We all agree that life is important. Yet even the most gifted among human beings make decisions which squander hours, days, weeks, months and collectively, years. Even if we are accomplished professionals, sometimes the most important areas of life–deep inner emotional health, or living lives with daily joy and peace, despite changing external conditions–is an elusive dream. Some of us become practical Stoics, though not as polished as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
I ask you to join me in a synthetic reflection on “time management” from a variety of angles. Surely there is one statement or two you will find of benefit, as we partner on the meaning of the use of daily life. I will begin with some ancient wisdom from the Bible, then draw on a variety of secular and historical sources.
Some Biblical Ethics Guidelines
Come now those who are saying, ‘Today or tomorrow, we will go into this city and for a year trade and make a profit’; who do not know know of tomorrow, what your life will be. You are a misty vapor, appearing a little while, thereafter, indeed, disappearing. Instead you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we both will live and do this or that. But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Therefore, to the one knowing good to do and not doing it, to him it is sin. [Letter of James 4:13-17]
A certain rich man did well from his lands, and he reasoned in himself, “What should I do, because I do not a place for all the produce? I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and gather therein all my wheat and goods, then I will say to myself, ‘I have many goods laid up for many years: rest, eat, drink, and be happy.'” But [God] said to him, “Fool!, this night your soul is demanded from you! Then, the things you prepare, to whom will they be given?” So it is for one who treasures things for himself and is not rich towards God. [Gospel of Luke 12:16-21]
General Observations on the Texts
The first text addresses presumption. People talk about the future and their plans for profits, as if the future is in their hands. James reminded his readers human life was temporary, passing more quickly than we imagine. We are “here today, gone tomorrow,” though we sometimes are quite arrogant about how important we think we are. So he urges his readers to preface any projections in the future within an awareness of the fragile and uncertain nature of life. Because he believes in God, he adds, “if God wills.” (It is just a note that Muslims use that phrase in all they say, some believing it, some tacking it on to show their orthodoxy as they pursue their own plans.)
The second text from Jesus of Nazareth is about presumption and practical atheism: making plans in this world for gain, without considering God in the plans. The rich man had big plans. He had a bumper crop of profits. He invested to get ready for retirement and fun. Yet Jesus said he did not plan on dying that very night. All his work made him rich in this world, but unprepared to meet God in the next.
It is no wonder American have turned away from such Bible statements. We do not want to think about death. We fill our days and nights with plans for profits and material pleasures. Our leaders in government and corporations make plans as if there is no tomorrow, as if things will somehow “work out.” All this is presumption–not based on the Bible alone–but precisely by the facts of our many crises we have created. Now let us turn to time management from these perspectives.
Time Management as a Standard Concern
The CEO and executive is a proven master of time management. There is no space of time unconsidered, unplanned, or not integrated within your scheme of priorities. Nevertheless, being in a high position of authority, which surely requires great focus and energy, sometimes leads us to disregard our moral duties to ourselves and others on a daily basis. Why? We believe we have time in the future to delay today what we plan to do tomorrow.
Let us consider some examples of decisions and acts common to important and busy CEOs and executives, all made possible by the belief the future is more certain than not, warranting these situations.
- Work demands led to a cell-texted message to a spouse or child, “Must cancel. Sorry. Will make it up to you.”
- Work demands prevented a personal visit to a friend in the hospital, who was not in a life-threatening condition.
- Work demands keep the PDA on all the time even with family and friends at important events.
- Work demands lead to arguments at home that “being home is not being present at home, but still at work.”
- Work demands prevent regular visits to a loved one in a nursing care facility who is stable and happy.
- Work demands need not elicit personal responses to employees in crises, since HR and EAPs are there for those.
- Work and family demands allow passing by a woman with children stranded on the road, whom others will see.
All of us can look above at the illustrations above and see ourselves. We often have failed to be moral people, if being moral includes treating others as we want to be treated. We have people in our lives, yet our schedules show they are at the periphery of our priorities.
