Five Thoughts About Time

Here’s all I really know (for now) about how time works:

  1.  I cannot move through time any faster than you or anything else on this planet. Your individual conscious experience of the passage of time may be different from mine, and that individual experience is also relative internally. Our own experience of time may speed up or slow down as our engagement with the world changes from moment to moment.

  2. I cannot change the direction I move through time. Either I’m moving from the present moment to the future moment, or I don’t exist. I may remember the past vividly, but I can never actually return there.

  3. We can each expect the same number of minutes and hours to use in a day as everyone else on earth. How we choose to use that daily allotment is completely up to us.

  4. We can never really be sure how much time we have left.

  5. Every choice we make about how to use our daily time and attention is building our own path toward the future.  

You are on your path right now. Even when you are still, you are moving forward. In a way, moving through time isn’t even something we do but something that happens to us, to everyone.

If we imagine the future, it is often described in a metaphor as what’s “just around the corner” or ” just over that hill” or “across the sea.” We agree it is unknown, uncertain at least, but we are all moving toward it at the same speed. We may choose to bring pieces of the past with us, but recognize that it will becomes a burden we must manage.

If you want to hold on to the past, you must figure out how to carry it. If you want to affect your future, you must act in the moment you have now.

Work on Vacation

I am technically on vacation as I write this. I’m not supposed to be checking email, or doing anything related to work. I’m not supposed to be updating documents or spreadsheets or doing research. And yet I have done all of those things every day of my vacation within view of the ocean.

And you know what? It’s been an amazing vacation, and it truly has been restful and relaxing the whole time. So why am I “on vacation” but still doing “work” at the beach?

Because I’m only doing work I really want to do, and only for two or three hours in the morning. The rest of the day is devoted to being on vacation with my wife, playing epic games of miniature golf and skeeball, reading novels on the beach, and consuming copious amounts of fried and freshly shucked seafood and soft-serve ice cream. You know – vacation stuff.

Because the point of vacation isn’t simply about about “not doing work”—it’s about taking a break from the things you have to do and focusing instead on only doing things you want to do, and doing it all in as relaxed and leisurely a manner as possible. I asked myself, What is it I am taking a vacation from? and whatever the answer, those are the things I should not be doing.

Or to think of it another way: I choose to use my vacation time, “me” time, to finally indulge my energy and attention on all the things that I feel I’d rather be doing when I’m stuck doing work. What I’m taking a vacation from is the obligations to others, and focusing instead on just hanging out with my wife, being as leisurely as possible.

Did I bring a lot of material related to my work with me? Yes, because it’s stuff I really want to work on for myself. Lots books and notes to review for my upcoming conference presentations, but also my own beach reading material for kicking back on the sand under an umbrella.

Vacations for us mean leisurely mornings with few plans. Coincidentally, mornings are a peak time of energy and attention for me, a time when I’m most able to do productive work. By taking two or three hours every morning of leisure time doing some of the work I want to get done for myself, I am able to relax and use all my remaining energy and attention fully to enjoy the rest of the day free of distraction.

By allowing myself to indulge in doing the work I truly want to get done for myself, I am able to get rid of the nagging feelings of things left undone. It’s amazing how much even just a single productive hour can make on the rest of my day, all while still sleeping late and relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds and cool breezes of Cape Cod in September.

So I won’t feel guilty about checking email or updating spreadsheets while I’m on vacation, as long as I’m honest with myself about doing it because it’s something I genuinely want to do, and will enjoy having done. The key is to keep it to a short, set amount of time, and then letting go of it for the rest of the day.

Scheduling a little time for productive work during vacation can be a wonderful thing as long as you’re smart and honest about it. Don’t work just to work, and don’t engage with anything you don’t feel drawn to. Vacation time is you time, and that’s what’s most important.

I’m happy I found this balance, and I’ve had a wonderful week because of it. In fact, thanks to fewer distractions on my mind during the day, I think my miniature golf game has improved – I’m almost making par for every course.

