I have a huge problem: I’m constantly trying to save time. Everything I do I do as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’m an incorrigible list maker and when I’m on a roll I check off my tasks like a jackhammer: wham, bam, thank you ma’am. I have apps that save me time, gizmos that save me time, and 31 years of life experience to save me time. I save so much time I should be drowning in the stuff.
So where is it all? And if I have so much time why do I find I’m constantly in a rush, constantly hurried, and constantly thinking about what I have to do next? Simple: Because the idea of saving time is complete and utter bullshit, excuse my French.
The idea of saving time as it’s come to mean in western society is all about finishing your tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. Which is not inherently a bad thing. But the myth that’s propagated is that you can take the extra time you’re “saving” and put it toward good use, like spending quality time with family and friends, or writing that great American novel. The reality is that this focus on goal-oriented efficiency is creating a cultural mindset that says we always have to be getting something done. And if you always “have to be getting something done” then you don’t have a lot of time to actually enjoy your life. But far worse, the time-saving myth places more emphasis on finishing your current task and moving onto the next thing than on doing the task itself. And in my opinion that’s an idea that’s antithetical to happiness, because it never allows you to be fully in the moment. Even if you are doing something you love, you will be thinking about what else you should be doing and what you need to be doing next, leaving the experience hollow.
I’m hardly the first person to wax philosophical on this subject (in fact, if you want a more entertaining and eloquent exploration of the topic, I highly recommend you check out a book called “Momo” by Michael Ende, the same dude who wrote The Neverending Story). But I was reminded of the importance of this idea recently when reading the adventures of Maynard Owen Williams, who was the National Geographic photographer on board one of the first trans-Asiatic car expeditions in the early 1900’s. In central Asia he ran into a polyglot Mongol princess who had these pithy words to say to the western explorers:
You are men of auto, railway, radio. You find this a backward land, without roads, speed, a free press, a balanced budget, sanitation, or familiar forms of justice. Hence you pity the Chinese. But…[your] progress is chaotic, at least in its impact on orientals, because its spiritual values are not realized. We Mongols are emancipated. ‘A good horse and a wide plain under God’s heaven,’ that’s our desire. And we realize it…
Reflecting on those words made me realize that I spend so much energy and effort completing my more definable goals (cleaning out my inbox, getting the Christmas shopping done, doing the laundry) that I often lose sight of my spiritual goals. And no, I’m not talking spirituality in terms of religion (for the record, I’m an staunch atheist). I’m talking about realizing spiritual goals like feeling satisfied and happy, being at peace, and feeling free.
What I love about that Mongol princess’ words is how simple the desire is: “A good horse and a wide plain under God’s heaven.” There’s no mention of time, and I think that’s brilliant. None of the “I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 40,” or “I want to retire by 65” stuff we talk about in the west. Time is irrelevant to happiness. So I find myself asking the question: What’s my version of that good horse? To tell you the truth I’m not exactly sure, but I know it doesn’t involve rushing around being as efficient as possible.
I’m amazed how much more peace and freedom I feel now at the end of this article than when I began writing it. As the ideas rattle around more and more in my head I fundamentally feel the truth in them: Focus on the moment at hand, whether it’s a long moment or a short one. Don’t worry about what you have to do next until you’re actually doing it. And stop trying to save so much time. As the Mongol princess said, that’s emancipation.
What do you think: do you agree or is this hippy dippy crap and the real key to happiness is efficiency and productivity? Do you have a version of the good horse? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
This is part 1 in a series of articles I’m writing to explore this and related ideas. Stay tuned for part 2: “Being a photographer helps you live in the moment, but which moment?”