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I don't have time to achieve everything I want to do
A reflection on time, attention, and distraction
I don't have time to achieve everything I want to do. I often lament that there aren't enough hours in the day, or wish I could subsist on 3 hours of sleep.
I also recognize broadly that our time on Earth is unpredictable. Life is fragile and not guaranteed. Tomorrow, I could be hit by a bus or diagnosed with a terminal illness. Perhaps the whole universe will collapse unto itself.
The idea that we have any control over our time is an illusion. The reality is though, even with the dubious assumption of a long and fruitful life, there still isn't enough time to do it all.
This is a painful awakening.
I'm reminded of Sylvia Plath's fig tree in The Bell Jar, this passage burned in my memory:
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, [...] and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet." - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I resonate deeply with Plath. As a multidisciplinary person, I often ponder the divisions of my time and how those divisions contribute to the overall picture of my life.
Our attention is everything. Whatever commands our attention is what our lives become, and anything that distracts us quite literally takes pieces of our lives away.
Distraction is avoidance of discomfort
Why do we get distracted? I've concluded that I usually succumb to distraction because I'm avoiding discomfort.
A few of these discomforts:
"I won't get this done in time."
"It won't be good."
"I don't know what I'm doing."
“Am I going down the right path?”
These anxieties are all intrinsically connected to the finite nature of our time. I'm terrified I won't be able to finish whatever I'm working on, or that the outcome will be rubbish. I worry that I'm not good enough, or perhaps that I’m moving in the wrong direction entirely. This pain, this anxiety, can be totally paralyzing. Inertia, of course, only makes the problem worse.
Many people have written about this central struggle in creating.
I try to remind myself that endeavors are often only compelling because they are difficult. Challenge is crucial. If it isn't pushing us to grow, it might be worth examining whether or not it's worth our time.
Okay, so how do we prioritize?
I periodically fall into a trap obsession with efficiency. The bait is this sense that if I can perfectly optimize my systems I'll be able to get everything done. This idealistic approach falls quite short.
We've been taught that we must seize the day; maximize our experience. This is a fear based mindset. It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge we cannot do everything, but don’t fret! Our finite time is what gives our decisions meaning! If we did have unlimited time, nothing would matter.
I'm learning now to surrender to this thought. Rather than it depressing me, I find it empowering. We must develop the skill of saying “no.” The bitter truth, though: we must say “no” to things we really want to do. There are many, many more endeavors of deep value than time to undertake them all. Our choices matter.
Part of my early development process on any project is to self-reflect on a few evaluations. Without a good answer to these questions, the endeavor can be deemed a "distraction" and placed aside.
Why do I really want to spend my time on this?
Does this serve my big picture goals?
Will this enable me to create more things?
This is an insufficient list. Send me an email! I'm thinking out loud here, and I'd love to hear your perspective.
In lieu of all this... I've been working on a new project. I'll tell you about it next time.
Thanks for reading!
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