More importantly, I’m having a great time because I made time to work on vacation.

Time Passing

Sixteen years ago today, I married my wife here in the beautiful town of Ithaca, standing under cover of light fog and misty rain just up the hill from the college campus where our lives first entwined.

Just three years later we moved to Ithaca for good, and it was this week nine years ago that we bought our first home, our own little parcel of the city we love.

It’s the same home where I now sit beside my favorite other person in the world, typing out this little thank you to the universe for all of it.

Let me always be worthy of all of this.

 

Vacation Work

Apparently, I’m not good at taking enough time off throughout the year because it took me until last week to realize that I have ten days of vacation time banked that I have to use before this month is over or I lose it. But now that I’m being forced to use it, I intend to make the most of it.

For starters, I’m taking a full week off from work at the office to stay at home and do work instead. That is, I’m leaving behind my office email and calendar and meetings so I can retreat to bigger, deeper projects; pulling myself away from the demands of others to focus on the demands of my soul.

And I really do mean that. This is time off to feed my soul, my larger self, what makes me me. It is time indulge my creative hunger, dive deeper into the ideas I want to research and explore, and fill in the gaps of home projects that I’ve neglected for too long.

I will probably use some of this time to work on stuff related to my job as well, and that’s okay. We often think of that as a bad thing – we tell each other not to do “work stuff” while we’re away. But I’ve been in my job long enough now that so much of my “work stuff” is also “me stuff” that I care about. There things I want to learn and practice for myself during vactation time because I know they will make me better at my job when I return to the office. Why would we ever discourage that?

We understand the benefits of semi-annual offsite retreats for a leadership team or organization to focus on in-depth discussion and exploration of big ideas, long-term plans, and get to know their colleagues better. So why not use personal time away for the same purpose? Paid vacation time away from the office alone is a perfect opportunity to catch up on reading and research that has piled up; to explore my own creative ideas, make long-term plans, build skills, and find clarity.

I realize it is a priviliged situation to be in at all, to even have a job that offers paid time-off in the first place—I’ve had jobs in the past where this wasn’t the case. And to be able to have enough that I can spend this on my own, and still have real vacation time available later to spend with my wife traveling and not thinking about anything but the experience of being away.

It’s not like I don’t get alone time already. I’m usually up early enough to get an hour or two for daily reading and writing. And that morning focus is good, but it’s limited. It only allows for short writing sprints, iterating and editing blog posts like this, thinking out an idea as I go and redrafting, rewriting for a weekly goal.

A full week off for myself allows for something bigger, a chance to cast my net into much deeper waters and pull ideas and connections to the surface that for now I only sense are there, waiting to be found. But I am not setting any expectations, either. I have no specific goal of what I expect to find. The discovery process itself is the only goal I need.

At the end of this week I may not have much to physically show for it—no thick reports or manifestos, no charts or presentations—but I will have a more detailed map of the terrain than I had before. I will have a better sense of where I’m going, what the obstacles are, the challenges, and the opportunities, and I’ll be able to take my first steps on a path through it all.

I’m leaving the office for a week to work for myself from a fresh perspective. When I return to the office, I plan to bring some of that fresh perspective with me, wrapped in shiny foil swans like choice morsels from an indulgent feast of ideas.

Archaeology

I’m sharing my process for preparing the keynote talk I’ll be presenting at the 2016 HighEdWeb New England regional conference on March 18. This is Part Four; you can now find an index of all previous posts in this series on my new #ShareHuman page.

For a few years, when I was about six through nine years old, I was really interested in being an archaeologist. At the time it probably came from a fascination with dinosaurs I shared with many kids at that age, as well as my general ongoing interest in Science! as a thing I enjoyed learning about. I was also excited by discovery, digging and unearthing pieces of a puzzle, figuring out how the pieces connect and learning the story they tell.

My interest in dinosaurs faded by the time I was ten, replaced by science fiction and space exploration (Lego!) and something in our new “computer lab” called an Apple II (Logo!). But my love for discovery and unearthing the bones of a story have never really gone away.

