There is ample historical evidence that at the beginning of the 20th century, many people felt that their lives were so rushed that they never had enough time to do the things that they really wanted to do. Back then, many people were feeling constantly hurried as they rushed from home to work and back again, only to waste their evenings doing nothing in particular because they always came home from work too tired to do anything else. And it seems that people were increasingly both bored and anxious–bored with the monotony of modern life and anxious that they would never have time to achieve their lifelong goals of financial stability, international travel, and educational self-improvement.
The times have not changed.
In 1908, an Englishman named Arnold Bennett published a short book called How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. (This readable little volume is in the public domain and widely available for cheap or free online.) In the book, Bennett observes that although there was much practical advice available on living within one’s financial means, there was almost none on how to really live within one’s temporal means, as opposed to merely existing mindlessly from one moment to the next.
Everyone complains that they “don’t have enough time” to do what they want to do. Bennett turns the complaint around: you have all the time that will ever exist for you. Time is the one thing you always have exactly the same amount of. Time is the only resource that is distributed with absolute equity–every one of us is given exactly the same amount each day to spend as we will, and we all part with every minute at precisely the same rate of speed.
What we really mean when we say “I don’t have enough time” is that we have filled up our minutes and hours with activities that are unsatisfying. Bennett goes on to make practical suggestions for using your down-time more productively, whether that be reading a good book while on the commuter train (instead of skimming a newspaper) and taking an hour or so every other evening to work on something you actually want to do (instead of dabbling at the piano or nodding over a book, and then smoking and drinking well into the night). These days in the USA, we commute mainly by car instead of by train, and we waste time in the evenings watching TV or scrolling social media, but our basic situation really has not changed much in a century and a quarter.
Bennett points out that, when we get home from work we will protest to ourselves that “we’re tired,” when in reality we are almost never as tired as we think we are. We do have energy left over for self-improvement. Bennett’s book is really more about mental self-discipline than it is about time-management, but he has helped me recognize something about myself. Often when I think I’m tired, what I really am is bored–suffering from that low-level fatigue that comes from being employed doing tasks that are not very demanding physically but that do require mental concentration.
I was reminded of Bennett’s book the other day as I was listening to episode #31 of the Mortise & Tenon Podcast, in which the M&T publishers were discussing the best ways to learn new woodworking skills. They pointed out that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to take week-long classes in, say, chair-making or marquetry, but that we probably do have 10-15 minutes a day that we could devote to woodworking. If I can walk up to my workbench and plane one board flat or chop one mortise before breakfast or after dinner, I can gradually build up valuable skills.
I must admit, though, that the 15-minutes-a-day program has never worked particularly well for me, however well it may work for others.
My first problem with the 15-minutes-a-day approach is that it often takes me 10-15 minutes just to clear off my workbench to the point at which I can actually do something at it. My recent series of blog posts on de-cluttering grew out of a personal attempt to correct that underlying problem, and lately I have found myself able to walk up to my workbench, get out a couple of tools, and complete a 10-minute task. That’s been very satisfying.
My other problem with the 15-minutes-a-day approach is my own temperament. I am not very productive when I’m moving quickly from one task to another. I don’t get much done working 10 minutes at a time. Instead, I am more productive when I am concentrating solely on one project for at least an hour at a time. And I do my best work in marathon sessions of half a day or more.
As it turns out, our brains are wired for this. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work explains how our attempts at “multitasking” are severely counter-productive, and that we humans do our best when we get into the habit of focusing on one task at a time and minimizing interruptions. There’s a lot of psychological and neurological research to back this up. As I read Newport’s book, I was reminded of how I was able to write my doctoral dissertation in eight months: working on it from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. three days a week.
That’s also how I like to complete my woodworking projects: in four- to six-hour sessions during vacation times or long weekends. That’s how I have completed virtually every major project I’ve ever done, from bed frames to bookshelves.
But that approach, I know, is not always possible. During my busy seasons at work, I will often go six weeks without ever touching my tools. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it helps me really appreciate my workshop time once I do get back to it. But for many of us, 15 minutes may be all we can reasonably devote to working wood each day.
However, I have come to the conclusion that making time for woodworking is a lot like making space in the shop. We all have a limited amount, so if we want to make space for one thing, something else has to go. And for most of us, what really needs to go is clutter.
Much of my free time is taken up with electronic clutter–and yours probably is, too. Every Sunday morning my heart sinks a little when I get the weekly notification on my phone that tells me how much time I’ve spent on it each day. And while some of that “screen time” is taken up with podcasts that I listen to in the car or while washing dishes, a shockingly large amount is social media.
Just as I need to deal with mental clutter-creators every time I work in my shop, so I need to deal with my thought processes that are causing me to waste time. I am still thinking through the best ways to ensure I’m spending less time on social media when I could (or should) be doing more satisfying things. I have some ideas, but I want to try them out before writing anything more about them here.
Looking honestly at the problem is a necessary first step, though it’s not the same thing as solving it. At some level, I think we all understand that the smartphone is the enemy of productivity. Our favorite apps (especially games and social media) are cheap substitutes for genuine productivity, real leisure, and meaningful social interaction. We pick up our phones because we are bored and lonely, and that quickly turns into a genuine addiction. I can lose 45 minutes on my phone without even realizing it–and that, of course, is what every social media platform is intentionally designed to get me to do. I know all this, but I keep falling for it.
I do, of course, recognize the irony in the fact that you might be reading this blog post instead of doing some actual woodworking. I’m in the same boat: I am often looking at social media posts about woodworking, when I could be working wood myself. So let me use this technology subversively for a minute. Shut off the screen, and go make some progress on whatever you’ve got on your workbench. I’m going to go and do the same while I think about ways to alter my mental habits so that I pick up my phone less frequently.
If you have figured out ways to break the smartphone addiction, leave a comment and tell us all about it.