then didn’t have the time, ironically. I encountered this fascinating exercise in it:
“You are asked to imagine having only a year left to live, at your present mental and bodily capacity — what would you do with it? Then imagine you only had a day left — what would you do with it? Then only an hour — what would you do with it?
“As you scale down these nested finitudes, the question becomes a powerful sieve for priorities — because undergirding it is really the question of what, from among the myriad doable things, you would choose not to do in order to fill the scant allotment of time, be it the 8,760 hours of a year or a single hour, with the experiences that confer upon it maximum aliveness, that radiant vitality filling the basic biological struggle for survival with something more numinous.”
I thought the exercise would be interesting if recast for writing because I often joke that no one has ever cried out on their deathbed that they wish they would have kept a cleaner house, but plenty of people regret not writing the book they always wanted to—a metaphor for not living with “maximum aliveness.”
We tend to live lives of unexamined choices, at the mercy of a life that demands and demands and demands—so we answer those demands (and somehow don’t hear our own). The beauty of an exercise like this is that it forces us to examine our choices, to question those demands, and maybe even make our own demands.
After Googling the exercise, it turns out it comes from Oliver Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks (the amount of time most of us can expect to live).
Burkeman considers notions of productivity a trap because the idea of trying to control time or get on top of it is inherently futile:
“Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.’”
Math is time’s favored language.
The flood of emails in your queue will always be a flood, in other words. And higher productivity often means lower creativity.
Most of us are in denial about time. We live as if we’ll someday finish all of those barely-started stories in files that clutter our computer—without accounting for the rate that our 4,000 weeks are dwindling (I’m now down to approximately 1,000, and only if I’m lucky).
Burkeman describes the finiteness of our lives as “a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.” I heard middle age once described as the mourning of one’s youth, so this rings true. Math is time’s favored language.
But the realization of our finiteness can also mean saying hello to different possibilities if we decide to do what’s truly important to us.
I once heard time management defined not as a way to gain control of time or to maximize efficiency, but as a decision about what’s a priority. If you view it that way, life becomes less about productivity and more about joy and fulfillment.
We’re always at the mercy of time. We can either wash the proverbial dishes of our lives or write our stories.
Time’s a ticking … make your choice matter.
Because this is the best quote about time
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
— Jorge Luis Borges
Because we’re here for a little window
“We’re here for a little window. And to use that time to catch and share shards of light and laughter and grace seems to me the great story.”
— Brian Doyle
Because this is the best poem about time (and death)
The simple question: What will we miss most of all?
Because it’s time to get ready for NaNoWriMo
You’ve got nothing to lose and a novel to gain.
Because I’d love you to read one of my books
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