Which is a good thing, because now I find myself at the stage of putting together my presentation where I have unearthed a whole mess of bones, but I have no idea which ones actually belong to the skeleton I’m trying to assemble and which ones are part of a different beast altogether.  Continue reading →

Pocket Watch photo by Veri Ivanova via Unsplash.com

Tempus Fugit

I don’t want to bury the lede here: we cannot stop time, so we better learn how to make the most of it.

Never mind theoretical models of time—our experience of it as humans in the dimensional space we share is linear in a single direction, which means we only get to use each second of our day once before it’s gone forever, but there is an infinite amount of it ahead of us. The past may be recorded, but we cannot return to it or change it; the future may be predicted, but never completely known.

This may sound somewhat somber and fatalistic, but I think the opposite is true: recognizing the present is a limited resource, but that there will always be more time ahead of us, and really embracing that, is a positive, motivating force for life. It’s a burden lifted from our shoulders to recognize that there are rules to this universe we cannot change, and therefore one less thing we need to worry about.

So what do we worry about instead? How to make the most of those precious minutes and hours of each new day. Time is fleeting – tempus fugit – and our awareness of that fact is a big part of what motivates us, and a major part of what we stress out over when it comes to the day-to-day needs of working and living as humans.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve been thinking about this more lately, especially when it comes to the struggle of trying to decide what’s important and worth spending time on. In fact, this blog exists because of a talk I gave exploring my struggles of trying to be a productive human at work, and trying to offer ways to get through that. And there are thousands of others like me writing about these same topics, publishing books, building apps and services and companies and entire industries that revolve around helping people figure out how to get done what they need to get done everyday. And these are valuable, they are helpful, and they can improve how we spend out time resource. I hope to continue adding my voice to that and helping others navigate it as much as I can.

But before I go any further with talking or writing or giving presentations about improving productivity and work/life balance and building better habits, I think it’s important that we all come to understand and embrace this one fundamental truth:

You are not perfect, and neither am I. And that’s okay. Make the best choices you can, and be ready for what’s next.

Perfection is a concept, an ideal notion. It’s a goal for some, a representation of something that may exist in an abstract, frictionless world. But it is the absence of perfection that makes life worth living, and what makes whatever work we do each day worthy of the time we spend doing it.

We can employ all the fancy methods and apps and tools and habits we want; we can learn to eliminate distractions and strive to get things done; we can make charts and set goals and measure performance; we can take as many actions as we want to organize how we use our time, but we will never actually be able to control time.

Just like there are fundamental laws of motion and gravity for our physical universe, I think there are fundamental laws of productivity that are impossible to defy. In fact, there may be only one Fundamental Law of Productivity from which all others corellate:

“Every time you say yes to someone or something, you are saying no to someone or something else.”

Boom. That’s it right there.

In fact, that exact phrasing comes from Carson Tate in the middle of page 81 of Work Simply – not highlighted or bold typed, but just mid-paragraph. Yet it is central to what everything else in her book, and so many other people’s books and blogs and talks and sermons and stories and songs, are really talking about.

We can live more rewarding lives by making better choices about what we say yes to, and what we say no to, but we will never eliminate the fact that we have to choose.

Some choices we make ourselves, some choices are made for us, but our lives are our own. And while time may be infinite, our lives are not, so we have to decide as individuals how to make the most of the time we have.

Thankfully, we are not alone. We are all humans, and we all get to help each other figure out how to be the best humans we can be. And that will always be a productive use of our time.

Focus is Trending

I thought I was done thinking and writing about the importance of focus after my last post, but over the past week I kept seeing echoes of the topic in new things I was reading that were in most ways unrelated. A blog post here, a magazine article there, all had something to say about focus and productivity that jumped out to me.

Being aware of our how well we focus our attention on a task at hand, and stay focused without distraction or interruption, is the most important skill to learn if we want to be more productive with our time. But no matter how skilled we become, we’ll never be able to actually create more time.
Continue reading →