Sam Holstein

The Secret to Having Enough Time

Everyone’s so busy these days! We wake up, we go to work, we have to stop by Time Warner after work to drop off that old router, then an old friend wants to catch up, then our boss surprises us by letting us know we need to turn in that report tonight, and by then it’s 11 PM and when are you going to have any time to work out or work on that startup idea you had?

At least, it seems that way. When you ask folks if they’d like to spend time together, we all hear the same thing: “I don’t have the time.”

It’s possible they’re telling a white lie to get out of spending time with you. That they do have the time, but they’d rather spend it getting some work done, so they have more time to spend with someone else, later. But if that’s the case, there are an awful lot of people around telling that white lie.

I suspect that we’re not all telling lies to each other; we’re telling a lie to ourselves. The lie is that we don’t have enough time to do everything. So, whatever gets added to the calendar first is what gets done.

The fact of the matter is, we all have the same amount of time. Elon Musk runs three billion dollar companies with the same twenty-four hours you use to drop clothes off at the dry cleaner and grab a sandwich at Wendy’s. If you aren’t able to do what you want to be done in that twenty-four hours, the problem isn’t your calendar; it’s you.

That’s the secret this headline promised. But it needs to be explaining. What does it mean that you’re the problem?

Well, if you’re complaining that you never have enough time, you’re probably packing your day with high-time, low-reward activities. Most people in America do. In fact, many such activities in America are considered valuable. Activities like:

That bulleted list makes it seem so simple. Most of these time-wasting activities are easy to spot. It’s so easy for me to sit here and write “stop doing these things!”

And yet, people still do these things. Why?

We’re forced to conclude that it isn’t the wasted time that concerns people. In my case, I spend time running errands because there is nothing, in particular, I’d rather be doing. So the problem isn’t that I don’t have enough time; it’s that I don’t have the will to do something else.

But if we’re wasting time, turning off our brains, why not go whole hog? Regarding relaxing, spending two hours watching a movie is always more rewarding then spending two hours browsing low-performing HuffPo articles.

I suspect that it is because we are not willing to turn off. There is a pressure in American culture to go-go-go, to be doing, creating, achieving. There is no space in American culture for relaxation, for watching a movie. Sure, we do these things, but we always say we’re doing these things with a tone of apology. There’s an implicit understanding that the ‘ideal’ action is to be working, and that relaxing is an unwanted but necessary part of existence, like getting sick or having bowel movements.

It’s regrettable that Americans feel ashamed of this because relaxation is as sweet and valuable a part of life as work. When we feel ashamed of relaxation, we try to squeeze it out of our phones at work or social media at home, like teenage students trying to gossip when the teacher’s back is turned.

There is no teacher. We are in charge of ourselves. It’s time to let ourselves know that it’s okay to take a break.

This is how people waste their time. Instead of working, or relaxing, people drift off and spend their time in between. It slips away from them without their knowledge. Then they come out of the trance, dazed and blinking, wondering where the hell the day has gone.

In previous ages, it wasn’t possible to fritter a day away this way. The farm needed working, the meat needed curing, the goat needed milking, and a million other things. On top of that, there were no phones or internet. If you weren’t working, you were staring at a blank wall. If your only other choice is crushing boredom, it’s pretty easy to choose work.

In this day and age, it is the frittering which is so easy. Notifications blink and pop and bounce on our devices and the devices of everyone else around you. Other people bob their heads, ducking in and out of their phone like it’s their only source of air. It’s hard to resist the urge when everyone else is doing it as well.

My call to action is this: permit yourself not to be doing. If you are going to be doing, do — don’t waste time on social media or driving around or standing in front of the mirror wondering which shirt you’re going to wear. And if you don’t want to, don’t — put on your nightie and rewatch House M.D. for the seventh time. Whatever you do, don’t waste time doing neither.

I wrote a follow-up to this piece called What Does It Mean To Be Productive?