How do we really spend the ultimate currency of our life?

As We Look Toward Closing Out 2020, I doubt many of us will be sorry to see it go. There won’t be big parties or galas, it will end quietly. Back in March, our world suddenly hit pause; this has given us a moment to reflect and take stock. Time is the ultimate currency of our lives, and how we spend it sums up the totality of who we are. It impacts our wellbeing as well as our quality of life. Time is precious. We do not have as much of it available as one would think. For example, given our average life span of 75 years, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development calculated we spend 26 years of that sleeping. Yikes, that only leaves 49 years of wake time. Life really is short.

Does Time Speed Up as We Age?
Time does seem to speed up as we get older. A relative of mine in her 80s turned to me one day and said, “Where did the time go?” I am sure you have heard similar remarks or might feel that way yourself. I know I do. Well, the truth lies in how we perceive time. In 2005, researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich surveyed 499 participants, ranging in age from 14 to 94 years. Results showed that “when asked to reflect on their lives, the participants older than 40 felt that time elapsed slowly in their childhood but then accelerated steadily through their teenage years into early adulthood.” According to psychologist and BBC Columnist Claudia Hammond, “The reason? Our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period. In other words, the more new memories we build on a weekend getaway, the longer that trip will seem in hindsight.”

Hammond dubbed this phenomenon “the holiday paradox, [which] seems to present one of the best clues as to why, in retrospect, time seems to pass more quickly the older we get. From childhood to early adulthood, we have many fresh experiences and learn countless new skills. As adults, though, our lives become more routine and we experience fewer unfamiliar moments. As a result, our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer. Of course, this means we can also slow time down later in life. We can alter our perceptions by keeping our brains active, continually learning skills and ideas and exploring new places.”

Making the Most of This Time
With the recent shutdowns and spending so much time at home, how can we best utilize our time or even slow time down by creating some memorable experiences? Otherwise, one day slips into the next, undifferentiated from the one before. If you are up to the challenge of accepting our current reality as an opportunity to re-examine how you spend your life and, therefore, your time, here are seven areas to consider.

1. GET YOUR LIFE IN ORDER
Now is a good time to take care of unfinished business, from taking care of the obvious, like financial and estate planning (as we all have been recently reminded of our own mortality) to getting those lingering projects done around the house. Clean out those closets, drawers, and garages—and fix broken things. Give away belongings you no longer need; others can use them, especially now. Unfinished and broken things and clutter not only occupy space in our environment but also in our brains—they distract us more than we realize. Note those items that never get done on your ever expanding “to do” list. Permanently crossing them off releases feelings of guilt or dread and frees that energy and focus for more productive, creative endeavors.
As Marie Kondo emphasizes in her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, objects in your environment “should bring you joy.” Additionally, by decluttering, you may have a few rewarding surprises like finding long lost things. Recently, when clearing out a box of family mementos, I found love letters from my dad to my mom leading up to their marriage. I did not even know they existed; finding them was so worth it and priceless. I’m glad I took the time to sort through the box. Be your own tough task master. Persevere.

2. WHAT BRINGS YOU JOY AND MEANING?
When are you most energized? What are you thinking, dreaming about, or doing at those moments? Pay attention to what and who steals your energy and what and who energizes you. Consider keeping a time journal for a week or even a month. Write down how you spend your time. As you go through your day, assign an energy number next to each task such as 10 for highly energized and one being lowest. You might be surprised. Of course, we all must do things we do not want to do, but this exercise can be insightful. In your work, marriage, or family, for example, you might learn what tasks you need to share or delegate. Ideally, we should strive to do the tasks we excel at and energize us. Delegate the rest, if possible. Find balance with those around you who excel at or enjoy the things you aren’t good at or zap your energy.

Regarding that “to do” list, we often become a slave to a seemingly endless list of details like a hamster on a wheel. Carve out time daily for your most meaningful activities and areas. Tackle these areas first or during your highest energy times. Leave the details for your low energy periods. Besides noticing how your energy fluctuates during the day, you might refer to my previous article on sleep, “Sleep Better Through a Pandemic or Anytime for that Matter” in the May/June issue or check out the book I mentioned there—The Power of When.

