Stepping Out of the Time Famine



“Many of life’s puzzles can be resolved by simply understanding our own time perspectives and those of others.”       Philip Zimbardo, Social Psychologist


This is not a piece about time management. Or resolutions or more productivity. No lists here on ways to squeeze in more task time.

Time scarcity isn’t the issue – after all what did you do with the 8,424 hours you had last year? Yes, some time is simply not “our own.” Most people don’t have the  option (some may say “luxury) of choosing what they can do and when they can do it. Work loads (especially in the US workplace) are heavier than ever. Familial obligations can be a challenging and tiring balancing act for many people. So let’s just agree that it may be worthwhile to take some time and give some thought to what we actually do with our time – and why.  As with all activity, we have beliefs about time that drive how we use it. Often, it is out of our conscious awareness and we just do-do-do without much thought.

Understanding how you perceive time is the starting point to changing the way you experience it. When a USA Today poll was done back in 2008, it found that in every consecutive year since 1987, people reported that they were busier than the year before. Then, 69% said they were either “busy”or “very busy” with only 8% saying they were “not very busy.” Women (not surprisingly since domestic labor statistics have not significantly changed since then) reported being busier than men and those between 30 and 60 were most busy. While 49% stated they would like to be “less busy.” you may be surprised to hear that 37% said they would not.

Respondents in that poll were asked what they were sacrificing to their busyness, 56% said sleep, 52% recreation, 51% hobbies, 44% friends and 30% family time. One interesting statistic in the tracking of of time spent on family showed that back in 1987, 59% of people polled said they had at least one family meal every day- by the 2008 poll that number declined by 20%. While recent statistics continue these trends, there is something more that appears to be gripping our psyches and reshaping our perception of time.

“We are the architects of our memories.”  Stefan Klein

Each of us has a particular “time focus” that shapes our experience. Those of us with what is called a “past positive” orientation to time tend to fill our present time with memories and planning for future times. Those with “past negative” orientations are often comparing what didn’t work out in the past to what won’t work out in the future. In each orientation, present time, is often overlooked. Our past, present and future tense orientations play a large role in how we structure and use our time. These orientations are not set in stone, but become neural and behavioral habits. All of us are born with a present – tense orientation, which becomes (obviously by necessity in terms of development) conditioned and reinforced over time through learning and experience. Problem is, few of us stop as adults and do a check to say, is this the way I want my life to function?

Our concepts about time are often captured in cultural aphorisms like “time flies when you are having fun,” and “this is so boring, its like watching water boil.” There are dozens of these memes which represent the beliefs and practices of the cultures we live in. The reality is that the real time you spend – whether you are enjoying something or disliking it – is exactly the same. What changes is your perception of the experience fueled by the accompanying feelings you have. Our thought processes are always generating feeling. Often with our perceptions about time, we “lose” ourselves in moments where emotions go on “autopilot” leaving little room to generate different perceptions and new feelings.

Studies show that it is your emotional experience that most influences your perception  of time. If you feel passion, excitement, contentment or curiosity, your experience of time seems to flow. The “flow state” of immersion you feel when you join an activity with engaged positive feelings. On the other hand, the boredom of watching “water boil” implies the absence of emotional engagement or investment. When we are not interested in an activity, thing or person, time – seems to stand still.

Without question, the massive technological changes of the last twenty years have radically altered perceptions of time. In fact, we are only in the early stages of understanding how those changes have structurally impacted not only work, relationships and social interactions, but the brain itself. While the transformation of our collective and personal time consciousness is important to understand, it’s the realization that only we can control our own thinking and relationship to time that is truly important. Too many of us are operating as if we are in a time famine. “There are not enough hours in the day,” is a constant lament that drives most activities and experience. Too many of us are living life as if it was an emergency. We race from one action to another, whether we are talking, walking, paying partial attention to what others are saying, driving or shopping. There is a frantic urgency to get things done as quickly and “productively” as possible so that can move on to the next thing on the list.

We seem to forget as author Joe Wilson points out, “Every minute of the day is not an emergency, but when you’re in a time urgent mode all day, your lizard brain thinks it is. This makes time urgency, as the researchers call this little-noticed affliction, a hidden driver of stress  – and a huge factor in everything from heart attacks, to dodgy attention and decisions, to conflicts in your work and personal life to no personal life at all.”

Taking back your perception of time – and living it differently is within your power to control. Regardless of the external demands on your time and attention, you have the power to make real change that will affect every part of your life. In the story line of your life, why not change the narrative from that of living in a Time Famine to living in Time Affluence. Savoring a moment, re-energizing the power of an hour and allowing time for nothing to do at all will be among the many gifts of making this shift.

Thanks for reading!

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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  1. Ronnie Ann says:

    Beautifully written piece. Life is so much more vibrant and rich in the now. (As if we really ever leave the now, other than in thought. 😉 )
    Even in the workplace, we can only truly take ownership of our work lives in the present. And when you are working for lizard-brain bosses (there sure seem to be a lot out there right now), “taking back your perception of time” may indeed be your best ally. The demands might come at us in the same way, but how we process and react can make all the difference.
    Thanks as usual for a thoughtful and much-needed article. I wish you both a peaceful, grace-filled, and time-abundant new year!

  2. Dear Ronnie,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment – and most important your support in our first year blogging at the Intentional Workplace. We really value your insights as a “seasoned” blogger and your wealth of “real life” work experience.
    We’ve heard too many people in the workplace say “my time is not my own” and see how disempowering that can be. Managers are contributing to this collective mindset through poor modeling of how they use and abuse time.
    Once again, thanks and a great new year to you as well!
    Louise & George

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