You Have Twenty-Four Hours

If you have committed a crime heinous enough to merit a one-way trip to death row – and almost anything terrifically extreme, excepting the legitimized fraud we call the banking system, could get you there – you will at some point receive the irreversible edict:

‘You have twenty-four hours to live.’

That final twenty-four hours in solitary holds few options for you other than a great deal of thought and a last meal. You probably won’t be able to get a decent night’s rest. And when the time is up, that’s it. You’re never getting it back.

It may not have occurred to you that this situation is unusually applicable to the daily lives of those of us who are not waiting on death row. There is a metaphor in that picture, begging to be considered, lingered over, savored, and applied.

Every Morning

Every morning, you have twenty-four hours to live. You’ll never get them back. And if you’re wise, you intend to spend eight of them sleeping, bringing the balance to sixteen before you’ve even begun. What can you do in sixteen hours?

‘A lot,’ you might say. And you would be right. But when you say it, you might be thinking of much more than is really possible. That’s because, as we have discussed previously, we live in the age of the unlimited. Anything is possible! Through the unmixed blessing of multitasking, you will finally be able to achieve your most outlandish dreams, dragging your daybook and your personal trainer along behind you.

But I have been writing and arguing over and over again that we are limited creatures, and that limits are a good thing. I think multitasking is bad for you and there are a number of studies with conclusions in favor of my view – even establishing the interesting point that trying to do lots of things at once alters your brain chemistry. What does this mean for your twenty-four (now sixteen) hours?

You Must Decide

You must decide what is important because you can’t do it all. That, of course, is the bottom line. And it’s pretty simple. One of the snags about being temporal creatures – living in the limits of time – is that time gone by never returns. Our busy age has pressed us toward coming up with lots of illusory devices to ‘compress’ time, or to ‘save’ it, as the speed of our lives seems to toss it off like the wind at the back of a Harley.

One such foolish device (to press the point) is something we called ‘quality time’, which in my view was neither. I suspect that the idea was to remove the guilt resulting from the distance growing among our relationships as our lives grew busier over the course of the twentieth century. If you’re careful about the way you spend that fifteen or twenty minutes with Johnny, or with your spouse – if you focus on making the time ‘quality’, making it count – then it will work almost as well as if you had really spent hours with them, and no one need feel guilty or out-of-touch.

Children, by the way, seem to intuitively understand that ‘quantity’ time is the only time worth talking about when it comes to relationships, and I think they are right.

I digressed only to emphasize that we spend time on what is important to us, and I think many of us who have grown up in this culture have too many important pursuits.

What is Important

Now we come to the point. You are limited, and that’s OK. You and I have got to learn to work within those confines. What is important? You have to make this decision not just once, but every day. Because every day, you only have twenty-four hours to live.

And you’ll never get them back.

As you think about this, and you begin to discover what really matters – ask yourself if you would have spent your day the same way if you knew that you’d be run down by a Guinness truck the next morning – ditch multitasking and ‘quality time’ in favor of monotasking and ‘quantity time’.

Does your family need you? Commit and re-commit to them, turn off electronic distractions, and be with them.

Are you working too much, on too many different projects? Let something go and consolidate before your brain explodes. (This is a tough one for me.)

Are you trying to keep up with too many hobbies, or learn too many skills at once? (Or are you making your kids try to do that?) In the words of SNL psychologist Newhart, ‘Stop it!’ Focus on one thing at a time wherever possible, so that you devote the necessary hours to practice that will actually result in skill acquisition rather than tourist exposure.

There is much more to consider. But do yourself a favor and start considering now, before this twenty-four goes by.

You have twenty-four hours to live. Every day you must decide what is important. So begin with the decision to decide, right now.

You will be more human, and you will be more happy.