My wife and I have this game we play called, “What day is today?” Throughout the week, we periodically ask each other and then challenge the other’s response. So Nam will ask me and I’ll say, “Tuesday?” to which she will reply, “I thought it was Wednesday” and then I’ll second-guess myself and offer, “I’m pretty sure it’s Tuesday…or Monday. Definitely not Wednesday.” Turns out it’s Thursday. I used to be this calendar-driven guy, complete with to-do lists and pop-up reminders on my Palm, but not anymore. I stopped wearing a watch, except when out on my bike, so I know my turnaround time. And yet, without noticing the passage of time, I am getting important things done; certainly more than I ever was working in an office.
In our endless quest for productivity, we have structured our modern lives around ever smaller increments of time. Our ancestors measured time in seasons, the industrial revolution created man-hours, and we now measure our lives in minutes. You could say that this makes us more mindful of time and therefore it has become more precious, but I reject this. Our obsession with time simply blinds us to the big picture of life’s meaning and traps us in increasingly fixed routines.
For most people, this routine is comforting. Knowing what time it is all the time puts us at ease, as we don’t need to worry that we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet once I stopped wearing a watch or keeping a clock in the house, I found things get done regardless. I did convince my wife to buy this French deco mantle clock we found in an antique shop. It is a beautiful piece that I put on a cabinet in the living room where I can see it every day. It makes a ticking sound that my baby finds fascinating but my wife does not, and so it often goes unwound. Still, I love looking at it. Then my wife will ask me, “Honey, what time is it?”
Not paying regular attention to time has revealed certain truths to me. First is, you always have an innate sense of what time it is for important events. If you have a job interview the next day, you’ll be up in time, regardless of setting an alarm. I set my alarm if I need to wake up early for a flight, but find that I wake up before my alarm anyway. Most importantly, I schedule phone calls during times when I am wide awake. Even when working with partners in South America and Australia, I always find a time that does not require us to get up early or stay up too late.
What about meetings? I think about them this way: how many meeting have you attended that dramatically added to your quality of life? For me: none, which is a good reason not to have them or keep them as short as possible. In my business, we walk around and talk about what we see or go over a few items during lunch together. As Dave Barry said, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be “meetings”.
When I built my first hotel, I deliberately did not put any clocks at reception. Somewhere, someone decided that knowing what time it was in Moscow upon checking in was a great idea, so every hotel in China has clocks behind the desk. Fancier hotels have five or six clocks, the bargain hotels usually just have one. It’s like those signs on the highway that say, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.” To me, this is another big “So what?” Time is all about the relevance that we choose to give it.
I find those who pay the most attention to time are the least relaxed, because they’re always trying to beat the clock. I was so deadline driven before, and became frustrated when other people didn’t honor them. Should I fire them? Have a long talk with them? Enroll them in a time-management course? What I learned was that even in running a business (except maybe a newspaper), deadlines are arbitrary and counter-productive, because people will put off doing things until they have to meet that deadline. If there is flexible completion time, people will steadily pursue the work that is most important, not just most urgent. It’s true some people do rise to the challenge of a deadline, but mostly it just creates stress.
Well, Barclay, you say, some of us have to live in the real world. Yes, you’ve co-created a world you’ve been living in, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create a different one. You don’t have to confine yourself to the same old deadline-driven life. There are plenty of other beautiful worlds you can create and live in. This does require some strategy though, and most importantly, a vision that is inspiring to you, so that you can share it with others and build it together.
My world is one that is set up around long-term ideals, measured on average in one or two year milestones. I figure if something should take a year by my ambitious planning, I will give it up to three before I completely re-assess. I still focus my energy as if it will take a year, but it usually takes longer. These are what most people refer to as delays, and what I like to call periods of extended reflection. What I have found is that by not having to rush, there is the opportunity to re-visit the original vision and see if it still resonates as the environment changes. What usually happens is that better decisions get made and the process of pursuing goals is more enjoyable.
This post took me about a week to write. There were lots of interruptions, my laptop broke, a couple of clients asked for proposals. Those things were more urgent, but writing for me, is more important. What I’ve found is that most urgent things are not important, but we do them anyway because they’re important to somebody else. The things that bring us true joy are rarely tied to any schedule or external demands. They’re the things we do where we are completely oblivious to the passing of time, lost in the perfect beauty of the world we are creating.