“You Never Have Time, Only Intentions”
by David Cain
“In my new house the top floor is a single room with gabled walls and a single window that looks out over the street. I go up there twice daily to meditate for half an hour, so every time I’m in that room I can’t help but think, at least once, about how much time I have left in the day.
During those sessions I’m more aware of my thoughts, and the effect they have on me, than at any other time. And I’ve noticed that the amount of time I have left after my sitting—before I have to be somewhere, or before bedtime—makes a big difference psychologically. Given what I plan to do for the rest of the day, I always have one of two distinct feelings: I have enough time, or I don’t have enough time.
I’m learning not to trust either of these feelings, because they’re based on an error in perception—when you think about it, and we never really have time. Time we talk about “having” is always in the future, where we can’t see it and don’t know what it will be like. We can’t be confident it will be there when we need it, or that it will arrive without conditions or unexpected problems.
We never possess time in the same way we possess the money in our wallets, although we talk like we do. We assume we have three hours or three days to do something, but it never actually comes into our possession. The time we “have” is never where we are, and we can never see it, unlike everything else we have: our clothing, our furniture, our homes, our friends and family. We never know our time like we know those things, so we can’t depend on it like we depend on those things.
The un-ownability of time is a little more obvious when it comes to life expectancy. I have to occasionally remind myself I don’t have another 40 or 50 years to live. I often expect it, but I never have it. It’s not mine. I don’t even “have” one year. I do have this moment, but all the time stretching forward from it is just speculation. We can have intentions, but never time. This all might sound like the shower-thoughts of a very bored person. What difference does it really make? “Having time” is just a way of speaking, isn’t it?
It’s not just semantics—there’s a tremendous difference between believing you own and control the upcoming three hours, and understanding that you have intentions for it but don’t own it. Despite your expectations, something could interrupt you, or distract you, or the thing you thought you’d get done is bigger and more complex than you thought, all of which can instantly transmute the comforting feeling of “enough time” to the claustrophobic feeling of “not enough time”. Your time was never dependable, even if you didn’t realize it. Even if there turn out to be no complications, you can never know there won’t be until the time in question is gone.
Time we think we have is always going to be unreliable in this way, and since we’re constantly depending on this unreliable thing, it’s constantly generating a certain kind of stress, regardless of how any given stretch of time turns out. Even if you leave early for an appointment, giving yourself an apparent abundance of time, you never quite know if you’ll have enough to avoid the embarrassment of slinking in late. Anything could happen, and that’s never not true. You can never count on time if you see it as a uniform resource.
But you can know with confidence whether you have enough money to buy a hammer when you get to the hardware store. You do know if you have enough floor to support your breakfast table. You do know if you have enough sweater to keep you warm. We don’t worry about the reliability of these resources the way we constantly worry about time.
The longer I live, the more I’m convinced that our suffering comes from insisting on more control over our experience than is actually available to us. When it comes to time, we do this incessantly, by believing we can bank an upcoming afternoon for this or that errand, the way we can earmark an overtime check for a new microwave.
It’s always going to be stressful to depend on unseen, untested stretches of time with the same sort of confidence we have in suspension bridges to keep our cars out of the river. In the back of our minds we know time is never concrete and never sympathetic; it will almost always surprise us in some way. Nothing unfolds quite like we thought. No stretch of time fits quite the activities we thought it would fit.
Time shrinks and disappears, or arrives with new problems we hadn’t accounted for. It has done this to us our whole lives, and we never learn. Time we “have” is completely unknowable, and depending on it is like delegating vital work to an employee you haven’t interviewed, or even met, and who doesn’t need the paycheck. You may have noticed almost nobody has enough time. Somehow, even after decades of life experience, we cannot seem to corral all of our responsibilities within the amount of time we have. It should be simple math, but it never works out.
We can’t depend on time, but we can depend on intentions. We can create, own and protect intentions. Intentions aren’t bound by time, or anything else outside our control. You can own an intention to write a novel whether or not time co-operates. You can work on it with the same purpose and confidence regardless of how time unfolds.
When intentions are your focus, time returns to its true status as an unpredictable condition—a weather system, rather than a stockpileable commodity. This allows you to make the best possible use of it without stressing over the quantity or quality available on a given day.
Unlike time, you can deal in intentions without demanding more from them than they can deliver. You can keep an intention, or get rid of it, and that’s entirely up to you. Circumstances and surprises won’t take it away from you. It’s always yours.
Of course there’s a difference between whether or not you finish your novel, but if you have the intention and it doesn’t get done, it was impossible. Whether deadlines are met or missed becomes a matter of managing human relationships, which is what deadlines really are anyway. Finally you can quit playing the losing game of trying to manage a resource that isn’t really a resource and which nobody really controls.
With intention at the helm, you don’t need time to be sympathetic to your hopes. If you intend to do it, it gets done if it can be done. And what else matters really? Exactly how and when you finish what you finish isn’t that important, or at least it isn’t important enough to fixate on at the expense of your intentions.
The magic of intentions is that they make your usage of time efficient and realistic. They don’t require more of you, or of time, than what’s available, and so they doesn’t generate stress. The system for managing intentions is simple: know what intentions you have, keep your good ones and throw out your bad ones.
Whenever I remember to stop trying to have time, and instead focus on having worthwhile intentions, time seems more abundant. It seems to show up as needed when I’ve got a good intention going. This makes sense, because the feeling of not having enough time doesn’t come from not having enough time. It can’t, because you always have zero time. It comes from the pain of valuing wishes and hopes over intentions, and what happens to you over who you are.”