How to Live on 24 Hours a Day: Arnold Bennett on Living a Meaningful Life Within the Constraints of Time

“We shall never have more time.
We have, and have always had,
all the time there is.”

***

Despite having been published in 1910, Arnold Bennett’s book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day remains a valuable resource on living a meaningful life within the constraints of time. In the book, Bennett addresses one of our oldest questions: how can we make the best use of our lives? How can we make the best use of our time?

Bennett begins by reflecting on our counterintuitive tendency to value money over time. This is a topic which has been discussed as far back as the Stoics, and more recently by the financial independence movement. He writes:

Newspapers are full of articles explaining how to live on such-and-such a sum…but I have never seen an essay ‘how to live on 24 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…you cannot buy yourself a minute more time.

Next, he urges people to realize what a wonder it is that our daily allocation of time appears anew each time we wake:

The supply of time is truly a daily miracle. You wake up in the morning and lo! your purse is magically filled with 24 hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours.

Bennett’s original audience consisted of working people of slim means, used to structuring their lives around money. For this reason, he uses money as a metaphor for time, to make the abstract concepts seem more real:

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 from you.

You have to live on this 24 hours of time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect and the evolution of your immortal soul. It’s right use…is a matter of the highest urgency.

Perhaps one of the starkest and most memorable lines in the book is this:

We shall never have more time. We have, and have always had, all the time there is.

Bennett strongly encourages his readers to pursue their dreams, even if they fail. When we listen to the regrets of the elderly and dying, they invariably lament on what they neglected to do, not what they did. It is, however, the trying which matters, the journey which fulfills us:

A man may desire to go to Mecca… He fares forth…he may probably never reach Mecca; he may drown before he reaches Port Said; he may perish ingloriously on the cost of the Red Sea; his desire may remain eternally frustrated. Unfulfilled aspiration may always trouble him. But he will not be tormented in the same way as the man who…never leaves Brixton.

There is no magic bullet, no secret way to find more time. We see the desire to find one today, as people chase time management techniques which promise to free up more hours in the day:

I have found no such wonderful secret. Nor do I expect to find it, nor do I expect anyone else to find it. It is undiscovered… there is no easy way, no royal road. The path to Mecca is extremely hard and stony and the worst part is that you never get there after all.

This could be discouraging but it's not. Bennett encourages us to focus on how we can use our time to improve ourselves, stating that it is never too late:

You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.

The idea that you can reinvent yourself each hour of the day is liberating. We get stuck in ruts and tell ourselves that we cannot change because we are too old, too young, too poor, too tied down. These are only excuses. They absolve us from responsibility. Bennett reminds us that just as money can be spent on anything, so can time. And, as Seneca reminded us, most of us fail to understand time until it's too late.

Bennett foreshadows modern research on habit change and personal development, which urges people to start small:

Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own… a glorious failure is better than a petty success.

Having set the stage, Bennett begins to discuss exactly how much time his audience has available to them. It is a simple fact that most of us believe we work for far more hours than we do – the average person’s estimate of their work week is out by 20 hours. Most workers are only productive for 3 hours a day. (the rest is spent on social media, gossiping and so on.) You can indeed get more done by working less.

You say your day is already full to overflowing. How? You actually spend in earning your livelihood – how much? Seven hours on the average. And in sleep, seven? I will add another two to be generous. And I will defy you to account for me the other 8 hours on the spur of the moment.

We all know the odd feeling of time passing without us noticing. We have all looked up on a Sunday evening, baffled as to where the day went. We have all arrived home at 6 pm and found that by the time we make dinner and shower, it is suddenly midnight.

Looking at the example of the average office worker at the time, Bennett reflects on our skewed attitude to work. We view our hours at work as our day and the rest as a margin. (Another example of how we fail to understand time.)

He persists in looking at the hours from 10 to 6 as ‘the day’ to which the 10 hours proceeding and the 6 hours following are an epilogue and prologue … this general attitude is illogical and unhealthy.

Next, Bennett laments the practice, ubiquitous of the time, of spending the morning commute reading the newspaper. We can apply his statements to the newspapers modern equivalent: social media. No doubt you have seen pictures of the past where a train carriage is full of people reading newspapers. Today the buses and subways are full of people on their telephones.

