Last year, approximately 525,949 minutes flowed through each of our lives. Like particles of air, some were captured in the biofilter of our brains, networked into our neural memory cells, and stored deeper over several nights of sleep effectively becoming part of us. Other minutes drifted quickly into the ether of the unremembered.
Similar to breathing, the passage of time is involuntary. It happens continuously whether we notice it or not. Yet, in the same manner that mindfully paying attention to breathing enhances well-being, so too does actively experiencing and considering the force of time in our lives.
There are many ways to increase time awareness. One of the simplest is to set a timer for five minutes. Then, sit comfortably and feel those five minutes pass.
Sometimes that period of non-doing is excruciating. Thoughts race ahead to the future and those long to do lists. Yet, when it feels hard to relax for such a short period, that’s when we most need to recalibrate our sense of time.
Once you slow down and feel the fullness of potential that exists even in the span of five minutes, it becomes easier to defragment your schedule. Like a game of Tetris, you can then see how small tasks fit between large projects or waiting periods. To do lists can be rearranged and compressed into something more achievable.
As mental space and calendars become less cluttered, that time wasted worrying about how to fit it all in can be reallocated for meaningful breaks hat ultimately make us happier, less stressed, and more productive.
Many people refer to this kind of organized relationship with the minutes available to us as time management. But that’s a bit of a misnomer.
Since the passage of time is involuntary, we can’t slow it down or speed it up. We can’t borrow it from the future or pay it back in the past. In fact, we can’t manage time at all.
The only thing we manage is how we intentionally spend (or waste) the time that flows through our lives.
Spending is a term frequently applied to the acts of using money and time. For some, these two things are so intimately linked that they believe the phrase: Time is money.
Coined about 300 years ago, that expression began as an admonishment to deadbeat husbands. Later, Benjamin Franklin used it to encourage young tradesmen to work harder and longer. Then, as hourly wages became normalized, the idea that time is money took on literal relevance.
Yet, if time is money, how do we account for inherited money or winnings? What about digital currency that evaporates when consumer confidence tanks? And why do artists, artisans, and writers spend incalculable hours mastering their crafts and creating works that are often valued below minimum wage?
The fact is, money and time are not remotely equal. Money is a human-created social tool that can be hoarded, lost, stolen, earned, given away, shared, burned, buried, won, and more. Meanwhile, time is a finite gift, of unspecified quantity, bestowed on each of us.
Dwelling on the idea of time as a gift, differentiating time from money, and spending the time we have discretion over more intentionally can increase our appreciation.
Time is also a natural force at play across the universe. It moves through all of us earthlings at a roughly equal rate because the force of gravity is fairly constant. But when gravity is reduced, such as on other planets or in other galaxies, time moves slower. This effect is called gravitational time dilation.
Even on earth, time passes more slowly on a high mountain peak than closer to sea level because of gravitational differences. However, the cumulative impact is negligible to us because our human lifespans are so short.
Over a longer period of time, such as the 4.6 billion year lifespan of our planet, time passed 39 years slower at 27,000 feet of altitude than at sea level.
Even though actual time depends on gravity, we organize our lives around Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) which is based on International Atomic Time. Atomic time is measured by 400+ precision atomic clocks around the world, second by second.
An atomic second is equal to the space of time it takes a caesium-133 atom to oscillate 9,192,631,770 times, at 0 Kelvin. Despite that incredible degree of accuracy, atomic time is still not an entirely accurate measure for time on earth. Because the earth’s rotation slows and speeds up under varying conditions, atomic time must be adjusted for rotational gravity at irregular intervals.
This measure of atomic time, adjusted for rotational variance using leap seconds, is an approximation that we treat as absolute truth for our convenience. It enables us to schedule activities, across multiple time zones and altitudes, without requiring us to first perform complex calculations.
No matter how we measure it, knowledge of time has ticked its way through our entire human history.
Early on people understood seasonal and cyclical concepts of time. Many modern humans have lost sight of that natural relationship with time. But through natural observation or by keeping a garden, it’s possible to reconnect to the natural cycles that repeat at fairly regular intervals marking time.
The first attempts to track time, as a measured quantity with relative precision, likely began about 4000 years ago. Initially, sticks were used to cast and measure shadows as proto sundials. Formal sundials, water clocks, and hour glasses followed soon after.
Mechanical balance wheel clocks came about around 1300. In the 1656 the first pendulum clocks began swaying in tune with the force of gravity, around a fulcrum point, and turning a dial. These now antiquated devices allowed humans to both visualize and hear time ticking away.
Then, interim inventions like quartz and crystal clocks made accurate time keeping more universally possible. Today most of us refer to our phones, computers, and other devices that show us UTC time, adjusted for our time zone, which are sent out via radio waves or wires.
Of course, like time management, the idea of keeping time is also a misnomer. Time can’t be kept. It can be tracked, recorded, and measured, but not stored for later use. However, humans do have a highly developed, specialized tool that makes possible a variation on Jim Croce’s beautiful lyrics.
If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I’d like to do
Is to save every day till eternity passes away
Just to spend them with you
Memories are like bottled time. They allow us to revisit our past spent time in the present. But very few of us remember our pasts with the precision of an atomic clock.
Instead, we remember pieces of the past captured in images, ideas, emotions, and sensory perceptions. Then, we use those snippets of the past to create new interpretations that are more meaningful to us in the present. In a way, we are constantly reinventing our past with each visit to our memories.
Whenever I’m stuck spending time in wasteful ways, I reach into my memory bank and make a meaningful withdraw. For example, at a long check out line, I might reach for the moment when Matt said he thought we could have fun together anywhere be it a bus station, traffic, or even Walmart (his personal idea of hell on earth). As I remember us being silly together in all those places, my wait passes quickly.
When I’m waiting for food that’s taking inordinately long at a restaurant, I might conjure a memorable meal to whet my appetite in the present. In traffic, on an ugly stretch of road, remembering stunning mountain switchbacks seen from the backseat as a child helps pass the time more pleasurably.
As we age, those well-worn memories that we revisit the most (while our brains are pliable) become our truth.
Minding is the act of bringing attention to and taking care of. There are countless ways to mind time beyond the contemplations shared throughout this post.
Today, January 1, 2023, I’m spending some time remembering the beautiful moments of the past year in detail to make them easier for my imagination to access going forward. I’m also revisiting my uncomfortable moments and seeing them again with the wisdom that only comes after learning from mistakes.
Finally, I’m forming a rough outline of how I’ll spend the next 525,949 minutes of my life. This process of guessing at how my year will flow is like writing a to do list in the sands of time. It’s not fixed and can be easily altered to allow for expansion and spontaneity. Yet it requires a certain kind of creativity that often carries forward into the future.
It’s also like reading a palm or a deck of Tarot cards. You never really read the future, you only see the present and the potential pitfalls and pleasurable outcomes most likely from the vantage of today.
Welcome to 2023!
In 2023, I’ll be starting a new position as as legal practice manager at a firm I worked with previously. It will be one part reunion with many wonderful colleagues from my past and one part brand new adventure because so much has changed. And I can hardly wait!
Anticipation is also one of those beautiful human tools we can use to enhance our experience. By looking forward to an exciting future, we are more likely to spend our time in ways that make that future likely. Plus, we get the exquisite pleasure of delayed gratification.
I’m also looking forward to a continuing to connect with other gardeners and nature lovers at some big events like the Great Grow Along Virtual Garden Festival (March 10-19) and the International Master Gardener Conference (June 18-22). And as always, I look forward to sharing thoughts and photos with you here on this blog and also on Instagram.
Wishing you many meaningful moments for 2023. Happy New Year!