The Promise of Focus

“I don’t have enough hours in the day” is a popular lament in modern times. People respond to anyone uttering this exhale with knowing, sympathetic nods and phrases like “you can say that again” (a fun retort to that might be, “I would, but I don’t have enough time to repeat myself”). “You have too much time on your hands,” by contrast, is often accompanied by a tsk-tsk or an exhortation to get a job, depending on what level of asshole you’re dealing with.

Be not fooled by the deceptively woeful nature of the first refrain; it is uttered behind a self-congratulatory smirk and is never wasted on an empty room. A social equivalent among my generation might be, “I had 10 shots and 3 beers last night. I was sooo wasted!” Translated, it means: look at me, I’m really something.

Imagine someone saying to you, “you don’t have enough hours in the day!” and you responding with “Au contraire mon frère, I have too much time on my hands.” Then you both have a big awkward laugh, each inwardly wondering what the hell just happened. We don’t talk about time in this way because our culture doesn’t value time in this way. While people in other countries are enjoying siestas, three martini lunches, and mandatory six-week holidays, we are pissed that we have to take a couple hours off work once a year to let the cable repair guy in.

I remember hearing “they have too much time on their hands” tossed about when the Occupy Wall Street protests were in full swing. The protestors were accused by the media and the media devourers of being lazy good-for-nothings, as directionless as the forlorn mission of Occupy itself. Dedicating oneself to a cause one believes in is honorable if it’s volunteer work performed during one’s “free time,” less honorable if it is one’s free time. Apparently a far more egregious sin than making it your life’s work to swindle poor yokels out of their savings or mortgages is to not have a life’s work, or at least not have one that people can put a monetary value on. After all, at least the swindler has a job. He is almost guaranteed to have too few hours in the day.

Recently, I was told by a friend that I have too much time on my hands. It was uttered in the usual accusatory fashion, of course, less likely out of spite than a lack of familiarity with the concept: large chunks of time where no one’s needs must be fulfilled except her own hasn’t been a part of her world in so long that, when she does have a minute, collapsing into the nearest couch is a prayerful luxury. Were she not bone tired and were presented with that same newfound freedom, she might choose something different, but being bone tired, I’m told, is part and parcel of being a parent. Where do I sign up?

Now, she has three children and I do not purport to understand the harrying nature of such a lifestyle, but I lived most of my life in a similar exhausting manner. Work from 8 am to 5 pm, school from 5:30 to 9:30, homework until my eyes couldn’t stay open a minute longer. I also managed to find time to play in a tennis league, take my Nana to doctor’s appointments, go out with friends, and travel. It seems unreal to me now, but 24 hours can fit a lot of stuff in it when your goal is to pack it as chock full as possible.

When people say, “I don’t have enough hours in the day,” what they’re lamenting is a lack of time for themselves. But if a friendly fairy (the storybook kind, not the Pride parade kind) were to produce an extra hour out of the end of her wand, most of us wouldn’t know what to do with it. Likely we’d spend it texting or flipping around on our phones, or maybe we’d call up a friend and let them know we had been miraculously gifted an hour and would they like to grab a drink and catch up? Or maybe we’d do like my friend above and just collapse. Time for oneself isn’t valued because having time for oneself means, quite simply, that you have too much time on your hands.

I am currently trying out a different path in life, one some people like to refer to as “being a bum” but I prefer to look at as “being free.” Freedom isn’t free, however, and I’ve spent plenty of time questioning the sanity of my decision, made almost 2 years ago, to quit my job and roam the world looking for where I fit. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that I fit almost every place I go, almost everything I do. We truly are our environments. Have I maximized my time, my potential? I dunno. Depends on who’s making the call. I personally saw sitting in an air-conditioned fluorescent-lighted office doing shit I didn’t care about for the majority of my waking hours to be a colossal waste of time, one that I couldn’t abide anymore. Most of my family and many of my friends think I should have just stuck with it. It allowed me to travel (though only 18 days per year), it paid me well (though $24,000 per year less than the person they hired to take my place), and it contributed towards a stable financial future for myself (barring another market crash, that is).

I chose to value my present (the only time that ever exists or ever has existed is now) over my future (by the time I get there, it’ll be now). That choice gets less traction with each coming year, as the lengthening shadow of old age creeps ever closer to the sunny spot I’ve chosen to rest on my laurels. There may be many days that I could be accused of misusing my limited time upon this earth. There are many days when I’m the accuser. But I suppose I prefer to direct the misuse of my hours instead of having someone else take on that task.