Now CEOs and executives are not a special class. Line workers and the unemployed also let their priorities take precedence in similar situations. In all these business examples, however, there is a common assumption: “Whatever is happening today, my work is important enough I must put human relationships, and investments of time and energy required by them, in subordinate place. I can recapture or repair tomorrow what is sacrificed temporarily today.”
Reality can defend us from some needless guilt. There are situations where work duties do require such acts. What we are considering here, however, is when such decisions and acts become regular reflections of our moral calculus. This is a moral problem arising from a fiction–that we have tomorrow coming to us–which infects and dilutes our capacity to be morally responsible agents in the present.
When Our View of Time Changes
Regular, present human experience also teaches us the prospect of the future is unstable, uncertain, and potentially shorter than we usually expect. Look at some of the examples below which you have experienced or find completely reasonable possibilities.
- You learn you have cancer, or a loved one does.
- You learned a block of stocks tanked.
- You learned you are being loaded with more duties, twice the work with the same pay.
- You are being replaced at work, with severance, and cut loose in the current market.
- You learned your spouse is losing employment.
In each example, the present compels you to see the future in a new way. The prospect of tomorrow does not include normalcy, routine control, and casual delay. Because of present news, your decisions and actions in the present become more important, because they are all you have to invest in the future which now is uncertain.
Depending on the present news, depending on how you interpret its demands on your present use of time, your moral calculus changes. You begin to see the present as all you have for certain. You value the present more than before. You begin thinking, planning, speaking, and acting in the present with an aim to produce better effects in the future than otherwise will be, should you continue “business as usual.”
The Operative Fiction of A Tomorrow
Hans Vaihinger wrote a book in 1911, Die Philosophie des Als-Ob, “The Philosophy of As-If.” He developed a principle in Immanuel Kant’s moral theory that suggested human beings operate on fictive constructs for moral action. Vaihinger extended this idea to all of human life, showing that fictive thinking permeates our existence.
The idea that we have a future is an operative fiction based on experience. We know, factually and intellectually, our present is all we really have. Yet we also have our entire past behind us. We are as old as we are today. We look back at our past and see (1) we planned; (2) we acted; and, (3) we awoke the next day to more plans and actions. Past experiences gives us realistic confidence that today will lead to a tomorrow.
We also have contrary evidence from our past, and our present. We have seen the daily news for years, just as we will today. The past also teaches us it is the common experience of humanity to begin each day believing that day will be full and a prelude to a long future. Yet people just like us died due to accident, heart attack, crime, or natural disasters, without warning.
We know intellectually our life today can end like persons in the news. This is not a fiction but a fact. Yet we presume upon our own past experience, when we believe we will have not just one more day, but many. We need not feed on life’s uncertainty. We need not curl up in a neurotic ball and tremble awaiting an uncertain future. We have positions of authority. We have much to do.
Yet we are foolish if we allow the operative fiction, that we have an assured tomorrow, to lead us to delay present, pressing moral choices and actions. Some of us are proven, demonstrated fools in this regard. We have family, friends, and personnel, who need us as persons today, not tomorrow, yet some of us delay caring for their needs because we believe our business priorities today are more pressing than other human beings.
The CEO or executive is living under a fiction, a delusion, he or she is a moral person whose schedule does not include keeping faith with family, friends, and persons in the workplace through personal moral engagement, or whose schedule once made cannot be altered when persons need us.
Living in Human Reality, Not Fiction
We realize from experience–and observations of others’ lives–our assumption may be presumption, that the future will be as predictable and controllable as the present. In 1786, the poet Robert Burns observed in his little work, To a Mouse, paraphrasing his now-arcane language:
But, Mousie, you are not alone
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
often go awry
and leave us nothing but grief and pain,
for promised joy.
The CEO and executive is not a mouse, but a person with the best-laid plans possible, adjustable for new conditions. Every day’s schedule is filled with yesterday’s plans that are today’s priorities, and with future plans to unfold. Nevertheless, every CEO and executive knows the best-laid plans can and sometimes fall flat and fail, as Burns said, bringing grief and pain. Yet what if your plans do fall flat? What if their failure leads to an early termination from the position?
