In our society we like to talk about balance. Everyone seems to be on a quest to find the perfect balance between work, family life, and personal interests and hobbies. We talk about a work-life balance as if there is some absolutely perfect way for us to do all the things we want to do and to live a full life. This is an idea that I gave up long ago because it doesn’t really fit with the reality of the world we live in.
Instead of balance I like to think about packing a suitcase and leaning toward one item or another. We have a limited amount of time in a given day, and we must give priority to things we think are the most important. We must decide what we are for sure packing in our suitcase, and what things we are leaving out. Once we have identified those things that are the most important and valuable to us, we end up leaning heavily into one thing or another. We may lean heavily into our career, leaving little time or space for a significant other or for exercise. We may lean heavily into our family, making us less likely to put in extra hours on the job. Or we may live for a hobby and rearrange our lives to provide for more time and opportunity to focus on our personal interests.
A short section in Colin Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be brought these thoughts of balance back to my mind. He writes, “There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about working long hours, or working hard on something you care about or think will benefit you in the long term. It only becomes potentially harmful when, in doing so, you neglect other aspects of your life that require attention. When you start to lose density and become less three-dimensional.” What Wright is saying is that there is no correct way to pack your suitcase, as long as you do it intentionally.
In the same way that we would be very thoughtful about everything we pack for a week long trip to Hawaii, we should be very thoughtful about what we decide to include in our lives on a daily and weekly basis. If we are going to put in extra hours at work then we should be thoughtful about how we spend the rest of our time so that we don’t just operate as a zombie and ignore family, friends, or our own health. We should recognize that we won’t ever be perfectly balanced if we chose to focus heavily on one thing, but we can at least be intentional with how we use the rest of our time. If we don’t, then we will find that our suitcase has haphazardly filled itself with things we don’t really need, like Facebook, Game of Thrones, and late night trips to Wendy’s. If we think about what we want to pack into our suitcase of life, we can make sure our lives are still dimensional and interesting, even if we are spending a majority of our time and focus on a single thing. We can give up activities that simply distract us in favor of activities that help us be more thoughtful, healthy, or engaged with our loved ones. We don’t have to completely cut out Facebook or TV, but we should be intentional about how much time those activities receive. Going through life on autopilot or trying to find a perfect balance will ultimately end up with us in a frustrated spot as we can’t seem to do everything we want and can’t seem to make our lives fulfilling.
Within Stoicism there seems to be a healthy focus on death. Seneca, Aurelius, and other Stoic philosophers constantly reminded themselves that each day they were drawing closer to their death, and that before their death both their bodies and minds would atrophy. The focus on death was meant to be a reminder, that time on earth for any one of us is short, and if we don’t use the time accordingly, we will fail to do the most with the opportunities we have.
Seneca writes, “No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.” Recognizing that we are mortal is scary. Knowing that we will die, we will no longer experience the world, no longer engage in relationships, and that the earth will keep spinning whether we are here or not is terrible. It is hard to imagine a world without us and the fear of missing out on amazing new things in the world is enough to keep one up at night. But striving to stay alive forever and being afraid of death at every moment is also terrible. The constant worry that one might die is likely to elevate stress hormones and bring death a little closer. Trying in vain to do nothing but extend ones life creates an unhealthy focus on death, rather than a focus that helps us engage meaningfully with our loved ones, friends, and community.
Seneca continues, “Rehears this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briers and sharp rocks.” We should try to live a fulfilling and meaningful life so that if we die at any moment, we can die proud of what we have done in the last 24 hours or over the course of our life. This sense brings an awareness of our actions and how we are spending the moments of our lives. Are we on autopilot meandering around through the world, or are we truly present with our friends and loved ones? Have we just been trying to accumulate more stuff, take the coolest Instagram photos, and drive the most fancy car? Or have we tried to find ways to give back, to encourage those who are close to us, and to improve some tiny piece of the world not just for ourselves but for others as well? We all want the first set of things I mentioned, the ones that feel good and make us look cool, but we know the second set will help us sleep better at night. Remembering our death will help us shift our priorities and do more so that we can one day pass one with content instead of fear.
As I was waking up this morning and getting my coffee going, I was thinking about some things that I have recently needed to do, but have not worked on. I’m usually not too much of a procrastinator, but a few things have slipped by the last couple of weeks. A quote from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic returned to me this morning with perfect timing.
