Living

Gather wasted time and put it to good use

We should spend time on pursuits that are deeply meaningful to us

The world has changed a lot since I was a child growing up in the 1970s.

Our daily lives have been transformed by time-saving and labour-saving products such as freezers, refrigerators, washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers, microwaves and computers.

But, strangely enough, we seem to have no more time now than we did back then. In fact, we seem to have less. We seem busier and more frazzled than ever.

Even worse, because we are so busy and so frazzled, we spend far too much of the little time that is left to us on unproductive and unsatisfying pursuits.

Instead of climbing mountains or writing poems, or going on family picnics or learning to play musical instruments, we vegetate in front of the TV set or waste time fiddling with our mobile phones.

LOSING TIME

Despite a plethora of modern-day conveniences, nothing much seems to have changed since the first century when the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote, in one of his Moral Letters to Lucius: "Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands."

Those words get right to the heart of a perennial problem.

Namely, that we are always, by one means or another, losing time.

Later, in the same letter, Seneca hammered home the same message once more: "Make yourself believe the truth of my words - that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach."

Instead of climbing mountains or writing poems, or going on  family picnics or  learning to play musical instruments, we vegetate in front of the TV set  or waste time fiddling  with our mobile phones.

Time is our most precious commodity. A lifetime contains only a limited quantity. And yet, we allow it to slip, so easily, almost unnoticed, through our fingers.

QUALITY TIME

What we need to do, if we wish to grow and flourish as individuals, is to convert more of the minutes, hours and days of our lives into quality time.

What do I mean by "quality time"?

I simply mean time that is, in some deeply personal sense, well spent.

Or, to put it another way, time that is given to activities or pursuits that are deeply meaningful to us.

Let me give a personal illustration.

I live in Japan, but am currently back home in England for a five-week summer vacation.

While I am in England, there are 101 things clamouring for my attention.

Some of them are onerous tasks that I have to do; others are fun activities that I want to do.

In addition, there are a couple of things that are not merely necessary or fun, but that really mean something to me.

Firstly, I want to redecorate the bathroom in my father's little bungalow. And secondly, I want to make a start on what I hope will be my next book.

These two activities are special.

A part of my innermost self is invested in them. I feel that the time I spend on them could hardly be better spent.

Even so, I could very easily reach the end of my holiday without giving either of them the time that they deserve.

Because that time could all too easily be taken up by all of those other, less important, things.

In his letter to Lucius, Seneca wrote: "If you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose."

The challenge for me, and for all of us, is to gather and save some of that wasted time and put it to whatever we feel in our hearts would be a better use.

•Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer. His new book, Walking With Plato, is out at all major bookshops here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2016, with the headline 'Gather wasted time and put it to good use'. Print Edition | Subscribe