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Taking Back Time
Time is an elusive entity. Some even say that there is no such thing as time except as perceived by the flow of events. Our perception of the passage of time can change with the blink of an eye. Time stands still; time flies. Time drags on. Where did the time go? I just need a little more time! We had a great time! If only I had the time.
Are We Losing Time?
We seem to have a life-long, running battle with time, always trying to make more time for something in our lives. But, in fact, we are all incapable of making time for anything. Each day is only 24 hours long, no more, no less. No matter what we do, we cannot add an extra hour or even an extra minute to a day. Sure, we can take one hour from some other activity, such as sleep, to allow us more time for other activities, but this is just a rearrangement of time, not a making of time. Perhaps we have lost respect for time in the misguided belief that there is some labour-saving device or technique just around the corner which will give us that additional hour.
Labour-saving devices, however, really haven't saved that much labour or time. The forecast decline in work time never happened, and North Americans are working more hours per year than they did in the 1970s. We are always trying to make more time to do a wide variety of things: work, play, seek fulfillment, or spend time with family and friends. We have taken time for granted as we have the land and air and waters of the Earth. We appear to have lost respect for time and therefore are paying the health consequences in increased anxiety, fatigue and depression.
I believe I speak for most of us when I say we feel we are losing control of time. Most often time is lost because we have too many options and try to do too much. I admit I am guilty of this. I want to do so much within the hours I have each day, and then I feel guilty when I cannot do them all. So what gives? Why are we losing time? What has transformed us? How can we take back control over time? These are questions I constantly hear from myself and others. My first response is that we spend too much time making a living (paid employment, household chores, personal maintenance) and do not take the time for living. In fact, we are often reluctant to take time from work to enjoy living, putting off the enjoyment until some indefinite time later. As I approach my mid-century mark, I have come to realize that if I do not stop putting off for tomorrow, there may be no tomorrow to enjoy. It is not that I do not expect to live many more years, but that those years move by much quicker now than they did thirty or forty years ago, and I still have many things to do and learn.
In his book First Things First, Stephen Covey states that our problem is that we are too busy spending time on unimportant things and events and thus have become too busy for the truly important, but not necessarily urgent, events of life. For example, while spending quality time with a loved one, we will quickly answer the telephone and spend several minutes on the call even though the call may be totally unimportant. The perceived urgency of a ringing phone overrides the more important activity which does not have a need for urgency attached.
The price we are paying for our hurried lifestyle is our physical, emotional and spiritual health. We all suffer to some degree from hurry sickness. We hurry off to work. We hurry back home, hurrying to the market along the way. We hurry through meals and finally hurry off to bed. Our perceived shortage of time induces fear, anxiety, and depression and results in a sense of loss and hopelessness. We need to change our paradigm of time, but how?
A Brief History of Time (With apologies to Stephen Hawking)
Before I get into how we can regain control over time, I would like to give you my perception of how we got into this mess in the first place. Our current time paradigm is not that old. For most of human existence, time was perceived on biological, physical and astronomical bases. Body rhythms told us when to eat, sleep and even reproduce. Rhythms of weather and tide melded with the astronomical cycles of sun and moon giving us days, months and seasons. Natural cycles in the lives of plants and animals that made up our food supply further defined our perception of time. Indeed for most of human history, the calendar has been the most important time keeper rather than the clock. Prior to the invention of the clock, there was only a rudimentary concept of hours, mostly in relationship to tracking the movements of the sun and stars across the sky. Minutes and seconds as measures of time were first invented by scientists attempting to unravel the mysteries of physics and chemistry.
The Industrial Revolution put time in its current exalted position. Prior to industrialization, work was task-oriented. If you were a blacksmith, your task was to shoe a horse. When you had finished one, you did another and worked until you felt you had done enough for the day. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the factory, work became time-oriented. Tasks had to be completed in a given time period. Instead of shoeing as many horses as you could in a day, you now had to do so many per hour. Work was now measured by a clock. According to Lewis Mumford: "The clock not the steam engine is the key machine of the Modern Age." As technology advanced, we became more and more obsessed with clock time rather than natural time. With the increasing speed of computers we now talk not just of minutes and seconds, but of microseconds. We have atomic clocks and doomsday clocks, countdowns to the Millennium and other events, two-minute warnings and 30-second timeouts.
By observing present-day hunter-gatherers living in the harsh desert regions of Africa and Australia, anthropologists have deduced that early hunter-gatherers spent as little as three to five hours per day maintaining their life, what we call working — providing for food, shelter, clothing and tools. They were able to spend the rest of the day in play or creative endeavours. Today, the average worker spends almost as many hours per day (50 to 60 hours) at work as were worked in the grim factories of the late nineteenth century. Are our lives that much more fulfilling than those of so-called primitive peoples? Don't get me wrong. Work activities can be very fulfilling when properly undertaken, a flow experience in the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The time demands of expected quantity of work, however, have robbed work of its pleasures, its fulfillment. And with much of its pleasure lost, work become a drudgery and a threat to health.
Even our leisure activities have increasingly come under the control of the clock. In the 1800s, baseball was the national game in the United States. It, like life, plays out from beginning to end under its own pace. It did not and does not have a clock involved. But in the Twentieth Century, the clock took over sports, and football, basketball and ice hockey gained in popularity. Critics of baseball (and golf and tennis as spectator sports) call the game slow, but the real problem is that it does not fit into a neat time package. Recently, football has also been criticized for becoming too slow, because the games were taking longer to play despite the time clock and not fitting into the precise packages of television time.
