The Art of Stopping Time (2017) answers the question that is on many of our minds, where does time all go? How can we get it back? The author Pedram Shojai, who fuses practical time management with the philosophical ideas of attention, shows us how to use our limited time on the earth.
About the author:
Pedram Shojai is an ordained priest of the Yellow Dragon Monastery in China, a Qigong master, and a Doctor of Oriental Medicine. His previous books include The Urban Monk, a New York Times bestseller. He also hosts a podcast by the same name.
Learn how to use your time correctly:
What’s the most precious resource on Earth? It’s not gold. Platinum and rhodium are more valuable – but it’s not one of those either. Nor is it money.
The answer is time. Want to dig up rare metals or earn some cold hard cash? It would help if you had time to do it. Heck, it would be best if you had time to do anything. It’s the ultimate resource.
Unfortunately, it’s also in very short supply – these days especially. From demanding jobs to endless social media feeds, it seems like everything and everyone wants to take our limited time away from us.
If only there were a way to stop time. Well, there is – in a metaphorical sense, at least. And you’re about to learn what it is!
The way you spend your day, the energy you have, and how mindful you are will get you most of your time:
Just think that you could stop time – not only figuratively, but actually. Snap your fingers, and poof – the time stops. Salutes. You now have endless time to complete that work project, write that diary, or do any other thing you want.
But what if you spent this extra time on your phone? And what if you were exhausted or giddy to concentrate on anything more important? Well, that being the case, you might as well take all of that newly built time and throw it out in a can.
On the one hand, time is something very accurate and limited. There are so many hours in a day, a week, and a lifetime. The hour doesn’t change, no matter how you read it: 60 minutes, 3,600 seconds – it never changes. And there’s much you can do with an hour. A great exercise? Sure. A vacation? No.
But on the flip side, time is a much more fluid sensation. What you get out of it is based on three portions.
First, how are you using it? Are you doing something unusual, beneficial, consequential, or pleasurable with your time? If you answered yes, you’d end up making much more out of an hour than if you answered no. Are you going for a jog? More durability. Working on a side hustle? More money. Holding a book? More education. But were you scrolling on your phone, looking at photos of other’s lives on social media? You won’t have much to give for that.
Alright, now the next portion: How much strength do you have? If you’re feeling ready to go, you can spend that hour in pleasure and in a fruitful way. But if you’re exhausted, you won’t be able to do anything, add to that enjoy it. Maybe you’ll end up sitting on the sofa, zoning out in front of the TV.
Finally, the third factor: How careful are you being? Are you paying consideration to what you’re encountering? If the answer is no, you’re almost losing that hour. Even if you’re doing something unique, like hiking through a beautiful forest, the time will slip by as if you barely experienced it.
So no, we can’t pause time. We can’t change the truth that our time is limited. But we can use it more efficiently by stopping to lose so much of it.
To get what you require from life, you need to use your time, energy, and attention:
Picture your life as a garden. In this garden, you’re trying to grow some “plants.” Each plant is something you want to cultivate in your life – your career, health, relationships, hobbies, and anything else that’s important to you. But here lies the problem. Your “life garden” has limited space – room for a handful of plants. And you only have so much “water” for your plants. The water is your time, energy, and attention. So, how do you help your garden to flourish? Well, the secret to success boils down to two words: resource management.
Inside your life garden, your “water” is an essential resource for your “plants.” However, it’s also minimal, so you have to distribute it carefully. If you don’t pour any time, energy, or attention into your career, it’ll never grow. But if you devote too much of your water to this one particular plant, it’ll prosper at the expense of your other plants. Your career will blossom, but your relationships will languish.
You also have to be wary of letting new plants into your garden since they might crowd out the ones you already have. For instance, let’s say an old high school buddy tries to rekindle a friendship with you – but you don’t have much in common anymore. If you start spending time with him just out of politeness, that’s time you’re not spending with the people you love.
