“Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are,” once wrote José Ortega y Gasset. The Spanish philosopher could well have put it, “tell me on what you expend your energy and I will tell you who you are”. Because it’s how we use our limited sources of energy that matters - such as, do we employ it on online shopping, checking our phone, or philosophising on the meaning of life?

When asked, Why don’t you spend more time doing the things you love?, be it creative endeavours, or hiking in the mountains, the usual response is, “because I am exhausted!” Once the necessities of life have been dealt with - the kids fed and dressed and put to bed, or the university assignments duly submitted, or the messages responded to - what time and energy is left? How does one, at 11pm at night, pick up a paintbrush, or start learning Chinese calligraphy?

A simple lack of time and energy is one of the reasons we race about. We are battling against both the clock and our own finite levels of energy. It’s as though we’re allotted a bag of energy at the start of each day - 15 gold tokens of energy - and we distribute these tokens minute by minute. Eight tokens to work, five tokens to the family, and two tokens to domestic duties. By the time we’re free to ‘do what we please’, we’re spent.

Ortega proposed that ‘your life’ consists of what you do with your time and energy within the limits of your circumstances. You are presented with a variety of possibilities as to how to live your life and you are free to choose one activity over another. Of course, not all possibilities are open to all of us. Not many, for example, have the choice to clamber into a private ship and rocket into space - not unless you are one of the few billionaires untrammelled by circumstance. But we do all get to enjoy a certain degree of freedom in how we allot our time and energy, given our station. “Fate gives us an inexorable repertory of determinate possibilities, that is, it gives us different destinies. We accept fate and within it we choose one destiny,” writes Ortega.

It’s common to see people weighed down by this responsibility, however. And some deal with the enormity of it by thinking. “Should I quit my job, or should I ask for more hours at work? Or should go back to study, or not study, or move overseas, or return home?” Some deploy much of their allotted hours to considering the choices they could make in the future. They weigh up the endless possibilities and before long, a forever shifting reality presents even further possibilities to consider and the rumination has no end.

Ortega doesn’t give much weight to the thinking part of all this. “A person’s destiny…”, writes Ortega, “is primarily action. We do not live to think, on the contrary: we think in order that we may succeed in surviving.” If we are, then, what we do, and not what we think we ought to do, then it’s important at some point to stop discussing the options and to act.

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown describes working with a young and particularly energetic tech executive. This guy was so clever and enthusiastic that work opportunities just kept getting tossed his way. Young and eager to build on his success, the tech expert pursued every opportunity with gusto. “By the time I met him he was hyperactive,” writes McKeown, “he seemed to find a new obsession every day, sometimes every hour. And in the process, he lost his ability to discern the vital few from the trivial many. Everything was important. As a result he was stretched thinner and thinner. He was making a millimetre of progress in a million directions.”

When McKeown sketched out the following image, the young executive gazed at it for quite some time. The image represents energy dispersed in every which way, scattered into the environment like fireworks. The particular image caught the tech executive’s attention. This is “the story of my life”, he said.

Many fall victim to this: we start new projects with gusto and determination only to be taken in by some new idea, which sends our energy and attention askance. We attempt to ‘straddle’ the new activity as well as the old, like attempting to walk a parallel tightrope, only to lose our balance and fall.

When the author McKeown’s child was born, he excused himself from the bedside of his wife and the beaming face of his newborn child to answer a couple of work emails, and to even attend a quick client meeting in person. “To my shame, while my wife lay in hospital with our hours-old baby, I went to the meeting,” he writes. Looking back at his decision to ‘straddle’ work tasks around family duties on such a day horrifies him. How could he not see that work was not ‘essential’ on such a significant day? How could he not see that work emails could just wait? As it happens, the client was unimpressed too. “

As it turned out, exactly nothing came out of the client meeting. But even if it had… in trying to keep everyone happy I had sacrificed what mattered most.” This got McKeown thinking: “Why is it that we have so much more ability inside of us than we often choose to utilise? How can we make the choices that allow us to tap into more of the potential inside ourselves?”

When McKeown sketched out the next image for the tech executive, he started nodding. “What would happen,” McKeown continued pointing to the image, “if we could figure out the one thing you could do that would make the highest contribution?”

Now we all know that life isn’t as simple as deciding to do ‘one thing’ and pursuing it. Had we been born aristocrats in 17th century Holland, then this might be the case. We could apply our time to painting or, if we were so inclined, to studying the disparate parts of the reflecting telescope. But modern life is nothing like aristocratic Early Modern Europe. Today, we commute, work, shop, drive to appointments, fill in forms, pay bills, clean, groom, and then it’s time to rest to do it all over again. And companies have got into the spirit, too, by piling on top of these basic human survival tasks a plethora of virtual tasks, a ‘second life of tasks’ - social media, mobile chat, screen entertainment, gaming, and myriad others.

McKeown suggests that we need to take note of what’s taking our time and energy and whether this activity fits into our intentional purpose. Clearly, taking the kids to school is a duty that’s firmly entrenched on the ‘to do’ list, however do you really need to be checking the news five times a day?

“Without being fully aware, we can get caught up in non-essential habits - like checking our email the second we get out of bed every morning, or picking up a doughnut on the way home from work each day, or spending our lunch hour scrolling the Internet instead of using the time to think, reflect, recharge, or connect with friends and colleagues.”

He continues: “When we try to do it all and have it all, we find ourselves making trade-offs at the margins. When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people… will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.”

If you could manufacture more time, or energy, then you wouldn’t have to worry too much about it. But as the first law of thermodynamics states, we can neither create energy nor destroy it, but merely transfer it from one place to another. And it’s this transference of energy - as to where you decide to channel your finite resources, that determines your destiny. But beware, as Benjamin Franklin aptly warned, “You may delay, but time will not.”

From The Netherlands edition of Womankind, available from our online store.