In this fourth and final part of our series on holistic healing with her, Sandhya gives us her personal take on being Time-Poor and Work-Rich - our perception of time, and how best to manage it.
I’m one of those people who always looks busy. Always rushing about, juggling multiple things, having an air of chaos all about me. I used to take great pride in being referred to as the ‘hard working, sincere one’. I was always too busy to listen to my team members gripe (as I believed them to be doing), too busy to play with kids, too busy to watch a movie without multi-tasking.
Over time, after many trips and tumbles, and after a lot of learning and contemplation I saw the fallacy of this mindset. I don’t know where I first heard the word ‘Time Poor’ but it really rankled when I heard it used in my context. The dictionary defines it as just not having the time to do things. And I constantly felt that way. Too little time, to many to dos, miles to go before I sleep (as Robert Frost wrote) and being ‘late, late for a very important date’ (as the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was always exclaiming!)
Again, there’s much written in productivity and business publications about time management but I’ll take a more philosophical route here, and ask how we see time, and how we came to have such a tortuous relationship with it.
Our unhealthy perception of time comes when we view it from the two extremes of warping – that we have too little of it or that it’s endless. The former creates within us a sense of panic and scarcity; and the latter, a tendency to delay action, delay pain and consequences; with the belief that they may never come, or come so far down the continuum that it won’t matter.
There are many theories of how we perceive time, not just as humans, but as mammals, and indeed as living organisms. Anyone who’s had a pet will have observed that they have a sense of time – my cats go crazy at their 7 am feeding time and I am continually amazed! But how is it that we are so bad at estimating time? Is it just our modern lifestyle?
Studies tell us that the perception of time develops when we are children. Children spend a lot of their time ‘in the present’ and are often only aware of the passage when they stop to reflect. Their brains are developing and possibly, they need to keep doing this in order to make sense of the world. Adults too make sense of time in multiple ways, by marking the start and end of an event, the recall of a past event and an estimation of the length of time since that memory was formed, and of course via the circadian (day-night) rhythm that we discussed in our study of sleep. We do seem to have an internal body clock – experiments by researchers locked away in deep, dark caves showed that we more or less follow a 24-hour cycle in our perception of tiredness, alertness and hunger.
Our perception of time changes as we age. The more things we do as routine, the more blind we get to the passage of time that these activities take. Our brain doesn’t want to waste energy calculating something that it does every day or several times a day because it’s already mapped into our brain. This phenomenon is called neural adaption and could explain why we’re so poor at estimating the number of hours we spend in front of our devices. Our moods, medications and certain mental conditions also affect our perception of time.
Time seems to speed up as we age and but slows down when we’re in the midst of a terrifying event. This could be our body and mind going on high alert and being hyper focused on the event. And yet, when we review the event, we might feel like it passed in an instant. As we take in more and more information, make longer to do lists, bucket lists, set higher and higher targets and must dos for ourselves, seek instant gratification, or give in to multiple distractions, it’s almost inevitable that we develop a skewed perspective of time.
On the one hand we see people who seem to achieve so much in the same 24 hours as we have, and on the other, we see people who seem to manage their time so effortlessly, and have time to do the things they enjoy doing almost as if they were doing nothing. Thus it’s not time itself that’s the issue, but our awareness of it in the present and the passing of it, that needs to be looked at.
The first step to resetting our equation with time is to pause. I tell many of clients that we need to SLOW DOWN TO SPEED UP. A cluttered and distracted mind will always be time poor. We need to do some housekeeping: some filing, some prioritizing, some delegation, and some deletions. And if you’re a procrastinator, then I’d invite you to visualize a future scenario, examine what really makes you happy, what you truly want, and create a concrete, achievable, step-wise plan to spur you into action and perceive the very real passing of time. 1. Having a goal or a plan, however faulty, greatly helps the brain focus. It will get you started and give you a direction, at least. You can always course correct. 2. Our attention/focus also goes in cycles ultradian rhythms. Tune it to catch your peaks that occur every 90 minutes. Save the emails and admin tasks for the troughs! 3. We block meetings and appointments and the rest of our lives have to fit in in what remains. Instead block time proactively for what’s important to you. And that includes family time, exercise, personal projects and free time. 4. Break tasks down into bite sized pieces that can be done in 25 or 50-minute chunks. Then it’s harder to cheat or procrastinate. 5. Take some time to find out what works for you. There is no perfect plan. The 5 am club works for some, not all.
Marking time is a useful way to see how the hours are slipping away while you were planning to get off that couch or busy being busy. I use a productivity tool called focusmate.com that let’s you schedule 50 minute co-working sessions with a partner. I’ve clocked over 800 hours of focussed time that would simply have melted into the sludge of my busyness and hyperactivity. And boy, have some of those hours seemed slow!
As Stephen Covey said: ‘The key is in not spending time, but in investing it.’ Mindfully, I’ll add. If you decide it’s nap time, then by all means, go right ahead! Make time your friend. There’s no use fighting it. You WILL lose.