In Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, he has a chapter titled Alive or Dead Time? In this chapter, Holiday details how the civil rights and political figure Malcolm X transcended from a hood and trouble maker into community leader. Malcolm X had a wild streak and got in trouble to such an extent that he was put in jail. Almost from the moment he was in jail, he realized he had a choice to use the “down time” to either get better or get bitter. He chose to read, to explore knowledge, and become better. Almost every minute of every day during the sentence Malcolm X served was spent reading. Books became his education and knowledge his path forward to a better life. Holiday writes that author Robert Greene has made a distinction between two types of time that we each have. “We either have dead time, when people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and acting and utilizing every second.”
We have the freedom to make this choice at many points in our lives. In our day to day lives, we have a choice of whether to use down periods in our day to do something constructive. We are each presented with many moments in which we can decide how we will use our time. Alive time or dead time, which will it be?
Malcolm X wasn’t unique in using his confinement to consume information. Many others have done the same while facing other trials and tribulations. Whether laid up because of illness, physically isolated because of exile or prison, or facing a challenging economic environment, figures like Nelson Mendella, Viktor Frankl, and Walt Disney all became better through adversity faced. They used the constraints of their circumstances as a kick start to get better in some way which catapulted them forward.
Unfortunately, most of us when having time on our hands to think, try to do anything but that. We seek distraction or if we’re thinking, our thoughts spiral into a negative trend worrying or blaming. We’re not using the time to transcend our circumstances or improve. As we continue to work remotely, we’re likely finding that we have more available time. Our commutes have been eliminated. Our personal hygiene routines have become less onerous and time consuming. Our workloads are a bit less with reduced volume of activity and cessation of meetings. What are we doing with this extra time? When we close the laptop at our end of the day, even if we’ve been quite productive, the day is still young. Now what? Instead of fighting our way through traffic, making and eating dinner, and collapsing on the coach for a Netflix session post 7pm, we’re now ready for Netflix much earlier. How much media can we consume? How much distraction can we digest? It’s natural that we’re feeling a little stir crazy, but we don’t want to let this become an excuse to get lazy.
What if we used our time to get better? What if we tried to avoid dead time and embrace alive time? What if we learned a hobby? What if we consciously engaged with our family members with whom we are now spending more time? How can we think more about making the most of the extra time we have? Who knows how long we will be managing as we are? Consider our collective circumstances as an opportunity to use the additional time we’ve been gifted to get better. Imagine how you will be able to use this time to separate yourself and advance. Pick your area to improve, whether it be your personal health or fitness, a hobby, or a professional skill. Trying to use some of the extra time in our day to focus on developing a skill in one of these areas will lead to a serious separation of skill over time.
If we’re able to use a bit of time each day to get better at something, this can add up to something substantial. Devoting two hours a day to developing a discipline instead of swallowing social media will lead to a great gap between those who do the former and those that do the latter. Most people will be happy digesting Netflix or consuming Crave TV. Their skills will stay stagnant and likely even decrease in these troubled times. If you take the available time now and use it to get better at something useful, then you can capitalize on the time we now have to create a capability chasm between yourself and others.
Whether it be reading, writing, fitness, a class, a home renovation skill, or some other recreation, use the available extra time we have in this time. It looks less and less likely that this is a short term blip for us. A quick bounce back to the way things were is doubtful. We should be approaching this like we’re in it for the long haul and trying to best prepare ourselves to both enjoy in some way the present as well as get better to capture the future.
Dr. Jordan Peterson, in the past few weeks, posted to his LinkedIn profile the following text which further breaks out the idea of valuing and using our time today.
“Take a moment to consider the activities you would like to pursue outside of obligations such as work, family, and school. The activities you choose should be worthwhile and personally meaningful. Without a plan, people often default to whatever is easiest, such as watching television, playing video games, or otherwise wasting their private time. If you waste four hours a day—which is not uncommon—then you are wasting 1,400 hours a year. That is equivalent to 35 40-hour workweeks, which is almost as much as the typical individual spends at his or her job every year. If your time is worth $25 per hour, then you are wasting time worth $35,000 per year. Over fifty years, that is $1.8 million, not counting interest or any increase in the value of your time as you develop.”
Defeat depression and disappointment with concerted effort to making the most of the extra time we now have to get better at something in which you’re interested. You’ll set a good example for those around you. You’ll feel better about yourself and what you’re doing today. You’ll be taking advantage of the time and separating yourself from others. Where you’re Willing to Do What Others Won’t (W2D WOW), you are creating capabilities that others don’t. You’re giving yourself the best chance possible to move forward for the future.