Have you ever considered your relationship with Time?

There are several theories on how people go about changing health behaviours. My favourite is Social Cognitive Theory. It discusses self-efficacy, outcome expectations, goals and sociostructural factors that either work for or against us on our quest to behave in a healthy manner. This is a useful theory to apply when designing public health campaigns, counseling or coaching interventions. But there is a necessary precondition that is not discussed, one that I think is the most crucial resource for improving health and well-being.

Time.

How often have you uttered something like “I just don’t have the time,” or “I wish there were more hours in the day,” or “I don’t know where the time went?”

All of these statements inaccurately reflect our relationship with time. They imply that we have control over it, that it can be stockpiled and moved around like some payload. We don’t and it can’t. Time acts independently from us. It goes by at the same rate for all of us, always. No one has time. We cannot alter its rate, at least not yet.

What we refer to when we gripe about time is how we measure ourselves in relation to it. Humans are obsessed with time. Birthdays, anniversaries, age, ASAP, deadlines, betimes, alarm clocks, watches, world records, workdays, weeks off, running pace, hourly wages, meetings, on and on it goes. Nearly everything we do is literally marked in relation to time.

This is somewhat startling when we reflect on the actual concept of time. After all, we only ever have the present. We think a lot about the past and future, but we never occupy these constructs.

Time as a concept only exists because we are able to remember past events or project to future ones. We are able to conceptualize that these events are not occurring right now. This does not, however, accurately portray the passage of time.

We can recall a distant memory and say, “it feels like only yesterday.” This merely means that we have an accessible memory, one that has no relation to when the event actually happened or the fact that we are recalling it in the present.

If you think about time in this way you might start to question why we are so beholden to something over which we have no control. Why does time have you under her thumb?

Like any generation before us we are a product of the society into which we were born. It so happens that the present society is time-obsessed. But let’s consider for a moment why humans would have wanted to measure time at all.

Ancient humans would have had a simple relationship with time. Sun comes up. Sun goes down. This cycle erected boundaries around the opportunity they had to get things done, especially before the age of artificial light sources. If out and about during the day, the position of the sun in the sky would indicate roughly how much time they had to get back to camp. Similarly, the pattern of constellations, once mapped, would indicate seasonality and impending vicissitudes of local climate.

All this is to say that early conceptions of time would have been used as a tool, a measuring stick. I put forth that this is how we should still think of it. Time helps us organize ourselves and our groups. Its ubiquity makes it understood by all, a common language.

When at the mercy of time, however, we never feel we can accomplish enough. This is largely the result of historical and arbitrary scheduling. For example, the Monday to Friday, 9-5 work week is tyrannical operationalizing of time. Many of us are on this ride, suffering its long and restrictive route. Someone else, your employer, has decided to book 40 hours of your week regardless of how much they realistically expect to be produced during that time.

This results in your planning everything else “after-hours.” In turn, this leads to more detrimental applications of time like counting down to your next vacation, or retirement.

At this point you might be thinking that you can’t just get a new job or start dictating your own hours, and you would be right. It likely would not be easy, or done right away, because our economy is structured against it. The way our economy is set up is another societal construct, which can, and do, change over…time. If enough people agree that we should evolve from being held captive by time and rigid schedules to using time as the tool it should be, we can change.

Practically now, what can an individual do in their relationship with time to promote health and well-being? First, I suggest, think about time in the terms we’ve just covered. Think about your current relationship with time. Are you using it as a tool? Or is it using you as one of its interconnecting cogs in the giant timepiece of our era?

Next, reflect on all of the things you’ve ever heard or read about “time management.” You can find multiple time management strategies out there with between seven and twenty so-called rules. The existence of these self-help diatribes is a symptom of our broken relationship with time. No matter the list, these strategies always have two simple themes in common:

Theme 1: There are a certain number of things you must do regularly to live as a human:

  • Eat
  • Sleep
  • Perform hygiene
  • Generate income
  • Get supplies to do all of the above

This is modern survival. It takes a certain amount of time. How much depends on your context.

Theme 2: Time remaining after the must-dos is ideal if used in meaningful ways.

This means prioritizing, determining the essential things for you. What do you want to experience and how do you plan to bring these experiences to your present, so that they may become the things you recall in your past, “like it was only yesterday?”

Theme 1 is where the core of health is captured. Theme 2 is where health and well-being thrive.

Notice what isn’t in Theme 1; exercise, family time, socializing, reading, romance, higher education, to name a few. These are the first things to go when you don’t get to control your allocation of time. The same list makes up the main constituents of our well-being.

If you are successful with this dichotomy, the income generating component of Theme 1 will be something that you care about, effectively moving it to Theme 2, providing meaning and purpose. Otherwise, your vocation may have an adverse ripple effect, eating into Theme 2-time, paperwork and e-mails after-hours, early meetings, traveling, and so on.

To summarize, each week (or whatever chunk of time you choose) we have to do a bunch of little things, and we get to do one or two big things, the ones we deeply care about. Yet what we often do is schedule 3-4x as many little things as we need, forcing out the more important big things.

I suggest using time as a tool to book and measure the little things, to ensure they don’t use too much time. This way we have the opportunity to explore the essential big things. For these we should not assign arbitrary deadlines. The future remembering self will not care how long it took or if it was “late.” The most important things, the ones that bolster our well-being, don’t have time limits. If you are doing the right things, fully present while doing them, time really doesn’t matter.

2 Comments

  1. mark levstik on May 31, 2019 at 6:13 am

    Very clear, concise and important.
    Thanks

    Mark

    • Andrew Appleton on May 31, 2019 at 9:45 am

      Great to hear from you, Mark! Glad you enjoyed the piece.

      Andrew

Leave a Comment