How to live on 24 hours a day


In 1910, Arnold Bennett wrote a small volume of non-fiction titled How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. It is probably his best-known work among dozens of books that he wrote. I listed this as my book of this week. I would be cheating if I do not inform you upfront that I have read this book before, perhaps four times over a decade. But this week I picked it up again. It is one of those books that deserve a permanent space on my bookshelves, whether residing in north America or Europe. Hopefully this article will lead you to see the reason for that.

On the surface, the writing of this book seems archaic as it was written at the very beginning of the 20th century. I remember it was a rather awkward reading experience at first many years ago. From that first reading, I got the gist without quite comprehending Arnold’s humor and the cultural references in it. Reading it again this week, perhaps thanks to reading it aloud to myself, I re-discovered the propositions he put forth, the idiosyncrasy of the English society, and more importantly the beauty of his lucid and amusing language.

First all, why did I pick this book up again? I was very disappointed and frustrated by the slow progress on an important business with one large service vendor X, whom I shall not name here, but I have been and will continue giving them feedback in the hope that certain improvements could be made. One evening, frustration compounded with exhaustion took hold of me. I reached this imaginary cliff and asked myself: Is there anything further I could do to improve the situation besides what I have done? Is it feasible to stop working with X and find a new vendor Y in the very limited timeline? To both questions, the answer was a very straightforward no. There I was, standing in front of shelves of books, telling myself: Dong Ping, you MUST detach yourself from that dreadful business at least for a couple hours and find a better way of spending this evening. There is no book more appropriate than How to Live on 24 Hours a Day for the occasion.

This book examines the ways we spend our 24 hours a day and prompts us to see how we let time pass by without either consciously noticing or putting much effort into anything constructive for our own well-being and growth. I know very few full-time workers work 8 hours a day in Silicon Valley, but let’s just assume that is the case for general public globally. That leaves 16 hours for other daily activities. How we spend that 16 hours has much more influence on our life as a whole than we usually realise. Next time, before we say “let’s call it a day”, we should think twice and perhaps say that only as far as the employment contract is concerned.

Arnold pointed out that there are so many discussions and writings dedicated to how to manage one’s finances, but not on time.

I have never seen an essay, “How to live on twenty-four hours a day.” Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time you can obtain money – usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloakroom attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.

We all know what time is, to some extent, the importance of it. Yet this book leads us to view time in a completely new light.

Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say: “This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

In the case of living in London, it is common that we spend 45 minutes or more commuting each way. We all read in the tube or the bus. You see free newspapers such as Evening standard, Metro, other subscription-based papers and magazines, paperback books, or ebook readers. There was a time that reading a newspaper on the tube was very helpful towards my learning English and engaging in timely social conversations with people. This book does not oppose reading newspapers and magazines at all. After all, Arnold himself reads multiple newspapers daily. The point is to be aware of what your time is spent on, specially the part seen as regular daily routines. For example, Arnold suggested that one could concentrate one’s mind on a subject and do some serious thinking during the walk from home to the tube station, waiting on the platform, boarding the train and so on.  He urged us to control our mind:

People say: “One can’t help one’s thoughts.” But one can. The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious brain is patent. This idea is one of the oldest platitudes, but it is a platitude whose profound truth and urgency most people live and die without realising. People complain of the lack of power to concentrate, not witting that they may acquire the power, if they choose. Any without the power to concentrate – that is to say, without the power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience – true life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of a full existence.

Arguing against the typical excuse of lacking time to do more beyond an ordinary day’s work and the exhaustion after work, Arnold talked about beginning the day early and employing the engine in activities beyond the ordinary program before starting the work day. He went on debunking the importance of long sleep. A dear friend and mentor of mine taught me that sleep is overrated, among many other wisdoms that he generously shared with me. For both his friendship and guidance, I am eternally grateful. On the matter of how few hours that one needs to sleep per day to still be very productive for a long working day and to be the smartest person anywhere he goes, I forever aspire to reach his level. I did not do too badly today though, having started reading at 4am today (Saturday).

I am convinced that most people sleep as long as they do because they are at a loss for any other diversion…. “Most people sleep themselves stupid.”… Nine men out of ten would have better health and more fun out of life if they spent less time in bed.

He parted us with this final advice on beginning with what we would enjoy doing at our leisure time at small steps:

The last, and chiefest danger which I would indicate, is one to which I have already referred – the risk of a failure at the commencement of the enterprise. I must insist on it. A failure at the commencement may easily kill outright the newborn impulse towards a complete vitality, and therefore every precaution should be observed to avoid it. The impulse must not be over-taxed. Let the pace of the first lap be even absurdly slow, but let it be as regular as possible. And, having once decided to achieve a certain task, achieve it at all costs of tedium and distaste. The gain in self-confidence of having accomplished a tiresome labour is immense. Finally, in choosing the first occupations of those evening hours, be guided by nothing whatever but your taste and natural inclination.

I confess that I do not agree with the advice above. I found myself being more driven by the opposite view: set the bar high, beyond your dream, beyond what is seen as realistic, and run towards it. I may fail miserably with badly damaged confidence. It would force me to search within myself the strength to carry on. I may be pleasantly surprised that strength exists. I may find nothing, sob but get on with the misery. At least I know I have tried. I was honored to meet with Regina Dugan recently. She is very inspiring for young professional women. Her advice on embracing the fear resonates with me greatly and I hope to do more of that. Spending part of an evening with someone like her truly is equivalent to reading a great book, dare I say, (forgive me, Arnold Bennett), like How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

Finally, I leave you with one more quote from the book to ponder:

It is better to have lived a bit than never to have lived at all. The real tragedy is the tragedy of the man who is braced to effort neither in the office nor out of it.