This is a book about free time management. Bennett proposes that one use one’s non-working hours for self-betterment, and offers advice on how to go about it. It’s a single volume from a larger tract entitled, “How to Live.”
The book was written in 1908, and it’s at once archaic and ahead of its time. How is it archaic? While the book is slim–less than 40 pages–it’s verbose by present-day standards. However, the prose isn’t so purple as to be unreadable. Also, some passages won’t be relatable to modern-day readers. (e.g. Bennett counters the argument—apparently common in early 20th century Britain—that one can’t start one’s day before one’s servants have awoken, and asking them to get up an hour or two earlier is so 18th century.)
More importantly, one must exercise caution because some of the advice isn’t sound in light of recent scientific research. The best example of this is the idea that one should summarily cut an hour and a half or two out of one’s sleep time. This can work for some, but as blanket advice it won’t produce wholly positive results. To be fair, there are still people giving this advice, e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In my view, two incorrect principles inform this belief—one is wrong in my opinion, and the other is being gradually killed by science. The first is the Western attitude that rest is a form of weakness that we—unfortunately—are forced to put up with, but which we should try to minimize (and even be vaguely ashamed of.) Rest is an essential part of the productivity formula. (Bennett both recognizes and denigrates the value of downtime.) The second notion is that sleep is just rest for the mind. There’s substantial evidence that sleep plays a major role in memory consolidation as well as ramping up healing actions into full gear.
How is the book ahead of its time? Let me say that I mean ahead of it’s time for early 20th century Britain. In some parts of the world, the ideas I mention have been around for thousands of years. First, Bennett describes the importance of training the mind to not be in a constant state of flux, so that one can be less reactive and subject to petty impulses. Bennett doesn’t use the terms “meditation” or “mindfulness” (he talks about “concentration”), but what he describes is meditative practice. What he describes is a bit more cerebral than one would recommend for a beginning practitioners of meditation in light of what we know from the people who do this stuff really well (e.g. Buddhists and Yogis.) While Bennett says that the one can use any object of concentration, he recommends passages from Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. (Two stoic philosophers.) Note: I’m not disregarding the virtue of reading and actively thinking about the ideas of the Stoics. I’m just saying that it may take some preliminary concentration work on breath or a mantra to get to a place where one can get what one wants out of it.
Second, the book suggests that one rethink one’s notion of happiness. Then, as now, it was common to think that—or at least behave as–if one accumulated enough wealth / stuff, one would achieve a state of happiness. Of course, there’s no evidence that that’s the case, and building evidence that it isn’t. Third, Bennett recognizes the folly of trying to make a massive change all at once. He suggests that one start with an hour-and-a-half a few times a week, and build from there as is manageable as long as time is available.
This volume consists of twelve chapters of a few pages each. The chapters start by introducing the premise—that one has 24 hours a day and roughly 16 of those are ones that one can use as one wishes. Bennett discusses why one would want to do more with this time, what the challenges are, and how one can structure a program of self-development. There are a couple of chapters that discuss the mind and concentration, as mentioned above. However, the program goes beyond mere concentration. There are chapters on the arts, serious reading, and dangers to avoid when starting such a program–as well as my favorite chapter entitled, “Nothing in Life is Humdrum.”
Perhaps the most controversial suggestion in the latter part of the book is that one shouldn’t include novels in one’s “serious reading” time. It should be noted that Bennett isn’t telling one not to read novels, he’s just saying that they shouldn’t be part of one’s mental development regime. Instead, he recommends poetry and non-fiction. His point is that novels don’t challenge the mind. One can certainly see how this is true of today’s sweatshop commercial fiction or the YA novels that dominate the best seller lists, but harder to understand why it’s true of “Ulysses” or “Moby-Dick.”
Given the proviso that one should take what is useful and discard the rest, I’d recommend one give this a read. It’s particularly ripe for consideration if one feels that one has surrendered one’s free time to social media, TV, and brain candy books.