Manage Your Attention, Not Your Time
“… I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire … I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it.”
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury.
If you’ve never read The Sound and the Fury, the “mausoleum” Faulkner was referring to in the quote above is a watch. A watch that a father gave to his son. I love this quote because it reminds me what a waste of our precious time it is trying to over-manage it. And what a gift it is to be able to let it go and forget about it sometimes.
One of the things I loved most about living in India was that time was not really viewed as something to be conquered.
As a native New Yorker … that was a lot to adjust to. My life was scheduled down the minute.
But in India, things just kinda happened when they happened. And at first, that drove me nuts. I was constantly beating myself up for not getting more done. Cursing a delayed bus, or late friend or a faucet with no running water. “NO WONDER THIS COUNTRY IS STILL A DEVELOPING NATION!” I’d think self-righteously.
But the beauty of life is that it shows up in some pretty interesting ways to school us on what we need to learn. My lesson to learn while I was there was that life isn’t about being super productive or efficient. Managing time like a champ is not why the Universe brought me—or any of us—into existence. The universal truth is life is about showing up fully to what you do, with all you’ve got.
And I can tell you from experience, it’s almost impossible to show up fully if you’re a slave to the clock.
So when my toilet literally crapped out (sorry, that was too easy to pass up) and I had no access to it for days and the plumber came two days late, let’s just say I was a little annoyed when he arrived.
But, you know what? While he was there, he was really there!
He didn’t bring the stress from his last job. He wasn’t already thinking about the job he was headed to next. He didn’t do a shotty job because he was in a rush or distracted. He was focused on me and my … well, toilet woes. We were able to connect as humans and he got the job done.
Because many of the people I met while in India didn’t strive to jampack every second of their day with things to check off a list. They are in the moment.
When I came back to New York six years later, the breakneck pace was even worse than before I left. Mastering productivity had become all the rage. A “must have!” skill for any one who was anyone.
I started noticing people celebrating their ability to cram an impossible amount of “things” into one day. High-fiving for their ability to multi-task, no matter how terribly the task had been completed. There was seemingly nothing more coveted than having a “really productive day.”
Conversations with friends shifted from “How are you doing?” to “What are you doing?”
“Oh my god, do you keep checklist? I keep a checklist! I love checklists! Look at all my checks! Right here on my list!”
Who needs that added stress? To actually impose additional expectations and chores on ourselves, when life is already throwing us punches here and there.
I slowly started falling back into these hectic rhythms though. I had to do more! Do it faster!
I measured my days by what I got done instead of how I showed up for them.
Sure, I got more “accomplished” than I did in India. But I started slipping into misery, anxiety and constant worry. Some old friends of mine that I thought I had permanently, and quite happily, left behind.
You see, by keeping a detailed log of my time, as recommended by every time management guru, I was becoming so much more aware of the minutes ticking by, then lost forever.
But, I became addicted to that self-esteem high I’d get from “achieving” every waking moment. Checking something off a list. Getting one more thing done.
I’d sit in bed answering emails to get a jump on the next day (Guess what … there are always more emails). Instead of cooking nourishing food I loved, I’d order food … whatever I could get the quickest and with the least amount of effort, so I could keep working. And then I’d give myself a big pat on the back for my smart, productive choices.
But the more I focused on the “progress” I was making toward my goals, the more painfully aware I was that I hadn’t achieved them yet.
And when I did reach a goal I’d set, the satisfaction was so underwhelming and brief. Because living the dream of being productive and efficient demands that you always have something to be productive and efficient at. A new goal must replace the old one. Otherwise, what else are you going to “do”?
It’s like a kid at Christmas frantically tearing through their presents. As soon as they rip the paper off one, they toss it to the side without a second glance and move on to the next one. Never stopping to appreciate the actual gifts.
And working more and harder and faster didn’t actually help me get things “done,” because the more efficient I got at ploughing through my tasks, the faster new tasks seem to arrive.
The hailed solution to clearing things off your plate only makes the problem worse. It just piles more on your plate. Then hands you a few more plates.
Productivity, I realized, wasn’t antidote to busyness. It’s just more busyness. And particularly unhealthy, self-critical form.
And as a life coach who works to help others relieve themselves of their unhealthy, self-critical thoughts I couldn’t be a very good life coach for others if I was busy beating myself up for what I was or wasn’t getting done all day.
So I took off for a weekend and drove to the Catskills to reset. To clear my plate completely.
And the first thought I had when I arrived was, “Ok, what’s my goal? What do I need to figure out on this mini-retreat?”
… I was right back to it!
I thought leisure for the sake of leisure was not enough. That I had to make it productive in some way. I had to turn into “something.” I could write a blog post about my getaway. Or make a video. Or go on a super tough, life-changing hike, so I had an amazing, inspirational story to share. Or that I could journal my little heart out to make all my anxiety melt away, instead of just for the pure joy that journaling brings me.
I told ya, it’s addicting. And I was in deep.
So I decided to drop the rope and went for a stroll. Journal in hand. No destination. Just walking till I’d think to myself, “OK, I’m done now.”
Eventually, I found a tree that was just perfect for sitting under and I sat down and started writing.
Not to answer a specific question or challenge, just to get acquainted with myself again.
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After about 40 minutes, I found myself questioning the things I had been obsessively building my schedule around just days before.
Is this really what I want to busy myself with? Why is this how I’m spend my time and attention? Why am I choosing these particular tasks?
These were hard questions to answer, especially if I wanted to dodge those feelings self-doubt, regret and angst.
It’s often so much easier to avoid the “why” and dive right into the “how.” As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
But I knew I had to get to the bottom of the “why,” so I kept writing, and let myself go wherever it took me.
I made some important realizations, but I decided not to take action on them right away. Instead, I’d let them germinate in their own time and come back to them when I felt called to it.
As the days went on, I put my attention on what was happening in every moment, without expectations or a goal in mind, and my anxiety began to melt away. I could feel myself at home again in my brain and body.
I didn’t busy myself with productive tasks. I just was. In the moment. Fully.
Since that experience, I ask myself a question every day: What do I feel called to do right now? And why? Can I enjoy this for its own sake or is it only in service to some inconsequential goal I may or may not yet realize?
This daily reflection leads me back to joy and creativity. It brings me back into the moment, so I show up fully to the things that matter most.
And when I just let an experience be what it is, for its own sake, and not for how it can help me “accomplish” something, it is so much more beautiful.
So I encourage you to stop trying to manage every second of your life. Put your full heart and attention into the people and projects that enrich and thrill you.
Just put down the checklist and nobody gets hurt.