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Time management

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I firmly believe that the human mind is limited in its ability to function properly when excessively encumbered. I also believe that this is the reason for a great deal of unhappiness, at least in the fully industrialised parts of the world where fulfilling basic needs is not a problem. The goal with this piece of text is to explain what this means and what one can do about it in order to live a more harmonious and happy life.

First and foremost, there are some terms that need defining before we go on. For the remainder of this article, the word “mind” refers to both the subconscious and the conscious part of the human mind. Encumbrance is then everything that weighs on the mind and occupies some of its processing capacity, be it consciously or not. Furthermore, some processes are involuntary and is therefore not interesting in this context. For now, we are only interested in things we ourselves are able to influence and change.

As a means of introducing the concept of encumbrance, let us make a brief experiment together. You do not need anything except perhaps some self-knowledge or a will to acquire some. A way to jot down a few lines of text would also be good, but not necessary. Here is what you should do: List everything that you think that you ought to be doing instead of reading this (I mean at this very moment, not something that you will be doing tonight or have scheduled for tomorrow). Here is my list (of what I should do instead of writing this, of course):

– tidy up my desk
– finish a draft of one of the chapters in my writing project
– study Chinese characters
– running (marathon planned this summer)
– check why I have not receive academic points for last year
– check possibilities of studying abroad (many subtasks omitted here)
– e-mail certain people I have been neglecting (details irrelevant)

Though I can only guess, I think that most people’s lists are longer than mine, at least if they took some time and really thought about this for a while. The reason is that I actively try to keep my mind as unencumbered as possible and all these items are examples of what burdens the mind. My thesis is that harmony in everyday life is in many ways inversely proportional to the amount of encumbrance; the less encumbrance, the more harmony. Our ability to function in life has a similar relationship to encumbrance. This is of course a sweeping statement that neglects all the trivialities and issues of everyday life, but I am only after general truths at the moment.

The positive side of this is that it is relatively easy to amend, at least compared to changing things with the bizarre notion that happiness and harmony is something that you are born with. If you have done a list of your own, similar to the one above, you will probably notice that a good deal of the items require relatively short a time to accomplish. If I decided to, I could finish all but one item this evening. By not doing so, and instead postponing it to some undefined future date, I allow my mind to get more and more encumbered. Tasks accrete into a seemingly insurmountable pile of encumbrance, which somehow is much bigger than the actual contents of the pile. Even small tasks add an disproportionate amount of encumbrance.

By clearing things on the list, I relieve my burdened mind and allow it to function properly and freely. The optimum remedy would of course be to monitor encumbrance and always keep it as low as possible. I have not decided yet if I should write something on the subject of to-do lists, because there is such a plethora of articles on the net already (check them out in the mean time).

However, there is a problem with such a solution. People (including me, of course) are lazy and seldom have the determination to clear the whole list at once. Also, other tasks, like working and studying might render free time almost non-existent occasionally and even people who are not lazy might pile up tasks.

Fortunately there is a remedy for that problem as well, and it is about trusting yourself. The difference between postponing and scheduling is essential here. What you should do is not to start right away and clear the list, but instead, sit down and decide when each item should be cleared. Do not set deadlines when they ought to have been done, but rather define when you should do them. Preferably, spread them out in a fashion that you feel you can manage.

Now, it is of paramount importance that you follow your own planning and clear the items when you have decided to. I will now repeat what I have already said: Make sure that you divide items and distribute them in such a manner that you know that you will manage. Even if you do this properly, you will fail, but since learning is one huge trial-and-error process, you have to accept that failure is a way forward, a way to learn. Do not simply cry because you failed, but consider why you failed and see what you can do in order not to fail next time. Also, take a few minutes of regularly checking your list of encumbrance and feel proud about the many tasks you actually clear when you have told yourself to.

The crux of the matter is that as soon as you know that you can trust yourself to follow what you have planned, items no longer count as encumbrance. For example, checking why I have not received academic points for last year only counts as encumbrance as long as it is not done or scheduled. Thus, there is no danger in itself in have a long list, but every item on the list that you do not have under your control, disrupts your daily life and burdens your mind. After a while, once handling tasks like this has become a habit, the feeling of having too much to do will dissipate and, at least for me at times, go away completely. This is a wonderful feeling.

Conclusively, maintaining a list of encumbrance, and make sure that you either clear the items straight away or schedule when to do it, will make life a lot easier. Once you clear an item, make sure to mark the accomplishment, since it feels good to know that you have done something you wanted or had to do. When this has become part of your way of doing things, inspiration and creativity will flow a lot easier.

