Arnold Bennett, in an essay called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day,” speaks of the use of time as though it were a kind of money:
You have to live on this twenty-four hours of daily time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use, its most effective use, is a matter of the highest urgency and of the most thrilling actuality. All depends on that. Your happiness—the elusive prize that you are all clutching for, my friends!—depends on that. Strange that the newspapers, so enterprising and up-to-date as they are, are not full of “How to live on a given income of time,” instead of “How to live on a given income of money”! Money is far commoner than time. When one reflects, one perceives that money is just about the commonest thing there is. It encumbers the earth in gross heaps.
If one can’t contrive to live on a certain income of money, one earns a little more—or steals it, or advertises for it. One doesn’t necessarily muddle one’s life because one can’t quite manage on a thousand pounds a year; one braces the muscles and makes it guineas, and balances the budget. But if one cannot arrange that an income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper items of expenditure, one does muddle one’s life definitely. The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.
Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? Which of us is quite sure that his fine suit is not surmounted by a shameful hat, or that in attending to the crockery he has forgotten the quality of the food? Which of us is not saying to himself—which of us has not been saying to himself all his life: “I shall alter that when I have a little more time”?
We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had, all the time there is. It is the realization of this profound and neglected truth (which, by the way, I have not discovered) that has led me to the minute practical examination of daily time-expenditure.
“We shall never have any more time,” Bennett says, in the sense that we have 24 hours each day, never more and never less. The time is always the same; it is just a question of how that time is used. In principle, “balancing the budget” with respect to time should be just as easy as balancing the budget with respect to one’s income. Bennett illustrates this with an imaginary example:
“But,” someone may remark, with the English disregard of everything except the point, “what is he driving at with his twenty-four hours a day? I have no difficulty in living on twenty-four hours a day. I do all that I want to do, and still find time to go in for newspaper competitions. Surely it is a simple affair, knowing that one has only twenty-four hours a day, to content one’s self with twenty-four hours a day!”
To you, my dear sir, I present my excuses and apologies. You are precisely the man that I have been wishing to meet for about forty years. Will you kindly send me your name and address, and state your charge for telling me how you do it? Instead of me talking to you, you ought to be talking to me. Please come forward. That you exist, I am convinced, and that I have not yet encountered you is my loss. Meanwhile, until you appear, I will continue to chat with my companions in distress—that innumerable band of souls who are haunted, more or less painfully, by the feeling that the years slip by, and slip by, and slip by, and that they have not yet been able to get their lives into proper working order.
When someone says, “I cannot afford that,” typically this does not mean that it is literally impossible to buy it. He may have enough money in his wallet, or in his bank account. If he does not, he might easily save enough; or if even if this would be difficult, it might be possible to get a loan to manage the purchase. In the end, in most cases the person who says this really means that such actions would not be prudent, and that he would prefer to do other things with his money. The real issue is not the amount of money, but the person’s preferences, whether these be reasonable or unreasonable.
The same thing applies to time, but even more so, since everyone has the same amount of time. If we say, “I do not have time for that,” the real meaning is this: we prefer to do other things. And that preference must be rather strong, in fact, since the implication is that we prefer to do other things, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.
This does not necessarily imply anything blameworthy. A person can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his money for one thing rather than another, and he can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his time for one thing rather than another.
But what is not reasonable is to assert that we have a strong desire to do the thing that we say we do not have time for. If “we do not have time for that,” then our desire to do it must be relatively weak, in fact, since we let our desires to do other things take precedence over that desire, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.