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Variations on the theme of time

By John Foster - Resident Yorkshire Accord blogger, Coach & Founder of WRLM

Five years ago, encouraged by my son who is an English teacher, I started to keep a note of the books I read, a little late in life it's true. If you look at my list from the last couple of years, you may think that I have become obsessed with my own mortality. I deny it of course, even if I have just passed a significant birthday.

I am however somewhat pre-occupied - fascinated would be a better word - with time; what we and others do with it, how we perceive it and the words we use in talking about it. Hence my latest foray into Oliver Burkeman’s 'Four Thousand Weeks, Time and How to Use it.' The significance of 4,000 weeks is sobering. Even more sobering is that we are all working our way through this number rather more quickly than we would like! As Burkeman says, we shouldn’t be surprised in the context of a 14 billion year old universe, that life is so short. The surprise is that we get to use those 4,000 weeks at all. This should prompt us to accept some stark realities about our relationship with time as we face what he calls our finitude. There’s a word most of us don’t use every day.

I wonder whether the way we speak about time, which by the way is the most common noun in the English language, conditions our behaviour and our thinking:

  • We talk about spending or buying time, degrading it to a commodity for trade.

  • We can be on it, in it, fill it, and run out of it.

  • We either have the time or don’t have the time, as though it is something we keep in our purse or wallet.

  • If you want or need some of my time, I can give it to you, but what you really want I suspect is my undivided attention.

  • In the words we use, time takes on a supernatural quality. It appears - Did you notice the time? - and then mysteriously disappears - Where did the time go?

  • To time, we attribute life-like characteristics so it flies, it heals, it slips away.

There’s a sense of scarcity in some of the words we use, yet we all have the same amount at our disposal. But try telling that to the single mum working three jobs to make ends meet.

Talking of time with words such as use, give, take, or spend implies a resource that is draining away, which of course it is. Consequently, we are urged, driven even, to use it wisely. But the ‘wisdom’ we employ, aided by the cult of productivity, is to cram as much into our days as we can, and we allow others to add to our burdens too. When we try to manage all this with greater efficiency we simply open the door to more and more busyness.

I’m not sure we can say time is scarce but it certainly is finite, which of course brings us back to that word ‘finitude.’ We are moments away from another email ‘ping’, a text or phone call, a knock on our door seeking some kind of commitment, or remembering another task to add to our to do list. Our time might be finite but the demands on it are not, and neither are the choices we can make about how to use it. One of Burkeman’s insights is that there is a freedom to be gained by accepting that we have limits, that we can do anything but we can’t do everything. This is one way to avoid the stress of burgeoning to do lists and, with this healthy dose of realism, make better choices.

A measured view of the remainder of those 4,000 weeks can also spawn useful and more focused reflections and conversations such as the one I had the other day with a friend as we discussed finding our purpose. Good to know we are still considering and re-considering the question well into our careers and at our respective times of life.

And time is at the heart of any coaching conversation; it may be a problem from the past, pressures in the present, or uncertainty about the future. In coaching we give our time to someone and they entrust their time to us. We provide a place and a time to think and learn, knowing that if used wisely that time will impact on what remains of those 4,000 weeks. It's a privilege, but what a responsibility!

Here are some of the books from my reading diary. I’ve marked ‘*’ those that impacted me most. The others may be worth dipping into or having a look at.

Four Thousand Weeks - Oliver Burkeman*

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande*

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi*

Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved - Kate Bowler*

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing - Daniel H Pink*

Tuesdays with Morrie - Mitch Albom*

On the Shortness of Life - Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Time Warped - Claudia Hammond

The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity - Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott

The Time Paradox - Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd

The Time Illusion - John Gribbin

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