Then again, what is a ‘misuse of my time’? What does that look like? It really depends on me, doesn’t it? I personally have no desire to sit in front of a television set flipping channels or watching a football game. But I love to read, and while I don’t spend 5 hours per day reading (the average amount of time Americans devote to watching television daily), I definitely prioritize it over other things I could be doing. And that’s the thing…we all could be doing any number of things that we’re not. We’re doing what we’re doing because it’s what we value, or it’s what we believe is expected of us. I know what is expected of a 32 year old single woman with a Master’s degree and excellent workplace references. I’ve heard it, I’ve thought it, I’ve lived it. I prefer, these days, to do what I value instead of what society thinks I should.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought into focus.” – Alexander Graham Bell

I was fortunate to visit Egypt in early 2012, a life-changing trip for me in numerous ways. Crossing the streets by foot in Cairo was, in a word, treacherous. At least it felt that way to me and the people I was with. There were very few traffic lights or stop signs, and no discernable lanes that I noticed. Just car upon car upon car zooming by, honking, changing “lanes”. We watched person after person walk amongst the cars, calmly and effortlessly crossing from one side of the road to the other. The cars cascaded across the pavement at varied speeds, a series of honks of differing lengths and patterns being exchanged amongst them. The person on foot would look directly at the oncoming drivers as she began her purposeful, steady stride across the road, never slowing down or speeding up or moving any direction except forward. Approaching cars could anticipate her next step accordingly, moving to the right or left or taking their foot off the accelerator and applying the brake as needed. Those little things on our steering wheel that are usually employed when someone cuts you off in traffic were being used to communicate the driver’s intentions, and the pedestrian, by maintain a steady and determined pace, was telling the drivers exactly where she’d be at any given moment along her journey.

We fancied it our own real-life game of Frogger, and we were terrified. But emboldened by the countless successful attempts we had born witness to as we stood frozen in fear on the street corner, we decided to go for it, as a group. And go we did, beginning our journey with something approaching dignity, though as a car in the middle lane seemed to come upon us too rapidly, voices as varied as a 13 year old boy’s and a middle-aged Mexican woman’s went “squee” and ran for it in a panicked moment of groupthink. As the cars passed, I’m sure the phrase “stupid foreigners” was being whispered in Arabic inside several of them. I think we were all still yelling “squee.”

If you’re wondering what the point is of that story, it’s this: Cairo drivers and walkers alike can navigate traffic that is nothing short of chaotic because they are focused on what they’re doing. The pedestrian can count on the driver to be focused on driving, and the driver can count on the pedestrian being focused on crossing the street. Were one of these elements to break down (say, if the pedestrian was texting while walking, or the driver was fiddling with his radio), the entire system would crumble.

I wonder how many people who “don’t have enough hours in their day” are actually intensely focused on each task that they’re doing, and how many are doing three things at once because that’s the only way they could hope to fit it all in the 24 hours the Earth and Sun have conspired to allot us? If you’re doing three things at once, you’re likely not doing any of them well, certainly not doing any of them to the best of your ability. What’s missing is focus, and what focus requires is being intensely present in the moment and the task set before you.

I’ve changed my life considerably from the way it was just 2 short years ago. As I’ve wrestled with my choices, as I’ve tried desperately to make sense of it to myself and to others, I’ve come to understand something about myself: I aspire to a greatness that only I can define. Part of my unhappiness with my previous life was a certainty that I would never be great at it. How could I be? I was mired in a bureaucracy that preferred reaction over action, consumption over creation. Opposites don’t always attract, especially when one party commands far more power than the other.

So while my life today may seem, to those lacking enough hours in the day, to be little more than an excuse to shirk the responsibilities that come with adulthood, I see it differently. I have guidelines upon which I set up each of my days. Every day, I must accomplish three distinct things. At least one of those things must be writing: a part of my book, a blog post, an article. Another must be business-related: updating the website, working on a client’s project, advertising the business, etc. The last can be whatever I dream up, whatever suits me that particular day.

Aside from these three tasks, every day I must walk, and every day I must read; these are activities that will never produce a cent but that fill me with pleasure, help me to clear my head, to gain new insights and ideas, and to remember that there’s a great big world out there beyond my notebook and my computer screen. Lastly, and most importantly, I must be 100% present with everything I do. If I am writing, the internet and phone are turned off. If I am reading, my entire mind is focused on the book in my hand (ok, maybe I’m sipping on a beer too). When I’m walking, I allow the music of the landscape, rather than the music in my headphones, act as my guide.

Unlike before, when I was just working, today I’m working on giving it my all. “It” being everything I do. That means doing one thing at a time, doing it with attention, with purpose, with patience. That means seeing life as a practice rather than a series of forks in the road. I think it also means being able to forgive myself when I get distracted or when I have convinced myself that my focus isn’t paying off.

I don’t need any more hours in the day. Neither do you. Distill life down to what matters to you, then do those things with a clarity of focus. When you’re no longer sighing “I’m doing my best” in defeat, you can begin to focus on actually doing your best. You can’t be the best mom when you’re answering every text or email or Facebook post as soon as it comes in; you can’t be the best worker or friend or spouse when you’re constantly thinking about what you have to get done next. It’s not about being the greatest mom/spouse/employee/cook/driver that’s ever lived; it’s about being the best you that you’ve ever been.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

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