How to live with intention, and use your time well
In recent months the subjectivity of time has fascinated me. Despite what you might think, there isn’t any such thing as absolute time – it’s all relative to the observer. Physicists have known this for a while, and while the stuff they are talking about is about the relativity of time and space to the speed of light, I’ve been experiencing the subjectivity of time on a day to day basis. In fact, we probably all have: time flies when you’re having fun, a watched pot never boils, the hours creep by.
Ever get the feeling that the days are going by faster and faster? “Jeez is it Christmas already? They’ll have the hot cross buns out soon!” I know I’ve suddenly awoken from a stupor only to think “oops I just watched 2 hours of crap on Netflix.” It’s all too easy to fall into these patterns of behaviour, letting things hijack our attention and distract us from the people and activities that truly bring value to our lives.
Life is long if you know how to use it
One of the perils of modern life, it seems, is busy-ness. If you can get anyone to stop for five minutes and talk to you, they’ll likely tell you they’re stressed, that they don’t have time to exercise or cook after work.
However, the fact is that generally, we are no busier than our grandparents were. Author and academic, Tiffany Jenkins, states that “Time-use surveys show people work about eight hours a day, a rate that has remained stable over the last five decades. While there have been significant material changes to people’s lives in the recent few decades, these are mostly in the direction of freeing up the hours and minutes. We have a little bit more leisure time now than in the past.”
So, what’s changed? Nothing apparently, despite what some might say about technology allowing work to encroach on our personal lives. Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, wrote with eerie familiarity on this topic 2,000 years ago:
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
Essentially, people are still happily giving away their time – to scrolling through Facebook, to parties they didn’t want to go to, to trash TV. The trick is to be aware of your time, and how you use it, and to also just slow down a little. It seems odd but as you slow down you can get more done – you spend less time switching context in your mind.
“Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present” - Seneca
Be intentional with your time by taking back your attention
Your time is the most valuable thing you have. You can lose and make money many times over, but you can never get your time back. We should be treating each moment as precious, including this one right now, so think about what you want to achieve in the future and then what you’re doing today to get a little bit closer to that goal. Each little bit counts. American author Annie Dillard summed it up perfectly:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”
However, it is possible to go too far in the quest for productivity. Living with intention is not about cramming every second full of goal-oriented tasks and never taking a break. Rather, it’s about being in the moment and conscious about what you’re doing, and if by doing that you decide tonight you need to lie on the couch and watch repeats of How I Met Your Mother then that’s fine (so long as it’s not that every night!). Rest is important.
Digital devices and your attention
The biggest challenge for most will be wrangling back their attention from the sneaky tricks that marketers and software developers have learned to steal it away from you. The attention economy is a concept that any marketing professionals out there will be familiar with, it treats consumers attention as scarce and valuable and is bitterly fought over. Apps like Facebook use the same psychologically addictive inputs that casino slot machines are designed with, to give your brain that little hit of dopamine and keep you coming back again and again. They then sell your attention to the highest bidding advertiser.
Becoming aware of what is being done to you in the first step in taking back your attention, and a good place to start is taking a good long look at the technology that we are choosing to let into our life each day. Cal Newport has written an entire book on what he calls Digital Minimalism, where he advocates for the removal of all digital technology and social media, then slowly examining and reintroducing only those that bring true value to your life (and only if the trade-off cost is not too high). I know not everyone is going to go out and delete Facebook and Instagram (I know I haven’t) but being very aware that these platforms are designed to trap your attention is a good place to start in recapturing your own attention. When we look back over our day - a unit of measurement in a finite life - how would we feel knowing we spent 1.5 hours scrolling up and down Facebook’s algorithm instead of reading a book, or calling a friend?
On using your time with intention
Think of your attention like a spotlight, one that only you can direct and focus. Practice this by focusing your attention on a single task for an extended period time. Put your phone in another room and read a book, write something, knit, paint; whatever, just make sure that you are the one that is deciding what you’re thinking about in that moment. The more you do this the easier it will get. There is also joy in letting your mind rest for a while – try taking a walk without your headphones and just listen to the sounds of the world and be present in it, giving your mind time to process things in the background.
Living with intention is simply acting with purpose and awareness in our everyday lives. It’s a level of consciousness about who we are, our place in the world, and the life we want for ourselves. Take care of yourself, be wary of technologies that would seek to profit from you, ensure you wake up years from now content with the life you’re living and, hopefully, still striving for more.