A really smart somebody or other once opined that time is what keeps everything in a story from happening all at once. Since we humans are all engaged in making up some kind of story or other, this is an important concept.
I know. All kinds of people have weighed in with opinions – esoteric, scientific, and mundane – about Time. You have probably heard them all before.
Basically, under all of that pretzel-brain making cascade, we are told that either (a) Time is an illusion or a delusion and not real at all, or (b) the only ride we have in this little bit of life we’ve been given is Time and it is a powerful, wild and slippery thing that never stops moving off in all directions.
Frankly, the “Time-Is-Not-Real” concept is useless for regular, practical folks with bills to pay and babies to feed. When survival issues (like filling your rice bowl and keeping a roof over your head) are pressing urgencies, there’s not much room to be contemplating Time as a fantasy.
So, mostly, we post-moderns accept it when we are told that we are more or less stuck with trying to figure out how to develop the skills we need to mount the slippery chaos-beast that is Time and…well, ride!
There is no shortage of advice about how to “manage time,” but very often, it seems to me, these so-called life-hacks and advice for the overworked and overwhelmed can be somewhat deceptive.
I have noticed that if you look at the advice with an eye towards the results you get from following them, it really does look like productivity experts and self-development coaches and consultants mostly teach you how to manage your own actions and harness your wild thoughts in order to tame and leash yourself to Time.
I often find that a lot of this most excellent advice feels very much like leashing a six-year-old kid to a Great Dane and telling the kid to go take the dog for a walk around the block. (YEESH!)
A BOOK ABOUT HOW HUMANS DEAL WITH TIME
Humans have many ways of playing and working with time. People around the world in different cultures and during different eras throughout history all developed and evolved their own ways of working with time to shape their own realities.
All of the different approaches for dealing with time can be useful, depending on what you are trying to do and the circumstances with which you are dealing.
One paradigm and pattern in which we post-moderns have been particularly encouraged to participate is what the late social psychologist and time researcher Robert Levine identifies as “clock time” in his 1997 book, A GEOGRAPHY OF TIME: Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, Or How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently.
[I just had to get that book title in here. It’s just so…1990s. This pop-sci book was apparently interesting enough for it to keep on selling steadily.
The book was taken up by a reprinter, Basic Books, and another edition was released to the world in 2018 with a slicker subtitle: “On Tempo, Culture, And the Pace Of Life.” It’s available as a Kindle edition and as a paperback.
Here’s a caveat: Because of the age of the book with the overblown title, the stories may seem dated and possibly politically “insensitive” or whatever. (This was pre-9/11, guys.)
The lens Levine uses to look at the global nuances of Time is probably just as interesting as the work itself…and, he was there – a very observant and noticing Johnny-on-the-spot.
I like it.]
In the book, Levine broadly categorizes how humans interact with time in three different ways:
Nature time is time in the “raw.” Humans who follow nature time are influenced by and adapt to the rising and setting of the sun, weather phenomena, the changing seasons, and the natural happenings and processes of the world around them.
“Event time,” as Levine calls it, is the time that is needed to organize and perform sometimes complicated tasks that are part of making a something from start to finish. (I prefer to call it “project time.”). You move through a number of connected processes — linked actions that often require a certain degree of knowledge and skill — one after another — and you produce a finished product or accomplish some desired outcome or long-term goal.
Humans on clock time live by the clock. Their lives are tied up and bound in scheduling, performance, productivity, and analyzing and measuring the activities of their lives using the time units on a clock of one sort or another.
Each of these ways of dancing with time produces different rhythms and requires getting your body and your mind to move at differing speeds. Each one also creates a different framework for your days.
Each one encourages and fosters the emphasis and prioritization of different human values as well, it seems. And they can be mixed and matched, I suppose. There are all sorts of hybrid forms that humans make up with the basic three.
Humans who live in nature time don’t seem to pay a lot of attention to time. They are too busy watching the natural world and participating in that ongoing complex dance that has been happening since before some human invented time.
Think of a surfer in the ocean waiting for a wave to rise.
Think about hunter-gatherers working directly with the natural world’s resources and gifts to take care of the needs of their heart-people.
Think about agrarian or nomadic cultures that are tied to the seasons.
A lot of their lives are spent in nature-time mode.
This mode seems best when you’re wanting to savor and appreciate Life-Its-Own-Self.
It can take you to a special place that is very much to our liking. It’s the place you go to experience the connectedness of Native thinking, the blissfulness of Eckhart Tolle’s “Now,” the reaching for the Divine through prayerfulness, or the open and perfectly accepting “Beginner Mind” thing meditators try to cultivate.
Proponents tell you these things are good for a healthier and saner you. Nature time can help you to increase your physical energy and vitality. It lets you dump all the anxiety and stress created by turning away from the “Oneness of the Universe” and so forth and so on.
This is all true. Every human can learn how to sink into nature time. When you were a baby, that’s where you lived. It is still where you can go to feed your soul.
The major problem with nature-time mode, though, is that it really does eat up a bunch of your time that could be “much better spent” (hardcore achievement aficionados tell us) on things that make dents – big or small — in the World-As-We-Know-It, the one where the concerns of us humans are paramount because it’s the one we have built together.
In nature time, Time is all there is.
For this reason, while nature time is our starting place and our best medicine, the majority of us urban sorts do have a hard time staying in that time mode.
TIME MODES THAT HELP US NAVIGATE CONSENSUS-WORLD
The top two character traits that leadership coaches and consultants and other productivity and achievement experts tell us we need to develop and foster if we choose to live and thrive in our consensus-world are:
- efficiency (for the guys doing the performing and productivity work)
- effectiveness (for the guys pointing the performers in various directions in order to accomplish assorted and valued aims and goals and visionary stuff like that).
Business thinker icon Peter Drucker described these objectives like this: “Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.”
The Smarty Pants in the white lab coats have done all kinds of studies looking at how differing time scheduling styles can help to promote efficiency and effectiveness.
EFFICIENCY AND GETTING THINGS DONE IS A STRENGTH CLOCK-TIME MODE ENCOURAGES
In a 2014 paper, researchers Tamar Avnet and Anne-Laure Sellier and their team studied how people used clock time and event time approaches to getting things done.
According to Avnet and Sellier, if your priority is to be efficient, clock-time is the way to go. Goals and hard deadlines combined with the clicking of the inexorable passing of minutes, hours, and days can provide a lot of impetus for you to make your moves.
You can get good at doing things methodically and fast. You’ll get to meetings on time. You’ll meet deadlines, show your respect for other people’s time, and foster connections just by getting good at dealing with the clock-time mode conventions and customs and rules and regs.
(You may also drown in paperwork and data streams, but that’s another story.)
Clock time gained favor during the Industrial Revolution because it helped humans work better with the machines and mechanistic systems they used to produce the mass goods that were going to make the lives of the people (who could afford them) a heck of a lot better.
In fact, clock time is now the default scheduling mode for many of the folks reading this and the most familiar way we post-modern achievement junkies tend to deal with the time in our lives:
“Lunch is at noon and I’ve got a meeting at 2 p.m. and another scheduled for a half-hour after that, and I’m expected at an appointment at 3:45 p.m., followed by…” and so on.
The attitudes that grew out of placing an intense focus on discreet units of time and on how much one human could actually do in whatever time was available bled into every other aspect of human life.
Payment for services rendered during clock-time mode, a key motivator for getting a person to twist their body and mind to match the more machine-like vagaries of that way of moving, is tied to the measured bits and pieces of the time-construct that are depicted by mechanical clocks and calendars laid out like grids.
People routinely sell away their days. Nowadays, the most respected folks can actually charge a sizeable set fee for mere minutes of their time.
However, the “usefulness” of clock time does depend on whether everybody uses the same time-frames. When you are trying to coordinate some effort or other to accomplish a particular goal, it can get confusing when the people with whom you are working don’t all agree about what time it is.
Everybody’s watches have to be synchronized when you have a plan involving many people and requiring impeccable timing. Right?
There has to be one standard way of keeping track of time. Otherwise, the process gets muddled and the wrangling and whining starts and productivity grinds to a halt.
INTERLUDE (A LOOK AT AN EARLIER TIME ON MAUI)
Irma Gerner Burns was in her eighties when she gifted me with a copy of the 1991 book she wrote, MAUI’S MITTEE AND THE GENERAL: A Glimpse Into the Lives of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Fowler Baldwin.
The slender volume is a little bit of local history affectionately told by a lady who was personal secretary to Frank Baldwin (the General) and, later, a companion and friend to his widow Harriet (Mittie).
The Baldwins were part of one of the most influential of the Maui sugar plantation owner families who helped to shape the Maui island lifestyles during that not-so-long-ago historic period.
Like Levine’s book, Irma’s provides another perspective — a sentimental and nostalgic one — of the attitudes held by the people who lived in the not-so-distant past.
My own favorite writings in the book are a collection of little articles that Irma had penned for HC&S Breeze, a company newsletter that was published in the 1950’s. Here’s a little taste:
“Prior to World War I, every Maui plantation had its own time and blew its mill whistle accordingly. Kahului Railroad ran on another time. And ‘central’ gave over the phone yet another ‘correct time.’ Vestiges of this mess persisted until 1948.”
Irma explains that plantation time was adjusted “frequently” in order to take advantage of “every instant of daylight.”
In case you didn’t know, sunrise times vary around the island of Maui. The massive bulk of Haleakala on the eastern side of the island casts a huge shadow. The mountain can block the view of the rising sun that is visible to someone standing in a Central Maui plantation from the eyes of a person standing on the West Maui beaches for as much as a full hour.
The full hour was the time difference between the clock times at the mill in Puunene in Central Maui and the one in Lahaina to the west (a distance, as the mynah bird flies, of only about 14 miles.)
Residents of the island had to maintain a certain flexibility of mind. A common question back then was, “Is that plantation time or central time?”
BACK TO POST-MODERN CLOCK TIME
These days, we’ve got Time pretty much standardized. We’ve factored in things like global geography and time zones and datelines, even, but it doesn’t seem to have helped to make our individual interactions with Time particularly smooth or easy.
Doing the efficiency-oriented clock-time dance has us trying to cram every minute of every day and night with moves and decisions and choices from an array of systems that we are told will take care of all the details in our increasingly complex dance.
We run, run, run, trying to get through the never-ending lists of “things I had to do yesterday.”
However, very often, no matter how fast we run and no matter how much action moves we stuff into our sliced and diced days, we don’t ever seem to have enough time to do what we say we want to be doing.
Another study done by researchers at Standford University led by professor Teresa Amabile found that the busier knowledge workers were, the less creative they became.
The problem is creative work is just not mechanical or methodical. Ideas come when they will and almost never on schedule. They morph and wriggle around.
When you’re on a timeline and the deadline is fast approaching you often cannot wait for a draggy-footed Muse to check in. You stress out, you yell and plead and cry a lot, and your temperamental Muse stomps off in high dudgeon. (Oy!)
[No, Dr. Amabile and her colleagues did not say that last bit. That was just me.]
Avnet and Sellier got similar findings as well in their study. People who depend on the clock to dictate their schedules, they found, were often less present, less able to savor positive emotions and likely to be less open (and not even notice) the unpredictable opportunities that are an inherent part of creative work.
The clock-time dance shuts down an important aspect of doing creative work. You cannot make something new from nothing. You do have to take the time to feed your Muses new information, new experiences, and new dots to connect in order to get to uncommon, new-to-you solutions.
So, many times in the post-modern clock-time dance, we either end up making boring coleslaw out of our one wild and precious life or we end up as a pile of ashes on the side of the road.
Not so good.
AND THEN THERE’S EFFECTIVENESS AND PROJECT-TIME SCHEDULING
People who live in event (or project) time are not as concerned about the little markings all around the clock face. They don’t divide up their days quite so finely.
Rather than planning out their days by the minutes, they decide on what they want to accomplish and then spend their time responding to whatever happens during those days while keeping their eye on the objectives for which they are aiming.
When I’m hungry, I’ll eat lunch. This meeting will end when we’ve resolved the very important issue we’re currently addressing. Then, maybe, if it doesn’t take all afternoon, we’ll be able to deal with another, lesser issue. If this meeting runs into overtime, I’ll need to cancel that hair-dressing appointment I had….and so on.
Project-time scheduling done right can help you make work that may have a lot of meaning in your life.
Think about a master woodcarver who is working on building a spiral staircase by hand with no nails.
Think about a world-class luthier putting together a guitar for a rock star who has been waiting for the thing for two years already.
Think about a car enthusiast taking apart a beat-up and rusty ruin of a 1914 Stutz Bearcat because he plans to rebuild the thing from the ground up.
Think about the native American student learning to carve an eagle’s head presenting his fiftieth attempt to his traditionalist master. The guy looks at it, nods, and says, “You’re getting there. Try again.”
Think about the poet sitting in her little room wrestling the heck out of words that won’t stand still and say something real. Her plan is to gather together all of her finished poems, assemble a book, launch it off…and then stand there listening to the resounding silence that comes back. And then she will sit down and she will try again.
Many creatives – including freelancers, consultants, and other contract and piecemeal workers – work on projects where their renumeration is tied to the work they complete.
If they work fast and are prolific at making good, solid products or services, they can get paid well. If they work long and do excellent and original work (and have very good salespeople and representatives), they can get paid very well.
I don’t know how many craftspeople, artists, musicians, and writers of every ilk have moaned at me about how little money they get for the time they’ve put into some major work. (They don’t even talk about the stuff that doesn’t come together and has to be trashed.)
Those same people would probably not trade their lifestyles for the clock-time model. They know it; I know it. We laugh.
When you’re in project-time style scheduling, you may not be particularly efficient at checking off all the little boxes on a never-ending to-do list, but you and your work can become extraordinarily effective if you can figure out how to use your available time to address and take care of your most meaningful and important priority items.
You can do the right things in the right way at the right time.
Another, more mundane example. Imagine you want to buy that perfect gift for your beloved partner’s special day. You will put in extra effort to make sure the gift is meaningful and happy-making.
You probably won’t get done with the shopping quite as quickly as you might when you’re being a “Secret Santa” at another lame group get-together.
In project-time mode, the time you spend and the actions you take are tied to the projects to which you’ve given a higher priority and imbued with meaning. You spend your time doing your “Why”…that latest buzz-word in the achievement addict’s lexicon.
If you have a problem, you give yourself time and space to think and ponder on it until a solution presents itself. You keep showing up. You keep doing the things that matter to you.
It’s very likely that things will work out in their own time.
That one, it seems to me, may be a good way to figure out how to climb onto Time, that big old curmudgeony chaos-beast, and actually go for a ride.
My favorite quote about efficiency and effectiveness comes from American author and preacher-man John C. Maxwell: “Efficiency is the foundation for survival. Effectiveness is the foundation for success.”
Here’s a poem:
THE PREGNANT NOW
I get it.
Now is the time when action is possible.
Right now, this very minute.
But then, there is this:
What if that action taken triggers an earth tremor
That starts a ripple that grows into a wave
That morphs into a megaton monster tsunami
Heading in towards some paradisical beach head?
What is the point, then, of that action taken
Now, now, now?
Action will still be possible in the next minute
And the next
And the one after the one after that.
There is an infinity of Nows
In the pregnant realm of Possibility.
You keep ranting,
You keep screaming.
You want to move.
You NEED to do.
You are losing time, you say
(As if Time is something you own
That you can really lose).
And you are just dying, dying, dying
To go and go and go.
You keep trying to break out
Of all the constraints,
Of all the holding back,
The stillness and in-gathering
Of power contained.
You are itching to rumble,
To tumble, and smash.
And still I sit here waiting,
Watching for the one pivot point
That will leverage the power of
The proper spinning of the wheel.
Here I sit, refusing to give in
To your overweening demands,
Your extravagant lusts for
Outcomes that will benefit only you.
That tipping point has not yet arrived…
It is slow in coming, I admit,
And so, so subtle that
It is getting hard to hold still through
The advent of its coming.
It is almost, but not quite, here.
By Netta Kanoho
SOME OTHER POSTS TO EXPLORE:
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