Monday, 19 April 2010

In The Wee Small Hours

I am, by inclination, a very reflective person. I am also, by nature I suppose, nocturnal when it comes to cerebral alertness. My mind is most lucid and wide open at night, and so I usually question, ponder and philosophise on life's vagaries, mysteries and "big questions" when most people around me are sound asleep.

It's really no surprise then that I'm typing this to myself in the middle of the night. The week has past, and in a few hours I'll be driving off to the office again (I hope I won't be late). I suppose it has been an normal week—nothing extraordinarily horrid or fantastic happened, work was hectic as usual, I had a nice meet up with a friend, I bought stuff, I ate stuff, I slept, I cursed at the traffic jams, I tried to convince myself to exercise, I ate cheesecake instead, etc.

Yet as the week passed, I was often consciously aware of how little control I had over time, how it was rushing past me as I worked/slept/drove/lived, and how, so many times in my past, I had wasted it away. I don't mean I to say I regret anything that I did, in fact in my past I did do a lot of things which I felt were worthwhile or necessary at the time, but perhaps I did not use time as effectively and efficiently as I could have. The bits in between events, the spare minutes I spent napping, stoning, reading silly magazines, watching pointless videos—I could have used those lost moments to learn new skills or sharpen existing ones. Of course, this realisation is too little too late now.

Now my life seems to be a gushing stream of activity that I have little control over. Work saps all of my time and energy on weekdays (and occasionally weekends too), and during weekends I usually take things easy to recover from the previous week's strain, which usually means I end up achieving very little on Saturday and Sunday and regretting it on Sunday night. After a while, my mental list of things to do, places to visit, pieces to write, books to read, people to meet up with, movies to watch, chores to complete, etc. grows so large that I lose track of it all and I think: where's the time?

Where is it? Where can I find it? Where did it go? How do I get hold of it to do what I want to? Why is it slipping out of my hands? I need more of it! Is it meticulous planning? Is it sleeping less? Is it cutting back on being online? Is it outsourcing chores (maid, nanny, gardener, automatic car-wash)? Is it looking for a less time consuming job? (Lawyers in general, and litigators in particular, are well known to be slaves to work). Is it taking energy pills? Perhaps, more than anything, it's setting priorities.

Because our time is limited and our resources (money, contacts, power, knowledge, facilities) few, we have to choose how we want to spend time, consciously and deliberately. Not just some of our time, but all of it.  Unless you are superhuman (in which case normal rules don't apply), you cannot be President of the Entrepreneurs Council , a rising tennis-player, a consummate pianist, a part-time paid wedding photographer, a monthly columnist for Forbes Asia, a crossword puzzle prize winner, an active member of your religious community, a respected representative to your town council, a loving spouse and a doting father/mother all the while sporting a killer figure. You just can't. Well, you could do all of it, but you wouldn't be good at most let alone all of it.

Setting priorities isn't just choosing how to spend time, it's also about choosing what's worth spending time on. It's about choosing how to choose. This is far more challenging than it seems. Setting priorities entails making value-judgments, and ultimately discarding as less important some desires which we would pursue if we, well, had the time. It's about selecting a set of values and applying it when deciding how we want to spend what little time we have. It's a moral decision. We don't want to do this because we want to do everything and constantly change our values. We're a little greedy when it comes to goals, and we're commitment phobic when it comes to values. Unfortunately, you're not going to achieve much with the little time and resources you have, unless you're very, very lucky in that each ad hoc decision you make in life turns out to further your desires.

That's just the harsh reality of time and life. Many things which we feel are worth achieving take time for us to excel in, and there is just no time to excel in everything we want to, unless you're born supremely wealthy or are immortal or just don't want to achieve much to begin with (and how many of us fall into any category?). We have to choose what's really important to us—not just what we like or wish for or hope for or have an interest in, but what we are willing to sacrifice for. Choosing is difficult (particularly for people who, like me, are more reflective rather than reactive) and it entails making difficult changes in our lives. It forces acceptance of the fact that we can't have it all, and we don't want to accept that fact.

It also takes time. But isn't it time well spent? If we set our priorities, things should fall into a general thrust of how and where we want them to because we have already decided and know exactly what it is we want. We don't need to complain that we lack direction or certainty because we have already set those. We'll also know what it is we won't be able to get, what we'll have to simply count as losses, and knowing this, we'll spend less time regretting and backtracking or grasping at too many birds flying in different directions.

So we have to choose. Or do we? If we choose not to choose (which is also a choice), and let fate and chance dictate the flow of our lives and simply make the rules as we go along, as so many of us do, we may not excel all the way to the top in a few things, but we may, if we're lucky, achieve moderate success in a one area and fail or achieve nothing in others. For some people, this isn't such a bad prospect. I suppose we'll have to decide ultimately, which life we'd rather live, which chances we'd rather take and how much effort we are willing to put in to reach our goals. We have to consider whether those priorities and goals are in the first place worthwhile.

Choose wisely, but quickly though, because time is running out.

(Yawn. I'll definitely be late.)


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