A Loser’s Lament

Have you ever been invited to participate in an interesting event or seminar and turned it down because you’re too busy? Have you passed up attending an event that’s important to someone in your family because you just don’t have time? There’s no question things can be hectic. Time is ever more elusive as the days go by and it slips through our fingers. At the end of a month we wonder where the time went. Yet, we wonder briefly as we’re on to the next thing. We don’t have time to sit back and relax or savor our past efforts and accomplishments. There’s the next project, the next deadline, the next all hands meeting to attend. From our harried work lives, we transition to managing our personal lives. Things are no better here. We’re moving from activity to activity with our kids, helping with homework, and trying to find time to make a dinner that doesn’t start and end in the microwave. We look around and wonder how other people do it.

Yes, we’re busy. We have things on our plate. But are we really short on time? Time is our great equalizer. We each have the same 168 hours a week regardless of what a hotshot we are or aren’t. Each day contains the same 86,400 seconds independent of where we live. Though time is the same for all of us, some seem to be less a victim of it and more a master. If your house was on fire, would you be too busy to exit? If you got a call from someone saying they just left $1,000,000 cash on your doorstep and you had five minutes to claim it before they took it away would you be too busy or too tired to leave your bed? Whether it’s running away from or toward something, we can be immediately motivated to move.

How are we using our time? Would you be able to detail how you spent your last work day? How about the last work week? How about this past weekend? Do you schedule your days? Even if you do, do you track how you did against that schedule? If you do schedule your day, is it just the work day or all day of each day? If we don’t know, what does it show? As the trope has been telling us since John Heywood introduced it back in 1546, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Too often, we don’t want to know how we’re using our time for fear of realizing that we’re not using it, we’re wasting it.

How do average people spend their days? The US Department of Labor has been consistently compiling data for Americans for several decades in this area. Reviewing the data from 2015 we can get a sense of how our days are disappearing. If we consider how time is spent on an average work day by those employed, we see sleep and personal care taking up the largest chunk of the day at just under nine hours. Work takes up eight hours. We won’t break down how our work days are being spent in this note. After sleep, personal care, and work, we’re left with less than seven hours to our day to manage everything else we need to accomplish. Yet, with this reduced block, approximately half of it is allocated to leisure. TV, sports, and hobbies comprise almost three and a half hours of our days. Eating and drinking take almost an hour and a half while other household activities take just over an hour. The final available hour and a half is splintered across categories like civic/religious activities, shopping, caring for non-family, caring for family, phone/email/mail, miscellaneous, and last (and apparently least) education. If you’re able to detail how you spend your time, how does your time use stack up against our average American? It’s an illuminating exercise to spend some time tracking how your time is being spent for a few weeks.

Amongst our various daily activities we add our dependence on technologies like our smartphones. According to a Neilsen study done in 2018, the average American is staring at a screen of some kind 74 hours a week. This includes all folk, employed, unemployed, retired. That’s almost 50% of the physical hours we have available to us. That means we’re overlapping some of the categories above with screen time. A separate study done by a tech company, Asurion, detailed the average American checks their phone more than 80 times each day. A separate study shows the younger, millennial, generation checking their phones twice as frequently. There’s more and more evidence suggesting that technologies and social media are addictive. We’re being driven by our devices and have given up agency over our days. We pass time as passengers instead.

How do successful people spend their days? The level of intention seems to be a deep differentiator. Those that think deeply about defining their priorities and focusing their time devoted to these are diligent about getting the most out of their days. Successful people are proactive in planning their days. They aren’t reacting to devices or the requests of others. Successful people spend time getting to know themselves. What’s important to me? Where do I want to spend my time? What do I want to accomplish? Who do I want to do it with? The clarity of direction determines decisions. Those that respect their time, respect themselves. They intuit deeply what Annie Dillard’s quote captures, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Steve Kamb in Level Up Your Life writes about banning the words “I don’t have time” from your life. Instead, he suggests say, “It’s not a priority.” Then see how your view of things moves. Instead of saying, “I don’t have time” to your child when asked to play, see how you feel saying “It’s not a priority to play with you.” If you think you don’t have time to exercise, how do you feel when you reframe the statement into it’s not a priority for me to exercise? How we spend our time reflects what is important to us. If we don’t have time for something, consider that it is because some part of us considers it not important.

