You may be wondering: "Why time? Other aspects of life fundamentally impact and determine how much we can make of life. Health, attention, energy, etc. are all limited resources that we can deploy in our lives and in day-to-day living." Well, let me explain why I think that consciousness about time comes before everything else. Let me explain why I think that health, attention and energy are second. Let me explain my perspective on the pursuit of a life of happiness and meaning. Please keep in mind that, although I try to combine my arguments with scientific knowledge in the field of cognitive psychology and human behavior, it is still largely based on my own perspective.
For most people, their health plays a decisive role in their joy of life, especially when they experience a drastic change in their health at some point. For these people, they might think of their health as the most important "thing" because it is directly tied to their goals with which they identify their quality of life. Not being able to exercise, travel or remember their children's names makes them (understandably) sad. But health only determines a person's boundary conditions, within which, I argue, he/she can still live as happily and find as much meaning as a healthier person. You probably agree when I say that there exists at least one person that is less healthy but happier than another person. Let alone everything else, this should be enough evidence that health does not (solely) determine the quality of life. Let's look at Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease at the age of 21. Sometime after his diagnosis, he famously said: "I'm happier now than before I developed the condition." For a man who devoted his whole life to find the "theory of everything", the one formula of the universe, we can also easily argue that he filled his life with great meaning. When I had two knee surgeries a few years ago, it did not make me less happy. But when I would have solely focused on the pain I had and how bad I was able to move around, it would have affected me more profoundly. I am not saying that you can't be very badly ill, but within that condition you can still be more or less happy. Although your health can restrict you from doing certain things, it is only the negative response to not being able to do/have/think/feel these things that affects you. It is your mind and your mind only that builds the perception about the experience of life, and you (mostly) have full control over it. What you focus your attention on is what makes its path to your mind.
As I just demonstrated, there is so much power in the control over our attention. It determines what enters the mind and by that, gives you the ability to change your attitude towards what is important and whatnot. How we feel, act and think depends on what we pay attention to and how our minds interpret this information. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who devoted his life to the path towards happiness, says that "a person can make himself happy, or miserable, regardless of what is actually happening "outside", just by changing the contents of consciousness." To fully control our attention, however, we need energy and willpower, both of which are resources that can be depleted. Sometimes, even when I know this is not what I should be focusing on, I cannot find the right energy and I will let bad weather affect my mood. As soon as we start losing the energy to control our attention, we become guided by external events which then determine our quality of experience. Then, there is also an overall limit on how much information we can digest at a certain point in time. It is said that this limit is about 7 bits (visual, textual, emotional,...) of information per one time (1/18 of a second), which adds to about 7500 bits per minute. This limit is both a blessing and a curse: It makes us able to cope with the chaotic, millions of stimuli that are present in the world, but at the same time it gives a greater emphasis on the selection we make. These selected bits of information and their interpretation generate our experience and its quality. But, as we have seen, attention is framed by time. I argue that only once we realize the power and impact of time, we can fully devote this time to streamline our attention towards meaning.
Only when we are aware of time as the ultimate frame for everything else, we can work on what we can control inside of it.
So, I am not arguing that the latter things are not important; they are in fact the most important components within time. But they all take place in the boundaries of time and by that, they are framed in this abstract construct of seconds, minutes, and hours. And before we become conscious about time, we will not seek to fully embrace the potential of life, streamline our attention and energy towards meaning and focus on what lies inside, as Stephen Covey says, our circle of influence (things that you can control). Without being aware of the opportunities and constraints that lie within time, we will not develop the commitment to understand what happens inside this construct and how we can squeeze out its full possibilities. For me, it all starts with time. Within time, you can choose how to deploy your resource of attention and energy, which again determines how you subjectively experience your health. Everything you do, feel and think is framed by time and my goal is to work with its components to create as much meaning to time, and by extension, to life.
The ancient Greeks had two different words for time. The first was "chronos" and the second was "kairos". The Greek god Chronos was imagined as an elderly, grey-haired man, and his name connotes the literal ticking of the clock, the chronological time, the kind we measure (and race about to use efficiently). Kairos is different. While it is difficult to translate precisely, it refers to the time that is opportune, fortuitous. Chronos is quantitative, Kairos is qualitative. The latter is experienced only when we are fully in the moment - when we exist in the now. At first, it sounds very cliché to say that one "should live in the now" but once we consider that in practical terms we only ever have now, it becomes mind-bending. It changes the way you focus your attention, it changes the way you interact with people and it changes your perception of the value of time. It is the starting point towards realizing both the potential and the curse of time. For me, this was the beginning of the journey towards growth. Since I started reflecting more deeply about how I spend my time, I have become clearer on how I want to use my most precious asset. I have become clearer in what I want to achieve long-term and how I define personal success and happiness. And from there, I started streamlining all my efforts towards that goal. At the same time, I started reducing all other things consuming my time that I used to do before due to a lack of clarity (e.g. unrestricted social media consumption). Realizing the power of now gives you clarity of purpose and the control you need over your attention to streamline your efforts towards that purpose.
It is time to speak of time, not as the moment of now, but as the stretch over the period of life. We have to acknowledge: the time we have is very limited. While this can be scary, I see this as an opportunity, a challenge on how I can make the most out of it. I believe that spending this time by design and not by default is the path to a rich and meaningful life. Great help on this quest, I have found for myself over the last years, is to build good habits and routines. I will not get too much into these and the techniques I use (maybe in a later blog post), but they help me reduce the energy I need to raise for doing certain tasks and they also help me to get more done. For example, when I restarted reading more books last year, it first was a tedious process to get myself to read every day. I needed to bring up a considerable amount of energy to convince myself of doing it, every time. Today, it has become a habit. I do not need to convince myself anymore, it has just become a matter of when I schedule it throughout the day. Building habits like these also frees up mental capacity and makes space to fit in other things to focus on. It works like driving a car: At first, you need to invest a lot of energy and attention into all kinds of details- changing gears, checking mirrors, etc.- but once you do so it regularly, you can use most of your attention on other purposes such as enjoying the landscape. Habits and routines, over time, allow you to free up mental space, execute some tasks on autopilot and fit more things in the now.
But let me be clear: This is not about doing more and more, working all the time, or sacrificing sleep to get more done (actually, this is a bad idea), but it is about investing as much time as possible into high-impact activities that make me grow. It is about constantly reflecting and re-evaluating my efforts and their contributions towards my goals. This is not about never doing nothing (actually, doing nothing can be very valuable), but doing so intentionally. This is also not about neglecting relationships: I have built fewer but much deeper ones (🖤) since I started to develop this "vision". It has learned me to appreciate the interactions with other people more. Everyone who invests time into me gifts me with her/his most precious asset.
To harness the courage we need to get on the right path, it pays to reflect on the value of time and what we want to accomplish in the little time we have left. As poet Mary Oliver wrote:
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"
Today is a good day to start building on that vision.
You are definitely an MVP if you made it this far. Thank you for spending your most valuable asset on reading through my thoughts.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 2002.
James Clear. Atomic Habits. 2018.
Cal Newport. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. 2016.
Greg McKeown. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. 2014.
Winifred Gallagher. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. 2010.
Miller, G.A. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. 1956.
Klausner, Z.S. The quest of self-control. 1965.
Gendlin, E.T. Focusing. 1989.
Bandura, A. Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. 1982.