I’m going to make this time my own….
From the song “Time” by Chantal Kreviazuk
It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is what are we busy about?
Henry David Thoreau
This past week I wondered, as I have many times before, where the time went. I had great intentions of getting a number of things done and one task that was particularly important to me was left untouched. This is not new. When the to do list is long, the time to do it seems to shrink. In days gone by, I got through the to do list mostly by going with less sleep and mastering multi-tasking- neither of which is a particularly satisfactory approach. Not enough sleep results in irritability and multi-tasking really doesn’t work.
In contrast, some of us may be in the situation where we have more than enough time on our hands. In fact the day may dawn and the things we have to do are few in number and other things can be indefinitely postponed. To the casual observer this is liberating but the abundance of time can stare us down. Being busy is a badge of honour in our society.
The concept of time is an important one because how we spend it reflects our priorities in life. This man-made invention of time can catch us thinking about the past or worrying about something in the future, rather than be where we are at this moment. Perhaps part of the frustration is that we believe time is not our own- that a good deal of what we do is determined by our obligations and responsibilities to others- be it an employer or family or volunteer work, much as we want to fulfil those obligations. Being busy though, robs us of the opportunity (aka gets us off the hook) of giving serious thought to what we want to do. Not being busy enough can leave us feeling at loose ends and without a clear purpose. Where’s the balance?
We have all known people who are very busy but when you are with them they seem to have all the time in the world. We have also known moments when we were not conscious of the time and were absorbed in what we were doing: mastering a new recipe; watching a loved one; being part of a team intensely focused on solving a critical problem. We are present and time passes without us knowing- akin to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as flow. We tend to think of these moments as unusual, but they can actually be part of the fabric of everyday life.
For example, I have found that I often run better when I don’t pay attention to the time. When I don’t fuss about running a particular distance in a specified time and pay more attention to form (and the next telephone pole to pass), I enjoy the run and sometimes run faster than usual. I am running at my own best pace. As my running coach once pointed out, getting fixated on times, actually becomes a limiting factor- because it determines both the upper and lower limits of what we can do. In other words, it distracts and removes possibilities we didn’t consider.
Being immune to time constraints may not seem realistic unless you live a monastic life. We still have work deadlines; we still need to catch the 7:45am bus; we still need to buy groceries before the store closes and so on. But perhaps we can begin to cultivate that sense of being present or mindful. It doesn’t matter what it is – fixing a bicycle; reading a book; doing the laundry; or dealing with a difficult salesperson. For moments in which we are present are not just when we are engaged in something that is deeply important to us; they are the ordinary encounters that happen all the time. It’s not that time doesn’t matter because sometimes it does. Rather it ceases to have a hold on us and be the driving force in our lives.
In the end there is an abundance of time for everything we want to do. Anybody can be busy “doing”- that is the easy part. But are we busy with what matters to us? Have we opened up space for completely non busy time to “be” (much harder to do) that calls for slow motion; stopping; attending; rather than calibrating the success of the day by how far we are on our to do list? If so, then we have begun to make time our own. And hopefully we can say at the end of the day- it was a good day with time well spent!