Time, and a map of what matters

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This September has offered simply spectacular sunsets

September is almost over.  The world spins on.  Aidan and I are coming to the end of this month of the Here Year, whose theme has been time.  Time is perhaps the central preoccupation of my life.  How quickly it moves, how evanescent it is, the confounding nature of memory, the inexorable, unavoidable forward movement of our days: these are the themes around which my thinking and feeling and and writing and living circles.

I hear certain quotes and passages and lines from poems in my head all the time.  I’ve written about that ad nauseum.  It’s hard to say which I think about the most often, but it might be Annie Dillard’s famous sentence:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

I literally could not believe this more fiercely.  Yes, time is a zero sum game.  It is the only one this life actually has.  That’s bracing and often difficult to accept.  At least for me.  But I also have some good news: you can choose what to do with the time you have.  YES, I know: there are many things we HAVE to do that we might not choose.  Work is a big one.  I know.  I work full time.  There are many things I love about my job but it definitely contributes to the fact that on a near-daily basis I wish I had more time for my family, for my writing, for sleep, for myself.

When I look at a map of a week I see a lot of hours dedicated to work, and you might challenge my assertion here, saying “is that something you really value?” The answer would be yes.  I value contributing to my family economically, I like my work and colleagues, and it’s important to me to show Grace and Whit that I have something I enjoy doing to which my training and education contributed.  And the other hours?  They are mine.  Are there things I have to do in there?  Yes. Do I spend more time driving to and from practices than I want?  Sure.  But that reflects a value that I want to do that with Grace and Whit.  Do I spend more time doing laundry and packing lunches than I want?  Sure.  But that is a way for me to stay intimately involved in the details of my family’s life, and for me, that’s worth it.

How I spend my time tells me what I value.

Anne Lamott says that “it is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day,” and this is true, too.  How do we spend this wealth?  Let’s be deliberate and thoughtful about that.  Honestly, that is all I want.

Every hour of our life is a choice, a trade-off between competing priorities and desires.  We are all given the same number of hours in a day.  What do you prioritize?  What do you care about?  Where are you spending your time?In the last several years my own life has simultaneously narrowed and widened.  It has narrowed because I have substantially cut down on external (non-job and non-family) commitments.   I say no much more often than I say yes.  And even beyond commitments about my physical presence, I’ve withdrawn in a real way: for example, I spend much less time on the phone catching up with friends.But even in this narrowing my life has startled me with an unforseen richness.  It’s like I stepped into a dense forest but then I looked up to see an enormous expanse of the sky.  Somehow, in my turning inward, I have learned to see the glittering expanse of my own life.  Maybe it is not having the other distractions.  Maybe it is that is training my gaze I have opened my heart.  I am not sure.I spend my time with my family, I spend my time writing, I spend my time reading, I spend my time with a small number of people I entirely trust and wholly love.  I run at 5:30 in the morning because that’s the only time when the trade-off isn’t too steep for me.  It is very rare for me to have dinner, drinks, or lunch with a friend one-on-one.  The same is true for Matt and me with other couples.  On the other hand there are many evenings where I sit and read to the kids while they are in the tub, when I get into bed at 8:15pm with a book, and there are a great many days full of work.

Let’s all decide to no longer hide behind the excuse that we “don’t have time.”  The truer response would be “I don’t care enough to really protect the time.”  This may be harsh, but I think it’s also true.  Let’s take ownership of our choices rather than bemoaning their results.  Do you want time to meditate?  Time to go to yoga?  Time to spend reading with your children?  Well, something else has to go.  As I keep saying, time is zero-sum.

Think long and hard about how you spend your precious hours, the only currency in this life that I personally think is actually worth anything.  A lot of these decisions are made instinctively, without deliberate thought or analysis.  But that’s how life is, isn’t it?  We know what we care most deeply about, and we run towards it, chins ducked.  We protect fiercely time for those things and people and events we truly value.  And those things, people, events we never seem to have time for?  Well, that tell us something important too.

We each populate our hours differently, and our days, weeks, months, and years, are maps of what matters to us.  Look closely at yours.  Do you like what you see?

Parts of this post were written several years ago. Every word is still true.

 


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14 Comments

  1. Posted September 29, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Always a favorite topic of mine, and you hit many nails on the head here. I did something really hard this weekend: called a friend out on the “I’m so busy” refrain I kept hearing as an excuse of why she’s been largely absent this past year. I don’t know if it’s reaching the age of 40 and calling things as they are, or now having so few really good friends in my life that I am desperate to hold on to the ones that have mattered most, but I am at a point where I want to know, “am I a priority for you?” with others. Because, like you, I don’t think it’s that someone is more busy than I am, they just have different priorities. And dammit, I wanna know if I’m not one anymore so I can fill the void otherwise. I’m ranting…time to go! Great piece, Lindsey. Your Monday posts are like espresso to jump start my week.

    admin Reply:

    Good for you. It’s hard to do that. I’ve been called out before and it’s part of what made me realize that it wasn’t that I was too busy, it was that I was more concerned with protecting certain other things. Which is a tough message. I hope that your friend responded with awareness (I do think a lot of the time the intention is not to hurt, it’s about being oblivious). xox

  2. Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Ahhh, we must be psychic friends;) On my run this morning, I was thinking about the word “value.” I love it. It allows me to look at how I spend time (and money) through a whole different lens. When I ponder “what value does this have,” or “does this bring value to my day/life/relationships”, I am way less inclined to act impulsively. As you wrote so beautifully here, the word value reminds me that time is a gift and should be treated as such. Thank you for your lovely words as always, my friend! xoxo

    admin Reply:

    There is no question in my mind that we are psychic friends! 🙂 I like what you say about the word value. What a good way to think about our choices, and how we spend our limited resources (I don’t just mean money). xoxo

  3. Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Another (also harsh) answer to things might be no . . . “Because I care too much about protecting my time.”

