Discover more from Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein
How Are We Using Our Days?
Focusing on endless crises can induce feelings that life is meaningless.
An earlier version of this essay was published at Intellectual Takeout. This is the first of an occasional series on using time wisely in the service of a life well-lived.
I’ve updated this essay to offer thoughts on the balance between being informed and being consumed by events in the world. Focusing on endless crises can induce feelings that life is meaningless.
How to Live on 24 Hours a Day is an instructive 1910 book by the Englishman Arnold Bennett.
Influenced by the Stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus and the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bennett concludes we fritter away much of our time.
Do you feel you don’t have enough money to live on? Bennett observes that there are no shortages of books on how to live on a certain amount of money a day. But for most of us, it is time—not money—that is the issue. Bennett writes, “It has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money.”
Acknowledging a problem is the first step towards change, and Bennett gives us eyes for the many ways we squander time. There were no social media platforms, smartphones, or cable TV channels in Bennett’s time, but there was no shortage of ways to waste time. Wasting time is a mindset; Bennett offers gentle pointers toward using our time more wisely.
In Bennett’s time, the workday was considered the “day.” How little has changed. We still say to our partner, “How was your day?” Such an attitude, Bennett writes, is “illogical and unhealthy.” We give “prominence to a patch of time and a bunch of activities which the man’s one idea is to ‘get through’ and have ‘done with.’”
If you find yourself squandering time, first, stop making excuses. Bennett asks, “Which of us is not saying to himself…: ‘I shall alter that when I have a little more time’? We never shall have any more time.”
Do not expect a quick fix for the problem of time squandering. Bennett instructs us “endless effort” awaits:
If you imagine that you will be able to achieve your ideal by ingeniously planning out a time-table with a pen on a piece of paper, you had better give up hope at once. If you are not prepared for discouragements and disillusions; if you will not be content with a small result for a big effort, then do not begin. Lie down again and resume the uneasy doze which you call your existence.
Begin now, and remember, as Bennett observes, “There is no magic method of beginning”:
If a man standing on the edge of a swimming-bath and wanting to jump into the cold water should ask you, “How do I begin to jump?” you would merely reply, ‘Just jump. Take hold of your nerves, and jump.’ As I have previously said, the chief beauty about the constant supply of time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoilt, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your career. Which fact is very gratifying and reassuring. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose. Therefore no object is served in waiting till next week, or even until to-morrow. You may fancy that the water will be warmer next week. It won’t. It will be colder.
Here are some of Bennett’s ideas for “jumping in”:
1. Exercise Your Mind With Regularity
Realize that “mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change—not rest, except in sleep.” Thus, as a beginning, “employ an hour and a half every other evening in some important and consecutive cultivation of the mind.” If you are interested in going down this path The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer is a fine guide.
2. Use Downtime Wisely
Bennett observed that most fellow commuters on the train were in a “mental coma.” Use downtime wisely. Just as physical exercise enlivens your whole day, so does mental activity. Bennett asks, “Why should you be astonished that an average of over an hour a day given to the mind should permanently and completely enliven the whole activity of the mind?”
Before books on mindfulness were commonplace, Bennett advocated disciplining the unruly mind simply by being more aware. The mind will often “skip away under [our] very eyes” and jump to “another subject,” Bennett observes, and modern technology has only made the task more difficult. A recent study found that the average attention span of humans has fallen from 12 seconds to eight seconds—shorter than that of a goldfish. We are all too tolerant of mind-wandering. Watch how your mind jumps from fragmented thought to fragmented thought.
It is easy to allow 24/7 news to hijack our minds to perpetual high alert. Despite what it seems, wallowing in the latest Trump indictment or story of Biden’s corruption may produce a perverse temporary rush, but it will not create a meaningful life.
This is not an argument for putting your head in the sand but a reminder to notice if you are addicted to “news.”
Around twenty years ago, a student in my MBA leadership class asked for help. She was addicted to the Drudge Report and found herself constantly refreshing Drudge’s page for a hit of something new and his famous, at the time, red siren. She was honest enough to notice her debilitating habit.
Her cure began with her awareness. She was not looking to be informed; she was addicted to distraction. A part of her mind wanted her day to be disrupted. This is no different than someone who disrupts their day by constantly snacking, allowing their mind to focus on anger, or constantly checking their phone or email.
If you are checking the “news” and stimulation and agitation is the result, the purpose of your addiction is to keep you distracted from a more important purpose for your time.
In future essays in this series, I’ll be considering a broader view of addictions and how to overcome them.
4. Check Your Ego
Stop frittering away your time with useless mental activity centered around your ego’s narrative about you as the heroic victim in an uncaring world. A little bit of empathy goes a long way. Bennett shares this everyday example:
The next time you get cross with the waiter because your steak is over-cooked, ask reason to step into the cabinet-room of your mind, and consult her. She will probably tell you that the waiter did not cook the steak, and had no control over the cooking of the steak; and that even if he alone was to blame, you accomplished nothing good by getting cross; you merely lost your dignity, looked a fool in the eyes of sensible men, and soured the waiter, while producing no effect whatever on the steak.
You might be sure your grievances are not petty or wasting your time. Bennett would say you are deceiving yourself. Notcing your grievances without judgment is the beginning of change. Again, I will be considering this issue further in future essays in this series.
5. Know When It’s Bedtime
One indication of an evening well spent is that you are ready for bed without much preparation. Bennett encourages us to “fall out of that habit of muttering to yourself at 11.15 p.m., ‘Time to be thinking about going to bed.’ The man who begins to go to bed forty minutes before he opens his bedroom door is bored; that is to say, he is not living.” To that end, consider keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom.
Consider ending each day with a reminder of your true nature. My wife and I often end the day by listening to a short spiritual talk followed by a spiritual reading. A brief conversation about what we heard follows.
Perhaps you have suggestions on using time wisely.
Thanks for reading Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.