The late author, George Sheehan who wrote in magazines and books about his passion for distance running, wrote in The Essential Sheehan, “My rules for budgeting my 24 hours are simple. No lunch, no novels, little TV. A rare movie, few magazines, a quick pass through the newspaper. Thus I reduce those hours in which I am a consumer and a spectator and increase the time when I am living my own life.” David Goggins echoes this writing in Can’t Hurt Me, “Most people waste four to five hours on a given day, and if you can learn to identify and utilize it, you’ll be on your way toward increased productivity.” Even more disciplined in his approach is prolific writer and speaker, Seth Godin. In a podcast interview with David Perell, the subject of time came up and Godin spoke of how he consciously avoids many of the things we stumble into day after day as time sucks. “Let’s talk about time for a second. It doesn’t matter where you were born. You get exactly the same amount of time as everybody else. It is the great equalizer. I decided when Seinfeld went off the air to stop watching television, and I also don’t use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. And I don’t go to meetings at work. So I already have about 7–10 hours of free time everyday that most people don’t have. That’s huge. If more people did that you would be amazed on how much you could learn. We’re the richest people in the history of the world, and yet we are squandering our time doing things that make no sense.”

I had to bold the one sentence that struck like a lightning bolt. “I already have about 7-10 hours of free time everyday that most people don’t have.” Wow. That’s both true and remarkable. That’s an extreme elimination of distractions. Certainly, Seth Godin, as an established and independent author, may have greater freedom to structure his days than the rest of us. He can say no to meetings. Most of us may not have that luxury. Fair enough. On the other hand, maybe he has the freedom he has as a result of the discipline to ditch distractions. “Whenever you wish you had more time, more money, etc., strategic quitting is the answer,” writes Eric Barker in Barking Up the Wrong Tree. What these successful people are showing us is a willingness to take ownership of their time and exclude things that don’t serve. And, by successful, we’re meaning both productive and satisfied. They are finding time to work on the things that matter to them, making progress, and enjoying a richer, deeper life.

Individuals like Sheehan and Godin dictate their activities to serve their goals. Though we’re not necessarily suggesting we should be skipping meals in order to save time, giving up some of our leisure time is not a bad idea. If we trade TV time for education time, what difference can we make in our capabilities over a year? Laura Vanderkam has written several books related to time management. Her suggestions for how to make the most of the time we have stem from following people she considered achievers. Vanderkam in her book, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, writes, “In the end you can spend three to four hours a day on mindless tasks…instead of your core competencies.” She’s highlighting that those become successful because they determine what’s important to them. They detail their biggest priorities and allocate their time towards advancing these. She goes on to note, “We have time, but it’s consumed by sound and fury that culminates in few accomplishments beyond getting out the door.” David Goggins, writes, “I know you have goals too, and room for improvement, or you wouldn’t be reading my book, and I guarantee that if you audited your schedule you’d find time for more work and less b.s.”

Aubrey Marcus is founder of the fitness enterprise Onnit. They run a gym and sell various supplements. Marcus also wrote a book in which the title captures the essence of how high performers don’t have time, they make time. The book’s title, “Own your day, own your life.” Those that get things done realize that someday doesn’t exist. All that exists is today. Our lives consist of a string of days. Making the most of the day we have one day at a time is the way to progress. Performers like Godin and Sheehan own their days. They push off anything that doesn’t move them towards their clearly defined objectives. Their constant commitment to living a life free from distraction affords them all the time they need. They are paying attention. They are not just reviewing their schedules to see what’s working, but they are then planning and determining their schedule to help them pursue their goals. They start with clarifying what it is they want to achieve. They develop crystal clear clarity as to direction. They then objectively evaluate where they are now. They accept the idea of show me your schedule and you’ll show me your priorities. How is their time being spent today? They then develop a plan to transition them from where they are to where they want to go. Post recognizing exactly where one’s time is being spent presently, changes are made to remove those activities that aren’t in service of goals. Time is spent foremost on those things that are important.

Vanderkam goes on to observe that the productive use of time for those that are accomplishing great things begins with morning routines. She writes, “Successful people have priorities they want to tackle, or things they like to do with their lives, and early mornings are the time when they have control of their schedules. If it has to happen, then it has to happen first.” Our days can quickly spin out of control. Whether we’re at the mercy of our work day or family demands, we can’t control every minute of every day. However, we can start with carving out time for things that matter in the morning. We may aspire to finding 7 – 10 hours a day that Godin has created for himself, but start with half an hour to an hour in the morning. As Vanderkam noted, successful people use their time in the morning to work on their most important priorities, developing their careers, families, and selves. With a commitment to this approach, she came to love it observing, “I can accomplish more before breakfast than I used to do in a day.” Getting a good start creates momentum in the desired direction which fosters the likelihood that subsequent activities will remain in alignment.

If we don’t choose to use time, we lose time. Where do you want to spend your time? We’ll close with Vanderkam’s words, “So how would you like to use your mornings? As with any other important question, this one repays careful thinking, spending time figuring out what is truly meaningful to you. But once you decide, small rituals can accomplish great things. A habit, Anthony Trollope once said, ‘has the force of the water drop that hollows the stone. A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.’ When you make over your mornings, you can make over your life. That is what the most successful people know.” We have more control over our time than we may care to admit. As Goethe offered, “One always has time enough, if one will apply it well.” Motivational speaker, Michael Altshuler, takes it a step further noting, “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”