Recently I received a tarot reading in which I was told, “it is almost unbearable for you to just ‘hang out,’ and this is at least in part why you started drawing, it was something productive to do while everyone was busy hanging out.”
It’s true! It is quite rare that, when given any amount of time, I choose to use it lavishly or in pure leisure. It occasionally feels appropriate, sure, but is really seldom desirable for me. I sometimes struggle at my barista job because when I ask many of the people who roll in, late morning, what their plans are for the day or what they did this weekend, they can hardly answer me. It’s typically some variation of, “just sorta hanging out I guess...” Meanwhile I’m chomping at the bit thinking not only of the endless list of things that I’m dying to do or simply need to get done, but of the endless wonder of the world and all there is to see and learn. Sometimes I even want to ask, “so you’re not doing a whole lot with your day? Will you take over my shift?” I know that there are things to discover everywhere, including at my day job, and that not everyone wants to disclose much during this small talk so I’m only receiving part of their story, but these obviously aren’t my most shining moments.
What it comes down to, is that I believe the effective use of time to be essential self care. I feel saddened when I see those around me neglecting this opportunity, and I also know when I’m not caring for myself very well.
My Own Bad Habits
I had a couple of years in my mid-20’s when I was on top of my time in a mostly excellent way. I hardly ever got distracted or lost in procrastination. I worked hard while working, which was a reasonable shift, 5-6 days a week, and when I was done I was done. I used the rest of my time to enrich other areas of life actively and almost systematically, somehow without becoming entrenched in too much rigidity or routine. I traveled a lot. I was pretty in tune with myself and what I needed and wanted at any given moment.
After some life changes that pretty much broke my entire foundation, my new reality has been that when confronted with time that I’m in charge of, I end up wasting a lot of it just like so many others. When I work I’ve tended to get up frequently to snack, clean something, water my plants, read a few pages, stare, doddle. Worst of all, I’ve been on my phone too much. The tiny tasks of life have come to overshadow my Work more than I am comfortable with, and I’ve been struggling to find adequate time to take care of myself in the other ways that I need.
The little moments add up and I’m in the middle of getting back on track now. It’s not that I don’t want to take breaks, think cell phones are the devil, or don’t think staring is an valuable activity, it’s just that I want to do better work in less time so that I can free up more time for my other priorities like hiking, seeing friends, cooking healthy meals, and deep reading. Only now am I regaining that emotional stability, sense of urgency, strong focus, and drive to live full happy days.
Replacing Our Lives
It’s striking to me how much leisure time is spent watching shining athletes, actors living exciting lives, and even moreso nowadays, real people- living the way we long to live- via social media. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this if it doesn’t serve as a replacement life; but living vicariously is easier than ever, and it leads at best to a comforted laziness, and at worst to a miserable loop of comparison and incapacity.
Most of the time, when given time, people have no idea what to do with it. Free time can be romanticized. I’m guilty of this. I finally realized that what I’m seeking has less to do with free, unstructured time, but time that I am in charge of structuring in order to create, to bring something into the world, to explore, to learn something, to help someone. Time where I can lose myself in a task that feels true to my highest aspirations. Leisure time is an often a wasted or entirely missed burning opportunity to experience the exhilaration of creation.
We’ve all heard the phrase, and perhaps rejected it, that “time is money.” I think this phrase can be used negatively, like for a busy parent to forego their child’s ballet recital to schedule a few more profitable meetings in at work, but a better way to put it might be that “time is currency.” Not money to be made for the sake of having it, but a resource to be used. We spend time like we spend money, only no matter how hard we work we can’t get any more of it. The demand will never affect the supply. Each day really could be our very last day alive, each hour. Sorry, but for real.
Life, in a way, is short. On the other hand, if not dashed by tragedy, our lives are actually quite long. I think it might not be time we lack but vitality. A sense of truly living -in a way that true to ourselves- and not just existing, is what makes an otherwise short life seem adequate in span.
Time is hard to budget because it isn’t visible, and none of us knows our own allottment. When reflecting on the length of my life, I try to take note also on how much I consider of it to be my own. I have vowed to take care that the people I grow closest with are not demanding or expectant of my time, because it shows a very fundamental and irreconcilable difference in our relationship values. Someone who feels they’re entitled to any amount of my time (outside of all kinds of emergencies) has needs that are mutually exclusive with mine. That’s fine, but we are simply incompatible to be close friends.
While I believe it is always alright to ask someone to give of their time, I will never expect or demand it, nor try to guilt them about not giving it freely. I will always ask with the full recognition of their right to say no, with really no explanation needed. I know that time is my most precious commodity, and how I’ve felt when someone thinks they should have a certain amount of it.
The amount of time I want to alott to socializing is considerable, but much less than most of my peers. The reality is, so many important tasks in life require the undivided attention of an individual. Learning to flower in solitude has been vital for me to improve my inner and outer circumstances. When no one is giving me a structure, will I melt under the pressure? Will the options drown me? Will I blank out with the use of substances? Or will I surpass boredom or restlessness by using the incredible human imagination?
I’ve also been lucky enough to find some kindred spirits, immersed in their own work, who will simply be in the same room with me while we both focus, and then come out of it for a break and some good conversation.