It is tempting with the current stressors in our environment to mindlessly zone out, as that certainly has its role in destressing. Make sure distractions such as screen time, news, and TV do not keep you from the things that are truly important. Unless something is critical to maintaining my day-to-day, I mostly look at these activities from a forward lens: Will it matter in five years if I spent so much time on this? Will I even remember it or will it change my future? The adage—no one on their deathbed wishes they spent more time at the office—rings in my head frequently. I would add email and social media to that list. Those are real time snatchers.

3. WHAT OR WHOM IN YOUR LIFE ARE YOU NEGLECTING?
Hundreds of books have been written about time management and life balance. Why? Because so many people’s lives are out of balance. What areas do you favor and what areas do you neglect? Think about: 1) relationships, 2) work and how you contribute in the world, 3) finances, 4) health and fitness, 5) home and work environment, and 6) spirituality. Do you spend more time on a few of these areas and neglect others? Are you spending time with your cherished family members and friends? Take stock and assign a percentage to each life area. If it is out of balance, make changes and revisit in 90 days.

4. LEARN SOMETHING NEW
To break up the monotony of routine, make time in your day or week to learn something new. It will energize you and is good for your brain, too. This can range from taking on an endeavor as large as getting a new degree or certificate to something smaller. For example, one friend of mine who loves to travel when she is not busy with her three teens is brushing up on her French by perusing French properties and vacation rental sites (in French), even though she has no intention of purchasing and can’t travel there right now. It’s her way of day dreaming, becoming more informed on future travel, and learning at the same time. Pretty clever.

5. CREATE NURTURING RITUALS
We all have rituals, whether we consciously create them or not. Making that cup of coffee in the morning is a ritual, i.e., a repeated, habitual activity. Rituals, however small, anchor us, especially in uncertain times. Do we create rituals that nurture and support us? For example, how do you begin your day—deliberately or by jumping out of bed, rushing? Do you welcome the morning’s new beginning? Set an intention for the day? Or practice a moment of gratitude at the end of the day before you sleep? Think about your morning and evening rituals and what you want to keep or change.

6. LEAVE SPACE IN BETWEEN FOR MAGIC
While routine can anchor us, it is also important to break routine to avoid monotony. The best way to do this is to leave space in your day to allow for some spontaneity. Being overly scheduled kills this. Leaving time in your calendar to just “be” rather than “do” will improve your quality of life.

This was my big challenge, as I often over-packed my schedule and constantly rushed from one project task to the next. Since making this shift, my life has been calmer, more enjoyable, and less stressful. I’ve had the opportunity to appreciate things I probably missed before, like taking a moment to notice a bluebird or pair of doves on my banister or enjoying a spontaneous conversation with the check-out person at the grocery store or with a friend who unexpectedly calls. These short departures from routine add spice and differentiation to our day. Plus, leaving spaces in our schedule allows us to manage the unexpected demands that fly out of nowhere and add unnecessary stress to our bodies.

7. GIVING THE GIFT OF TIME
There is no greater gift than giving your time and attention. After all, you are sharing the currency of your life, so do it intentionally and wisely. There are two aspects to think about here: time and attention. To truly gift your time, you need both. When we give our time to someone, it is important we do it fully. Otherwise, the receiving person doesn’t feel we actually did spend time with them. They have every right to feel that way if we were distracted with interruptions from our cell phone, texts, emails, etc.

Being fully present is a gift and it’s pretty rare these days, which is why we sometimes hear, “You’re not spending enough time with me” after having just spent a lot of time together. Be present with your family and friends. Whether it is making time for a morning or afternoon walk or having an uninterrupted meal together at the end of the day or being fully present during a call—we could all use a little more love and attention.

Many folks are currently alone and that cannot be easy. Make a concerted effort to call these friends or relatives regularly or plan socially distanced visits. If you are alone, find meaningful opportunities to connect with others virtually or through social distancing protocols.

Many in our community are struggling financially right now, some you might not suspect. I had one friend facing bankruptcy, as many businesses and even entire industries have been decimated. How can you help? Besides money, where can you contribute your knowledge and skills or harness your network to meet needs? Philanthropy is important right now. We must help each other.

CONCLUSION:
In short, be the guardian of your time—your life and well-being really do depend on it!

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