The spirituality of how we use time

“My disease is terminal. I know that.”

These startling words came from a friend last week–an amazing person who has inspired many with the power of his positivity and love–traits only purified by his encounter with terminal illness.

My friend is doing everything he can to fight off disease so he can invest his time in inspiring people. A survivor who has lived eight years since his diagnosis has inspired him, and he wants to invest time in supporting others.

To me, this is an example of a spiritual approach to time:

  • Clarity about what is important
  • Focus on necessary action to buy the most time possible for what he wants to do
  • Emphasis on what he can do rather than what he can’t

Here are four lessons in spirituality and time that I take from this encounter:

Resolve Conflicting Emotions 

When time seems short,  conflicting emotions might be to blame. Suppose you are invited to a social-justice event regarding causes you care about. However, similar events have felt too confrontational or boring. Your conflicting emotions about the event make the event feel larger and more demanding than it is.

I have noticed that I feel like I don’t have time to clean the house. My conflicting emotions are to blame. I love the feel of a clean house and want that for myself, but I feel discouraged that the activity won’t have permanent results. “It’ll just get dirty again!”

If my friend had that attitude about his life and death, he might stop bothering with anything and just give up. It’s a lot easier.

If you can relate, science has two suggestions for us: Take a few slow deep belly breaths and try reframing the task mentally as something we can look forward to. List the positive aspects of the task (including likely or potential results) that you can focus on instead of the negative aspects that are currently taking all of your attention.

Put First Things First

In Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he encouraged readers to focus on “First Things First.”

  1. When you consider everything that you feel you “should” do, what is most important? What weighs most heavily on your mind? Which items on your to-do list must be completed before you can get other things done? Or, even more importantly, which items could, once completed, actually eliminate future tasks? (Think, “A stitch in time saves nine.”)
  2. Whatever task is most important, put it FIRST on your schedule — before email, before a meeting, before checking apps/websites. Get it DONE and out of the way, and reserve lesser tasks to later in the day.

Another of Covey’s principles is the relationship between what is important vs. what is urgent. Time is a resource, just like your energy and your money, and your values determine how you spend it.

My friend values people and values inspiring energy, and so his time resources are focused on creating that energy for the people he loves. He doesn’t have time to sit around feeling sorry for himself! He is focused on what is important.

However, my friend must attend to his health now. This is something that can’t be put off for another day. He doesn’t have the illusion of “someday” when things will get easier. Attending to his health is urgent. He has to find balance.

Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and too little time on what is important. How can you restore balance (a spiritual concept) to your time?

Be Accountable to What you Can Do

Accountability is your personal power, and it’s all about choosing to do what you can do. It’s too easy to say, “But I can’t (which means “It isn’t easy”), so I won’t.”

Accountability acknowledges reality: “Maybe the straightforward easy way is blocked, but what can I do to make progress? What steps could I take? Who do I know who might be able to budge this obstacle or help me get strong enough to overcome it or circumvent it?”

When we’re personally accountable, we don’t allow ourselves to say we don’t have time. We say yes or no according to our values, what is important, and what is possible. We own our decisions and our power.

Use Your Attention Mindfully

“I lost track of time!” When you don’t pay attention to how you spend your time, it gets away from you.

Attention is a spiritual concept. It is your most intimate human trait. What and who you attend to influences who you are. It determines your behavior and your thoughts. Your attention directly impacts how you feel.

Contemplative and meditative practices are all about attention. In the Christian New Testament you can find a letter written by the apostle (church planter) Paul, who wrote to the church in Philippi about the value of their attention: “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable… if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The message is clear: what you pay attention to matters.

Are you clear about what is important to you? Are you focused on doing what you have to do so you can have the most time possible and the most opportunities to do what you most want to do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts — leave me a comment in the box below!

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