Thoughts & Things

The most important skill to master

March 5, 2019

If limited supply is a criterion for using a commodity with utmost care , few things are more eligible for that like time.  It becomes all the more serious when we know that, how much ever we try , we cannot increase its availability. Accordingly, the world is divided into two. Those who use their time well and those who squander it.  In other words, the ability to use time effectively  is the most important  skill a human being has to master.

The room of fixed dimensions

Why time management is one of the most challenging tasks for man? Imagine a room of fixed dimensions. You have only a limited  space to put anything you want. There are constraints too.  There are certain areas in the room which are earmarked for certain things  and you can’t put anything else there. In short,  you have only a portion of the room where you can keep all other things you want to. Now imagine you are putting everything into this  room and in no time this room will be full.  Now take this analogy to a  24 hour day.  After removing the time required  for sleep, food and other essentials of life , you have only limited hours to fill with  other things. Over thousands of years of human existence ,  our lives had become much more complex by adding numerous things on the way. The hunter-gatherer man had no reason to worry about going to office or paying tax or watching television or handling social media. His life was much more simple and consequently he enjoyed one of the lengthiest leisure in the history of mankind. He was perhaps never required to be in a hurry.  ( Of course, he had his own struggle for his daily bread!! ) For the hunter-gatherer, it was a question of immediate existence and needs. The only thing that  mattered  was survival. The modern man whose concerns about future is as grave as his present is in sharp contrast to the hunter-gatherer.

When life becomes complex with so many things , the question of packing everything into a short time emerges. Despite huge technological advances , life span of homo sapiens has not gone up considerably and  he has only finite number of years to experience all that this world has to offer.  Here comes the crucial importance of prioritisation. Every day , every moment we must make this choice. Given numerous tasks what I shall do now?   Life is not  lived  in years and months . But in minutes, in hours and in days and one task at a time.  As  Annie  Dillard says,

how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

No matter our profession, no matter whether we are a student or a professional or an artist we have to prioritise our things for making the most of our time. What is the most important thing for me at this moment?

Seneca and the shortness of life

Every human being once moves past childhood, comes to the understanding that he will die one day. He realises his mortality and is condemned to live with that truth for the rest of his life. Since time immemorial, mankind has been struggling to negotiate his mortality and find ways to overcome that. The idea of managing man’s short life on earth needs to be seen in this light.   One of the most profound Roman stoic philosopher of the ancient era, Seneca who lived in 1st century  AD  wrote a treatise called the On the Shortness of Life.  In this, he worries about the way in which human beings squander away the most precious commodity of time.  He opined that even though mankind is extremely cautious about spending their money it does not care wasting time which is a finite quantity. Seneca was extremely careful in telling us the way in which we waste our time.  According to him what matters is not the shortness of life but what we do with the time we get. He says,

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it…
Life is long if you know how to use it .

This is the whole point. An acute awareness of mortality or shortness of life should spur mankind to action and to increased alertness about life.

Filling the unforgiving minute

The discussion on shortness of time and things to do in life take us to the obvious question. How can we do it all?  Once we realise the fact that we are not supplied with an unlimited time,  the next question is how to make the best use of available time.  As we have seen already, what matters the most is prioritisation.  Secondly, we must guard against wasting our time on unimportant things. Thirdly we must develop innovative ways to increase our efficiency in doing things. All these are easier said than done.  We need to really think before we invest our time for something.  Is it really worth it? We must also remember that we are living in an age of distraction. There is always something to distract our attention. Our children are particularly vulnerable here.  It won’t be a bad idea if we include time management in our school curriculum too. Most of our children are a puzzled lot when it comes to time management.  We must also ask some hard questions about our schooling too. What is important is how smart we are in designing school curriculum. Take the example of memory itself. Memory is a very important component of our teaching and assessment methods . An important question to be asked in this information age is, do we need to spend so much time and effort to memorise so much ?

Though we are now at the peak of technological advancements, even technology can be misleading when it comes to management of time. It all depends on how the human being makes the best use of technology to gain time. We must also remember that certain technological wonders have the capacity to hook us to them and grab our time in the process. For example , we have a lot of social media around. However, hours and hours of aimless social media browsing may turn out to be an absolute futile activity which accords no benefit to the user. In fact it’s a strange phenomenon of the human being becoming the commodity itself than the user. Similarly, when it comes to Google, the most important thing to know is where you get the right information to save time.

Alan Watts was a British philosopher who popularised the eastern notion of mindfulness in the west.  In his most important book, The wisdom of insecurity;  A message for  an age of anxiety   he brings out the supreme importance of living in the present.  This is very important in approaching time with all earnestness and in utilising it responsibly. Watts argues that the roots of human frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future which is an abstraction.  It may not be advisable to have an assurance of the future to enjoy the present because it is not possible.  Unless we can live happily without an assured future, we will never get adapted to living in a finite world.

More than 100 years ago , Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem ( Titled “If” ) which turned out to be an incredibly inspiring one. As he exhorted us in that poem, all that we need to do is to fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run. Thousands of people who walked on this earth before us have shown the boundless possibilities of human life when time is put to the best use. We have no reason to doubt that.

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