Sure, you have the same number of hours in the day as, say, Beyonce. But as Catherine Hong discovers, happiness doesn’t always come from a finished to-do list.
As a kid, I must have read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster a dozen times, always lingering on Jules Feiffer’s illustration of the Terrible Trivium, an elegantly dressed demon with a terrifyingly featureless face. When I recently revisited the book, the character once again stopped me in my tracks. A “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit,” he persuades the protagonists to do endless, pointless activities, such as moving individual grains of sand with tweezers. (After working for hours, one of them calculates the tasks would take another 837 years to finish.) “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult,” coos the villain. “You just won’t have time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”
Reading these words now, as a 50-something grown-up. I’ve never found them so chilling. My desk is full of my own petty tasks: a dozen notes reminding me to call the dentist, find a driver’s ed class for my daughter, track down disability paperwork for my husband’s upcoming surgery, get our dog groomed, have the car inspected, deal with the perpetually regenerating mounds of laundry, and meet all my work deadlines. Lots of us are champs at getting ourselves and our families through the tasks of the next day or week. but don’t we all have a Terrible Trivium whispering over our shoulder that we need to accomplish all this before we can get to the good stuff–lunches with friends, trips to the botanical garden with Mom, using the backyard hammock, or starting that elusive creative project?
It would seem the solution is to get more hours in the day so we have room for all our must-dos and want-to-dos. Yet “happiness is not really about the amount of time we have. It depends on how your spend whatever time you have,” says Cassie Holmes, PhD, author of the new book Happier Hour: How to beat distraction, Expand Your Time, and Focus on What Matters Most. A marketing and behavioral decision-making professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where she created the popular class Applying the Science of Happiness to Life Design, she teaches business graduate students to think of time–not money–as the most precious resource.
Recently, my life drove home my own priorities. My husband’s surgery was a serious one, involving a week’s stay in the hospital. Not long afterward, my father fell ill and I spent another couple of days in yet another intensive care unit, supporting my mother. These events demanded all of me, and for the first time in my life I cast aside both major projects and trivial ones. I turned down assignments, begged off deadlines, canceled appointments, and told the kids I couldn’t give them a ride. I let everything on my to-do list go.
I’m happy to report that my husband and father made it through–and that whatever tasks I failed to accomplish during those days made not an ounce of difference. It was liberating, in a way, to focus on one thing and one thing only: being there for my most beloved people when they really needed me. It was also a good reminder that while our to-do lists will never end, our brief lives on this earth will-which is a pretty powerful reason to spend our time here doing what we value most (and not feeling bad about ignoring the dishes).
Here’s how to tame your Terrible Trivium and start treating your time as a chance to recharge and focus on what really matters to you.