The same goes for that boring book you’ve been reading for months, that online class you’ve lost interest in, or anything else that isn’t worth the time, energy, and attention you’re paying to it. In your life garden, there are other “plants” more deserving of your water – and they’re not getting that water if you’re wasting it on “weeds.” These are the plants you don’t want to grow – the ones that divert valuable space and moisture away from the plants you do want to grow.
Chances are, you’ve already got some weeds in your garden. Harsh as it might sound, you’ve got to pull them out – and then you’ve got to stay on guard against new ones sneaking in and taking root.
It would be best if you thought thoroughly about how you’re investing your time:
Have you ever worked in a business or played the stock market? If so, you’ve probably heard the term return on investment before, or ROI for short. It measures how much profit you make when you invest money in a stock option or business venture. Of course, the goal is to get more money out of the investment than you put into it. The bigger the return, the better the ROI.
A similar logic applies to how we invest our time. Now, here are the million-dollar questions: What’s your ROI on how you invest your time? And what’s your time investment strategy? Do you even have one?
If you answered no, then you should do something about it.
Let’s say you’ve got half an hour to spend. No matter what you choose to do with that time, you’re going to experience some outcome as a result. Go for a walk, and you’ll improve your fitness a little. Do a high-intensity workout, and you’ll improve it even more. Smoke some cigarettes, and you’ll do the opposite. Most of the time, the choice is yours – and that’s the point. You’ve got to decide how you use your time. And that decision is essentially an investment decision. You’re putting a certain amount of time into one activity or another, and you’re getting back something else in return – whether that’s a better physique or a smoker’s cough.
Of course, the choices aren’t usually that stark. So how do you make your investment decisions under normal circumstances? Well, you should weigh your options based on the outcomes they produce. Do they improve your health, happiness, finances, or overall quality of life? And if so, how much?
If you measure your options by these criteria, you’ll see that some provide better ROIs than others. If you want to shape yourself the way you want to, that high-intensity workout is an excellent investment opportunity. It squeezes a lot of exercise into a short period. In comparison, walking isn’t as much of a high-yield fitness option. But it could be a great way to reconnect with nature or have a conversation with a friend.
In any case, you wouldn’t plow your money into the stock market without weighing your options and thinking about your investment strategy, would you? So, shouldn’t you do the same thing with your time – your most important and valuable resource?
You can spend your time more freely than you think:
Wait a minute; you might be thinking. Do we have that much choice in how we spend our time?
After all, most of us have many obligations to fulfill and packed schedules to complete. If you go to work, have meeting deadlines, you need to pick up groceries and returning phone calls – the list goes on and on. Even in our so-called “free time,” we don’t seem to have much freedom. Now, to some extent, that’s true. But it’s also missing an essential part of the equation.
Yes, some obligations are imposed on us by reality. You need to pay taxes; walk your dog. But if you went down the list of all the commitments of time you’re currently making to other people, events, and activities, you’d see that a lot of them are just that: commitments you’re making. For instance, if a coworker stops you in the hallway for some idle chitchat, you don’t have to engage in a long conversation with him. If a friend invites you on a skiing trip, you don’t have to go on it. If you join a book group, you don’t have to stay in it. You choose to do these things – and that’s great if you’re getting something out of them. But often, that’s not the case. Instead, you might just be going along with them out of a misplaced sense of politeness or obligation.
We’ve got to stop doing this. All of these unnecessary, unrewarding commitments might not take up that much time themselves. But they will eventually add up to your lost hours per week. Pay attention to those small details that would change a lot if we intended to change it.
That’s not to say you should start being rude to people. There are polite ways to cut a conversation short, decline a trip, or leave a book group. The point is simple, that you should avail yourself of these options if it would better to spend your time elsewhere.
You can also scale back or make various adjustments to your commitments. Consider phone calls. For many of us, these take up a lot of our time, both inside and outside of work. But maybe you could complete that client call in 15 minutes instead of the usual 30. And perhaps you could reschedule that weekly conversation with your mother to a time that works better for you – one where you’ll feel energized by the call instead of rushed.
In any case, you’ve got way more options than you might imagine.
