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Time Famine

How to satisfy your hunger for more

"Lost yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes. No reward is offered for they are gone forever."
—Horace Mann

How often do you hear the refrain, “I don’t have time” or “There’s not enough time in the day”? According to the Families and Work Institute for the Department of Labor, two-thirds to three-quarters majority of wage earners say they don’t have enough time to be with their children, their spouses, or to spend on themselves. Are you one of the many people dying for more time? Do you hit the ground running as soon as your feet touch the morning floor, checking electronic devices, slurping coffee, and stuffing a Danish in your mouth as you bolt out the door with a million ideas exploding in your head?

If you’re like most people who grew up in the United States, you’ve heard the adage, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” This mindset permeates our time-obsessed culture to the extent that doing is more valued than being. The more we do, the greater our worth. We mistake overloaded schedules for authority and fast food, quick results, and speedy service for substance. Running with scissors, we treat the present moment as if it’s an obstacle to overcome, and spare time has become a dinosaur. With gobble, gulp, and go as our standard, we race against the clock, shake our fists at the heavens. We try to find ways to save time but never have enough of it. Yet when we do, we can’t enjoy empty moments because there’s always more to do. We talk about killing the very thing we say we want more of—an insane way to live.

Too many of us suffer from time famine—starving for more time to do everything we need to do. We’ve come to believe that frantic and panic are the only ways to get everything done, missing out on the present moment. We hop in and out of the shower instead of being in the shower. We push through the traffic jam instead of being in the traffic jam. We rush through meals to watch TV instead of being present with loved ones at the dinner table. Our multitude of tasks and the ensuing chaos and stress define us. In these ways, we unwittingly create our own misery and diminish the quality of our lives. As long as we define success by those who time-starve themselves, we lead time-malnourished lives and feel the hunger pangs of sleeplessness, exhaustion, and worry—not to mention self-defeat. Time famine can lead to mental health issues such as burnout, anxiety, and depression and physical health problems.

Truth be told, we have become a society of time gluttons. We have plenty of time—twenty-four hours a day—and we all have the same amount. We say we never have enough because we don’t stop to savor the time we have, much like we would an ice cream cone. When we speed through life, it’s like gorging on a full meal never having tasted the food, still ravenous and running on empty.

We don’t need more time to get things done. We don’t even need to make time. There’s always enough room for the important things. The real question is, “What do we do with the time we have?” What about you? Do you white-knuckle it when kept waiting, expecting other people to match your hurried pace? Caught in rush-hour traffic or a slow-moving line, do you drum your fingers when things don’t move fast enough? If so, take time instead of letting it take you. Start to ask not how time is treating you; ask how you are treating time. Some of us pause to do the things we want to do while others let pressures and demands dictate how they spend time. You always have a choice to take charge of your life when you ask whether time is using you or you’re using time. Studies show that people who spend money to free up their time—such as hiring a house cleaner or lawn service—have less time strain and greater life satisfaction. Other studies claim the key to time famine—especially for those who cannot afford time-saving purchases—is a mindful awareness of the present moment.

What if someone said to you, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” Chances are, you would roll you eyes, glance at your to-do list, and wonder if they had been sniffing the ink cartridge in your computer. The idea of doing nothing is a bitter pill to swallow, but the art of doing nothing is good medicine. The Italians call it “il dolce far niente”—roughly translated “the sweetness of doing nothing.” The closest translation in the United States is “Killing time.” But il dolce far niente demands far more: to intentionally let go and put being before doing as a priority. Once I watched a man, his mind adrift and arms outstretched, balancing on an old sea wall. No hurry to do anything or get anywhere in that moment, he navigated his body against the warm ocean breeze with all the time in the world. Doing nothing is like the pauses that are integral to a beautiful piece of music. Without absences of sound, music would be just noise.

Occasional pauses and a calm state nourish a famished mind and body, providing a chance to rest and digest. Heart and respiratory rates slow down, the mind clears, and we’re more productive. The more we still the hurried mind and center within on the quiet places, the more the calm state is available to us in times of upheaval. And what has been there all along in some embryonic form gets the space to come alive. Satiating ourselves with just two golden hours once in a while eliminates worldwide time famine. Start taking time to indulge in the sweetness of being alive with “sweet nothings”—doing nothing for the sheer pleasure of it—providing an incubation period for all of our successes to be born.

Your life belongs to you to do with as you please. If you’re willing to make changes, you’re free to reclaim personal time and create the life you want instead of becoming a victim of time famine. Imagine holding a sculpting knife and time is a huge lump of clay. As you wield the knife, you have the power to sculpt how you want to spend time. When you do this, you can feel the expansiveness and breathe it in. Learn to accept idle moments out of your control exactly as they are. Empower yourself, choose to wait, and use it for your higher good. Seize slow situations for personal reflection, breathe deeply, and connect with the rise and fall of your breath.

An occasional idle mind is a great benefit. May you find that place where idle moments coexist with productivity, success, and personal fulfillment —where you have times without imperative to be present in each moment—nothing to fix, rush to, or accomplish—moments when you can share the sentiments of Henry David Thoreau, who said: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. It’s thin current slides away, but eternity remains.”

More from Bryan E. Robinson Ph.D.
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