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When I launched Snigelism, my intention was to publish small pieces of wisdom I have stumbled upon during my striving to change myself to the better. It seems incredible to me now that I wrote that introductory post more than two years ago, and it is probably a sign that people really overestimate my capacity for self-discipline. I intend to change that.

One of the most important ways to achieve your goals is to gain control over the available amount of time. If you are like me (and I think most people are), you spend way too much time procrastinating and wasting time you would really like to invest in some project or other. Time management should not be thought of as some sort of outside force imposing itself on your life, but is merely a way of doing what you really want to instead of what yields the least resistance at the moment (this is a link to an article I wrote on the purpose of time management).

That being said, I would like to claim that postponement is one of the worst antagonists of living a happy life (no, I do not think that this is an overstatement, but I shall have to write a separate article on that subject). Even if everyone is not ready to go that far, let us at least agree on that postponing tasks is not good. Then let me share with you a realisation which works pretty well for me and, hopefully, others. The idea is that people in general are very confused when they postpone tasks. Say that I have a task which has to be completed Friday (today it is Sunday). Most people think that the choice they make is whether to complete the task today or postpone it to tomorrow.

This is an illusion. The choice is between doing it now or doing it as late as possible, preferably late Thursday night. Why? Because the circumstances leading up to the decision to postpone today will be more or less exactly the same tomorrow as they are today, which will invariably lead to the same conclusion being made, i.e. postponing yet another day. Before you know it, you know it, it will be Thursday evening and you still have not even begun. The reason you will do it on Thursday, rather than on one of the other days, is that then the circumstances have changed.

Like Alan Watts once said: “there is no future, the past never happened” (this is not verbatim and I cannot remember when he said it), i.e. there is only the present and everything else is machinations of the mind. If you want to change something, you can never postpone it to an imaginary future; all action takes place in the present.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this, since the assumption that circumstances do not vary is a very sweeping one. Try to be conscious about why you postpone something. Do you genuinely believe that the circumstances will be different tomorrow, or do you just postpone because you cannot be bothered to complete the task right now? Because if the circumstances are the same, there is no reason whatsoever that you should make a different decision. Realise that postponing a task is sometimes necessary, but be aware of why you are doing it.

I know this is fairly abstract, but the concept has helped me greatly in understanding why I postpone tasks (mostly assignments) until the last possible moment. I know that understanding is not enough to solve a problem, but let us take one step at a time, yes? Combatting ignorance about the ways in which my own mind works is the first step, necessary to take any others that might follow.

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Before I go more thoroughly into the subject of time management, it is necessary to consider certain aspects of the problem first. What is time management? Why do I think it is important to be able to manage my time? Is it really a problem? These are some of the questions I will attempt to answer before proceeding to the main body of opinion on this subject. I intend to only include people in a situation similar to my own, i.e. a relatively free society which guarantees some basic needs.

First of all, the concept of time management itself is not a very complex one, it is simply to be able to do whatever you deliberately choose to do with your time. The key word here is “deliberately”, meaning that consciously decide how to spend your time. I think that the inate and default approach to this subject is a process highly subconscious, which give rise to part of what makes it a problem.

What then is the scope of the time manageable to us? 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year for the entirety of our lives. It really is as simple as that. Do not fall in to the trap of believing that you only have a couple of hours per day available, because in most cases this is an illusion. Your rarely forced to do anything, apart from eating and sleeping. Most people also have to do some kind of work to be able to afford those basic human needs. Even if the social and economical situation of most people makes it impractical (or indeed impossible in the long run) to avoid earning money, it still is a choice. To many people in the western world, there is also the choice of how much money to spend; this is also necessary to take into consideration. More on that topic in another article.

Now we need to assess our goals of time management more firmly. The objective here is not to create some kind of schedule under which you will be able to control your life, but would nott enjoy it very much. I believe the very task of following such a schedule of ones own free will to be undoable in most cases anyway, so I wouldn’t bother. Neither is the objective to increase the amount of useful things you do in a day. Notice I have not yet said anything in particular about what you should do with your time, neither will I, because that is none of my business. No, the goal is to be able to do what you want, whatever that may be. I might say that the goal is also to eliminate thing you do not want to do.

To summarise: Time management is about being able to do what you want with the time available. It involves dissecting the entire day/week/year and examine each part and decide whether you are satisfied with it or not. The idea is to be conscious of how you spend your time and be satisfied with it. If that involves idle surfing an hour a day, so be it, but you should choose doing it because you want to, not just because it is an old habit you cannot get rid off.

In coming articles my endeavours will aim at explaining these things more clearly, how to be able to perform them and various loose thoughts on the subject of time in it is very practical and real sense. Stay tuned.

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