Even when you want to do something, you still have a lot of freedom in how you do it:
Alright, you might say. Maybe I can take back some of my time. But that’s just nibbling around the edges of my day. Most of it’s full of obligations I can’t get out of, and I can’t change them.
Going to work is an obvious case in point. Short of working from home, starting a business, or winning the lottery, that’s just something you’ve got to do… Well, yes and no.
Let’s say that due to personal circumstances, you have to keep your current job and place of residence. And let’s say there’s a long-distance between points A and B, so you have to commute. No choice about it.
But how do you do that commute? On foot, by a bus, or in your car? Often, the choice is yours, and some options are better for your body – not to mention the environment – than others.
And even if you’ve no choice but to go by car, that still leaves things open. Do you drive by yourself? Or do you join a carpool?
And even if that’s not an option, you still have many other choices to make. What do you do while you’re driving solo? Do you listen to music, a podcast, or an audiobook? Talk on the phone? Or stare at the bumpers in front of you and grumble about the traffic?
As small as they might seem, these choices can significantly transform the hours you spend driving per week. By listening to some peaceful music, you can turn your commute time into relaxation time. By putting on an audiobook, you can turn it into learning time. You can name different types of calls referring to the person you are contacting. A client? That’s work time. A friend? Social time.
In any case, whether you decide to listen to a classic novel or catch up with your dad, your choices don’t stop there. For instance, what are you doing with your body? Are you slouching or practicing good posture?
You could even spend the time doing yoga exercises, where you tighten and relax your mind and thoughts. It will build you a stronger relationship with others – all while you jam out to your favorite tunes, learn about history, or do whatever else you choose to do with your time!
It would help if you stopped wasting your time on technological distractions:
Now, maybe you’re one of those lucky people who doesn’t have a morning commute. But even if you get to work from home in your pajamas, you still experience numerous situations per day where you’re waiting for something else to happen. If it’s not waiting for the customer service agent to pick up the phone, then it’s waiting for the elevator to open, the waiter to bring the check or the microwave to finish.
Many of these experiences last just a few seconds or minutes, but they all add up, and they present us with a question: How do we fill up all of that empty time?
If we’re honest, the answer for many of us is “not so well.” And the reason for this comes down to two words: technology usage.
Imagine you’re waiting in line at the coffee shop. What do you do to use the time? If you’re like many of us these days, chances are you’re looking at your phone. Maybe you’re flicking through the news or one of your social media feeds. Or perhaps you’re checking in on one of those chat apps where you and your friends engage in mostly idle conversation.
In any case, staring at a phone has become the default, go-to activity for many of us whenever we have any empty time to kill. Is it any surprise, then, that so much of our free time feels like dead time? We’re spending a large chunk of it as if we’re zombies, enthralled by various electronic screens. If it’s not our phones, then it’s our computers or televisions.
But no one is forcing us to waste our time this way. We can take back this time we’re losing and put it to better uses.
The first step here is to kick the habit. Next time you’re waiting somewhere and feeling the itch to pull out your phone, stop and take some deep breaths into your lower abdomen. Ask yourself, is there some urgent piece of information you must gain access to right now? Or have you just become uncomfortable spending time with your thoughts or observing the world around you?
Maybe you could try some people watching instead or do some stretches. Or, stand there and think – anything that helps get you more in tune with your body, mind, or surroundings.
Mindfulness can help you get more satisfaction out of the present moment:
Take some deep breaths into your lower abdomen—Check-in with yourself. It was a mini-mindfulness exercise.
But that’s just the beginning of it. There are many other tactics in which mindfulness can help us concentrate on the present moment and try to produce the most of it.
As we’re going through our days, many of us are often so lost in our distractions that we barely consider the world around us. Now, if you’re close with mindfulness, you know that part of the point of it is to snap your mind out of this troubled state of being and bring yourself back into the current moment. But how do you do that?
Well, try this out next time you find yourself in a place you’ve never been before. It could be a tropical paradise you’ve gone to on vacation. Or it could just be a neighborhood in your city that you’ve stumbled into for the first time. For this exercise, it doesn’t matter. The thing you’re going to do is: stop, look around, and think to yourself; This could be the last time I’m ever here.
