Once in a lifetime

This past week I was back in my old haunts around China and having been away for only a few months, I was still amazed at what had changed. It’s harder and harder to find a quiet back street where one can enjoy a few beers at a family restaurant. Every time I go back, I realize that I can never really go back. As Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are forever flowing in upon you.’ Not only is the river never the same river, but I am never the same man.

At my favorite undisclosed location - the Black Earth northern food restaurant, Guangzhou, China
At my favorite undisclosed location - the Black Earth northern food restaurant, Guangzhou, China

We live our lives in Heraclitian flux, where everything flows and nothing abides. The endless river of time that carries us along reminds us that nothing endures but change. When we are stressed or unhappy, it’s almost always because of our inability to deal with change. We either cling to the past, or we exhaust ourselves trying to manage things that cannot be managed.

Over the last 12 years I’ve conducted a number of ‘time management’ workshops for multinational clients who wanted to learn better planning techniques to help their people become more productive. I really don’t believe that one can manage time, any more than one can manage the weather, and I tell my students so. I have found that people are so frustrated trying to control time, because they are missing the big picture, which is how to be happy.

Surprisingly, no one has ever asked for happiness management training. I suspect this is because of the disconnect in the corporate mindset between individual fulfillment and organizational results. Yet happiness is intrinsic in producing results that matter. When we create happier corporate cultures, we get greater creativity, productivity, lower turnover and overall better employee engagement. Isn’t this what companies really want?

When we’re working toward meaningful goals, we’re happier, we’re more productive and are able to respond to circumstances more resourcefully. This is because we’re not reacting to how things were, but how we envision them in the future. When we’re able to answer the question, “What do I really want?”, we can begin to orient ourselves toward those activities that most contribute to our happiness. We develop a greater intuitive sense of what truly matters and what doesn’t. Time management is then no longer a set of memorized rules and techniques, but a deep-seated understanding of our own fulfillment-driven priorities. Happiness improves decision making and consistently produces desired results.

Time management, like change management, is really a failed concept. As Peter Drucker once famously said, “Not only is change management stupid, it’s dangerous.” Drucker understood that once you have stepped into the river, it has already moved on and you have moved on with it. How can we manage something that is in the past? Yet if we purposely create change, we are not simply dead fish that go with the flow. We are swept along into a future that we purposefully reinvent in each moment.

I believe what we need to be happier is to recognize the power of stillness and the importance of reflection. Instead of constantly trying to do more with less, we should allow ourselves more free time, engage in frivolity and treat time less like a commodity to be controlled and managed. We need free time to ourselves, to dream and create. It is the soil in which our ideas are allowed to grow.

So here I sit, joyfully writing a blog not for profit or for fame, but for the sheer joy of exploration itself. Heraclitus got it right; we are most nearly ourselves when we achieve the seriousness of the child at play.What may seem trivial is tremendously important to creatively inventing our future. By the time you read this, I will have already moved on.