Time-saving technology was supposed to free us from the dictates of the clock and provide us with increased time for leisure. Instead it placed more emphasis on time efficiency and doing more work. We no longer have to wait for a secretary to type our letter, we do it ourselves. We no longer have to wait for the postal service to deliver the letter, we can fax or email it anywhere in the world almost instantly. We give control over our time to our work rather than keeping control of it ourselves. And we do this to a degree even greater than medieval serfs.
With such emphasis on time, a new business discipline has emerged: time management. Since the 1960s, there have been hundreds of schemes for managing time, and they have now moved out of the workplace and into our private lives. Most of them promise that, by following their principles, we will gain control of our lives. In fact, most try to account for every minute of the day, filling each minute with activities. Time not allocated is considered time wasted. In one technique, Alan Lakein suggests that whenever we have a free minute, we must ask yourself the question: "What is the best use of my time right now?" (And he doesn't mean to take a nap or watch the sunset.) The result has been a proliferation of daytimer organizers and computer software to track our hours and minutes, but they give a false sense of urgency to tasks and appointments. In an effort to establish control over time, we have lost respect for the natural flow of time.
I have tried some of these approaches but find all I did was waste trees for time calendars which I did not use. A one or two page-per-month calendar suits my needs. I waiver between what Stephen Covey calls the go with the flow approach based on the philosophies of Zen and Taoism to Covey's principle-based time management. Since I tend to live a less structured life than many, I combine the best of both approaches. As Covey points out, there are times when you have to buck the flow in order to accomplish your goals. When these times occur and I need to place some structure on my time, I organize a week at a time and block out periods for certain tasks in one- or two-hour segments. This avoids over organizing, but gives some structure, mostly by reminding me of projects that have a deadline (externally or self-imposed). I have also learned to say no to requests for my time which I know I will have trouble fulfilling. I only do what fits my goals and principles and politely decline the rest.
Regaining Control Over Time
I have no magical cures for regaining control over time. If I had, I wouldn't be one of the multitude wondering where the time went. What I do offer here are strategies for regaining control. The struggle to regain control will likely be hard; nothing worthwhile comes easily. However, the struggle itself will enhance the quality of our lives. I see so much potential for improved quality within and around me just waiting for release. And that release will come when I take responsibility for the time of my life. How can I begin that process?
In regaining control over time, we must first realize that each of us has a different time sense. That is, we each perceive the passage of a given period of time somewhat differently. For some of us, the time needed to perform a task is shorter than for others. For some, longer. With the current time demands and expectations, we are losing the ability to work at our own body's pace. Working to an unnatural pace can increase anxiety and tension and thus diminish our efficiency and enjoyment and adversely affects our health. By working under the direction of our own body clocks, we will begin to regain control over time.
One consequence of trying to become more organized is that we have also become less spontaneous, less playful. Discretionary time, once a mainstay of life is now a luxury. To regain our control over time, we must change our attitudes toward how we perceive time. We in North America are obsessed with minutes. We demand fast foods, faster service, faster computers, modems and fax machines, faster cars, buses, planes and trains. Instead, we need to change our perception back to natural time, running on biological and astronomical clocks. To change, however, takes patience, something North Americans are woefully short of. When I catch myself in this state, I remind myself of a Zen saying on anti-busyness: "Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes and the grass grows by itself."
The next step is to learn to live in the now, not the past or the future. In doing so, we must learn to do one thing at a time, rather than two or three. In this way we can enjoy the present for all it is worth. When we become immersed in the task at hand, we develop a focus in which we lose all sense of time, that is, when focused, time loses control over us.
I have found that breaking the connection with those ways in which time controls me can be difficult and often filled with anxiety. I leave my watch at home more and more these days when I leave the house and feel more in control of time. For example, I once timed myself when I went for a run or fitness walk. Then I realized I wasn't running a race. Now I leave the watch at home and go a specific distance at whatever pace feels comfortable that day. As a result, I have a better feel for my body's abilities to increase the pace or distance. The exercise becomes more flowing, a unity of body activity and physical ability.
I also have a plan for reducing the time control that television has held over me for many years. I will tape the shows I really want to see and watch them at a time of my choosing. This avoids wasting the time between shows, watching a program that I am not really interested in. And I can fast forward through any commercials. It also cuts down on mindless surfing. Sometimes I realize that I have only watched a particular program out of habit. When on tape, it is easy to skip over and often I drop it from my future viewing. This allows more time for reading and other more stimulating activities.
Recently, my thoughts on time have been stimulated by passages in Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul. He remarks that living artfully with time might only require something as simple as pausing. He observes that modern life has no time for thought or for letting impressions of the day sink in. We rush from here to there and then rush to bed without letting life enter our heart and soul. He prescribes a few minutes each day for quiet reflection a period of non-doing that is essential nourishment for the soul. Just as important, Moore continues, is taking time. By taking time to get to know things and others, we will know them more intimately and thus feel more genuinely connected with them.
As I simplify my life, I see more and more the significance of his words. By pausing and taking time to watch the sunset and reflect on the day just ending, I see where my life is and was too frantic, and this allows me to regain control. I have also been able to increase my spontaneity, a trait we often lose as we grow older and become set in our ways. Being spontaneous means allowing chance to play a bigger role in one's life. It allows for challenging your plans and being able to do something new on the spur of the moment. When we are more spontaneous, time loses its grip and we again regain control over time and our lives.
Autumn is a great time to stop and smell the fruits of the harvest, the soft scents of nature preparing for rest. It is a wonderful time for the other senses as well; we hear the fallen leaves rustle in the wind and feel the cool breezes on our skin. Autumn reminds us that life goes on at its own pace, and if we are to regain control over time and our health and sense of well-being, we must return to natural rhythms rather than be governed by the clock.
Taking Back Time by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1997, All Rights Reserved.
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