A Mongolian Princess and the Myth of Saving Time

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?”

7 Responses

  1. My good horse is being in a room that is dimly lit in red light with the sound of water trickling over fiber prints. Talk about a place where time stands still!

  2. Thank you. You’ve just saved my life. I’ve been frantically running around trying to get so many things done for so long that I forgot what I’m doing any of it for and stressing not only myself but my family and all those around me. Enough. When I was young, I spent hours in a favorite tree or sitting in the window seat contemplating whatever passed my way or just the myriad patterns of everything around me. I wrote poetry and songs, built forts and rebuilt them until they were strong. My Lego creations took many days to master as did the perfect positioning of my Hot Wheels tracks across the living room for maximum speed. My children get home from school and instead of heading outside to discover this wonderful world, they plop down in front of a screen or reluctantly open their weighty backpacks to wade through the homework that will keep us all up late. What happened to just living? Thank you. I’m shortening my to do list and taking the kids on a walk. Maybe we’ll live longer, maybe not, but at least we’ll enjoy more of it!

    1. Donna,
      well stated. I am right with you . So, agree.. let’s all slow down, take a deep breath, and just let the moment be the moment.. Wouldn’t it be nice that when you go to bed a night, you’re totally content and relaxed and last thought would be
      “that was a great day and I’m so glad that I was part of it”. and don’t have to make a list of what has to be done the next day..

  3. Josh,

    I so very much agree with you. I do the exact same thing. making a list of what I need to get done today, tomorrow and what are the plans for the weekend. AS I was reading this, it occured to me just how fast our world is turning and how much faster it’s going to be in the future.
    When I was little, we didn’t have the things we do now .. electronically.. My life was so simple and uncomplicated. We didn’t have answering machines, so the phone just rang until you hung up and decided no one was home and you would have to call back at another time. We watched TV with VCR’s or DVD and if you missed a program, oh well, you just missed it. If you wanted to send someone a card, a thank you, or just a nice letter.. You wrote it down and ‘mailed it’.. simple.. If you wanted a book to read, go to the Library and get it. We didn’t have computers or laptops or cell phones or e-mails,etc… LIfe was what was happening in that moment. It was a slow and easy life. no one was in a hurry to get anywhere or get this and that done .. the pace was slow and I sure miss those days. I have been know to wake early and just go outside and watch the beautiful sun rise and perhaps take a picture of it. then back into the house to get ‘things done’ and head off to work.. wish life would slow down so we can just enjoy the moments at the time they happen.. So, in short, I totally understand and agree with you on this blog..

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