This is the first in a series I’m calling “HYLMN” (“How You Like Me Now?”) that I will do once a month with one of my posts from as far back as I can go. I’ve been posting since 2010, and there’s the question: how has the writing held up? Do I still believe in what I wrote?
Here we have the text of my post from August 22, 2012, called “Time-Bound” and an afterword as to whether I still feel like what I talked about was relevant:
That’s not writing. That’s typing.Truman Capote
Part three of the series (part one, part two) inspired by that awesome conversation on the front lawn has to do with a phrase that has been creeping into my vocabulary: Time-bound. Normally it’s just used to indicate a task or event that has to happen within a certain framework of time – either it takes a certain amount of time, or it needs to happen at a particular o’clock.
However, the word stuck around in my head and played around. Time-bound. Bound by time. Time as a substance that binds, that constrains. Hours, days, months and years as limits and containers and…
That’s when it hit me:
We Are All Time-bound
In fact, that’s the one thing that we can be absolutely, unequivocally certain of. All humans are not created equal – variations in environment, circumstance, genetics, climate, etc all imply differences both subtle and vast. However, assuming you were born on planet Earth (and if you weren’t, please contact me, I’ve been dying to meet you) you have exactly as much time during the day as anyone else. Most of the world chooses to divide it into 24 hours of 60 minutes of 60 seconds each, but larger than that things get a little more tricky, like in Asia (different calendar) or Indiana (who needs Daylight Savings anyway?).
That’s the one place we’re equal: we all have the same amount of time. Allocating it, now, that’s not so easy – certainly circumstances come into play there as well, such as needing to spend hours of your day walking to and from a watering hole in order to feed your family, versus simply turning on the tap. Still, you make choices, every day, as to how you allocate and spend your precious and irretrievable stash of time.
Futura: the Preferred Font of Astrologists
Make no mistake, you are bound by it. Bound for the future, that is! We are all time travelers, moving in the same direction at the same rate. Of course, that experience is subjective, much like getting on a bus you take to work every day and zoning out, suddenly realizing a quarter of an hour later that you’re there and not noticing any real passage of time. How it flew!
Meanwhile, the person sweating in the seat across from you is late for an important meeting with the boss which she is not prepared for, and the bus ride was the Longest Seventeen Minutes Of Her Life.
So: we are all both allocated the same amount of time, we get to choose how we allocate that precious store, and the experience is as variable as the progress of time is unstoppable. “Hold on a minute!” ain’t ever gonna happen, and “Just a second!” never really is. You can’t kill time or lose time, any more than you can peel off your shadow. Time was getting along fine before you were born, and tempus is going to keep fugit-ing on long after you die.
Since the only variables we have control over is how we allocate it and how we experience it, what’s the best thing to do? The answer is the same as the answer to the old riddle, how do you catch a very special rabbit?
Unique Up On It
Look, everybody’s got the same amount of time, but at the same time everyone is a unique individual. That means, I think, that the answer to “What is the best use of my time?” is Uniquely. In other words: what is the use of your time that is particular to you – that nobody else can do?
…the answer to “What is the best use of my time?” is Uniquely.
I’m not saying you have to be Michael Phelps and win more than anyone else, or be Tim Berners-Lee and invent something that would change the course of human history. There are many qualities of uniqueness, and there is something, some way of spending your time, that lends that inner glow to you. You know it when you do it – I get it, for example, sometimes when I’m writing for this blog. It’s that moment that you realize you’re doing what only you can do, and that’s when your time is best spent.
I believe that if you’re doing something that somebody else could do, you’re wasting time. More importantly, you’re wasting your time, and you’re never going to get it back. Let them do it, and get to work finding that thing that only you can do. If you don’t know what that is, then the best use of your time is figuring it out, because you’re the only one who can do that.
Gotta love consistently circular logic.
Drinking at the Task Bar
Please note, I am not saying you need to invent the great new successor to the wheel. I’m saying that there is something that you can do that is different than the way that anyone else does it. I’ll use the example of being an EMT.
The job of an emergency medical technician is relatively simple: keep the bag of bones & blood & air we call a human from leaking too much before getting it to a hospital and making it someone else’s problem. There are all kinds of procedures and nifty tools and devices that go bing! to help accomplish that, plus the shiny box on wheels you get to drive really fast with blinky lights and the woop-woop box that makes people jump. It’s fun! I miss being an EMT.
But it’s not rocket science – no, it’s biology, and there are specific steps and procedures you do to keep that bag of skin warm and not-so-leaky. Lots of people learn that. Lots of people do the job quite well, treating the patient and dealing calmly with the emergency and taking home their paycheck because it’s their job.
On the other hand, some people have the bedside manner. They treat the person, not the patient, and they treat the trauma, not the injury. Their words help to calm the victim, their support helps calm their coworkers, and the hotter the stress gets, the more they shine.
I’ve seen this. I’ve been on a squad where two people were doing the same job. One seemed born to the role; the other seemed bored, going through the motions. Both were eminently capable and competent, but one brought their own unique talents and qualities to their work, while the other simply went by the book and took home their pay because they couldn’t be bothered to do anything else.
Don’t Type. Write.
And that’s the danger: to be caught in a Vortex of Competence. That’s when you find something that you are good at, that you can do, that you don’t mind doing, and that will give you all the cultural reinforcement that you’re doing something really worthwhile. Steven Pressfield would call it a “Shadow Career”:
Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.– Turning Pro
Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that something is good for you. Instead, that Vortex of Competence doesn’t eat you, it eats your time, and turns the journey of the time-bound into the equivalent of that mindless commute.
…that Vortex of Competence doesn’t eat you, it eats your time…
You can take small steps to change that – much like you can change a mindless commute into a pleasurable experience of an audiobook by a talented author. It may take nothing more than that whole idea of being more present in what you’re doing, of noticing what’s going on around you, how you are doing things.
Or, as I noted Monday, incremental changes may not work. You may need something more powerful to escape the Vortex of Competence, like moving across the country, or quitting your job, or leaving a not-quite-toxic-but-not-quite-healthy relationship. It’s scary! But if you’re going to be time bound, moving in the direction of greatest courage is usually a pretty good use of your minute-by-minute fuel source.
Here’s your homework; the due date is: whenever you want to stop wasting time:
Where are you time-bound?
How you like me now, Gray?
Well, as writings go, I’d give this a solid A-. The main criticism I would have of my young Seattle-living self was that I only paid lip service to the hard fact that while we have equal amounts of time, we are vastly unequal in our ability to utilize it in constructive ways.
I was falling into the “productivity trap” of people who pretend that writing three minutes a day will give you a masterpiece. It will give you something, sure, but it sure won’t be a beautiful polished work of art.
On the other hand, the conclusion I drew – that the best use of your time was to use it uniquely – is something I still very much believe, and have acted on.
I also like the idea of the Vortex of Competence. It fits nicely into the concept of Deliberate Practice, and the idea that we need to keep pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and into the places where our courage is needed.
Hat tip to my friend, patron, and writing buddy Karl for the idea for this post!