If you are living a morally balanced life, living in the present and daily keeping your moral commitments to your family, friends, and society, collapsed career plans will not destroy you.
- The morally healthy person lives in the present. Every day he or she keeps moral commitments to family, friends, the workplace, and society.
- The morally healthy person never forgets he or she is a human being. Born dependent and needing love, the healthy moral person understands daily dependence on others and the need of their love.
- The morally healthy person understands others daily depend on, and need love from, him or her.
- The morally healthy person daily engages without delay duties of dependability and love, because he or she knows the present is all he or she has: the future is uncertain.
- The morally healthy person daily treats others in the workplace first as other human beings, then in the context of their duties.
- The morally healthy person who daily lives first as a person towards other persons naturally nourishes what others need, who will follow and emulate the living model they experience.
- The morally healthy person succeeds as a human being, and should career crises come, the human network of healthy relationships will ensure that other morally healthy persons will gather in support, encouragement, and help.
These are true words, grounded not in idealism but human realities. We all believe we are moral people. We all want to become even more moral people. What are we to do? This is a moral question. It creates a crisis for us.
Our very success seems to demand that we do today, and tomorrow if we have one, the same patterns, or risk losing our success and positions. Is it possible to be as successful as we are, yet also more successful in all our relationships? How can we grow daily into more moral persons, keep good faith daily with people in our lives, yet still schedule our time so all our duties are fulfilled, and our career success remains intact?
Key to Transformed Attitudes and Habits:
A Realistic View of Life and Death
One of the greatest deceptions in American society is to define real human life in materialistic terms–piling up money, possessions, and what our society calls success–and to avoid thinking about death. Why is death avoided? Even though it is our common end, the many forms death takes almost all involve processes uncomfortable to imagine for you and for me. Yet the fact is we think about death, consciously and unconsciously, countless ways through our present experiences.
Though culture would have us look away from death, though we fill our schedules so full of business we often fail at life, we still know the fact: the fiction we are living will not take us away from our final day, when we have no tomorrow.
Let us take some time now to look back into history to an era where there was so much death and dying every day people lived daily expecting death, and preparing for it. Though these examples are taken from centuries ago, people today whose lands are battlefields, or burned up with famine, or ravaged by disease, understand profoundly what you are about to read.
Learning from Leaders Long Ago
In medieval Europe, the Black Death, bubonic plague, devastated the population. Corpse-carts picked up hundreds and thousands of human remains every day. Death became so likely some began to write treatises on the “art of dying.” These focused on coping with the prospect of death, and managing the dying process in preparation to face God and eternity.
In 1620, long after the Black Death, but still a time when human life was fragile, the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine wrote a book, On the Art of Dying Well (De Arte Bene Moriendi). The title of the first chapter is, “Who Desires to Die Well Must Live Well,” and he observed with his usual moral clarity and accuracy:
[T]he general rule, “that he who lives well, will die well,” must be mentioned before all others. For since death is nothing more than the end of life, it is certain that all who live well to the end, die well. Nor can he can he die ill, who has never lived ill, just as, on the other hand, he who has never led a good life, cannot die a good death. The same thing is observable in many similar cases. For all who walk along the right path, are sure to arrive at the place of their destination; while, on the contrary, they who wander from it, will never arrive at their journey’s end.
Bellarmine was a Christian whose life nearly was done when he wrote this. He died a year later. He is remembered for his piety, erudition, and leadership. The rest of his treatise included his viewpoint that living well meant living each day in faith, hope, and love as a child of God. Each day lived that way would lead to preparation for a good death. Many who believe in God live just this way, scrupulously making moral decisions and acting on them.
Hans Holbein the Younger painted “The Two Ambassadors” in 1533. To us the old painting is not much, though we may appreciate his mastery of realism. We see the opulent outfit of the man on the left. We observe many scattered objects, meaningless to us now. Yet all were symbols of the latest scientific instruments, the growth of knowledge, and the flowering the human arts. The painting is a statement about the Renaissance, the French word that means “rebirth.” The ancient Greeks (and to a lesser extent, the Romans) had lived in an era of great advances in philosophy, science, literature, and the arts. In 1533, the medianum aevum, the Middle Age of feudal stagnation and ignorance, was over and human progress was illustrated in the painting.
