Spiritual growth is an unlearning process. Awakening into the true nature of reality requires constant unlearning of false beliefs and a re-discovery of the direct experience of the present moment. Conceptual reality is a house of mirrors, a myriad of illusion. Of all illusions, psychological time is the trickiest to detect.
Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years… The passage of time is seemingly objective and compatible with experience. Events appear to unfold sequentially, superimposed onto the clock. But the past is a memory. The future is imagination. Life is eternally present, an infinite succession of Nows.
As Mark Twain said, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” So much of our attention and energy is spent on holding on to days-gone-by or worrying about things that may never materialise. How does life change, once liberated from these opposing forces?
In the chaos of modern, fast-paced living, it often feels we don’t have enough time for… well, anything. Time is of the essence, time can be well spent or wasted, time is money, time is valuable, time is ticking, and above all else — time flies. If only we could manage our time efficiently, we’ll have all the time in the world and achieve all it is we desire time after time. Modern convention says time management is absolutely essential to keep track, to help achieve our goals. Not so fast, though; I’m going to argue time management is secondary to something more important — time valuation.
This approach is less focused on the physical act of scheduling in a journal or diary. Instead, the focus is the abstract, mental visualisation of how each of us perceive future time. Entries in a diary within themselves aren’t stressful, but the way we perceive our timeline of upcoming events often leads to stress or anxiety. Let me begin by explaining my distinction between time management and time valuation.
What Is Time Management And How Can It Cause Stress?
Time management is a way of managing and arranging the things we need to do into the time we have. I visualise this process as a calendar in our mind’s eye. The things we need to do are entities we attempt to fit into this mental calendar, from the important (go to work, pay bills) to the not-so-important (take the bins out, shower, tidy room, organise internet bookmarks) — and everything in between.
These are usually a mixture of physical entries in a diary and mental notes floating around in the recesses of the mind. However they are stored, stress arises when the things we need to do don’t comfortably synchronise with the time we have.
It can drain a lot of energy, and make us incredibly frustrated, when we mentally pluck tasks out of the air and try to squish them into an apparently restrictive amount of time. Let’s call this squishing process the square peg, round hole approach. For example, I may have a number of things to do floating around my mind’s eye for an upcoming week. They may or may not be entries in a diary:
Reply to Whatsapp messages
Make time for reading
That errand I’ve been putting off for too long
When I attempt to manage my time, I float each of these entities to fill the vacant space in the calendar of my mind’s eye. This may be accompanied by a visualisation or prophecy of each event, playing like a movie in the mind — along with a perception of how much time it will take. As is frequently the case, during this process I may feel there’s no way I’ll fit the things I need to do into the time I have. I feel stressed, I feel powerless, I sometimes feel paralysed. This leaves me despairing: “How am I going to get all of this done?”
The square peg, round hole approach is a recipe for stress due to a number of problems with the process of assigning the things we need to do to the time we have. It can apply to any time period: the next hour, day, week, month, year, or even lifetime. Fortunately we can train our brains and take control of this process, making it serve us effectively in both pragmatic planning and emotional ease. Before understanding how to take control, I’ll highlight the problems with the square peg, round hole approach. Becoming aware is the first step in making change.
Problem #1: Most Of Us Don’t Accurately Perceive Time
“Temporality temporalizes as a future which makes present in the process of having been.” ― Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Humans are notoriously bad at mentally perceiving time. Not so much the rationalisation of “it’ll take me 30 minutes to exercise,” but more the experience of time. Time’s nature is one of life’s greatest mysteries; it’s heavily subjective, illusionary and is influenced by the context of events. This is understandable as our brains lack the pathways to process temporal information.
Unreliable future-projection certainly has a big influence on my life. When I visualise the things I need to do, I struggle to visualise accurately how much time they will take. Let’s say a smouldering passion of mine is to write a book. Write a book becomes an entity in my mind’s eye, floating around in an abstract manner, waiting to be assigned to the time I have. Writing a book is a long, drawn out process and I might have formed the following mistaken belief:
“Writing a book takes a long time. I’ll need to dedicate a number of hours each week to writing, even when I don’t feel like it.”
Eager to get going and excited by the prospect of structuring time for writing, I say to myself — the most important thing is time management. Write a book becomes another mental entity on the list of things I need to do. The trouble is, even before attempting to write a book, the things I need to do don’t fit the time I have — at least from my perception. I may have formed an additional mistaken belief:
“In the past I’ve never had time to sit down and write, because the things I need to do always outweigh the time I have. The only way to write a book, which will take a number of hours per week, for a year or more, is to get more time so the time I have fits the time it takes.”
