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Quotes from Annie Dillard, Alan Saunders, and John Lennon about how we spend our days
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
“Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”
–Alan Saunders, popularized by John Lennon in Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)
Do our calendars reflect our true priorities?
Why does it feel so often like there’s such a huge disconnect between our priorities and our calendars? Why do the things we value most, that we profess to care about most deeply, that we think are the most significant things in our lives get short shrift and pushed to the margins? Why do the quotes above make us pause and reflect and feel a bit uncomfortable with how we spend our days?
(I try to remember our privilege in even being able to consider these questions. For most of human history, people were focused on day-to-day survival. And so many people in so many parts of the world remain focused on day-to-day survival this very moment. They don’t have the luxury of pondering what they’d like to do with their lives, because the challenge of survival is the only consideration right now.)
When I look at my calendar, too often the things taking up the prime real estate in my day don’t feel well-aligned with my values or the people or contributions in my life that I care about most dearly. My calendar gets populated with other people’s priorities, with other people’s meetings, with things I think I should do, with errands and chores and life admin and upkeep. When I look back at the end of my life, I imagine that I’ll feel some regret about the time and energy and mental space I spent on grocery shopping or running errands or other daily administrative details (the time that wasn’t spent with people I loved or projects I valued). But yet the grocery shopping and errands still need to be done. They’re a necessary part of keeping life up and running.
The allure of efficiency
There’s always a draw to try and make those chores and life admin more efficient. There’s the alluring idea that if only we had the perfect systems, the frictionless workflows, the fully optimized productivity system, we’d be able to shave down the time we spend on life admin to nearly zero, and free us up for more important things. In theory.
But in reality, we live in a time of incredible technological process, that has already saved us countless hours. If I compare the time-saving devices that I have available to me (microwave, oven, fridge, washer, dryer, dishwasher) versus the long hours of manual labour my great-great-grandmother would have had to do to accomplish the same tasks (laundry, cooking, cleaning), it’s mind-boggling. She would no doubt feel that I live in some sort of futuristic space age (which I guess I technically do) and that given all the time saved by these phenomenal inventions, I must be so relaxed and maybe even bored and at loose ends with all the free time I must have available.
The ever-raising stakes of progress
So why haven’t these labour-saving devices– these inventions that have removed so much friction from daily existence– led to more time being freed up for more important things?
It seems that once something is made easier, we humans have a tendency to raise the bar of expectations. Once laundry became easier, cultural hygiene expectations increased. As housework became somewhat less time consuming, more and more two-job households were created. As travel became quicker and more efficient, commuting further and further to work became the norm. When email made writing and sending letters easier and quicker, we expected that correspondence should take place at all times of the day and week, and felt pressured to send and receive near-instant replies. Basically, when we have cultural developments or technology to make things get easier, we seem to feel, collectively, that we have to complicate them yet again.
Our priorities versus our desire to optimize
Many (though not all) of our deepest priorities resist optimization. If we value time spent with our kids, we can’t optimize it. We can’t speed through the time to pack in more quality time. If we want to travel and experience another culture, we completely miss the point if we rush through a jam-packed itinerary hopping between different countries and mainly spend our time schlepping around luggage and checking in and out of hotels. Time spent on art– playing music, writing, making visual art– resists optimization. What would that look like– do we play through our music books as fast as possible, and rush through any enjoyment?
No, optimizing things like this usually mean pushing them down our list. Saying we’ll get to them later. Telling ourselves that they’re luxuries we’ll reward ourselves with once we get our real work, our core work, our essential work done.
And that’s how we end up with a calendar full of activities that feel incredibly far from what we value most in life.