Unstructured Time: A Lost Art

Time is our most valuable resource.  It’s nonrenewable--once spent, you can’t get it back.  Indeed we all understand this logically to varying degrees.  But many of us feel the compulsion to manipulate time, to re-structure it to fit our lifestyles.  “Make the time,” is the common expression, as if we could create something out of nothing.  You can’t.  You can’t change the laws of nature and add more time to your day, no matter how talented you may be.  

Since we can’t add more time to our day, we fill it with as much stuff as possible, seeking efficiency.  Only we spend too much time with unfulfilling stuff, both of our own free will and from the will of others.  We’ve mastered the art of busyness, a phenomenon that’s more of a problem, a problem created by modern society.  People nowadays don’t tolerate moments of stillness and quiet.  Just look around: in a lull, they’re on their cell phones talking, texting, gaming, etc., all in the act of staying busy.  Constant busyness gives us an air of importance, showing the outside world how valuable we are.   It’s a natural ego-thing.  We desire to be needed and wanted.  But in this age of busyness, we lose a sense of control.

As for many professional people such as doctors, we’ve effectively crafted this art of busyness to near perfection.  But this has a more universal effect, extending to virtually every walk of life. And we’re all paying the price.

This saturation of our time creates something unintended.  Carefully consider what occupied your day and you’ll find that much of your time was spent on really unimportant stuff.  And if our bodies aren’t occupied with something, our minds constantly are; we dwell on a hope or a fear for what might or might not be, preparing our minds pre-emptively.  We’ve become too forward-minded, rather than being fully in the here-and-now. 

You’d think as doctors we’d know better.  But doctors constantly keep a multitude of things on their minds—the welfare of their patients, their many other educational and administrative responsibilities, their own family, their personal finances, student loans, just to mention a few.  We’re human just like everyone else.  We dwell too frequently on an unknowable future and far too infrequently reflect upon the positive results and pleasantries of the past.  We aren't content with the here-and-now.  And the unintended consequences are worry, anxiety and dread.  It’s no wonder a large proportion of doctors suffer burn-out.  It’s no wonder anyone suffering such conditions fall into depression and despair.

But it doesn’t stop with us as individuals.  We unwittingly pass along this need for busyness onto our offspring, involving them in every imaginable kind of activity—sports, play-dates, crafts, extracurricular activities, etc.-- to fill every minute of every day, while adding to the already hectic schedules of other extended family or friends caught up in this business of busyness.   We fool ourselves into believing that no matter what the costs in time, talent or treasure, we mustn’t have the kids not busy.

We’ve become over-guarded with the kids, created out of a lingering sense of fear, fear they’ll encounter bad people or engage in activities that will turn them into bad people.  This is natural, but we over-compensate; we involve them constantly with what we believe are positive activities in a highly protective environment that minimizes risk and maximally shields them from all the negatives out there.   Don’t get me wrong, the world is a dangerous place.  But it always has been.  A sterilized environment of over-security can backfire.  Either a sense of paranoia breeds or the kids become too complacent.  Choose your poison.

What happened to “the good old days?”

When I was a grade-school kid, we were left to ourselves after school or during the entire summer, meaning our parents rarely structured an activity for us, leaving us to our own devices.   “Play-Date?”  Are you kidding?  That term didn’t exist.  We had long periods of unstructured time.  We were forced to be imaginative amongst ourselves, leading to some very creative endeavors.

What did we do as kids?  Things not really extraordinary.  We’d play touch football in the middle of the street, pausing at times as a car passed by.  We’d play hide-in-seek using the entire street and houses on either side as hiding places.  We’d have “Rock Wars”, throwing rocks at one another using those circular, metal trash-can lids as shields, just like the ancient Romans in the movies.  We’d create a long “Polish Cannon” from tin cans and Dad’s butane lighter fluid as fuel to shoot a tennis ball well over a 100 yards out.  We attempted to make napalm (I read in the dictionary this was gelatinized gasoline.  As Mom wouldn’t part with her boxes of Jell-O dessert, we resorted to using wax from my candle-making kit, massaging gasoline into the warm, soft wax with our hands.  It burned beautifully).  When really blessed with a batch of gunpowder (harvested by unrolling loads of fire crackers), we tried to make a rocket engine but instead created a very loud explosive—an unintended result that was nevertheless very cool.  The list is endless, with an assortment of wonderful activities of our own design, with and without the pyrotechnics.

Even during our “bored” moments, walking around kicking up dirt or lying on the grass staring at the clouds, we’d find ourselves in conversations bordering on the sublime.  “Do you think God is watching us as we’re looking for Him up there?  How do thoughts start?  What were you thinking about just before you were thinking what you’re thinking now?  Your little brother put two worms in his mouth?  I bet he can do three!  We can use that napalm we made to build the first flying bike!  We can fly and see God, or at least get away from your pesky little sisters!”  And so on.

You may think I’m crazy and downright irresponsible, but this is all relative.  As kids we learned important life-lessons that served us well as adults, I like to think.  We learned to get along with people of different races, with different backgrounds and opinions.  We learned to solve problems and take risks.  Sure, we had our scrapes, cuts and bruises.  We’d argue and when we couldn’t agree, we’d run home to Mom or Dad.  But Mom or Dad would point a finger the other direction: “Go back, deal with it!”  And so we did.  During the summer, we weren’t allowed back in the house until dinnertime. 

Our experiences, no matter how quirky or unconventional they may be, made us unique and independent, and collectively makes the world so fascinating.

Despite my unsavory background, I still became a doctor.  Life is full of paradoxes and surprises. When I look upon those days of my youth, one thing always strikes my mind: I was happy in the moment.  Life was simple as a kid.  We should take time to reminisce, for the past often is reflected more positively in our minds than the future.  “Make the time” not only for this, but for doing nothing or doing something for the sake of being in the present, with no future-oriented goal, for no purpose other than being completely unstructured.  Mindfulness, as we are now seeing, is the key to regaining control.  Lie on the grass and gaze at the clouds and stars, better yet, with a child or two or more; they will re-educate you on the soul-cleansing joy of simplicity and endless possibility.

©Randall S. Fong, M.D.