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How to De-Instrumentalize Time

Fight time scarcity this simple, actionable way.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
3 min read
How to De-Instrumentalize Time

Surely you have heard about the tremendous problem of "time scarcity" and its near relatives: too busy-ism, workaholism, and never-relaxed-ism. These feel terrible. But it's not clear what we can actually, realistically try right now in order to begin to break the frenzy of time scarcity.

Some people may be able to scale back on their commitments and thereby make their lives better fit the reality-imposed constraint of 24 hours per day. For instance, you could "learn to say no" if many of the demands on your time are coming from the other people. Often, though, the time scarcity call instead comes from inside the house!

As for mental things you can do to get right with time... mindfulness something? Or maybe you have an existential tension with time and its inherent finitude. Mindfulness and reflective processes take a while to establish, though, and YMMV. You might also need some help. So it's still not clear what you, by yourself, can do today or this week in order to feel less frenzied.

The truth is that the vast majority of people, even insanely busy people, do have some "free time" - just it rarely feels "free" because it is constantly absorbed by the most pressing activities, or easy but low-value ones (social media, I'm looking at you).

In other words, time has become instrumentalized, by which I mean (following Ivan Illich, quoted here in Tools for Conviviality) that:

"Time became like money: I now can have a few hours before lunch; how shall I spend time? .... I am short of time so I can't afford to spendthat much time on a committee; it not worth the time!... It would be a waste of time; I'd rather save an hour"

What we are basically looking for is a way to do something specific that can de-instrumentalize time, by making it feel less like a resource constantly at risk of being spent poorly. This is my recommendation for approaching a bit of your time in a de-instrumentalized way.

How to de-instrumentalize your time

STEP 1: THE MASTER TO-DO LIST

Make a list of everything you need/want to do, or look at the one you currently have.

STEP 2: ORDER BY PRIORITY

Order the list by priority in a way that makes sense (probably you have some inner algorithm weighting items by financial importance, professional importance, personal importance, etc)

STEP 3: FIND THE LOWEST-PRIORITY DESIRABLE THING

Remove from the list all of the items that you don't want to do. No overthinking! For instance, cross off: doing your taxes, taking out the trash, perhaps making those powerpoints for work.

Find the item at the bottom of the part of the list that includes only things you want to do. Call this the "lowest-priority desirable thing" (LPDT)

STEP 4: DO THE LOWEST-PRIORITY DESIRABLE THING

For instance, for me, the LPDT is usually an arts & crafts type of thing: low priority, but I want to be doing it. Other times, it's something like taking my child(ren) to do something special.

While doing your LPDT, you will probably have thoughts about wasting time, what you ought to be doing instead, etc. You can't stop them, but just keep doing your thing for the amount of time you'd intended.

STEP 5: OBSERVE & ITERATE

How did it go? Stop and think. You can tinker with how you do your LPDT:

  • Small frequent chunks of time vs. less-frequent longer ones
  • Where in your schedule - morning before work, last thing at night, one weekend day?

The cognitive-behavioral approach to time attitude

You can't necessarily just choose to feel a different way about time right now, but you can choose how you spend yours. Eventually, different behaviors and choices can budge our emotions, but it's a process.

Since very few people can tolerate the constant demand to spend time on their highest-priority tasks anyways (and then lapse into social media browsing, unwanted naps, etc), de-instrumentalizing your time may actually not cost much time on net.

By deliberately choosing to spend a recurring piece of time on a low-priority task, you can retrain yourself to feel safe in not literally always rushing around doing the very most important things.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.