Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter
William Sprague, 1835
Improvement of TIME
The subject upon which I am now to address you, may be considered as including in a general sense, much to which I have already directed your attention; for you will instantly perceive that, as your time is given you to be filled up with the discharge of duty — so the right improvement of it must involve a faithful attention to all the duties connected with your various relations. The general subject however is of so much importance, that I do not feel willing to pass it over without bringing it distinctly before you.
There is a habit which prevails too extensively among all classes, of killing time. And as this is an evil into which many people fall without being aware of it — it may not be amiss that I should put you on your guard, by mentioning some of the ways in which life is frittered away without the accomplishment of its object.
One very effectual means of killing time is by sleep. It is true indeed, that a certain degree of sleep is necessary alike to the physical and intellectual constitution. Sleep is the kind restorer of the human faculties from a state of exhaustion — and is an evidence of the wisdom and goodness of God.
No doubt also, an individual may err in taking too little repose — as he may thus not only abridge his period of usefulness — but his amount of exertion during that period. For if he brings to his work faculties which have lost their elasticity through the lack of sleep, he may indeed keep himself busy — but there is reason to fear that he will be busied in a way that will be little better than killing time.
But the error to which I designed here to refer, is that of excessive indulgence in sleep. And the evil of this in respect to the loss of time is twofold: not only the time which is occupied by sleep is lost — but the mind acquires a habit of drowsiness or indolence, which greatly abates the vigor of all its operations. That different constitutions may require different degrees of rest, there can be no doubt. How much is necessary in any given case, is to be ascertained only by experiment; and everyone ought to make it a matter of conscience to consume as little time in this way as is consistent with the most healthful and vigorous state of the faculties.
Another means not less effectual of killing time, is the indulgence of a wandering imagination. It is an employment to which some minds are exceedingly attached, to allow their thoughts to wander uncontrolled, in any direction they may happen to take. Sometimes they may fall into one channel, and sometimes into another; but let them assume whatever course they may — no effort is made to direct or restrain them. To say nothing of the fact that where such a habit exists, there must be many trains of thought which could not be uttered without an offence to the purity and even the decorum of virtue — there can be no doubt that nearly all these operations of the mind partake deeply of vanity, and are unworthy of an accountable and immortal being. At the same time, useless and sinful as this employment is in itself — it occupies the fleeting moments of man's probation — moments that were given him to prepare for eternity.
I may instance vain conversation as another means of frittering away time. The social principle which was implanted for the most important purposes — is too often brought into operation for purposes which God, and reason and conscience, unitedly condemn. But to say nothing of the more flagrant vices of the tongue, who does not know how strong is the tendency, I may say, in most people — to indulge in idle and frivolous discourse? Such a habit is exceedingly fitted to dissipate the mind; but the least you can say of it is, that it is attended by a criminal waste of time. It is robbing one's understanding and heart — it is also robbing God.
And the same evil is accomplished by light and foolish reading. I have elsewhere dwelt so much upon this, that I allude to it here only as it stands connected with the loss of time. And there are no people probably who are more liable to fall into this error, than young girls! Many of them will even consent to deprive themselves of sleep for the sake of going through with some ridiculous love-story, or following out the fortunes of some imaginary hero, as they are depicted in a novel. If you should ever find yourself engaged in this miserable employment, just pause, at least long enough to inquire of your conscience, whether that is the purpose for which your precious time was given you.
But if you would do your whole duty on this subject, you must not only avoid the evil of which I have been speaking — but you must actually use your time to the best advantage. Here again, allow me to give you two or three directions.
Be careful that your time is employed upon objects of actual utility. It is possible that an individual may be very active, and in a certain way, may bring much to pass — and yet after all, may have no good account to render of his time, inasmuch as it has been bestowed upon objects of little or no importance. It is not enough that the object to which your efforts are directed, should not directly interfere with the interests of any of your fellow creatures, or that it should exert no positively evil influence upon yourself: it should be something from which you or they may reap some positive advantage. In selecting a sphere in which to occupy your time — you ought indeed to have respect to your peculiar talents; but you should be certain that it is a sphere of real usefulness.
If you would use your time to the best advantage, I hardly need say that you must form a habit of persevering diligence. This is essential, not only because you thus crowd into a given period, the greatest amount of useful exertion — but because the faculties are thereby improved, and rendered capable of more vigorous and successful exercise.
Make it a rule, therefore, never to allow yourself to be idle, when your health and circumstances will permit you to be active. If you once form an industrious habit — you will never afterwards be able to content yourself in a state of inactivity. And on the other hand, if you begin life with a habit of indolence — you will probably never after acquire a relish for vigorous exertion. In whatever circumstances divine Providence may place you, take care that the whole of your time be employed. And consider the first inroads of indolence as a melancholy harbinger of the wreck of your usefulness, and the loss of your reputation.
There is one caution, however, which I would suggest in connection with this point — it is that you should never allow yourself to be in a hurry. Let the demands upon your time be ever so numerous, endeavor to keep your mind perfectly composed, and address yourself to your various avocations as calmly as if you were insensible of their pressure. The moment you become agitated by care — you well near lose the power of doing anything to purpose. Your thoughts, under such an influence, will fly off to the winds; and a distracted state of feeling will ensue, which will effectually palsy every effort. Be as diligent as your health will admit — but never allow your exertions to be embarrassed by the apprehension that you have more on your hands than you shall be able to accomplish.
And this leads me to say, that very much will depend on your having your duties, so far as possible, reduced to system. There is a way, which many good people have of taking things at random; seeming to be satisfied, if they are only in a field of usefulness, whether they are laboring to the best advantage or not. Instead of taking a deliberate survey of the field into which they are cast, and the various duties which devolve upon them, and assigning to each set of duties an appropriate time — they take everything as it happens to rise; and as a matter of course, they frequently find themselves overwhelmed by such an accumulation of cares, that they are in precisely the state of which I have just spoken — they know not to which duty to give the precedence. If you take care to cultivate order in the discharge of your duties — you will not only accomplish more, and accomplish it with greater ease. And there will grow out of it a beautiful consistency of character, which will of itself be an important means of usefulness.
If you need motives to urge you to the faithful improvement of your time, let me remind you of your responsibility to God. Your time is one of the talents which he has entrusted to you, and for which he will before long call you to an account. Each moment is part of the precious deposit; and it bears its report for or against you to the bar of your final judge. Remember that he requires that your whole time should be spent in his service, and to his glory. If you would meet him to render an account of your stewardship with confidence and joy — see to it that you practically recognize his claim, and live under an abiding sense of your obligation.
Recollect too, that the improvement of your time, is immediately connected with the improvement of all your other talents. If your time is wasted — so also is the vigor of your intellect; your powers of speech are perverted; your moral and religious privileges abused; and your whole influence turned into an improper channel. If you waste your whole time — you of course throw yourself into a current that will bear you rapidly to perdition! Just in proportion as you waste your time — you accumulate materials for a fearful reckoning.
Remember farther, that the time is short. Should your life be protracted to the period of old age, you will say, at its close, that it was only 'as a watch of the night, as a dream when one awakes.' But of this you can have no assurance; and the only conclusion which reason warrants is, that you will probably not reach an advanced period. And need I say that even now, some of your last moments may be on the wing? Has the improvement of your past life been such that you can review it with peace and approbation?