In 1902, Remington advertised its breakthrough appliance — the first commercial typewriter — with the following slogan: “To save time is to lengthen life.”
It’s a powerful phrase, and for years, Richard Polt thought it was true. Polt is a typewriter collector, but he’s also a professor of philosophy. Eventually, he came to the following realization: “The more time you save, the more time you waste, because you’re doing things that are only a means to an end.”
I don’t like email. For years, I’ve layered hack upon hack to minimize the time I spend in my inbox. I’ve disabled all email notifications. I’ve set up filters so certain emails never show up as unread messages. I’ve created snippets I can copy and paste. I even made a rule to never check email before 11 AM, and I try to batch-process it whenever possible — and yet, I still spend time in my inbox every day. I waste less time, but I’m still stuck doing something I don’t enjoy, because none of my measures got to the heart of the matter:
Minimizing and eliminating are not the same thing. No matter how much you reduce the time you spend on a certain aspect of your life, minimizing alone will never make it go away completely.
The thing you most desperately want to save time on is a thing you shouldn’t be doing at all — because feeling like you have to do it is why it seems like such a big burden in the first place. If you did it for fun, you wouldn’t mind how long it takes at all.
This hints at the corollary of Polt’s insight: “To waste time is to deepen life.” Whatever you’re doing for enjoyment alone, you should do however as inefficiently as it takes for you to savor it.
I love coffee. I love it so much, I never want my current cup to end. Therefore, I often take an hour or more to finish it. By the time I’m done, the coffee is cold and — if you asked most people — disgusting. But I enjoy it regardless, because as long as I drink coffee, the world spins a little slower, and that’s a wonderful feeling. I couldn’t care less about doing it quickly, and in fact, the faster I have to drink it, the less enjoyable it becomes.
What these inefficient pleasures are is different for each of us — the point is that we don’t rush through them to get back to doing more of the things we hope to minimize.
Polt’s dichotomy raises two important questions:
- Which activities in your life are you minimizing that should be eliminated?
- Which activities do you need to savor and how can you best savor them?
For me, the question is not, “How can I spend less and less time in my inbox?” the question is, “How can I design my life to not require looking at my email at all?” There’s a big difference between doing little of something and not doing it at all — just think about smoking, writing, or exercise — and based on which outcome we want, we’ll have to take very different approaches to achieving our goal.
Similarly, I need to remember what other activities I enjoy as much as drinking coffee — and make sure I actually take the time to enjoy them. Beyond inefficient, our special interests are “self-sufficient,” Polt says: “It’s an end in itself. It’s not something you’re doing simply to get to something else.” Therefore, you might as well do it thoroughly. You might as well learn to play the song on piano rather than just listen to it or walk for an hour instead of taking the train to enjoy the journey rather than just the destination.
Life is not about saving scraps of time to squeeze in what you love most around the edges. It’s about eliminating what you genuinely dislike so you can fill it with your passions in all their glorious inefficiency.
To save time may be to lengthen life, but only to savor life is to not waste it.