Using Time Wisely


For once, I’m having a hard time finding something to complain about. As far as I’m concerned, today is perfect. We are in our favorite mountain town, hiking in a snowy forest, soaking in blue skies and sunshine, and enjoying hot tea on an idyllic early spring 55 degree afternoon. 

Beauty enters my eye from every angle: The surrounding lakes are a blend of ice, snow and water. As the forest meanders between shadow and light, the snow glitters all around us, enveloping us in constellations of its sparkles. The trees glisten, as audible drips of melting snow dribble down their branches and become rain. The setting sun is playing with the forest, filling the spaces between trees with different personalities, some trees being filled with bright light, and others being left vacant and dark.

Amidst so much beauty, I am surprised to find my mind wandering through self-invented reels of the past and future, desperately trying to land on anything but the present moment.

How To Use Time Wisely

For as long as I can remember, time has been confusing for me. 

When I was a kid, I was baffled by how I could spend the weeks leading up to a Disneyland trip looking forward to it, and then when the joyous day was upon me, I would find myself vaguely sad all day that it was soon going to be over.

For weeks before the trip, I would become obsessed with thinking about how amazing the trip was going to be–I daydreamed about hearing the mood music in the ticket area for the first time, what it would be like to stand in line at the teacup ride, at which food stand I would finally convince my parents to buy me a churro at, and how it was going to feel to watch that huge boulder roll towards my face on the Indiana Jones ride. 

Then, the day of, I would finally get to experience everything I had been daydreaming about. As each item got checked off the to-do list, the day gradually shifted from being in the future to being in the past. Along with this shift came a profound sadness, and a confusion about how to spend time. After all, I spent weeks ignoring my present moment experiences to entertain thoughts about how awesome my future Disneyland trip was going to be; only to have the future arrive, and along with it, a vague sense of sadness as the day sunset into the past. There was almost a sense of being ripped off by the whole thing. I mean, I could daydream about the experience as many times as I wanted, but I could only experience them once. How does one juggle the balance between memory and fantasy–which can be experienced ad infinitum–with a real experience, which can only ever be experienced once? How are we supposed to manage those all in our minds?

This was not a mental trick I pulled just on Disneyland trips. I did this to many anticipated future events, both those I was looking forward to and those I was not looking forward to. I did not actively train this mechanism, it just sort of happened.  

All The Things Loop

And this is how, on my perfect snowy mountain hike, I come to find my mind running through a list of all the things. All the things include: rooms to rearrange, emails requiring a response, family members I need to connect with, problems with unknown solutions, worries about this/that/or the other, house essentials to buy, skills needed to learn, recent mistakes not yet processed, creative ideas, and so forth.

My Disneyland existential time woes started probably around the time I was five. It being almost 30 years later, I’ve repeated my mental time habits for so long that I’ve gotten a pretty good look at them. So I know, when my mind starts an All The Things loop, that the best thing to do is reroute my attention towards contemplating the following truth: There will always be things undone. There is no such thing as an empty inbox, a problem-free life, an exhaustible list of projects, or a personal growth ceiling. Even if I were to accomplish the things that are currently playing on my All The Things loop, it would soon fill up with new stuff to torture me with.

At this point on the hike, I notice that I’ve been staring straight down for a few moments. I’ve cut off my periphery vision and am hardly noticing any of my beautiful surroundings. 

Eff that. I tell myself. I don’t want to be in my All The Things loop. I want to pay attention to what’s going on around me.

Suddenly, I’m back in the forest, deep in awe and appreciation for the complex colors, textures, and contrast around me. I look over at Oli, who has the cheerfulness of a 4-year-old. At this moment, I am overwhelmed by the specialness of what is happening. That I’m alive and so is he. That I’m able to be in this forest right now, experiencing my All The Things loop, feeling the temperature of wind and sun on my face, moving my body, tasting the crispness of the air in the back of my throat, and getting to exist and bear witness to the version of myself that I am today, right in this moment, in all her work-in-progress glory.

I invite my attention to drip downwards, out of my mind that pounds out thoughts like a printing press, and into my body. First into my eyes, so that I can take in more of what I see without coloring over it with an internal monologue. Then to my ears, which are easily delighted by the forest soundtrack. Then into my nose, which is capable of picking up all sorts of scents, if only I showed interest. Then to my mouth, where there’s the hint of peach left over from the tea. Then into my muscles, which hurt in the good sort of way as they move me forward through space. Then into my skin, where I feel how my body is relating to the world beyond. 

Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

It strikes me that my All The Things loop is quite uncomfortable to experience. 

There’s a broken logic that underscores the loop. It goes: You are uncomfortable because of the items of your All The Things loop – as soon as you take care of those things, you will feel comfortable. 

Now–with some forest clarity upon me–I am sensing two issues with this reasoning. My first issue is the implication that there will someday be an end to the loop. My second issue is the idea that comfort is something I should be striving towards. 

The more I believe that my All The Things loop should exhaust itself one day, the more guilty I feel when I inevitably fail at bringing it down to zero. Life is never-ending to-dos, and so if I’m holding off my comfort until the impossible happens, well then, I guess I’ll never feel comfortable.

Which brings me to my second issue: The idea that I am supposed to aim towards comfort. This negates the fact that discomfort is a feature of life, not a bug. The more I try to rid myself of discomfort, the more guilty I feel when I inevitably fail to make life comfortable (I feel as if I’ve written this sentence before…). And because I’m focused on getting rid of my discomfort, I’m not learning how to play nicely with it. 

After all, hiking on this snowy path getting lost in my All The Things loop is what is already happening. This is what the present moment has in store for me right now. There’s plenty of discomfort and there’s plenty of comfort. Isn’t that how life actually is most of the time? 

When I accept the fact that my present moment contains both comfort and discomfort, I feel as if I am using my time well. I feel as if I am properly relating to myself as a unit of time, a slice of space, a phantom of reality. I feel I am oriented appropriately towards myself, other people, and the world.

Concentrate on the Few Things That Matter

Having accepted that my All The Things list is inexhaustible, and that life is supposed to be both comfortable and uncomfortable, we have now arrived at the waterfall. The lakes below are still covered with sheets of ice from the past season, and the waterfall is sending the first hints of summer into the streams below. 

Wow. No matter how many times I remember this in the future, no matter how many times I fantasize about coming back here, no matter what thoughts I have in my head right now–here is where I am. Here is what life has in store for me today. All of this

Given that all Disneyland trips turn into the past, that things undone will always exist, and that uncomfortability is part of the ride, only one thing makes sense: I must spend my life concentrating on the few things that matter. I will allow for the things that matter to change over time. I will allow for them to be obvious and nameable, or subtle and not-yet-namable. I will even allow myself to be confused about what’s important to me as life delivers different seasons. But what I will not allow for is for undeniably unimportant things to take up more space than they deserve in my thinking. 

As we turn around and start back towards the car, I let my mind wander to what’s important to me. The snow crunches beneath my feet. I feel stronger for having accepted my never-ending to-do list. I feel calmer for allowing myself to experience discomfort without guilt. I feel at peace knowing that using time wisely is simply the practice of uncovering what’s important to me in life, aiming towards it, and allowing for the present moment to deliver whatever experience it has in store for us without fussing over it too much. 

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