Recently I have decided to review my relationship with something that has so far and so strictly ruled my life: the concept of Time. Call it the fruit of spending too much time sitting around getting stuck in incessant traffic jams, but it must be said that one of the impacts of living in a messy and disorganised city like Jakarta is that one ends up having a distorted and rather unhealthy relationship with this thing called Time.
I hardly know anybody who lives here who doesn’t have some sort of time management issue or in control of their time keeping, and while I myself never claim or aspire to be a Miss Punctual, but when it gets to a point that one ceases to apologise for arriving late or think it a bit strange when people turn up to meetings on the nose, then there must be some underlying mechanism in my system that needs tweaking. Beginning with my understanding of Time itself.
More often than not Time emerges as the menace or the enemy in our lives, sabotaging and ruining our efforts to get things done. At the root of all our excuses, failures and inability to improve ourselves, often lie the words: ‘I just don’t have the time’.
Maybe this is the problem: my looking at the concept as an external phenomenon. Time is a hungry tiger, forever chasing us and hunting us down until we succumb to it, either in sickness or in death. It is constantly running out like water in an unplugged bathtub. Like will o’ the wisp it eludes our grasp, and like sand it trickles between our fingers. They are the jugglers’ balls that go all over the place when we fail to catch them. It is at once something that we don’t have and something we cannot have enough of; something that we hanker after and something that pursues us at the same time.
So I thought, what would happen if I decide to stop playing this cat and mouse game with Time? Instead of playing by its rule I create my own rule where Time could take part in it if it wishes to, or it could go and plague someone else. After a few decades of wrestling with it, it was time to give myself a break.
The first thing I had to do was to identify what exactly were the things that I found most time consuming. Amongst a list of things such as long office meetings, crawling to get from A to B in congested streets and getting work done on time, I discovered that the one most time consuming activity of all was wasteful thoughts.
When I say ‘wasteful thoughts,’ I mean exactly that. The amount of time I’ve spent in any given day repeating the same thoughts, going over the same things in my mind, not for any enlightenment purposes but out of a pathological propensity for worrying or merely out of sheer laziness to turn off my mental tape recorder, is quite substantial. Add a mixture of regrets, guilt, suspicion, feelings of offense, fear and dislike, then the thoughts become a toxic cocktail that eat up a lot of our space-time dimension - into days when I could barely remember what I did, but I remembered as not particularly good nor productive.
Wasteful thoughts often give way to ‘wasteful words’ - the verbal garbage that pile up for instance, in the office meeting room where words are loped back and forth like rotten tomatoes merely for the pleasure of throwing them rather than to convey any meaningful message - often in the forms of needless arguments, pointless debates and worthless discussions.
The ill feeling generated from these wasteful words would no doubt be more fuel for wasteful thoughts, leading to that feeling of constant harassment that leaves you very little time and energy to do anything else. This feeling of being constantly busy and yet barely remembering what was achieved; of never having enough time and yet never doing enough with the time.
So, without sounding like one of those self-help motivational books, one morning I decided to stop going over the past or worrying about the future for a bit and just focus on what I was going to do in that particular moment. And Time began to shift, changing shape from my daily tormentor rushing me to do this and that in my head, into one of those floppy clocks in Salvador Dali’s paintings. Brushing my teeth (which was what I was doing) when done with full awareness and complete attention, without your mind wandering, could suddenly seem forever.
A set of gleaming teeth later, I focused on what to do after. I could of course agonize on which of the projects that I’m working on (whether in real life or in my head) I should start with, but this time I just picked the one that I had to complete on that day. The rest I would neither think about nor even look at until the time came.
Treated this way, Time seems to magically stretch itself in the way it does when you watch a kettle boil. When I had to make every moment accountable, then the possibilities of doing more suddenly open up, whether it is to read for an hour, to take up swimming lessons, go bike riding, play my game of Angry Birds or finish my projects on time.
And I realised that much of my problem with Time until then was not that I was ruled or harassed by it, but because I failed to pay it my full attention and actually did something with it.