Notice how your perspective suddenly shifts. You’re no longer just walking through that neighborhood. You’re taking in the sights, smells, and textures of the people, streets, and buildings around you. You’re observing everything more closely. You’re noticing the magic of it all. In short, you’re fully experiencing this present moment of your life instead of just barreling through it.
Now, ready for the kicker? You’re not just doing a thought experiment. It could be the last time you’re ever here – wherever that happens to be.
To put it bluntly: terrible things can strike us in the blink of an eye, sometimes without warning. Someday, we all know for sure, we’re going to die. That day could be today, tomorrow, or two decades from now. We don’t know.
And that’s the point. We should try to savor our moments as if they were the last ones we’ve got – because they very well could be.
Mindfulness can reduce your experience of time, enabling you to extend it and even stop it:
Alright, after all that talk about mortality, let’s start this blink on a lighter note.
Has this ever happened to you? You sit down for a meal – pizza, let’s say. You’re eating quickly, without thinking. Maybe you’re doing something on your phone. Suddenly, you look at your plate and recognize the last slice of pizza is already gone.
Where did it all go? Well, you know it went into your belly – but you can barely remember eating the darn thing. It’s as if the experience didn’t even register in your mind.
Okay, you probably already know where we’re going with this. Yep, that’s right – once again, mindfulness is here to save the day.
Here’s another mindfulness exercise for you: next time you’re having a meal, stop doing anything else, and focus all of your attention on what you’re experiencing. Savor the tastes, smells, and textures of your food.
There’s a lot to take in! You just have to pay attention.
And if you do this exercise, it’ll not only enrich your experience of eating and make these minutes register in your mind. It’ll also stretch out the time, enabling you to experience more of it, in effect.
That’s not just because you’re eating slowly, but because you’re eating mindfully. When you’re paying attention to what you’re doing, time tends to go by more slowly – in the right way, not like when you have a boring experience and the time seems to drag. It applies not only to eating but to just about anything you’re doing. You can practice mindfulness with the music you’re listening to in the car, the background noises you hear on the street, the physical sensations of a nice warm bath. You name it; you can be mindful about it.
And if you’re mindful, you can even achieve the seemingly impossible: you can stop the flow of time – in a sense, at least. When you’re fully plugged-in to the present moment, that moment itself can feel eternal. Sink into it, savor it, and let the seconds out into infinity.
You need to make better time for yourself:
How’d you spend your morning today? If you’re like many people, you might have spent a lot of it in the shower. We spend plenty of time showering that it looks like a steam room by the end.
Now, taking these long, showering daily in hot water is terrible for the environment. If you’ve got chlorine in your water supply, it’s not so good for your body either, since your skin can absorb the chemicals. But there’s an even deeper problem going on here, and it brings up a more general point that’s going to help us tie everything in these blinks together.
Yes, that long, hot shower feels good. But even putting aside the environmental and physical consequences, is this a fair use of our time? Most of us spend our shower time just zoning out, basking in the warm sensation of the water and the sense of privacy we have.
Well, as car mechanics sometimes say, there’s your problem right there. For many of us, the shower is one of the few places where we have any sense of privacy. And it’s also one of the few times in the day when we do something nice and relaxing for our bodies. In other words, we have a deficit of “me time,” and we use the shower as a way of compensating for it.
The obvious solution? Reclaim some time for yourself. Perhaps there are better ways to relax and energize yourself. You could get a weekly massage or do stretches every morning. Or, you could take a luxurious bath a couple of times per week, punctuated by quicker, more environmentally-friendly showers.
Only you know what your body needs, so this is yet another exercise in mindfulness. You’ve got to tune in to yourself and figure out what works best for you.
It’s also another exercise in time management. You’ve got to schedule your “me time” into your days and weeks. The same goes for all the other things that energize you and make you feel like you’re making the most of your time. Working out, walking with a friend, spending time with your family – none of these will happen unless you carve out the time to make them happen. So what makes you wait? Your life is in your hands