Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On Happiness: A Matter of Time

Some people are surprised to hear that the self-help section on a book store often has the most robust sales. Closet self-helpers like me are the reason; I am a fanatic about it. It often took me many hours to slog through accounting and finance books while I was in school. Self-help books I have been known to fly through at lightning speed.

So when the Today Show launched its most recent series, “5 ways to improve your life”, I naturally made a note of it a la David Allen, the author of “Getting things Done”, so I could check it out later. I must say the writers and researchers of the Today show are working overtime these days. About a year ago, I was becoming very disenchanted with them, though now they seem to be back on track. The information is useful – 5 ways to healthier bones, 5 ways to tone up, 5 ways to ride out the market, 5 ways to save for college, etc. In their section “5 ways to live longer”, one of the suggestions is “make the decision that your time is the most valuable thing in the world.” This, by far, is my favorite. An entire self-help book in one sentence.

I think of all the times that I hand over my time willy-nilly. I do it grudgingly on occasion, though I often treat my time as if it is entirely flexible. What if I compared my resource of time with ways I use other resources? Money, energy, my health, the love of my friends and family. I would never even dream of wasting those resources, and not in small part because those resources have a quantifiable limit. If I waste any one of them, there are dire consequences. I haven’t been thinking of my time that way on a consistent basis. Yes, I know when I am doing a project and my time is running out, then I see how precious it is. But what about my free time? Why do I give that away on a daily basis? Why do I treat it as if it is a resource in abundance rather than something precious?

The root of the problem is that I have not been looking at my time as something I truly own. It belongs to work, to my hobbies, to people in my personal life, to my community. What I need to do is flip that around. I own my time and have every ability and every right to decide how to divvy it up. It goes back to what Sue Monk Kidd wrote in The Secret Life of Bees, “The hardest thing on Earth is choosing what matters.”

And everything always comes back to this choice, this decision of how to spend time. No matter what decision I am pondering, at the root, it is all about time. Even decisions that seem to be about money or health or family. They are really based on “how much time do I have and how much of it do I want to spend on (fill in the blank)?”

This revelation is game-changing. We cannot help but live our lives differently if we begin to place an increasingly high value on the actual minutes that make up our lives. And not just those crucial moments or highlights like getting married, having a baby, graduating from school, getting a new job, buying a home, taking a vacation. Every minute – they all count. They’re all precious. They’re all unique – truly. We cannot repeat a single one of them. There is no do-over, no rewind.

I am a huge fan of Real Simple magazine, and one of their website features is wallpaper for the computer that contains a simple, brightly colored picture and an inspirational quote. On my desk top right now is one by Arthur Ashe and it seems particularly relevant to this post. “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.” And what we give to everything we do is time. Treat it like a gift.

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