How to Live on 24 Hours a Day

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, by Arnold Bennett (published in 1910)

Arnold Bennett’s recommendations for leading a full and happy life:

  1. Wake up earlier
  2. Practice concentrating your mind on a single task.
  3. Don’t try to change too much too quickly.
  4. Spend time each day reflecting on how closely your life aligns with your principles.
  5. Study the performing arts.
  6. Read poetry.
  7. Failing that, read anything except novels, and think about what you read.
  8. Don’t be smug about it.

I was surprised to learn that much of the ennui of modern life turns out not to be particularly modern after all. In this often sarcastic essay, Bennett shares his recipe for maximizing “the full use of one’s time to the great end of living (as distinguished from vegetating).”

Wake up earlier

In the preface he disposes of the most common excuse for not improving oneself — I just don’t have enough time. The solution is simple:

Employ your engines in something beyond [your routine] before, and not after, you employ them on the [routine] itself. Briefly, get up earlier in the morning… Most people sleep themselves stupid.

This call to action comes before he even outlines his ideas for how you should spend your reclaimed time. Bennett asks the reader whether they have not ever said to themselves “I would love to do such-and-such if only I had the time,” or “When such-and-such is over I will have time to address this-and-that?” We all have the wish to accomplish something beyond our routine, and it will give us no peace (but an awful lot of guilt) until we have done some small thing towards the pursuit of that goal.

Time is unstealable, and is measured out to you a moment at a time without regard to whether you use it wisely, squander it, or deserve it. No amount of birthright, money or genius will increase your allotment. Why spend it sleeping?

Practice concentrating your mind on a single task.

You practice physical exercises for a mere ten minutes morning and evening, and yet you are not astonished when your physical health and strength are beneficially affected every hour of the day, and your whole physical outlook changed. Why should you be astonished that an average of over an hour a day given to the mind should permanently and completely enliven the whole activity of the mind?”

My mind wanders constantly, even though I have read so much about willpower and meditation. Disciplining the mind has to be the difficulty Bennett warned us of, but he claims that “mind control is the first element of a full existence:

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.

Don’t try to take on too much too quickly

Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own.

At New Year’s time we make resolutions to eat healthier and exercise more, to spend more time with our families and to watch less TV. These are all laudable goals, but they mostly go out the window before the last day of January. Bennett’s advice – “let the pace of the first lap be even absurdly slow, but let it be as regular as possible.” Slow and steady wins the race.

Spend time each day reflecting on how closely your life aligns with your principles.

All martyrs are happy, because their conduct and their principles agree. [Perform a] daily, candid, honest examination of what one has recently done, and what one is about to do — of a steady looking at one’s self in the face (disconcerting though the sight may be).

Study the performing arts.

Reading literature is not the only pursuit that will expand your appreciation of the finer things in life. If you enjoy music, pick up a book on how to appreciate music. Then, the next time you found yourself at a concert “you would live [there], whereas previously you had merely existed there in a state of beatific coma, like a baby gazing at a bright object.

Read poetry

A good novel rushes you forward like a skiff down a stream, and you arrive at the end, perhaps breathless, but unexhausted. The best novels involve the least strain. Now in the cultivation of the mind one of the most important factors is precisely the feeling of strain, of difficulty, of a task which one part of you is anxious to achieve and another part of you is anxious to shirk; and that feeling cannot be got in facing a novel. Imaginative poetry produces greater mental strain than a novel.

Bennett has two suggestions beginning a study of any kind: the first is to define the direction and scope of your efforts, the second suggestion is to think as well as to read.

Unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading, your ninety minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that your pace will be slow.

Don’t be smug about it

  1. It is easy to begin judging people who don’t follow the same program of rigorous mind expansion as you have:

    Unconsciously to become a prig is an easy and a fatal thing.

  2. It is easy to go overboard:

    A programme of daily employ is not a religion.

  3. Don’t get carried away by the list of things to learn, of being gradually more and more obsessed by what one has to do next.
  4. Don’t try to do too much too quickly

    Let the pace of the first lap be even absurdly slow, but let it be as regular as possible.

  5. Study what you are interested in

    In choosing [what to study,] be guided by nothing whatever but your taste and natural inclination.

What an awesome find.