I am hardly a minimalist, but I have one home design rule that I live by: if I add something to my space, I must take something away. Exchanging items helps me avoid clutter, and it means that only worthwhile objects get to occupy space in my home. It’s the same way that I have come to think about exchanging my time for mental health self-care. Time that I used to spend on one activity gets moved to another, more worthwhile, activity.

We can never make more time out of our 24-hour day. Not even the mightiest superheroes can. The best they can do is shift time, travel through it, or reverse it. Even then, all we are witnessing is another version of their time choices. But as humans, we have a little thing called frugality that can help us. Our ability to act sparingly with regard to money helps us save for important events and rainy days, and it gets us the best value for our hard-earned cash. Being frugal helps us make plans so that we can maximize our limited resources. So why not apply the same practice to how we spend our time?

The 2011 movie In Time, with Justin Timberlake and Cillian Murphy, is clever storytelling that reminds me that time is really a form of currency. In the film, all humans are gifted time up to age 25. To live beyond that they must exchange their labor to ‘buy’ more time. The result of this story about the haves and have-nots is that the rich would live forever and never age, while the poor would die young. In Time is an entertaining presentation of the moral dilemmas we face each time we choose to exchange our time (and labor) for things we value. One of my favorite taglines from the film is “life is paid out one minute at a time.” Another one is “tomorrow is a luxury you cannot afford.” These messages come back to me each time I think about the needs that I have and why it is important for me to exchange my time for mindfulness practices.

There are a few definitions of mindfulness floating around out there. I prefer the working definition used by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living. Zinn says that mindfulness is ‘paying attention on purpose to the present moment, without judgement.’ In simple terms, mindfulness is awareness of what we are doing in any moment that we find ourselves caring to take notice. And when we notice what we notice, we do so without judging ourselves and simply accept that we are where we are. We then take steps to act gracefully in the next moment.

In 2020, I published Ten Million Baskets, a poem about how I had come to reframe my time as currency that I can choose to spend on the things that bring me more value. The poem came out of months of journaling, spending time with my children with open eyes, and taking time away from the other noises and distractions that demanded my time but gave me precious little in return. In the end, the poem emerged as a manifesto about how I care to spend my time.

If you are like me, earning a living, parenting, homemaking, and mental health self-care are only a few of the things that compete for space in a very tight 24-hour schedule. It might be helpful to remind ourselves that how we choose to spend our precious time is extremely important. Choosing how we spend our time is more than saying no to certain demands. It involves a deliberate effort to exchange our time for things that give us greater personal value.

If we think about time as currency, we have room to imagine that saving time for ourselves is an act of banking a precious resource and immediately enjoying the dividends of it. Here are five ways that you can save time which you can immediately invest in your own mindfulness and self-care.

  1. Gain 5 minutes. Sit for 5 minutes longer after eating supper. Before clearing the table, try to find three positives in the preparation and the sitting down for the meal that just happened. Whether you reflect on a conversation, people’s reaction to the meal, or a laugh that was had, you can use this time to pay attention to some of the things that tend to be taken for granted. Taking five minutes to express gratitude like this can improve your overall health and happiness.
  2. Gain 10 minutes. Slowly hum the Happy Birthday song each time you wash your hands under warm running water. Pay attention to the feel of the water, the soap, and your own fingers on your hands. You can also spend a few more minutes in the shower just enjoying the feel of the water on your skin. In addition to better hygiene, slowing down to do these mundane tasks can actually help you think more clearly and achieve your goals faster.
  3. Gain 15 minutes. Wake 15 minutes earlier to give yourself time to make your morning beverage slowly and deliberately. Then sit with your drink and notice the taste, fragrance, and warmth of it before you take your first sip. Try this recipe for cinnamon hot cocoa from Hot Cuppa Connections. It comes with a bit of advice about finding joy in our small moments. 
  4. Gain 30 minutes. Watch a video or listen to a discussion or podcast episode that can help you learn about someone else’s experience with a subject or topic you care about. If the topic happens to be mindfulness or mental health, check out this 30-minute lunchtime session that happens each month in the Untold Stories Studio.
  5. Gain 60 minutes or more. Set aside one evening each week to avoid reading or watching the news, scrolling through social media, or watching TV. Sit with a pen and a piece of paper or a notebook. Write down the thoughts that are running through your head. If you feel creative, try to write the thoughts as a narrative of things happening to a fictitious person. If you are interested in learning how to process those thoughts or how to turn the thoughts into creative writing pieces, check out these upcoming workshops happening online and in-person in the Untold Stories Studio.

Cultivating mindfulness is about slowing down and taking the time to bring awareness to our own mental and physical states. Mindfulness is more than meditation. It is a living, breathing, eyes open practice of making a deliberate choice to become more aware of how we exchange our time. Saving time to engage in mindfulness is an exercise of re-valuing our time. We can’t make time, but we can choose to spend it wisely. It’s just one of the many things we can do to become the superheroes of our own stories.