The Effectiveness of Appropriate Leisure
When I’m thinking of effectively using time, a lot definitions arise for me, and I know that it varies somewhat from person to person, too. I’ve tried to drastically simplify it here, with categories:
1. Maintaining base needs: breathing, sleeping, and eating well, exercising, being hygeinic, and staying hydrated.
2. Covering my ass: putting a roof over my head and pillow under it, maintaining my vehicle, saving money, and getting any healthcare I may need.
3. Developing and preserving healthy relationships, as well as severing ties when needed. Bonding, socializing, and supporting good friends.
4. Work. Art, illustration, writing, related education, exploration, and administrative work.
5. Betterment activities like meditation, reading, journaling, time in nature, etc.
6. Active recreation, fun, exploration and learning that is unrelated to work.
7. Passive recreation: unwinding, relaxation, spacing out, watching movies, drinking, and generally doing not a whole lot.
All of these areas are important to me, it’s the proportions I concern myself with. Looking at this, the recreational activities like those in numbers 6 and 7 should make up 2/7ths of how I spend my time. But, because I wish for areas like work, betterment, and relationships to occupy a larger percentage, and the things in numbers 1 and 2 ares sort of non-negotiable chunks of daily time, recreation should actually shrink down to maybe half that. This means that about one day a week could be used in some form of recreation, whether active or passive. I try to have one full day off every week.
Basically, I want to make it clear that I believe pure pleasure to be a vital part of living well, and is included when I talk about using time effectively. I feel productive going on long, meandering, aimless walks. Having a cocktail with a dear friend. Spacing out to a funny movie. But pleasure just doesn’t directly contribute to the action it takes to build a whole life, rather, it’s restorative. Leisure and pleasure can maintain a sense of order within the mind and body, which again, is important, but in my experience they don’t lead to new growth.
It’s maintanence. Any construction exquisitely maintained will still one day become antiquated or at least inefficient. Maybe beautiful to visit but an uncomfortable place to make your home. These are the people who you have a wild, fun night with... then realize they do this every night.
My problem both in experience and observation is that recreation and pleasure-seeking can become habits that overwhelm entire lives, rather than a beautiful and intentional component of a dear and brief stint as conscious beings.
The Ineffectiveness of Hyper Productivity
The thought process about my time seems to me like a ladder. Down at the bottom is where there’s no thought at all given to my limited time or the preciousness of my life. This rung is the rung of pure recreation and living with nearly constant distractions, like where I was when I was 20. As I’ve climbed, my activities began to look more like ones that would benefit me, and my thoughts began to turn to an understanding of what exactly it is I hold in my hands. This revelation whispered to me throughout my life, but became a thus-far permanent fixture around age 22. I rested a good while here, and it’s tricky place to rest, because it tends to come with a sort of existential anxiety.
This anxiety often came in the form of wishing, hoping, longing, and pining. At worst, I felt a regret for lost time, and at best, an urge to incessantly plan for the future-with little to no follow through. But really these things ended up functioning as the same procrastination I had just freed myself from, coming in through the back door. Rather than putting foot to pavement, pedal to metal, brush to paper, I would think and think and think, and became a dreamer. Where base distractions tended to keep me in my past (whether distant or very recent), existential distractions put me more firmly in my future. Both of these are fine things to think about, the problem is that neither past nor future exist for me right now. Both block me from facing my often uncertain present that needs my attention to flourish.
Sometimes, the higher we climb on the ladder, the better habits we develop, and the more fully we utilize our time. The anxiety can grow. We can reach a point where we can’t relax anymore, and when we can no longer enjoy our Work. Our Work becomes mere labor, drudgery, a constellation of tasks, a chore. Every accomplishment we acheive is acheived without joy and with stress, already looking at it critically and jumping ahead to where we ought to be or “can’t wait” to be. Our fixation on productivity puts us too far into our active minds, without allowing our receptive hearts to refill. This will burn us out. Rather than being preoccupied, as maybe we were before, with watching TV and going to bars, we’ve now simply transferred our preoccupatinn onto “maximizing” every moment of our lives, but we’ve again foregone balance. We’ve traded one form of unhappiness out for another. It’s like the heroin addict who gets clean but is very addicted to exercise. Everyone knows this person. Many of us are this person. They’re harder to diagnose, and sometimes they’re encouraged to spin forever.
As Always, Presence is Key
The higher rungs on my ladder are where self care, good habits, and discipline are in place, but presence has to come into play, bringing with it a peace which wins out over the anxiety.
With presence you don’t lose focus, so you get more done naturally, without stress, and usually in less time. Maybe you don’t get more done, but maybe that’s good for you (you know who you are.) Acheivement without anxiety, attempts without worry, failure without spinning, can all come out of the practice of presence.
I’m very, very far from feeling like a generally present person. But it is my highest aspiration, and I can reach it now, perpetually.
I’ve learned that without presence the end of my time will sneak up on me no matter how I’ve spent it. A simple awareness of my environment, what I’m doing, how my body feels, what I’m thinking and feeling, and deep down a stillness, helps me remember my entire day when I go to bed, and it feels like a longer and more fully lived one.
When presence is present, and our energy isn’t being eaten anymore by our future worries and past regrets, we can give more to the world, which is ultimately what any true work aims to do in one way or another.
“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly...You have been preoccupied while life hastens on. Meanwhile death will arrive, and you have no choice in making yourself available for that.”