Seneca wrote, “Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” There are a couple of things I would like to work on, but that I have not managed to prioritize in my life. I continuously end up feeling more pressure as I delay what I intend to do and waste time with things that I like but that I know are not as valuable. Seneca’s quote, I hope, will help me refocus where my attention is and what my priorities are.
Seneca is one of the Big Three in Stoicism which generally focuses on being present in the moment through building our self-awareness. When we take a moment to really think about where we are, what our situation is, what we are doing, how we are feeling, and what pressures we or others have placed on ourselves, we can understand ourselves and approach the world more objectively. This type of self-awareness can become a feedback loop that helps us set our priorities and identify what is working well and what is not working well in our lives. Self-awareness and a well grounded sense of presence can help us separate from the story we tell about who we are and refocus on the daily actions we can take to move forward in the best way possible.
Seneca’s advice is not anything special, but if you consider his advice within the larger stoic context of self-awareness and presence, you can see that he is correct. We continuously have less time left in our lives to do the things we want or to make the world a better place. We can spend our time doing easy and self-serving activities, or we can take advantage of the time we have now to do the things that matter to make our lives and the lives of others better. The choice is ours and with some attention and focus we can make the most of the situation we find ourselves in.
Last summer my class at the University of Nevada, Reno for my Masters in Public Administration was public budgeting. What we discussed in that class was the fact that budgeting in the political process is always political, and never based on completely rational principles. We can do our best to include data and think objectively, but a the end of the day we must make political decisions and judgement calls when we decide where we will allocate funding. How we make those decisions and where we choose to spend money reveal our priorities. This is particularly helpful to understand when we look at our nation’s problem with mass incarceration. A lot of people understand that there are problems with the number of people we arrest and that we underfund a lot of social services, but I don’t think people fully recognize the costs of mass incarceration in purely financial costs, and how those costs relate to other programs or areas where the government could spend money.
Michelle Alexander provides examples of the budget being used to arrest black people in her book The New Jim Crow. Rather than using money for services and programs upstream, before we ever arrest an individual, our resources over the years have shifted toward our police and prisons, making it easier to arrest people and providing funding to keep people incarcerated. Alexander writes, “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent)”. She continues by quoting Loic Wacquant, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”
What the funding of public housing and prisons in the United States during the 1990s shows us is where our priorities lied regarding race, incarceration, and public housing. Alexander throughout the book demonstrates how a lack of affordable housing can lead to crime, particularly low level drug dealing charges. By taking away funding for public housing we set up a situation where poor people can barely afford a place to live and turn to illegal forms of earning money. Down stream this leads to more arrests and greater prison costs. Getting ahead of the drug dealing and arrest cycle in some cases is as simple as providing better housing (or any form of housing at all) so that an individual can work a basic job and afford housing.
Ultimately, our nation’s priority has been to punish those who we decide are bad apples rather than help those individuals create a situation where they don’t have to resort to illegal activity in the first place. We have conveniently told ourselves that success, failure, crime, and opportunities are the results of individual actions. The role of the collective and the importance of our position within society are downplayed when we look at success versus criminality, and as a result, we seek punishment for those who mess up and find it unacceptable to help those who are poor, struggling to avoid drug use, have slight mental health issues, and those who lack the education, skills, and abilities to become more successful in the low level jobs that we undervalue. If our priorities were truly aligned around helping people get a step ahead, or if our priorities were on creating a society where one could pull themselves up by their boot straps, our priorities would be reflected in a budget that did not decimate social services and public housing for those who needed some form of stability to help them get on the right path. Our nation has decided that directing ever greater funding toward police, prisons, and incarceration is a better use of our money as opposed to establishing a budget to fund upstream interventions to prevent crime and help build stability in people’s lives.
What is our time worth and what are our priorities with our time? Author Colin Wright encourages us to think about how we are using time and where we are focusing our time in his book, Come Back Frayed. The book is about Wright’s time living in the Philippines, and is very much an exploration of how he strives to live his life, the differences he has experienced across cultures through his travels, and the differences he has experienced in his reactions within various cultures. Wright strives for flexibility and greater freedom in his life, and his awareness helps him to be particularly perceptive of times when we are not in alignment with what we claim is important. In his book he discusses how our actions are what bring our priorities into the real world and he writes, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.”
