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Like you, sometimes I struggle with schedules, commitments, and an overall lack of time in my life. Currently, however, at least two people close to me have hovered for weeks on the edge of a scary place that feels much like a loss of control over their lives—all because of schedules, work, family priorities, and commitments that have gotten out of control. Much like junk expanding to meet the space available, it seems the light at the end of their tunnel is always just another train coming at them. So having been there myself, having made dramatic changes to my life as a result, and still having pondered even greater changes, I wanted to share some thoughts about time.

 “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.”

     — Benjamin Franklin.

 Obviously time is life’s most valuable commodity. Without it we’re pushing up daisies, making calls from the horizontal phone booth, passing away, eating moss muffins, putting up the permanent “gone fishing” sign, or whatever other euphemism you prefer. We allocate time as best we can, and then we die. It’s that simple.

However in my humble opinion, a very close second to the omnipotence of time is a commodity that often gets missed: “mindshare.” By that I mean “that which occupies our conscious attention.” For instance, I can have a job that owns my mindshare (as most of us do); or, as I have seriously pondered, I can deliver pizzas or drive a garbage truck, so I can continue to allocate my mindshare as I wish (probably listening to audiobooks and podcasts if they’ll let me).

Together, time and mindshare are the very fabric and essence of life, and how we invest them is probably the ultimate epitaph; yet somehow we seem to behave as if they aren’t important at all. We fritter them away on the very things we say don’t matter to us (time with people who don’t really care about us or enlighten us, a career that we fell into but hate, endless pursuit of more material things), yet we are tightwads when it comes to the things to which we give lip service (friendships, finding our true bliss in life, marriages, children, etc.). Obviously we need both, and we don’t get everything we want, but in general isn’t this true? And if so, why?

Long ago I’d heard that happier people tend to have an internal locus of control—they see themselves as more in-control of their external environments; and people who are less happy tend to have an external locus of control—wherein they feel controlled by their environments. While I’d love to digress into a deterministic rant and argue that none of us has nearly the “free will” we think—I will not do so. Let’s just assume for now that we do have control over our schedules to a substantial degree, and I will expand instead upon one of the more controversial arguments from A Secret of the Universe: that love is not a zero-sum game.

The short summary of that assertion is that loving more than one person does not reduce the quality or quantity of love for any other person; love has accretive, cumulative, and compounding effects when it is shared, and is not a finite quantity that once given away means there is less for another person. (See prior post A Conversation About Monogamy for additional background).

The Real Zero-Sum Culprit

But our time crunch enters into this love equation. How many friends can one reasonably sustain? You may have heard of “Dunbar’s Number,” proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. He suggests the upper limit is somewhere around 150 to 200 people with whom we can be “friends.” That’s a “tribal,” big-picture number; but how many truly close, honest, authentic, loving, and genuine relationships can we sustain? That’s a tougher still, but most people would put that number well below a dozen.

In reporting on numerous sociological studies, Scott Allen from the Boston Globe has pointed out that “the average number of people with whom Americans discuss important matters has dropped from three to two in just two decades, a steep falloff in confidants that startled … researchers.”

So while I actually subscribe to the arguments I’ve laid out—that love, in and of itself, is not a zero-sum game—I must admit that time IS a zero-sum game! By giving our time and mindshare liberally, we do not get more of them in return. They are gone!

So Why Overbook?

So back to our central question: with no science behind me, the following is a brainstormed list, heavily skewed by personal experience, of leading reasons we over-book, over-schedule, and ultimately abdicate responsibility for our precious time:

 1. We can’t say no—especially for those of us who are “people people,” and also for achievers. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings; we don’t want to disappoint; we want to be dependable; we want to please; we want to accomplish; we don’t want to be a net taker from the world, we want to be a net giver. Of course if we don’t take time to sharpen our saws, or fill our love tank, or whatever ism-metaphor you want to use here:-), we truly can find ourselves in a very bad place, wondering how we got there.

2. We busy ourselves to AVOID living—often because it’s too god-damned painful. I’ve known many people who stay extremely busy for a very good reason: not being busy gives them too much time to think, mourn, worry, fear, or be miserable. While not necessarily a bad thing, denial can be best served with a sweet obsession, compulsion, or addiction. I’ve done it myself after a death or a major setback. Presumably the danger is when we are in complete denial about what is missing in our lives, or what we fear we’d have to face if we weren’t busy. Then, it is like other addictions; we do it not because we love it, but because we need to hide. Again, maybe that’s okay, but maybe it’s sub-optimal.

 Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.”

       — M. Scott Peck (American psychiatrist and Author, 1936-2005)

 3. We learned to get our recognition (love, strokes, affirmation) not for who we are, but for what we do. Again this could have good and bad elements. We all need love and affirmation; we all need strokes and interaction; but as those born in a high-achieving household can attest, there is something about conditional love that is unsettling, and potentially scarring. Instead of learning to value ourselves for who we are, we push and push because the only way we can measure our worth or value, is by measuring our achievements. (And per below, many times we measure our achievements by our paychecks. Been there, too.)

 4. We love what we do, and enjoy doing it. This one is no small thing. Some people HAVE found their bliss, and just love what they do: their job, being an at-home mom/dad, their hobby, their volunteer work, or whatever. This isn’t a “pass time” that allows us to distract ourselves and move one day closer to death as painlessly as possible—this is the real McCoy! Now, the only snag with this one is that sometimes we need to make choices; our bliss may mean that we allocate time away from spouse, family, or other things … sometimes to the degree they make us choose. Same thing if we are dominant “type A” people who are passionately curious and love doing new things, learning, and being engaged (yup, that’s me). But alas, it can cost us relationships—new and old.

5. We have to survive. No doubt about it, we have to survive. Especially today, people are doing whatever they have to do to make it. Some are working two or three jobs, and there is no way around that. Good for them. Still, in most cases that is not what we’re talking about when we talk about overbooking.

6. We want more stuff. Nothing wrong with being a titan of industry and enriching one’s self and the world in the process. All that is awesome, so long as you and your loved ones are happy. Still, sometimes this is the stuff of demons and fear. If we grew up with nothing, we may fear having nothing in a powerful way that drives us to over-consume, at the cost of living. Or some of us are deluded that a new “thing” will bring us joy, but we find ourselves constantly kicking the can down the road—never getting to the joy we expect. We must admit that we live in a rather hyperconsumptionist world. How much stuff is enough? How big does that house really need to be for me to be happy? I have a friend with multiple houses, one of which is over 12,000 square feet—with no more children in the house. How perfect does the lawn need to be? In the end, will it have been worth it? What’s the emotional payoff? There must be one.

7. We’ve been told we have to do more. We’ve been told that we don’t love our kids if we aren’t at every game. We’ve been told that we need to do more or we’ll lose our job. We’ve been told that this or that organization cannot survive without us. News flash: usually we have more choices than we think. I have volunteered countless hours in public education since 2001. Somewhere in there I took six months off. Much as I love it and feel like I contribute, the schools didn’t close.

 Chinese Proverb:

“People of the West are always getting ready to live.”

So given all the “good and bad” elements to even just these few possible reasons for being too busy, it is clear that there is no simple solution or right/wrong answers. Nonetheless, I’ll offer a few more observations—give a gift to you in hopes that it might be useful. (Seems I have a need to share; see “Why Humans Share Their Jesuses and Joints”.)

I credit my wife, and an old movie called “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” for introducing me to the “fewer keys” metaphor. It essentially says that “keys” on your key ring each have a downside. Each key comes at an incredible cost. Your pricey car also has expenses, time required to renew registrations, maintenance, washing, worry over scratches, etc. Your house key—must we even go there? Huge time and energy sucker. Your office? I know I don’t need to go there. How about you successful people: your airplane, boat, cottage, church, second car, fire safe, motorcycle, storage unit, second house, or your timeshare? Ever have stress from any of those? I’ll bet you do!

When I first met Julie, she had literally one key, to her apartment door. Life was simple, and amazingly good. Still, we wouldn’t want to go back there, so I’m not necessarily suggesting minimalism here.

As it turns out though, I’ve had a well-paying job or two. I owned a couple airplanes. I traveled a bunch and did exotic activities for hobbies. Now? Well, I have to be honest and say that not having money is a real concern. Still, we’ve touched so many lives in recent years. Many of the emails and letters I have received for my podcast and for A Secret of the Universe have been incredibly touching, meaningful, and affirming—in a way I can’t express; our kids have had amazing access to us, and make us extremely proud for, first and foremost, who they are as people, but also for their accomplishments. Would I do it differently? I sincerely doubt it, but I haven’t yet reached that age where I have no retirement and I’m begging for food in the streets; I may regret our “live-life-to-the-fullest” choices then. But today, I find new pleasures in walks, or car rides, or beer with friends. I also find pleasure in investing in relationships. Yeah, it was cool regularly riding on top of the clouds at 40,000 feet, or diving shipwrecks 250 feet beneath the sea surface. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back someday.