    I love that last question . . . Do you like what you see?

    I mostly do, but could always use tweaking !

    admin Reply:

    I like that way of saying it better, actually. Feels less overtly critical of the other thing/person/option. xoxo

  4. Margo
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Tim Kreider wrote a great article in June of 2012 (http://nyti.ms/1ctxs4O) about being ‘“Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.”’ One of my favorite parts of his article is about “busy” people hedging bets on social engagements:
    I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation.

    admin Reply:

    That makes me laugh. Yes, this IS the invitation. This IS our life. We don’t want to spend it hedging, do we? At least I don’t. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow!

  5. Sarah
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Favorite business school professor said exactly this, he said your values are on display for everyone to see, they are were you spend your time and where you spend your money. Integrity is on display as well, as the difference or lack there of between what you say and do. I am very clear about my time and where I spend it and I’ve lost a few friends who have issues with that, who don’t have the same values and therefore don’t respect where I spend my time. But at this point in my life, that’s ok. I like being extremely protective of my time, I like being very conscious of where I spend it. Though a tad morbid, I also like the exercise (just the exercise!) of limited time, and how would you spend it differently. The smaller the gap between the answer to that question and the way I’m living now, the better. Thanks for this Linds, miss you, xo

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much for this. Yet again, a reminder of how deeply kindred we are. I love what you say and how you live. xox

  6. Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Just what I needed to hear as always. I had more time than usual today and found the experience a bit terrifying. To use it wisely, to use it well, to prioritize. All a bit stressful but these are such important questions.

    admin Reply:

    Too much time – blessing and curse, right? xoxo

  7. Barbara H. Vinson
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Time has a way of running out. You don’t notice it because you’re too busy with all the highs and lows of life. Suddenly, the rapidity of time’s moving on track hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s on schedule, but you weren’t watching. Life cannot be lived over; it can only be continued. What you make of it is your decision and how you arrange your priorities. Take the time you have left–whether it’s very little or a lot–and give. Be creative. Be loving. Expand. That’s it–expand. That’s what life is composed of. Look at a mighty oak. That came from an acorn. It’s what you do with what you have that counts. And don’t let the turkeys get you down!

    admin Reply:

    Yes, exactly this. Thank you for saying what it is I WANT so clearly. Beautiful. On the whole, I don’t appreciate what I have until it’s threatened, that much I know for sure. I don’t want to not notice how valuable my time is until it’s almost gone.

  8. Posted September 29, 2014 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    A great post. Love it!

    admin Reply:

    Thank you so much. xo

  9. Isabelle
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I love this! Yes, I like what I see because we made a very hard and deliberate choice to get control back of our time when we did not like how are time was being spent. We decided to homeschool so that we could choose to spend our time in ways that we all value as a family. The sense of well-being for all of us that comes from having our time spent in ways that reflect our values is profound.

    admin Reply:

    What a wonderful thing to be able to say, categorically, YES, I like what I see. And to know it’s the result of deliberate choices. That’s the best. xox

  10. Ari
    Posted September 30, 2014 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    “It is not about being busy, so are the ants. It is what are you busy about” . Thoreau.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, yes. So perfect. xo

  11. Posted September 30, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Well said, as always. And it makes me think about how I spend my time. I spend a lot of time during the day reading and interacting with friends, which is fun, but I have to work to keep it in check or I’ll never achieve my goals, either. I don’t want to waste the time I was given. Sometimes, it seems that I am only driven when I have a deadline.

    Thank you for this reminder, L. xo

    admin Reply:

    Thank YOU. I hear you on the pressure not to waste the time we have. I feel that, often – sometimes productively and, I suspect, sometimes not. xox

  12. Posted September 30, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    The way you help others slow down, live more deliberately, and truly consider how they spend their finite hours is nothing short of a gift. Thank you, as always, for your beautiful, meaningful words. xox

    admin Reply:

    This is just about the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. Thank you. oxo

  13. Posted October 1, 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    I thought I recognized some of these (beautiful!) words – have read your other posts on the same topic. And yes, I feel them now more than ever. I love how you talk about the things you spend time on that aren’t inherently things you’d choose to do if you could spend one hour any given way (DROP-offs and Pick-ups – the perfect example) but that they are proof of what matters to you. xox

  14. Amy
    Posted October 10, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for these words, Lindsey. Late to the party, but definitely so relevant this week as I’m debating going to a (much much) smaller company and working part-time (so different from Fortune 100 full-time). It’s not as easy as I thought it would be…

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