I read Wright’s book a while back, and I had forgotten about this quote. When I look back on it now, I feel that I am forced to look into my own life and actions to determine if I am putting the right things in the right place. Am I choosing to take part in activities that I claim are important to me? Am I spending my time in a way that aligns with what I tell people is the most important? Are there activities that are sapping time from my day without me realizing that they are not aligned with the growth and future I desire?
The self reflection encouraged by Wright reminds me of a podcast I recently listened to. Design Matters host Debbie Millman interviewed Tim Ferris for her podcast
, and Ferris said, “Any time I take off in a plane, I ask myself, ‘Would I be happy with what I’ve been doing for the last 24 hours?’” By reflecting on his last 24 hours and building in a set time for reflection Ferris is evaluating his life to see if his actions have aligned with what he finds important. Thinking about our last 24 hours and whether or not we are proud of that time is a great way to consider whether or not our priorities are focused where they need to be.
Wright’s quote also reminds me of a metaphor I have been using and recently re-evaluating regarding time. On 5/27/15 I first wrote about time and priorities in the sense of packing a suitcase. Julie Sheranosher on an episode
of the Beyond the To-Do List podcast shared the idea that we have limited time in our lives, as we have limited space when packing a suitcase, and need to select the most crucial things to pack first. Making sure our priorities are set properly requires reflection on what is important in our lives, and consideration of how we can fit those things in our suitcase of life. We must decide what we bring with us and what we leave out when the suitcase is full. Recently, I have been hoping to update this model by thinking of our time and actions as a certain area illuminated by light. What we can focus on and put into action is in the illuminated area, and what is beyond our focus and attention is left in the shadows. Our focus and our actions reveal what our priorities are, while our self talk and stories to others outline what we think our priorities are. Only through awareness and reflection of our actions and decisions can we evaluate whether our talk and actions are aligned.
Dr. Laura Schlessinger wrote a message to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, and in her book she hits on many topics including goal setting, putting others first, and time management. The following quote really dives into the idea of time management, “Forget balance, Think choices. You must order your priorities, and only do what you can do well.” I really align with this quote because I have recently begun thinking of time and time management in new ways. I grew up imagining the idea of balance and being able to do an equal amount of things that I enjoyed, found important, or helped me sustain myself. Recently however, I have come to see that balance is just a myth and that there are better ways to think about time management.
The first new way of looking at time management for me was imaging a tilt rather than a balance. In this way, we are always not quite balanced, but we are tilting one way or another. We lean towards things we are putting more time into as opposed to staying balanced with all of our time and activities nicely weighed out on a scale. When I first read this quote that was the idea I had in mind, but that idea is still a balance. What is worse is that the idea of tilting is just an unstable balance. We may be tilting one way or another, but then we are trying to add extra weight on a system that is already unstable. In my opinion it would be better to strive for a good balance rather than a good tilt.
The most recent idea of time management that I have been exposed to, and now that I return to this quote I see it as an idea that Dr. Schlesinger would agree with, came to me from Beyond the To Do List Podcast
. Sheranosher compared time management to packing a suitcase, and she did so by having everyone imagine a trip to Alaska. The best way to pack a suitcase she explains, is to lay out all of the things you want to take, and then to pack the most important things first. When you do this, you see everything that you have and make sure that you don’t leave behind anything crucial. First you tackle the most important items that you will need (your jacket, a pair of snow boots, gloves) and then you see where those extra items will fit (swim trunks & flip flops). If your most important items have taken up all of your space, then you simply leave out the swim trunks and move on. Her comparison to time management is brilliant. If you examine everything you need and want to do, then you have an easier time identifying what is important and what is not. You can take the items that you know you need to get done in your day, and pack those in your mental suitcase first, then you will see where (if at all) the extra things can fit.
Dr. Schlessinger in her quote was telling us to handle time the same way as Sheranosher, just without having to plan a trip to Alaska. She encourages us to examine our choices and be honest about which choices are priorities, and which choices are superfluous. In addition, she says to focus on those choices that we can execute fully and completely. If we can not do a choice well, then it does not make sense for it to be a priority. If we want to take that electric blanket, but do not know how to fold it into our suitcase in an efficient way, it may take up too much space and force out our more important gloves.