Now the process of time management has a few deceptive layers. I have an attempt to synchronise the things I need to do into the time I have, with an erroneous belief of how much time it takes. This leads to another mistaken belief — the only way to do what I want to do is get more time. Yet time isn’t a commodity, something to gain or throw away, so I have tricked myself into believing there simply isn’t time to write a book, and consequently writing a book is a fanciful, impossible dream.
Interestingly a 2009 study led by Dr. Zauberman, a professor of marketing at Wharton School of Business, explored the subjective feeling of elapsed time. “For many people, we think about our [past] goals, and if nothing much has happened with those then suddenly it seems like it was just yesterday that we set them,” he told The New York Times. This perception can change “depending on what you think about, and how.”
Zauberman’s study could be significant in understanding how the above limiting belief of not having enough time is formed by memory and perception of past attempts at achieving goals. If we live our lives taking the square peg, round hole approach and not pursuing our passions or desires, we can become stuck in self-fulfilling cycle of lack of time. We perceive time as flying by, as limited. We project this erroneous belief into our mental calendar and can’t find space. Writing a book becomes a write off.
Problem #2: We Value Certain Tasks By Productivity
“Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed.” — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
On top of erroneously perceiving how much time it takes, there’s another key mistaken belief in modern culture:
“I can’t afford to waste my time, because it is valuable.”
What this common mistaken belief is really saying is: “If I’m not being productive, my time is wasted.” As Tolle points out in the above quote, this is a fallacy. Time isn’t precious, but each waking moment is. Yet we’ve been taught to value the concept of time, the idea of a blissful future where all our materialistic dreams are fulfilled.
This is an important element of time management and our perception of time — we live in an economically-driven, materialistic society that deems “productivity” as valuable, because it contributes to economy, and thus its agenda. Society does not value being because being is the antithesis of this agenda.
There are a number of forces at play here. Culturally, we assimilate the idea that a) time is valuable and it cannot be wasted and b) there is a hierarchy of productivity (thus value) framed by economically-driven principles. The number one principle for productivity is spending our time in a way that makes money. Other values closely linked include achievement, framed within itself to essentially mean career success, and material gain (get the house, get the car, get the iPhone X). You could argue escapism, and hedonism, cunningly weave their way into this value system as a means of “switching off” from incessant productivity.
I’ll let the words of Bill Hicks illustrate this particular point. The provocative stand-up comedian believed the key to understanding a society was to look at the drugs it permissed. In his typically astute, cynical view:
“Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.”
Problem #3: Productivity Is Based On Values Driven By Economic Agenda
There are many more layers and this order isn’t an exact science, but in a nutshell, our economically-driven, materialistic society frames what productivity is, and the best way to spend our time is to be productive. I’d argue:
Productivity has become an addiction.
We strive to be more productive, with the aid of modern technology. We strive for motivation, the elixir or productivity. We’re productive at the cost of our mental health and wellness. We’re even transforming mindfulness into a tool to make employees more productive at the workplace. All this leads to most of us feeling a noticeable twinge of guilt any time we aren’t productive. But it’s important to remember it’s all a matter of perspective.
Time spent “not being productive” is framed that way because of societies hierarchy of values. When we abide by the value society gives time, and money-centered productivity, it means we value other pursuits as less than. Doing nothing is a cardinal sin, the epitome of not being productive. Taking time to reflect. Doing for the sake of doing. Being for the sake of being. Writing. Painting. Walking. Playing. Resting. These are noble pursuits that nourish the soul — yet they do not hold much value in the hierarchy of productivity.
Problem #4: Time Management Is Subconsciously Filtered By Values
Mentally the entities in our mind’s eye — the things we need to do — are arranged in accordance to values assimilated by society’s hierarchy of productivity. We can further break the things we need to do into the following:
Core needs: eat, sleep, pay bills, shelter. These are essential to survival and are naturally high value.
Hierarchy of productivity: entities linked to the hierarchy of productivity are a close second. Making money, striving for success, moving forwards, career progression. These are future-based and attainment-based, thus making the future more valuable than the present (Tolle rightly refers to this notion as insanity).
Escapism: we are social animals — socialisation is a core need. But there’s emphasis in modern times to always be seen as having fun, escaping, creating Instagram, Facebook ready “moments.” During alone-time, escapism may include binge-watching Netflix or digesting social media. This form of escapism encourages a lack of self-reflection, self-insight and consequently self-actualisation.
