I have this dream, and maybe you do too, of one day having enough time. It always feels like I’m in a particularly time-squeezed period of the year, or of my life.
The state of having enough time seems like a real place but we but never seem to be there. Once I finish this project, once Christmas is over, once the move is done, I’ll have time. But right now, there’s not enough time to do everything.
Quite a bit gets done, but something is always falling behind: emails, bookkeeping, self-improvement promises, things I said I’d do. Am I still learning French? I’m not sure.
Sometimes I wonder if having enough time is achievable at all, or if it’s like trying to reach light speed. We can approach it, if we have vast amounts of energy, but the laws of reality prevent us from quite getting there.
That doesn’t make much sense though. You always get some things done, and if those things were all you felt you needed to do, you’d have enough time. If you had another couple of hours a day, you would have kept up with Spanish lessons, you would have culled your sock drawer, you would have finished the 30-day yoga challenge.
The amount we fail to do is finite—we aren’t literally trying to do everything. We do say no. We decide to learn guitar, but not piano. We vow to spend more time with Grandma, but not necessarily with cousin Steve. We plan to read The Great Gatsby but not War and Peace.
This elusive state of “enough time” is possible. We only need more time to budget, or fewer pursuits eating it all up.
It’s a simple equation:
Time available to you
Time required to do everything you have to do
If the result is greater than 1, you have enough time.
Even though we have a lot of control over what we intend to do with our time, there’s strangely never enough of it. How do we always mess up this simple equation so badly? Do any of you feel like you have enough time?
We often argue that we don’t choose our time obligations, so we’re stuck in a permanent time deficit and that’s just the way life is. Bills need to be paid. The body needs sleep. The dogs need walking. We don’t have time for all these obligations, yet we can’t get rid of them.
But I think that’s mostly just a bad faith tactic we use to relieve ourselves from having to disappoint others, give up on dreams that aren’t working, and make other bold but nerve-wracking lifestyle moves. Besides, if we’re constantly failing to meet some of our obligations, it can’t be true that they must be done.
We do say yes to things we could have said no to. The big house that requires the big job to pay for it. Entertainment choices. Self-improvement ventures. Social media time. TV time. Reading the paper. Spending two years talking about who to vote for. There’s a lot of choice hidden in our overstuffed lifestyles.
As if to rub it in, some anthropologists tell us that thousands of years ago people had much more time available to them than their hunting, gathering and child-rearing required. Three or four hours of work a day paid the bills, so they had a lot of downtime. Then came agriculture, and eventually industrialization, and somehow these helpful developments turned almost all of us into people living under time debt.
This is ironic, because both of those developments were essentially revolutions in efficiency, slashing the time required to produce food and other stuff. When one farmer’s workday creates enough food for ten people, the other nine people can do other stuff all day long, like make art, map the night sky, assemble armies, build temples, or think up jokes.
I’m sure there are complex political and social reasons why all these time-saving innovations ended up leaving us perpetually out of time, and you can consult your nearest social sciences major for some ideas.
Mass production freed up a lot of time, and we essentially used that time to make new ways to use up all our time. Twenty thousand years ago, the idea of deciding what to do with your life might have seemed like an absurd question. Nobody was perturbed by a lifelong yearning to be a poet until there was such a thing as being a poet, or going to India before anyone went to India.
It may not have been on purpose, but we’ve created a steaming buffet of possibilities for time-spending. Many of them are enriching and more than worthwhile.
But we all know the problem with buffets. They aren’t conducive to rational thinking. Clearly the savannah did not equip us to deal sensibly with forty glistening tubs of hot food. You see something you like, and you’re already stacking mini-quiches next to meatballs next to egg rolls sitting in tikka masala, reaching to every corner of the vast palette and never looking at what’s going on the canvas.
The self-consciousness sets in only when you return to the table and begin to dismantle the nihilistic, Lovecraftian pyramid of horrors you didn’t know you were creating.
I recently spent a few of my hours (and few hours’ worth of earnings) going to see Jerry Seinfeld do standup at one of our local temples. He commented on the bizarre human institution of the all-you-can-eat buffet:
There’s something about the buffet that breaks down the mind, reason, judgment… Nobody would go into a restaurant and say to the waiter, “I want a yogurt parfait, spare ribs, a waffle, four cookies and an egg white omelet.”
(Watch the whole bit here)
Certainly, an abundance of food is preferable to scarcity, and the same is true for ways to spend our time. More options do give us more to work with in our quest to build a satisfying life.
But there’s a huge danger here. We are covetous creatures, and grasping at too many things leaves us feeling stressed and inadequate, and constantly wondering whether we’re on the best path. Psychologist Barry Schwartz tells us that a wealth of options has a way of making us less satisfied with our eventual choice. When there are fifty possibilities rather than two, we know it’s unlikely we will choose the best one.
So maybe that’s why we’re perpetually trying and failing to find time to bake our own bread, learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu, see all the Best Picture nominees and master the guitar solo in Stairway to Heaven—on top of a stable life of working, sleeping, eating and socializing. The modern world puts so much within reach if we just play our cards right, but there are a thousand cards to play. The stakes are extreme—these are our lives, after all—so to avoid playing the wrong cards, we try to play them all.
I do believe living with “enough time” is possible, and I believe it’s more worthwhile than the fruits of any 25-hour-a-day schedule I could think up. But for that pruning process to be effective, it needs to be harsh.
The math involved creates a serious existential dilemma. When there are ten thousand ways to spend your time, having enough time can only mean saying no to the vast majority of the things you’ve imagined yourself one day doing. And that means never becoming most of the people you imagined becoming: the novelist, the world traveler, the dinner party host, the black belt, the keeper of spotless inboxes, the guy that knows his wines.
It’s a scary thought, all the letting go that must happen. But it must happen consciously, and if we never get around to it, there will never be enough time.