I remember a scene in one of my favorite works of fiction. The protagonist and antagonist, after much drama, action and suspense, have been brought together near the finale of the work. The antagonist goes about his business, performing seemingly menial tasks on his way to execute his master plan while the protagonist is separated by a barrier and has no choice but to sit and watch. As you do in such situations, the characters engage in a deep, meaningful discussion to pass the time. We learn the motivation behind the antagonist’s actions. You see, he feels as if his time is running out – both in the short term (“There just isn’t enough time in a day!”) and the long term (“There’s so much I want to do with my life!”) – and feels that the result of his actions will grant him enough time for it all. In his words, “time is the fire in which we burn… we leave so many things unfinished in our lives”. But he thinks he has the solution. Wouldn’t that be nice? A simple way to have enough time for everything that we want to do – and everything we have to do. Of course, all that comes with a cost, which is why this character is the antagonist of this tale, but we’ll get to that later.
While there might not be a surefire easy way to get enough time to accomplish everything you want, a simple change in philosophy might help. On a recent episode of Back to Work, a podcast mostly about productivity and only occasionally about comics, parenting and movies, the host, Merlin Mann, elaborates on the differences between being busy and being time-constrained. The two terms are not interchangeable and realizing the difference may provide great insight in managing your time and improving your overall quality of life.
I think everyone knows what it’s like to be busy. He’s busy. She’s busy. We’re all busy! Busy means that a particular block of time is claimed by someone or something else. “Hey, want to go to dinner next Tuesday? There’s a great new sub place I want to try.” “I’d love to, but I can’t. I’m busy.” We’ve all been there. But another thing we’ve all done is escalate busy to being a way of life. We’re all stressed and over-committed. Being busy has become a sort of status symbol – if someone always seems busy, they must be successful because they always have something going on. They must be important! Life for a busy person is usually pretty chaotic and it’s hard to tell up from down. Unfortunately, the flip side has also become true – someone who seems to have a lot of spare or free time must be lazy. Neither of which is entirely true, but the busy way of life often leads to stress, anxiety and eventually burnout, which isn’t good for anyone. What’s needed is balance.
A step toward achieving this balance might be changing your perspective. Don’t view yourself as being busy (due to all the negative connotations above), but think of yourself as being time-constrained and take the appropriate actions. Like a busy person, someone who is time-constrained also has periods of time that are claimed, but they also have periods of time that are free and available to be spent relaxing or resetting. Activities and obligations have a beginning and end time, but they also have spaces in between. It’s those spaces that may prove critical in maintaining your sanity. As such, calendar management is crucial. Mark the times for your meetings and appointments, but also mark the times when you’ll be spending time with your kids, gardening or binge-watching your favorite show about the zombie apocalypse. Not only that, but a time-constrained person has time to take advantage of opportunities that come up and have enough cushion to deal with things that go wrong.
I know some of you may be sitting there, scowling and thinking that I’m just nitpicking semantics. The difference is subtle, but crucial, and it could help you get a better control of your time and your life. Oh, and the work of fiction mentioned in the first paragraph? Shakespeare? Dostoyevsky? Rowling? Good guesses, but no. It’s the climactic scene of the movie Star Trek: Generations and the protagonist is none other than Captain Jean Luc Picard who, in his bald-headed wisdom, prefers to think of time not as the fire in which we burn but as “a companion who goes with us on the journey, and reminds us to cherish every moment because they’ll never come again.” I much prefer his way of thinking than the villain’s.