Doing stuff or “busyness”: doing nothing is low value, so many of us fill our time rushing from one thing to the next, doing stuff to avoid doing nothing.
Again, these categories are far from exact science, but they hopefully provide an idea of how the motivating factors behind the mental process of assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Let’s return to the book example to clarify. I start the process of time management by attempting to assign the entity write a book into the time I have in my mind’s eye. This process encompasses a flawed perception of how much time it takes.
During this process, conflicting values will fight it out to see where write a book can fit. The values I assign to write a book may include fulfilment, satisfaction, creative expression, and so on. However, in a value system based on society’s values, these rank poorly. In a Top Trumps standoff, fulfilment, satisfaction, and creativity can’t match making money, doing stuff, and even plays second fiddle to fun or escapism. I’ve lost count of moments in the past where I’ve planned to get up early and write, only to choose to get drunk the evening before and sleep in.
The Solution: Conscious Time Valuation
Time valuation is more important than time management and here’s why:
If we don’t consciously apply value to the things we need to do, those values are set for us.
If we simply attempt time management, the process is dictated by the hierarchy of productivity and external values fitting the agenda of an economically-driven society. Once aware of this process, the antidote is to empower ourselves by setting our own values. This transforms the process in a way that serves us. Back to the book example; if I consciously set this at high value and understand the process of time management, the process of assigning the things I need to do to the time I have changes.
Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, I trim the edges and make the square a circle. Write a book becomes high-value, beating other categories such as doing stuff, escapism, and even the hierarchy of productivity. The process of assigning the things I need to do into the time I have becomes a conscious, creative, and fluid activity.
Other things I need to do are automatically ranked lower, and therefore will not take precedent when attempting to fill the time I have. Identifying write a book as high value allows for more flexibility; perhaps I acknowledge even 30 minutes of writing per day is valuable, and actively schedule the time, turning the abstract notion into a concrete reality. Maybe I go to bed early so I can wake earlier to write. This is the process of trimming the edges, making the square peg circle:
“Writing a book is high-value. I will assign two hours to write on Wednesday evening and rearrange the things I need to do if necessary.”
I’m not advocating irresponsibility. Meeting core needs and gaining financial income to provide security and shelter are necessities. Socialisation is a necessity to the extent of keeping our relationships, sense of connection and intimacy healthy. Escapism is necessary at times, as long it doesn’t become a habitual avoidance technique. Balance is key.
But if we can incorporate the conscious time valuation, imagine the difference when assigning the things we need to do into the time we have. Writing a book has transformed from a task that takes lots of time and doesn’t fit the time we have, to becoming a concrete addition to the mental calendar, immovable, valuable.
The Higher The Value, The More Likely You’ll Stick To Completing The Task
An additional bonus is that high-value entries become solid entries in the mind’s eye, not featherweight entries easily blown by the wind of outside influence. Let’s use exercise as an example. Take three people: Person A regularly works out multiple times per week. Person B enjoys exercise and understands how important it is for health, yet never gets more time to go to the gym or run. Person C doesn’t value exercise.
For argument’s sake, let’s say they are both contracted the same amount of hours per week, at the same company, and have the same level of social invites, same core needs, and same day-to-day responsibilities. In this scenario:
Person A has consciously placed high-value on exercise, so exercise becomes a solid entry in the calendar of their mind’s eye. When undertaking the process of assigning the things they need to do to the time they have, exercise ranks highly. When looking at the time they have, Person A sets solid entry for exercise, three times per week, and always manages to “make time” for it.
Person B, though clear on the value of exercise, hasn’t consciously assigned it higher value than external values. They may be unaware they are influenced by the perceived value of busyness, escapism, the hierarchy of productivity. They take the square peg, round hole approach and always struggle to get more time for exercise. When exercise is successfully scheduled, it is low value, and easily replaced by other events.
Person C doesn’t assign value to exercise. It’s not even an entry on the things I need to do. But what happens if Person C develops diabetes or suffers a heart attack? Exercise enters the things I need to do. Depending on the person’s desire to improve their health, they may then end up in the same situation as Person A or Person C. They either consciously place high-value on staying well, or struggle to get more time as exercise plays second fiddle to external values.
These examples aren’t clear cut. There are many areas in our life we subconsciously assign value and manage our time accordingly. The main point to take home is this:
Consciously assigning value can transform the way you assign the things you need to do to the time you have.
This transformation leads then to a more fulfilling, relaxed, rounded and balanced use of the most precious thing you have — not time, but the present moment.