You calmly and majestically give yourself up to your newspaper. You do not hurry…your air is the air of a leisured man, wealthy in time, of a man from some planet where there are 124 hours in the day…I cannot possibly allow you to scatter such precious pearls of time with Oriental lavishness. You are not the Shah of time.

If you have ever known someone who complains of being time poor, yet scrolls Facebook with all the ease of a cat watching dust particles, you can doubtless relate to Bennett’s frustration. The number one question I receive from readers is how can I find more time to read? There is a simple answer but it involves tradeoffs that most of us are unwilling to make. It means putting reading and learning and growing ahead of the immediate gratification of social media. To waste vast swathes of time mindlessly consuming the day’s information is a bizarre concept to anyone who shares his attitude. Depending on the activity, The Red Queen of time is indeed formidable.

(In case you're wondering how I square this view of time squandering on newspapers with the fact you're reading a wesbite right now, allow me to explain the difference. Newspapers are focused on things that change. You can't run fast enough to keep up with this world and yet while you may think it's valuable the information you receive is full of noise. Farnam Street focuses on helping you learn things that don't change over time — It's an investment. What you learn today becomes the scaffolding to solving tomorrow's problem.)

Bennett describes the average person’s evening which has changed little in the last century.

You are pale and tired…in an hour or so you sit up and feel you could take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously, you see friends, you potter, you play cards, you flirt with a book, you take a stroll, you caress the piano…by jove! A quarter past eleven.

Replace seeing friends for texting them, cards for video games, a book for a movie, a stroll for a trip to the gym and that is how most of us spend our evenings. Worn out by work, we flirt between whichever diversion seems interesting, dumping it when it begins to require focus. Then, suddenly it is time to sleep. Another day is over. But tomorrow will be different, right? Not without a concentrated effort, it won’t.

Bennett remarks on how different our evenings are when we have something specific to do and urges us to find specific diversions more often:

When you arrange to go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman), what happens? You rush…you go. Friends and fatigue have been equally forgotten and the evening has seemed so long…can you deny that when you have something definite to look forward to at eventide, something that is to employ all your energy – the thought of that something gives a glow and more intense energy to the whole day?

Next, come some specific instructions on how we should spend our evenings. Bennett, echoing Machiavelli's ideas, suggests employing an hour and a half each evening for cultivating the mind, which still leaves 45 hours a week for errands, adventure, and seeing friends. This is a practice which we can all employ if only we'd stop the mindless diversions of Netflix and Snapchat and exchange the time for a concentrated effort on something meaningful.

My contention is that those 7 and a half hours will quicken the whole life of the week, add zest to it, and increase the interest which you feel in even the most banal occupations.

The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatsoever happens to us outside our brains, since nothing hurts us or give us pleasure except within our brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on inside the mysterious brain is patent… people complain of the lack of the power to concentrate, not witting that they may acquire the power if they chose…mind control is the first element of a full existence.

Bennett advocates an exercise which has much in common with mindfulness meditation, an idea which had yet to reach the country:

When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what to begin with.) You will not have gone ten paces before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is lurking around the corner with another subject. Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the station you will have brought it back 40 times. Do not despair. Keep it up. You will succeed.

As a subject to focus on, he recommends the works of the Stoics, which is still an ideal choice for personal study.

How can we, a century later in a somewhat different world, take Bennett’s advice?

It’s quite simple. His messages are uncomplicated, despite being wrapped up in his somewhat difficult to understand prose. For starters, we can stop viewing our work as our lives and learn to distinguish the two or intertwine them. We can plan specific pursuits for our spare time, rather than flitting it away. We can take stock of how much free time we actually have and where it is going. Then, we can structure those hours and minutes to ensure they are used for something meaningful. We can stop using all our spare time to consume stimulating information that changes quickly and focus on things that last. Instead, we can set aside blocks of time (guarded well) for working on our minds.

Unsurprisingly, the best way to improve ourselves is by reading. Books enable us to add the lives of other people onto our own. They are the most effective means humanity has found of making our lives meaningful, no matter how little time is available.

If you're looking to expand on these ideas, other books on the same topic which compliment this one include On the Shortness of Life by Seneca and Martin Eden by Jack London.