Look more closely. Notice the centrally placed, blurred slash in the foreground. It mars the perfection. It seems out of place. Yet if you turn the picture on its edge, angle it so you can look straight down what seems an accidental imperfection, you will see an equally perfect image of a stark human skull.
Hans Holbein the Younger was perhaps the premier portraitist in Europe. He painted King Henry the Eighth of England as a child, Thomas More, Desiderius Erasmus, many more powerful and famous people. Yet in The Two Ambassadors he reminded his wealthy patrons of this truth. You may achieve the greatest goals in your day, but your days are numbered. Death is out of sight, obscured by today’s goals and achievements, yet real, stark, and our common end. Holbein was asking his patrons to keep perspective.
Beyond Fiction to Reality: Live Well, Die Well
We act often today as if we have tomorrow. However, we know factually tomorrow may not come. Nevertheless, we must choose and act, because there is a likelihood we will have a tomorrow. We now come to the method on how to become people who daily (1) live morally in the present, yet (2) even better fulfill their career responsibilities with more success than before.
We return to Hans Vaihinger and put him in service for our needs. Though we do have the likelihood of tomorrow, we must live today as if it is our last day on the earth. When you adopt this fiction–which actually may be true before the end of the day or night–you no longer will do what you have been doing in the past. This is a fiction based in the reality of life itself.
Live fully in the present. Live well in all your plans and decisions with other human beings. Put them first in how you schedule your day. Yes, your business schedule has demands that will require exceptional time commitments, personal and family sacrifices. Yet in all that, when your moral framework keeps them the center of your identify, the central purposes of your life, whatever else is required of you, the facts of your daily commitments will ever and always override any fiction that you ever loved your career or business more than you loved them.
- Live well today with your loved ones, by being fully present in mind and body with them, by putting their needs first in planning the demands of your career.
- Live well today with personnel at work, by seeing and responding to them as people, not just worker-payees.
- Live well today towards strangers, by treating them as you would be treated in such short interactions.
- Live well today in your treatment of yourself, for you are very valuable person by the ways you treat all other persons, and in treating yourself well, you lengthen your lifespan–pushing death farther away another day.
Adopt the realistic fiction that today may be the last day of your life. It may be. When death does come, you will have no guilt or shame, or fear the legacy you leave is an the non-human husk of a dead materialism. Live well every day as is it is your last. When death comes, a host of human beings will gather around your real legacy–for they are that legacy–and grieve the passing of a truly wonderful person; a whole person; a morally healthy person.
But What Will Others Say and Do?
If you adopt a realistic approach to moral growth by living well each day as if it is your last there will be noted changes in you: how you relate to people, how you prioritize your business schedule, and also, how you respond to requests in your organization sharing your values and modeling your life.
- Some will respond to your choices and actions as normal people do: with appreciation and love given in return. If today is your last day with them, they will have a great memory.
- Some will not respond in your presence, but note how you lived your day. If it is your last day with them, they will remember. They will remember even more if your yesterdays were not as considerate.
- Some who treat you badly will not change their behavior. Yet if it is your last day with them, they will remember how they treated kindness, respect, and signs of love and care. They will remember you and their treatment of you.
- Some strangers you meet today will not know today is your last day. Yet if you treat them well, even if they forget your face, you planted a seed that may grow in them. Perhaps not, yet perhaps so. All you know for sure is you lived well towards them.
Today is all you have. You know that as a certainty. If today is your last, and you used nearly all of it well, you lived well. If you awake tomorrow, and have have another day of life, begin the cycle over again. Tomorrow may be your last today. Let us assume that you will have many future days, that the same cycle continues day in, day out, sunrise to sunset. Weeks, months, and years add up. Soon you have built a past of days well-lived, which becomes your legacy.
When your last day arrives, by living each day as if it is your last, in your moral thinking and doing, you will have done better than if you had presumed too much and delayed doing today–towards other persons–what you ought to have done. You will have done what was right every day!