I’m reading… “Time and How to Spend It” by James Wallman

I really liked this book, it met so many of the criteria for a good book for me:

I like books with practical advice that is communicated as principles rather than prescriptions.

I like books with stories, we are made to remember stories.

I like books based on evidence, particularly when the author acknowledges that the evidence is indicative rather than definitive.

I’ve spent much of my life with a couple of quotations about time ringing through my head:

“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Which I didn’t realise until writing this post was simply an extension of Albert Einstein’s quotation “Time is an illusion”.

“The future is something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”

C.S. Lewis

These two quotations are, in some regards, contradictory. Time can’t be both an illusion and a constant ticking of minutes and yet, for me, this contradiction speaks volumes. We each have the same number of minutes in a day, that is true, and yet, each of us recognises that how we use those minutes greatly influences how we perceive our day. The spending of minutes is where this book is focused, but not where most of this type of book focus their study, on our work life and how to get ahead, this book is primarily targeted at all that time you have when you aren’t working.

James Wallman begins Time and How To Spend It with a couple of quotations:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Annie Dillard

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

William Penn

How do you spend your time? Yes, you spend a lot of it asleep and, probably, another huge section at that thing you call work, but what about the remaining minutes? Have you ever received any training on how to spend that other time? Do you know what type of activity in your free time would enrich the whole of your life? How do you avoid those times where you feel like you’ve wasted your time? How do you get the best value out of your free time? Can you really call time free?

As I look around my friends, acquaintances and colleagues I see so many different ways that people use the free time that they have. Some people appear to achieve so much and have such amazing experiences while others have little to show for the time that they have spent. What are the things that separate these two extremes? Does it matter? Well it does if we can enrich our whole life and even extend them by investing our time in particular ways.

James Wallman’s hypothesis is precisely that, apply a set of principles to spending our leisure time will greatly enrich our lives.

The reality is, though, that many of us have a very uneasy relationship with the free time that we have. A quotation from the opening chapter of the book:

“The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work. Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Why are we so uneasy, particularly now? This is a summary of the reasons that James Wallmam gives:

  • We are earning more which makes the cost of time seem higher and feel more scarce.
  • We think that busyness is status.
  • We have too many incoming messages and too many demands on our time.
  • Instead of helping, multitasking creates ‘contaminated time’.
  • We have more opportunities than ever – endlessly scrolling online, more new places to go and events to attend – and end up feeling FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • Smartphones and all of our digital devices now eat around 60% of our leisure time.
  • Leisure isn’t taught, and has become trivialised, belittled.

James Wallman likens the different ways that we spend time to the different foods that we eat, some foods being empty-calories, like all of that endless scrolling, and others being super-foods, like a walk with a close friend along a beach. The aim of the book being to teach us how to recognise and consume super-food experiences rather than flopping into an empty-calorie existence.

The structure of the book is based on an acrostic of the word STORIES with each of the letters highlighting a characteristic of great experiences:

  • Story – understanding the hero’s journey and what makes a great story.
  • Transformation – creating personal growth leads to happiness.
  • Outside and Offline – there’s huge power in being outside and away from all of those interruptions.
  • Relationships – loneliness isn’t healthy, we are made to do things together.
  • Intensity – this is about flow, which is a huge subject in its own right.
  • Extraordinary – creating a balance between novel and ordinary experiences.
  • Status and Significance – creating significance by investing in others.

With a combination of stories, evidence and anecdote each of these chapters creates a set of principles that define those super-food experiences.

I normally leave this bit until the end, but it’s appropriate here:

Header Image: Today’s header image was taken on a recent holiday when I was contemplating many of the principles in this book.

The picture was taken at the Low Wood Bay, Windermere, UK – this place has been a special place in Sue and I’s lives for over 30 years, so returning was extending an already significant story in our lives.

We are stood on a jetty from where we left our wedding reception in a speedboat. As with the day of this picture, it had been a lovely day that we would remember for the rest of our lives. There are many parts of that day that I don’t remember the detail of, but I remember the feeling of stepping into a speedboat that had been kindly decorated by the staff with trailing buoys and a Just Married poster. We kept this part of our wedding a secret, so it was a surprise to nearly everyone and the look on their faces as we zoomed off across the lake is etched into my memory.

Having taken a few picture we put out phones away and we stood and remembered, together, outside, in a kind of flow as we thought about our children, the things we had enjoyed together and the blessing of seeing them both in loving relationships of their own. We thought about some of the adventures that we had been on and looked forward to adventures to come, even the very next day. We looked across the lake at the beauty of it all and held hands.

We used STORIES to extend and enrich our story.

For a slightly longer summary of the information in the book the following is a good podcast: