In this series, we are looking at various aspects of remote work. Today I would like to explore time. I personally had a really relaxed relationship with time. I was raised in a Catholic belief that it is our responsibility to make the most of it. I planned my times carefully and worked hard on filling it up with productive activities. As I grew older, I moved towards more Buddhist thinking about a general sense of balance between nurturing and depleting time. As I became a parent, I have also learned a lot about the importance of self-care for happy parenthood and for nurturing of happy children. And finally, as a business owner and leader myself, I have also discovered the importance of modelling good habits related to time.
Most of my posts related to remote work are quite practical, but today I would like to focus more on philosophy and our perception of time. I would also like to quote a significant book that grounded and validated all my learnings: “Ten thoughts about time” by Bodil Jönsson. It’s actually a tiny book written by a Swedish physicist and pretty tricky to get hold of online. I am not even sure how I got hold it. I do know that it really summed up some fundamental aspect of our thinking about time, so I would like to share a few points here.
No matter what philosophers or physicists think of time, what I really like to start with is the idea that our relationship with time entirely depends on how we perceive it. Jönsson introduces this idea by differentiating the clock time from the personal, lived time. She refers to a conversation with a woman somewhat older during which she realises the logical mistake in assuming we have less and less time. If in our thirties we feel we are running out of time, how would we be able to fit more time into our days in later years of our lives? Unless…unless we change our perception around it.
“Your personal time is yours. You can manage it as you like, but also invest it with thoughts and feeling of your own. We tend to want our personal time to last, perhaps for eternity. Meanwhile, we keep chasing the clock-time and try to use it effectively. Then we buy gadgets to help us save time. Most of these interventions are counterproductive. If it is plenty of lived-time that we are really looking for.”
And how can we get more lived-time? Jönsson suggests starting to pay attention to it, at least as much as we pay attention to the clock-time, if not more. We need to develop our personal sense of time.
A quick tip: sit down in a calming space and set your alarm for 3 minutes. Spend this time thinking about something you love doing. Repeat the activity but this time thinking about something you really have to do, but dislike. Reflect on your experiences of those two slots of 3 minutes. How did they feel to you? Did you feel the passing of time? How? How did the two differ? How does YOUR personal time feel like in different contexts?
The set-up time is the time needed to get things ready to prepare for getting tasks done. This time might actually feel quite different depending on the types of tasks we are preparing for. If we are hoping to do something fun, the set-up time might feel very different than if we are expected to do something challenging and tedious. What can also sometimes happen is that our seemingly small tasks hide a larder period of preparation for something bigger – we need to be aware of that too. While Jönsson mentions youth as a set-up time for our adulthood, I also think that each training, course, work experience or newly practised habit or skill, are our set-up time for executing our work-related tasks more effectively. As a coach and a trainee counsellor, I am spending a lot of time investing in reading, learning new skills and practising them to then work more efficiently with clients. I got into the habit of emerging myself in a particular topic in this early learning stage because I know that I will enjoy the benefits of this approach later. For coaching clients, for example, the initial personal assessment or initial conversation with me might be a good set-up time too.
In the context of remote work, it is worth identifying the set-up time in the daily routine – for example, slower mornings – but also during the working hours. Planning for set-up time, or time for transitions between tasks is really important for our wellbeing. That’s how we avoid long-term stress.
A quick tip: Start by listing your most important activities for the day. Set your alarm for 5-15 minutes earlier in the day. Go through your “to-do list” (or how I like to call it “to-get-done-list”) and next to each activity plan time to set up for it and list activities, small things you need to do to start the activity. For instance: if you need to make lunch for the family during remote working hours – you will need to stop work and transition into home time and space by stretching, having a tea or popping your head out into the garden (5 minutes), check if everyone in the house is ready to eat soon (2-3 minutes), assuming that you have a meal in mind – prepare the ingredients and make space in the kitchen (2-3 minutes). This means you need at least ten minutes of set-up a time to start making lunch. This activity can initially be utterly boring and feel too detailed, but please do it and look at your day in the evening. What did you learn about the set-up time? Do you think about set-up time when planning your activities or your day? Would it help if you did?
Undivided and sub-divided time
When we watch TV our time is pretty much fragmented, divided into smaller chunks by adverts. That’s not a comfortable experience, so it’s worth exploring and reflecting on how we experience and perceive our days in terms of undivided and fragmented time. Historically we were socialised into thinking that women are better at multitasking and that the focussed, one task at a time approach associated with men is more effective, or even more detailed. However, this by now was proven to be wrong. Multitasking costs our brain a lot of energy – we do not complete tasks in a parallel manner, but simply switch between them faster and multiple times which requires a lot of energy. If we perceive our time as uninterrupted, however, we can complete tasks in a more relaxed manner. Maybe even experience the stage of creative flow.
Why do we struggle then? Beyond the gender assumption, there is also the problem of our perception. Most of us do not even consider those two types of time to be different, and thus we cannot improve our approach to work, as well as rest. Just becoming aware of the difference makes a huge difference. Understanding that the two types of time should be measured differently, we can then attempt to move towards more extended periods of uninterrupted time. Unless, as Jönsson reasonably points out, the sub-divided time is actually essential. For example, to function healthily, we do need to divide our time into past, present and future.
A quick tip: reflect on your day listing your key activities and grouping them into two categories: undivided and sub-divided time. Think back to those activities and compare your mental state, stress and general energy levels during those two types of time. What did you notice? What did you learn? How can you make more undivided time for your activities?
With the above key types of time, we can then explore additional concepts. We can start allowing ourselves the time to think. As Jönsson states it: TTT – thinking takes time. This might sound obvious to coaches and counsellors, and probably to most of us too. But how often do we make and allow ourselves the time to think. How often do we plan for it? I personally book out my morning coffee time for just that, and it makes all the difference for my wellbeing. I make time to think every single morning. I guard it vigorously. I grief for it if it happens to be affected and get back to my morning routine the very next day.
A quick tip: plan a small amount of time in the morning or in the evening to sit down (or go for a short walk) and think. This sounds easy to do, but if we feel busy it can be quite difficult to actually do. So make sure you do take some time for yourself to just do one thing: think. Notice how it feels to have time to think – how your body reacts to this time, how you feel emotionally and how this time affects your energy levels afterwards. Please note this: making and taking time to think can feel new and so our natural reaction is to resist that change. You might feel irritated, annoyed, fed up. You might find yourself wanting to fill that time with something useful to do. Try to stick to this new form of time for a few days to really understand its impact. I would also recommend applying a little bit of positive intent. Our minds fall into negative bias by default so make a little bit of effort to focus on the positive side of this exercise: try to enjoy it!
We all have many ways of doing things. We all experience time differently based on our upbringing, culture but also our individual unique experiences and our past choices. So the above types or time are just examples of how we can think about time in many ways. I encourage you to think about YOUR types of time too. Understanding different types of time and our personal perceptions of it also helps with being truly present in the moment but also experiencing change, rhythms of life, our past and future as well. Those might seem as very philosophical concepts at first. However, if we allow ourselves a bit of freedom from the clock-time thinking only, we might just experience revolutionary freedom and abundance of time.
Jönsson put it nicely: “I might as well believe that I’ve got plenty of time, rather than believing that I’m always short of time.” Not having any relationship with time can be quite impossible, but having a positive intent and perception of it makes all the difference. I have used this approach pretty much since my university years. I remember when a good university friend reached out recently and jokingly pointed out: “Hey, I know that you have now completed a few degrees, moved countries, raised a teenager, set up few companies and changed your profession, but I just wanted to say that I have finally finished my first degree!”. He smiled. I congratulated him knowing that I was not mocked, but appreciated, while he was also very proud of his own journey. And that his life was simply a bit different than mine. But I did feel a sense of broader perspective on just how much is possible in a day, a week or a year.
I hope with this post, you will get one or two ideas on how to approach time from your own perspective and make it your own. I am aware of the fact that in the time of pandemic lockdown talking about having more time might possibly be in itself difficult so please take good care of yourself. And remember that some of us are actually way busier at the moment. While others might enjoy a student abundance of clock-time. Which to me sounds like a perfect opportunity to re-think our relationship with this aspect of remote work.
Let me know how it goes.