As we roll into 2016, I’ve noticed a barrage of time-management suggestions and tips flooding my social media feeds alongside the usual juice cleanses, workout routines, and purported purification rituals to greet the new year. I felt the same pressure I feel every January to improve my habits and make the most of my time, but I stepped back to ask what that actually meant for me.
I have spent the better part of the past decade constantly saying I didn’t have time for things because I was always prioritizing school or work. Even if I had made the decision to do something fun, I felt a tightness in my chest and a hovering breathless sort of anxiety that as soon as I finished having fun, I was going to be even more tired or behind schedule on the other things I was “supposed” to be doing. I constantly let people waste my time, and when they weren’t actively taking it up, they were occupying way more mind space than they deserved as I was always some level of preoccupied. I became burnt out on busy-ness and exhausted with calculating how much time things would take, resenting anyone who felt they had a claim on my time.
I used to dream about what I would do if I had full days ahead of me that I could spend however I wanted, fantasizing about sitting to read a book when I was awake and alert, and not just in the drowsy time I squirreled away before bed. I was always living in the past, regretting time I had wasted, or in the future, anticipating (often dreading) what I had to do next and how I could fit it in my ever-evaporating time. At one point last year during my make-my-life-better initiative to stave off a nervous breakdown, I asked myself what I would do if I had all this time, the way people wonder about how they’d spend lottery winnings. I made lists of things I care about, like properly learning to speak French, exercising more, painting more, cooking more meals at home, reading and writing more, taking more photos, learning to play instruments better, and so on. I felt sorry for myself that simple things like cooking dinner felt like such a pipe dream, and then I realized that nothing about my life, stressful though it was at the time, was actually preventing me from doing those things except for the choices I made each day.
I once had a professor who said that if he were ever going to get a tattoo, it would be the words “This” and “That” on his forearms. He explained that it would be a reminder to himself whenever he looked at what his hands were doing that he was making a choice to do This instead of That, which was what he intended to do with his time. His “That” was painting and making art, and he explained that he weighed all other activities against studio time. When students lamented that they didn’t have time to paint as much as they wanted, he would quietly remind them that they had the same amount of time as everyone else in a day, but they chose to spend it otherwise.
He suggested a fairly brutal rephrasing, as an exercise in awareness and prioritization, to say to oneself, “I did have time to paint, but I chose to spend it doing my laundry.” Or watching a television show, working a part-time job, catching up on sleep, completing other assignments, whatever. Then he challenged us to end the sentence with, “…because I care more about [whatever] than painting” to understand how we felt about it and check if it was true. He acknowledged that there are plenty of things people have to do in a day out of necessity, like eating and drinking, taking a shower, passing classes, and so on, but if we are being really honest with ourselves, we are making choices other than painting all the time. We may feel we don’t have choices because we have to earn money, participate in society, or maintain our health and homes, but an amazing amount of people tell themselves they are obliged to do things that are actually choices all along.
Starting this fall I have been challenging myself to stop claiming I don’t have time because it’s never been true. I heard myself explain that I could read and understand French, but not speak or write it, one too many times, so I started properly studying it and practicing with duoLingo immediately. I am investing the time it takes to shop for ingredients and clean my kitchen so that I can spend time cooking, and now it feels like a luxury instead of a chore. Whenever I get the feeling that it is a beautiful day and I should be outside, I’m going, and when I want to move my body, I’m giving myself permission to do it, instead of vaguely saying I should set aside some time to exercise sometime. I am finally giving art and other projects the time they deserve, and I am refusing to rush or feel bad when they take mountains of it (seriously, how did I ever have time for an office job?).
The most remarkable discovery in this process of reclaiming time and spending it mindfully is that I am finding more and more that I feel present. I thought that was some magic trick of enlightened Zen-level meditators, but it really is as simple as being in the moment I am in and thinking only about what I’m doing or experiencing. When I’ve made my This or That decision, even if it was a bad one or an impulsive one, I’m embracing it and letting myself go all in. It’s almost embarrassing how much happier and more fulfilled I am because I’m painfully aware of how generally unhappy I was before.
The other spectacularly beautiful quality of time that I’m discovering is that when it is given unselfishly and spent with another person, it actually feels like a gift instead of thievery. I am spending time listening, thinking about other people’s thoughts and experiences when I am with them, and I am learning and loving more about them as I do. I just spent three weeks visiting my family in New Jersey, and occasionally I started getting anxious that I was wasting time and not getting “more important” things done. I found myself becoming impatient and selfish with my time, but I calmed down when I stepped back and asked myself if there was anything in the world more important than sitting by the fire petting the dachshund on my lap and explaining Spanish verb conjugation to my father over Yuenglings. Of course there wasn’t, and I’m truly grateful to have had that time.
This Saturday I went to an amazing performance of Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor (Op. 27) and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 4 in A minor at the New York Philharmonic with my mother, and I promised myself not to worry about what I had done or not done last week or what I’d do this week, but to just be in the moment experiencing every note. I heard so much more than I usually do, I felt the music swell and completely fill my body and mind, and I felt astonishingly alive and present in the world. My mother and I talked about the concert, art, and life for a long time afterwards over dinner and coconut margaritas, and honestly, I can’t say I’ve ever had a better time.