Time and Relationships

But it turns out that amidst all of this there is one brutal reality we try to avoid like no others. Relationships = time. It’s almost impossible to grow a good relationship without time. The more time you give someone, the more important they must be to you; conversely, the less time you invest, the less important they probably are, and the less likely you will enjoy long-term fruit from the relationship.

Time is to friendships and marriages what water and nutrients are to a tree; neither will grow without the investment. I’ll even add “mindshare” to that same formula. If you don’t think about someone who is supposed to be in your “inner circle,” if you don’t wonder how they would like that new song, or movie—if you don’t pass along that article that you know they would enjoy, and have them on your mind at least occasionally, well guess what.

Yes it is true, the internet has changed many things. We can keep up via email or Facebook. In fact someone who is quite dear to me is someone with whom I’ve probably spent far more time writing lengthy email exchanges than I have face-to-face; and it has been profoundly meaningful to me. Still, overall I would argue that statements like “we can keep in touch now with the internet,” or, “it’s worked wonderfully living in separate cities for just a couple years,” or “we’re separated, but we’ll get back together,” are phrases uttered from relationships on the decline. If the trend goes toward investing less time and less mindshare, the relationships will trend that way as well. If the trend goes toward more time and mindshare, that is a relationship more likely to grow.

The greatest “quality moments” with our kids have come as a result of larger quantities of time: driving to Colorado to ski; watching Lost every week; having a beer and popcorn as we catch up on the world; sitting in the hot tub together and talking—or not talking. “Quality time” is a lie. The same is true of some of our newest friends. It’s amazing how much time you can find for people when it’s easy and natural to just hang out.

And just for what it is worth, I am a hyper person who doesn’t enjoy hanging out with little children. There, I said it. Of course I loved mine dearly, and treasured much of our time together when they were young, but could I have been an at-home dad? No way. They poop, make silly jokes, cause tons of commotion, and stuff Cheerios in places that are just plain wrong. It’s cute, but not fun or stimulating. So let’s be brutally honest, working was a better gig for me than being home. At the same time, now those kids in whom we’ve invested so much time and mindshare teach me things about the world constantly; there are few adults I’d rather hang out with now. True story.

So I guess that to those who think you can parent in the absence of reasonable investments of time and mindshare dedicated to your kids, I’m not buying that so much either. And believe me, I’m no saint in this area, so that’s not judgmental; life is what it is and we do the best we can. Perhaps I’m just saying that I have tried to be honest with myself about how I allocate my time.

Yes, I have friends I can go without seeing for years, then get together with them and it is like we’ve not been apart for a day. That’s cool, and that’s fun, and that’s awesome, and that’s true. But I would argue that is a function of prior investment of time. The relationship is sustained by that earlier investment, perhaps from hours in school or elsewhere; but today, it is not growing, and it is not keeping up as we grow and change individually. And as with businesses, much as we hate to admit it, relationships grow or shrink; they do not stay the same.

So with that, I’ll wrap up with a challenge. Why are you so busy? Are some of the reasons those given above? Are some different? Are you comfortable with your choices? Are they conscious? Would you rather live a different, simpler life with fewer keys? Would you like more keys perhaps? There is no right or wrong answer. Please know that I genuinely believe that. The biggest tragedies, it would seem, simply come from not having made conscious choices, and then not sharing them honestly with those for whom we claim to care.

We all know there are tradeoffs with every minute we spend. The minutes I’ve spent writing this are minutes I was not making money. The minutes you work for that new car, are minutes you are not investing with your spouse. I’m totally cool with that if you are! My agnostic, truth-driven world sees many things for exactly what they are, nothing more. In my life, I just try to own that. 

You may have a great relationship, be secure and not needy. Hell, you may have an open marriage, a new car, and still room for more things in your life. It’s all good …  so long as it is conscious, taking you where you want to go, adding meaning, hurting nobody else through lack of authenticity, and making life worthwhile for you.

Time and mindshare are limited. You cool with how you’re investing yours? I’ll leave you with the following, a Sanskrit poem I sent to a friend recently.

“Look to this day, for it is life
The very life of Life.

In its brief course lie all the realities and truths of existence:
the joy of growth,
the splendor of action,
the glory of power.

For yesterday is but a memory
And tomorrow is only a vision;
but today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day!” 

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(Stephen L. Gibson, freely circulate with citations, CC 2009, Attribution-No Derivatives; and