A Practical Summary of How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett
There’s no better manual on time management than Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (notes). It’s a masterpiece of philosophical advice and practical ideas for how to not fritter one’s day away.
Though the book is short, it’s sort of split into two sections. In the first half, Bennett writes about the preciousness of our time, how ridiculous it is that we often center our days around a job that we hate, and shows how to find 7 extra hours throughout the week.
The second half of the books shares different ways of using that newfound time.
Find time and be deliberate
The first step to live fully and comfortably within the allotted hours of one’s day is the realization that though it is possible, it is not easy. It requires an endless amount of effort and continuous sacrifice. Everything will be fighting against you, but you must not give in. Your happiness depends on it.
The importance of finding and using time deliberately is that we all have things we want to do (or to have gotten done) that we simply haven’t yet: going back to school, learning to write, studying history, improving our skills for a better job, and so on. “You are constantly haunted by a suppressed dissatisfaction with your own arrangement of your daily life,” Bennett writes, “and the primal cause of that inconvenient dissatisfaction is the feeling that you are every day leaving undone something which you would like to do, and which, indeed, you are always hoping to do when you have “more time.”
You will never ever have “more time.” As Bennett writes, “We shall never have more time. We have, and have always had, all the time there is.” Instead of trying to find “more time,” you need to make more time.
Here’s how to do that:
Don’t center your day around a job you hate
The person who works 10 to 6 every day, and who doesn’t have a real passion for their job, make the first mistake by assuming 10 to 6 is “their day” and that the ten hours prior and the six hours following are nothing but a prologue. This attitude kills any interest with doing something with those 16 hours. Even if said person does not intentionally waste them, the point is he does not count them; he regards them simply as margin.
Instead of 10 to 6 being “the day,” think of 10-6 as being a day within a day. The first day starts at 10am and ends at 6pm. The second day starts at 6pm and ends at 10am.
For the sake of our humanity, let’s reserve 8 hours for nocturnal rest: 11pm to 7am. Now, what will you do during the new hours of that second day, from 6pm to 11pm and from 7am to 9am?
Bennett finds 30 minutes in the morning for the subject of his text on the train. Since most people don’t ride trains to work anymore, we can find those minutes between 7am and 7:30am.
What are you supposed to do with these new minutes? Deliberately strengthen the mind.
From the moment you leave your house to the moment you arrive at work, practice concentrating on something. Whenever your mind wanders from on what it should be focused, drag it back with all your might. At first, you may be able to focus for just 30 seconds at a time. But as you practice, your ability to concentrate will get better.
You can focus on whatever you want: a quote from your favorite book, a song lyric, the beauty of painting, whatever. The what doesn’t matter so much as the act of doing it.
Bennett recommends focusing on a passage from Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus.
Whatever you do, do not use these perfectly good minutes of solitude to read “that which was meant to be read with rapidity.” Bennett here is referring to newspapers. I’m referring to Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Don’t waste 30 minutes when your mind is as fresh as it will ever be that day on ephemeral content.
Great. So far, we have found 2 and a half hours every week (30 mins a day X 5 days per week) that didn’t exist before and we’re now using it deliberately. Let’s now turn to our evenings.
Most people come home from work, sit on the couch for an hour, watch the news, and then start making dinner. After dinner, they either go back to tv or maybe (if we’re lucky) start reading a book.
Bennett advises that instead of having dinner interrupt the middle of your evening, to have it as soon as you get home.
He then advises reserving an hour and a half three days a week for the activities of bettering oneself. In doing so, you still have two weeknights and all of Saturday and Sunday to do whatever you want to do.
Now, what will you do with your 4 and a half evening hours each week?
Most people wrongly assume reading or studying literature is the only option. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You could study music, learn how to play an instrument, advance your knowledge in the field of mathematics, become an armchair physicist, write a book, become an expert on Renaissance paintings, learn how to paint, study for a certificate of some sort, learn how to program, commit to reading a large volume of text…shall I continue?
Everything is on the table with one requirement: You must be keenly interested in that thing. Don’t study philosophy because you like the idea of becoming a philosopher. Do it because you’re interested in philosophy and want to learn more about it.
If you do want to learn something academic but don’t want to go to an actual school, do what Jack London did. Before he started writing, he got a copy of the syllabi from the University of California and read all the books from English and Philosophy courses. You could do the same.
If you want to learn programming, you could take a self-paced bootcamp.
If you want to read, you could embark on a journey to cover famous volumes like The Story of Civilization or The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
- If you choose to embark on this journey, your life will change. It has to change. “If you imagine that you will be able to devote seven hours and a half a week to serious, continuous effort,” Bennett writes, “and still live your old life, you are mistaken. I repeat that some sacrifice, and an immense deal of volition, will be necessary.”
For your evening study, don’t let anything influence your decision about what to pursue other than your interests. Bennett writes:
In choosing the occupations of the evening hours, commit to that which you have a supreme interest and let nothing else influence or dictate that which you choose to study. Being a walking encyclopedia of philosophy is all well and good, but not so if you have a disdain for philosophy and would rather study the stars.
Don’t commit to too much in the beginning. People who embark on this journey fail in one of two ways:
- They either commit to too little (good), fail to have patience and become unsatisfied with their slow progress, decide to try to do more (bad), become overwhelmed, and quit.
Or, they commit to too little (good), become unsatisfied with their lack of progress in a few months, and quit.
You must resist falling down either of these paths. Commit to little at first. Be patient and let the results compound. You may not make much progress in three months, but you will in six months, and by month seven, you won’t remember what it was like before you started doing this. You will try and you will fail, multiple times, but keep going. This isn’t a matter of better time management. This is a matter of self-discipline and motivation. “If you imagine that you will be able to achieve your ideal by ingeniously planning out a time-table with a pen on a piece of paper, you had better give up hope at once,” Bennett says. “If you are not prepared for discouragements and disillusions; if you will not be content with a small result for a big effort, then do not begin.”
- Maintain flexibility. Following the program is important, but it’s not a religion. You’re the master. Maintain flexibility. However, you have to take it seriously enough for it to work and not just be a cruel joke. There is a right amount of rigidity and flexibility one must achieve.
- Don’t rush. One may take the dog out at 8 and be thinking the whole time that he has to start reading at 9 and therefore never enjoy the moment of the walk.
- Don’t be a prig. “A prig is a pert fellow who gives himself airs of superior wisdom,” Bennett writes. “He’s a pompous fool who…has lost an important part of his attire, namely, his sense of humor.”
You will be tempted to look at those who live the way you used to with disgust. Don’t. Don’t be a prig. Their 24 hours have nothing to do with your 24 hours. This isn’t a way to save humanity, it’s a way to save yourself. As Ryan holiday says, “Be strict with yourself and tolerant with others.” It’s called _self-_discipline for a reason.
You may be wondering, “Well okay this sounds all well and good, but how do I begin?” Just begin! Bennett says it’s like if someone were to ask you how to get into a cold bath. You would reply, “Well just get in!”