How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett.

In short

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day is short but packed full of wisdom on how to best spend your time. It was originally written to address the growing number of workers that spend time at their jobs feeling unfulfilled and living a life they were not enjoying.

Does that sound like a modern phenomenon? It’s not; Bennett wrote How to Live on 24 Hours a Day in 1908 and it remains as relevant now as it was back then.

Throughout the book Bennett provides advice on how, in these circumstances, we can still use our free time to focus on self improvement and learning – which, ultimately, will lead to a higher degree of satisfaction and happiness.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

The daily miracle

“The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions.”

What makes this daily allowance of time so remarkable? That everyone receives exactly the same amount, that we all get to choose what we do with it, that no one can take it from us, and that even the rich and powerful have to abide by the same rules. There will never be more than 24 hours in a day that we can spent.

“We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had, all the time there is.” This is why everyone should make an examination of their expenditure of time. Within a day’s worth of time we have to find place for work, pleasure, health, and learning. This is not an easy task but using our time most effectively is highly urgent and important – it requires sacrifice and continuous effort.

“The chief beauty about the constant supply of time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoilt, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your career.”

Using our time in a better way

Bennett advises us to look at our daily programme and to make time for the things we want to achieve or want to grow in. But before doing that he lists a few “precautions”:

  • We should not undertake too much all at once. Instead, it’s better to take small steps and be happy with the limited number of things we do.
  • This is because if we fail early on we might not make any progress at all. “A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty.”
  • Most people suffer from a general attitude problem when it comes to arranging their days. Usually the 1/3rd of the day we spent at work is master over the 2/3rds we do not – even though most people are not fully engaged at work and derive little satisfaction from it.
  • Instead we should strive to switch this around. Yes, we have to earn a living, but this does not mean that the majority of the day needs to be subservient to the minority – we can utilize this time much better.
  • “One of the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change not rest, except in sleep.”

Setting up a ‘programme’

The goal of setting up what Bennett calls ‘a programme’, is to give more vitality to life and to every single day. If we only have our day job, we have nothing to look forward to for the other hours, nor do we get satisfaction from learning and development.

The exact contents of this programme are of lesser importance, but Bennett advises something for the “cultivation of the mind” like serious study.

He also states that happiness “does not spring from the procuring of physical or mental pleasure, but from the development of reason and the adjustment of conduct to principles.”

Examples of this include arts, literature, “serious reading” and the study of cause and effect – the continuous development of the universe, and how one thing leads to another.

“One loses, in the study of cause and effect, that absurd air which so many people have of being always shocked and pained by the curiousness of life. Such people live amid human nature as if human nature were a foreign country full of awful foreign customs. But, having reached maturity, one ought surely to be ashamed of being a stranger in a strange land!”

Serious reading

In case arts and literature, or the study of cause and effect, don’t appeal to you Bennett has another suggestion: devote time to “serious reading”.

His definition excludes all novels, not because they are not serious, but because good novels do not tax the mind and are thus not suited for a programme of self-improvement.

But what should we read then? First, limit the direction and scope of your reading: choose a select period, a subject, or an author. Second, make sure that you think as well as read – remember that the point is not to just finish books but to learn from it.

This is also why it’s a good idea to read the masterpieces of history and philosophy. They have withstood the test of time and are usually quite lucid.

Dangers to avoid

Remember that the focus of this programme is to use your own time in the best way possible. It’s not up to you to criticize others or the world on how they spend their time.

A programme is also not a fetish or a religion; it should provide guidance but should not be worshiped. At the same time you do need treat your programme with a certain amount of respect and continue to make an effort to stick to it.

As mentioned earlier, also don’t try to do too many things at once. Your programme should not be oppressive.

Finally, the biggest danger to avoid is not starting at all or over-taxing yourself at the start. “Let the pace of the first lap be even absurdly slow, but let it be as regular as possible.”

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