For the past two months, I’ve been tracking my time. As in, all my time.
I start out my day by projecting out how I will intentionally spend each hour and then I record what I actually did in that hour as the day passes.
I’ve made a lot of personal discoveries by doing this. But the biggest takeaway is that my (and, I suspect, most people’s) fundamental understanding of time is wrong.
We tend to focus on to-dos, rather than on time itself. We tend to think about time like accountants, when we should be thinking like investors.
Time is a strange thing. Some would argue — and I agree — that it’s the most valuable resource we have in our lives; yet, it’s unlike anything else that’s valuable. Time is elusive to us because it’s not concrete.
Compare it to something concrete, like money. At any given moment, we each have a certain amount of money in our wallets or purses. We may also have money in a bank account or retirement fund somewhere. We might even carry debt on our money, whether it be for school, a house, or just day-to-day living expenses.
While our financial pictures may all look different, our relationship to money is generally always concrete. If you have $100, you can spend that hundred dollars, save that hundred dollars, or invest that hundred dollars. If you want to know how much money you have, you can look at your bank account. It’s reliable and manageable.
But time operates in a different way.
You can’t save time, really. Time marches on at a steady drip regardless of what we do or don’t do. We can’t control it; we can’t increase or decrease it-- we just sit in what feels in the moment to be a perpetual flow.
As a result, time is elusive to us. We experience it as infinite, when we rationally know it is not. We can’t set aside extra for a rainy day and we can’t go into debt on time. We always have only what we have at each moment. And then, one day, it’s gone.
Here is an example to illustrate just how hard it is to grasp time. If you were to make a change in your life right now that would save you from wasting 30 hours over the next year on something that wasn't important to you, it would be very difficult for you to feel the positive feedback on this gain. The reason it would be so difficult to realize this reward is because those 30 hours would simply be spent on something else (that is hopefully more important). But if you saved $300 on a flight, you’d get an immediate hit of positive feedback — and you’d be able to tangibly put that money into something else you care about.
We don’t feel a concrete loss on our big time savings, nor do we feel a concrete gain.
As a result, we tend to approach time like an accountant. As “time accountants,” we simply try to make sure everything fits. We rearrange, increase efficiency, find ways to save time. We feel a sort of indebtedness when we don’t use our time well, regretting what we did and didn’t do.
Treating time like an accountant is a rational response. It makes sense given our experience of time to think that the solution is simply to optimize our to-dos, better organize our schedules, and find hacks to shave 20 seconds off our commute times. It seems like that’s all we actually can do.
But it doesn’t work — at least not from the perspective of meaning and impact. By focusing our energy on the optimization and execution of tasks, we position ourselves as the accountant of a business that, day after day, year after year, is trying to figure out a way to balance a budget that can’t be balanced. We become gravitationally drawn to focus on the many competing priorities of life and no matter how hard we try, we end up looking at our balance sheet and realizing we are still coming up short. As a wise elder once told me, “Everyone dies with a to-do list.”
The result of treating one’s time as an accountant is stress, anxiety, and shame. The well-known feeling of “time indebtedness” is a sure sign that we are thinking like a time accountant.
Our other option is to approach time like an investor.
An investor begins with the asset they have and asks, what can I invest in that will give me the greatest return on my investment?
The asset each of us has is our time. We are each gifted a certain amount of time here on earth to invest, to do something meaningful and lifegiving with. When we start with our time, rather than our to-dos, we approach our day and ask the question, “What is the best use of this time that has been gifted to me?” rather than, “How can I figure out how to get all this stuff done?”
It’s a subtle shift but an important one. Thinking like a time investor offers us a liberating sense of personal responsibility and agency by moving away from the task-driven scarcity mindset that dominates most productivity circles. While thinking like an accountant can offer the illusion of productivity, it’s actually more akin to the rush of completing mounds of busywork. Investor thinking on the other hand opens us up to see the big picture and focus on the important, rather than crisis managing the urgent.
Our experience fundamentally shifts because we move from “have-tos” to “get-tos.” Rather than finding ourselves under the cruel thumb of a tyrant task manager, we become meaning makers searching for that which will bring about the greatest good.
Practically, what does this look like?
It looks like starting your day not with a to-do list to chase through, but rather a time list of your waking hours. While you can start with just your work life, I suggest approaching all of your time from this view. List out each hour from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed and ask yourself how you would like to invest that time. Do this up front at the start of your day, or even the night before. It could be that from 11:00am–12:00pm, you want to invest in a project or a relationship, from 12:00-1:00pm you want to eat lunch and catch up on email. The details will be specific to you and your life circumstances.
As “time investors,” we ask, where can I put my awareness, attention, and energy to make this moment — which is a finite resource — the most meaningful and impactful?
Some of this time will likely be used for to-dos and tasks. But rather than trying to fit everything in, you will be consciously choosing how you want to invest that once-in-a-lifetime block of time. You will likely find that some of your to dos and important projects won’t fit. This is a good thing, as it offers you the chance up front to say no based on the constraints of reality, rather than wrestling throughout the day to work against the reality. You will be saying, amongst all the competing options (and today we have more than ever), these are the things I choose to invest my life in today. You will be moving from the position of reactor to actor.
Our present moment is a precious thing. We can invest in the present, the future, or both. We can invest in meaning, impact, and growth. And this investment compounds: excellent decisions build on themselves to make our lives better in the future.
And if you do that enough times, you’ll have done something really special. Not only will you be more productive, you’ll also be far more peaceful. I certainly am.
All the best,
“May each of us examine his thoughts. We all find them concerned with the past or future. We almost never think of the present, and when we do, it is just for the purpose of enlightening the future. The present is never our end. Thus we never live, we only hope to live; and, preparing ourselves to be happy, it is inevitable that we can never be happy.”
- Blaise Pascal
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Featured Art: Mannen Bridge, Fukagawa (Fukagawa Mannenbashi), No. 56 from One Hundred Famous Views of Edo - Utagawa Hiroshige (1857)