Time and Attention

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

The clock is ticking. Every second that passes is a second lost in the finite pool of time we have remaining. We don’t know how much time is left, but once time is spent it can never be returned to us. 

I bought a poster after reading Tim Urban’s post Your Life in Weeks that lays out 52 weeks by 90 years to represent a possible human lifespan. 


You can buy one from Tim Urban’s shop here


Assuming we live 90 years, we have 4,680 weeks to spend in our life. When I purchased the poster, I had spent a little over 26 years in this world. The process of taking a sharpie and crossing off over 1,350 weeks took me aback. If I make it 90 years, I’ve spent almost a third of my time here. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d used those 1,350 weeks wisely. How much would I pay to get those thousands of hours wasted on mind numbing video games like RuneScape upon looking back on my life at year 90? No doubt enough to make that time spent seem foolish in hindsight.

We don’t know how much time we have left, but we do have some control over how we spend it. If you live in America and you have the free time to read this, you’re lucky. Much of the world’s population doesn’t have time to spend or many options for how to spend it. When I was younger, my dad would get unusually upset when my brother and I would complain that we’re bored. I couldn’t make sense of it then, but I think I’m starting to understand it. Free time is a finite luxury. Not everyone is lucky enough to have it. Complaining about our abundance of free time and our refusal to enjoy our freedom was an insult to those less fortunate than us. 

So if we have time to spend, how should we spend it? I think Tim Urban lays out the problem well. There’s time we spend for our own enjoyment. Ideally that time isn’t spent at the expense of our capacity for enjoyment in the future. We can also spend time improving our future or improving the lives (or future lives) of others. The bulls-eye is when we can improve our future, improve the lives of others and enjoy ourselves in the process. We’ve missed the target entirely when we’re not enjoying ourselves, not improving our future, and not improving the lives of others. 


You can read Tim’s full post here.

There’s value in pruning content that does not benefit ourselves or others. But I think time is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s attention that gives time it’s value. Without attentive awareness, what good is the time spent? We might be doing exactly what we want to be doing in a given moment, but meanwhile still fuming about some trivial slight a relative sent our way at dinner. We’re there, but we’re not really there. And I’d bet that most of us are in this foggy place more often than we realize. 

It doesn’t matter what we’re doing with our time if we’re completely distracted. But there’s obviously degrees here. Sometimes we’re completely and blissfully absorbed in what we’re doing. Sometimes we’re sorta aware of what’s happening around us. And sometimes we’re so distracted, we might as well be anywhere. It’s this last place that’s our enemy. Even if we’re spending our time in order to help our future selves or others, we’d best avoid this zombie state. 

Having control of our attention is essential, and meditation is the best tool for training our mind. While meditation and mindfulness have become mainstream, it’s often offered as a way to relieve stress and find peace. While that’s a byproduct of the practice, meditation offers much more. 

Meditation is training our minds to rest in awareness. It’s learning to control our attention so that we may be conscious in the moments that matter. It’s to recognize that awareness is simply the space where everything that can be noticed arises. In doing this, we can realize that we are not our thoughts. Our thoughts are playing out in awareness. It’s the space prior to thought. In learning to see consciousness as it truly is, we can find a place of rest where we are not identified with the thoughts and sensations that arise endlessly. Once we do this, our attention is no longer slaves to our wants, desires and worries.

I’m not sure that there’s anything more important than consciousness. Without consciousness, there’s nothing and no one to experience this wacky world we find ourselves in. And attention is what allows us to be conscious of what’s important. While we’re not all lost in thought all the time, I don’t think we’re far off. iPhones and TikTok are not making things easier. So my resolution for the upcoming decade is to learn to not just control my time but my attention. I hope you join me. 

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Resources: 

Waking Up App (I’ve tried a bunch of meditation apps, and this is the winner. The Space, Time and Attention lesson heavily influenced this post.)

Why I Volunteered for Two Weeks of Solitary Confinement (My reflections after a 10-day silent meditation retreat.) 

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