Efficiency Is Overrated. What Matters Is the Way You Look at Time.
One of the most impactful, qualitative changes I’ve made to my life in the last five years has been how I look at time.
We already know time is valuable — from the moment we wake up to when we sleep, we’re taught to count the minutes in everything we do.
At home before school, my mom would yell, “5 minutes to finish breakfast or you’re going to be late!”
At school while taking a test, my teacher would yell, “2 minutes until all pencils down!”
At work, my boss would yell, “You’re late!”
The scarcity of time is something we all know well, which is why years ago, I knew to do everything I could to create more time by being more efficient.
I started listening to audiobooks instead of music at the gym. At mealtimes, I opted for microwavables. And when even that wasn’t enough, I made a commitment to sleep less and socialize less.
There was even a time when I had been so angry at being sleep-deprived I punched a hole in my wall. It was later covered with a poster of Schwarzenegger in his terminator sunglasses and the words “SLEEP FASTER” on it. I think the hole is still there.
The ironic thing is, despite having done all of that, I never felt like I was actually more efficient.
There were plenty of times when I’d suddenly get engrossed in a certain part of the audiobook I was listening to and forget what rep I was on, and by the time I started working out again, I’d then forget everything I had heard.
The lack of sleep was an issue too; despite getting a few extra hours per day, I felt like I spent most days in a half-awake stupor-like state, always tired and mentally unfocused.
The worst part about it though was, because how everything now felt like a chore, that time seemed to slow to a crawl. I probably spent five minutes of every hour checking the clock to see when the day would end.
It didn’t help either that I had planned my vacations so meticulously that they felt like chores too.
7:55AM | Meet at lobby of hotel
8:05AM | Arrive at train station B. Take train 7B at 8:09
8:24AM | Explore art museum
9:24AM | Walk to breakfast point
9:32AM | Eat breakfast
With all that said, what really matters isn’t how efficient you are with your time but rather the way you look at it.
We all have the same amount of time in a day; yet why do most of us feel as if our days are already too long while some of us wish we had even longer days?
For most of us, it’s because we measure our time based on activities we don’t like doing. We countdown as a way to make our situation more bearable: four more hours until I can go home, three more days until the weekend, or two more days until I get my paycheck. All of which is a countdown to something better.
Even when we’re counting down to New years, most people will have made some kind of resolution to change because the previous year wasn’t great.
When we correlate our problems with the time we have, our days will seem long because we’ll have forgotten why the concept of time exists in the first place.
The concept of time wasn’t created to keep track of how much longer we had to do something, but rather as a guideline to proactively enhance our lives.
It’s far more precise to tell a friend you’re meeting them at 8PM than to say, “Meet at dusk”, but for thousands of years up until late 19th century, that’s exactly what our ancestors did.
They did what they wanted for however long they wanted, ate when they were hungry, rested when they were tired and followed the rise and setting of the sun to determine when to sleep. Humans have been this way for as far as time can tell — even today, we still have the very same biological clock (circadian rhythm) as our ancestors did that causes us to be awake or drowsy depending on the amount of amount of light available.
The way I like to look at time is as a guideline rather than a metric. I judge activities I do by whether or not it’s worth doing rather than how much time it takes. If some activities are not worth spending time on but necessary to preserve quality of life, I compromise however I can.
Take for example laundry in Southeast Asia. It’s necessary to do, but rather than do it myself because I’m unwilling to fight for one of the only few communal washers available to the hundreds of residents that live in my building, I’d rather pay the $5 to get it done. As a compromise, I’ll skip drinks for my next three meals in order to pay for that luxury.
Our current average lifespan is now 78 years — if you insist on doing things you don’t like and don’t value, that’s a lot of time to be miserable.
Time isn’t meant to be like that, even for things you don’t particularly enjoy doing but required to, like waking up at 6AM every morning to show up to work, being stuck in traffic for 40 minutes or having to wait for your significant other to shop at the mall.
It’s a mindset; someone who actually enjoys their work will forget about the concept of time and work entirely. Another person could look at the 40 minutes in traffic and take that time to think about the project they’ve been wanting to start. Someone else could find the waiting for their significant other worth it because it makes them happy.
Which is to say that when you make an effort to appreciate even the things you consider as a chore, time will feel faster.
One of my favorite quotes Henry Van Dyke touches upon this exact topic:
“Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.”
The way you look at your time determines the quality of that time.
Instead of viewing the time you drive your kids to school as a chore, look at it with the perspective of having done it because you value your kids enough to want to provide them with better opportunities in life through education. Or you’re driving them so your significant other won’t have to. Or you’re driving them so you get a few more precious moments with them outside of work.
Time we enjoy is never regretted.
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