How to live on twenty-four hours a day

Lots have been written and said about time-management and optimization of each day lived. It is probably one of the most popular topics to write about. This probably also means that this piece I am writing right now, will be lost in the vast blue sea of self-help blog-posts. But that is okay. The book which inspired me to write this suffered the exact same faith. You have probably never heard of it and probably never heard of it’s author. If I do not make a total mess of it, then perhaps in a short while your interest will be piqued and a good book will gain another reader.

Productivity and time-management is not a new discipline. Although the use of the words has probably increased, the underlying principles for why people dig into them are the same. Each and everyone of us has 24 hours every day. That has not changed throughout human history and never will. At some point in our lives we will look at our days and wonder whether we use those 24 hours in the best possible way. Back when we spent most of our time trying to survive and feed our family, the purpose may have been; “more calories returned for time spent” and now we chase more “quality of life”/”happiness” — but both circumstances will leave us pondering on our use of time each day.

Today we may feel stressed, we may lack purpose or direction in our lives or we may simply wonder if we should have those feelings, because of reading or hearing about everyone else feeling that way. But the end result is the same; we will look at our day and wonder if we could put our days to better use.

Arnold Bennett — the author of this wonderful little book called “How to live on twenty-four hours a day” calls our universal 24 hours a day the ultimate democracy:

“… No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive. Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say; “This man is fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.”

There are two very important lessons to draw from this. First; you can put of things as much as you like and tell yourself; “I will learn french/lose weight/spend more time with my kids/etc. in X days/months/years when I have more time”. But no matter how you put it —  you will never have more time than today. You will have to prioritize — yes. But more time — no never.

The second lesson is a little more uplifting. As Bennett correctly observes:

You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow

No matter how reckless you have been with your time up until this moment. You are right now at no better position to make the most of your time than you were yesterday or a year ago. However you have spend your time it does not matter. All that matters is how you chose to spend this moment and moments going forward.

So now you probably expect me by proxy of Arnold Bennett to show you how to not waste your precious time each day. But as his book was somewhat ahead of it’s time he is also ahead of us in this matter as he rightly notes:

“This man[speaking of himself as writer of the book] will show me an easy, unfatiguing way of doing what I have so long in vain wished to do.” Alas, no! The fact is that there is no easy way, no royal road. The path to Mecca is extremely hard and stony, and the worst of it is that you never quite get there after all.

What we need to do in order to come to grips with the task of living on our 24 hours a day is that first of all we need to come to peace with the thought of us never really arriving. We will never come to a point where we won’t contemplate on whether we could spend our time a little better. We will always have doubt and the doubt will always have some strings to hang on to. You will never have perfect use of your 24 hours a day.

But although he does not offer the final solution to all our time-management troubles, he does not keep from highlighting some potential mistakes in our thinking about the day and how to spend it.

He of course acknowledges that most people have a job and hence a period of time each day of which they are not total masters themselves. But this should not keep them from using the other sixteen to their utmost.

Yet in spite of all this he persists in looking upon those hours from ten to six as “the day,” to which the ten hours preceding them and the six following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue. Such an attitude, unconscious though it may be, of course kills his interest in the odd sixteen hours, with the result that, even if he does not waste them, he does not count them; he regards them as simply a margin.

This general attitude is utterly illogical and unhealthy, since it formally gives the central prominence to a patch of time and a bunch of activities which the man’s one idea is to “get through” and have “done with.” If a man makes two-thirds of his existence subservient to the one-third, for which admittedly he has no absolute feverish zest, how can he hope to live fully and completely? He cannot.

If my typical man wishes to live fully and completely he must, in his mind, arrange a day within a day. And this inner day, a Chinese box in a larger Chinese box, must begin at 6 p.m. and end at 10 a.m. It is a day of sixteen hours; and during all these sixteen hours he has nothing whatever to do but cultivate his body and his soul and his fellow men. During those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a wage-earner; he is not preoccupied with monetary cares; he is just as good as a man with a private income. This must be his attitude. And his attitude is all important. His success in life (much more important than the amount of estate upon what his executors have to pay estate duty) depends on it.

The really important parts of this is where he highlights the importance of attitude towards the part of ones day, that is not occupied by work. Not all of us can be so lucky, as to get a job which fills us with meaning, and which we look forward to with joy and excitement. This should of course be the end goal and what we should strive to find. But some of us never will. Or we will have to make do with less fulfilling jobs on the road to get there.

But our attitude towards the day in this scenario is really important. We cannot afford the luxury of seeing the time before and after work only as “fillers”. We cannot have one-third of the day act as master for the two-thirds, when the master is not one that fulfills us. 

If your work does not totally fulfill you then switch it around and make your day job your subservient master of your life. The one-third may be a necessary evil — but our attitude towards it is of our choosing. 

What you then choose to fill up you day with is totally up to you. Whatever gives your life meaning. Some have lots of things they want to achieve others less. But the point being remains; do not let two-thirds of your day be totally subservient to the one-third.

If you cannot decide upon what to spend your time outside work on, the dear Arnold Bennett does offer some universal advice. 

If we want to get better at something, if we want to obtain something, then we need to spend our attention on this “something”. Attention therefore is important. We should always spend time training our ability to concentrate. If we cannot give our undivided attention towards something, then we cannot expect to make progress towards it. Reading is a good way to train this. And read something that challenges you. Captions from Instagram do not count.

Spend time on reflection. Get to know yourself better. As he wrote in the start of the 19th century, even more so today; we are constantly bombarded with impressions and inputs trying to catch our attention. We do not spend a great amount of time each day in a reflective mood thinking about how we actually spent the day, the week, the month the year. Do we like the path we are on? If not what do we want to change?

Reflection almighty as it sure is, cannot fill up the entire day. We need to act, study and spend our time in meaningful ways. Arnold Bennett here offers some advice on what to study as well.

I do not care what you concentrate on, so long as you concentrate. It is the mere disciplining of the thinking machine that counts. But still, you may as well kill two birds with one stone, and concentrate on something useful. I suggest — it is only a suggestion — a little chapter of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus.

If you haven’t already read some of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, then I wholeheartedly recommend you to do so. Do not buy a book where someone comments on their work. But the original works, they are as easy readable as anything. And the passages that are not will only challenge your ability to concentrate and then pay dividends on that account.

What you decide to study does not matter as much as the mere act of you spending your attention and training your ability to concentrate by proxy. Whether you decide to study stoic philosophy, aztec philosophy or any other type of philosophy, whether you study the roman empire, the history of America, the history of debt or anything else does not matter. The important part is you spending time on something that challenges you, that evolves you and that teaches you.

So spend your time however you like. Do not waste it. But recognize that you will never reach a point where you feel that you cannot optimize your time more. Study. Make yourself better at something — if nothing else then at concentrating. And finally make peace with yourself and acknowledge that every moment however spent is part of life. The important and unimportant parts a like. 

I can fully recommend reading his book. It is even short at probably 60 pages or so — so utterly useless at really challenging your attention-span or ability to concentrate. But nevertheless happy reading!

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