Exploding unconscious myths and experimenting with new ways 

How is your relationship with time? 

Do you feel busy to the point of overwhelm?

Do you feel caught in an endless cycle of efficiency and there just isn’t enough time? 

Do you sometime have lots of time but don’t seem to be productive? 

Do you keep trying to clear the decks and never get to the important things? 

Most people, including myself, seem to be experiencing some or all of this, with a resultant sense of disillusionment, disappointment, overwhelm, grasping, rushing, anxiety, frustration and distraction. Time, and our implicit relationship with it, features in some way in almost every leadership coaching session I have. Whether you’ve got plenty to do or plenty of time, we seem to have a complex relationship with the idea of time.

As you read this, you might notice (as I’m noticing for myself), a rushing to get to the crux of this article, to find the solution, to finish this so you can be “efficient with your time” and move on to the next thing. As you notice this, perhaps try something different for a moment.


Notice the sensation, the impulse. 

See if you can simply be with the sense of urgency or striving just as it is. Just for this moment. 

A lot of our struggle with time comes down to how we are with these sensations and impulses. The invitation here is to experiment with simply BEING WITH the impulse, rather than unconsciously reacting to it. 

Take a few BREATHS in and longer exhales out (annoying as that suggestion may feel) and read on.

British author and journalist, Oliver Burkeman and his Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals course on the Waking Up app, helps explode some unconscious myths around time and offers some practical solutions. These are my top takes from his research that are helping me transform my relationship with time: 

#1 Recognise that time is life and we only have a fixed amount

#2 This is it – where we are is not a dress rehearsal

#3 Befriend unpleasant feelings so you don’t jump to distractions

#4 Focus on your top five goals that matter in life

#5 Beware of the efficiency trap and carve out time for important things

#6 Hold plans lightly

#1 Recognise that time is life and we only have a fixed amount 

Today we and time are seen to be separate things. We fight against time, to make it serve us rather than the other way around. What if we didn’t treat time as a resource and rather saw life and time as the same thing? Perhaps we are time, it’s not something we have, rather something we are. We are a finite sequence of moments. 

What we may not realise is that as human beings we only have an average of 4 000 weeks (76 years) if we’re lucky. We won’t all have this because things happen unexpectedly. 

Most of us operate as if we have infinite time, leaving the fun and more important stuff for one day when we have time. When we accept that we’re here for a finite time, it’s the start of using our time more judiciously. 

Suggestion: Pinpoint in the diagram below where you are in your life and how much time you potentially have left. Notice what this realization changes for you. 

#2 This is it – where we are is not a dress rehearsal

Our modern experience of time is that we’re always leaning into the future. We’re never fully present, as we’re always preparing for the next phase of life, the next day, the next weekend, the next year. I experience the same. I’ve been catching myself say that “my year hasn’t quite started” because I expected it to be different and we’re in September already! 

Living for the future is fuelled by our efforts to use time well; it comes from good intent. There is nothing wrong with using time instrumentally but we over-invest in this approach, and so we miss out on the current experience. It’s like focusing on taking beautiful photographs of an experience and missing the actual experience in the process. We miss out on life the more we try and use time well. We also know that living in the moment is hard to pull off and takes practice. 

Suggestion – Choose one thing that matters to you right now, an email or walk or relationship, and spend time on it today, even if for 20 minutes only, and even though there are lots of other things you could be doing. 

#3 Befriend unpleasant feelings so you don’t jump to distractions 

Where we choose to pay attention shapes our life. Yet so many of us are not conscious of where we put our attention. 

Add to this modern world algorithms that compete for our attention and pull us into rabbit holes, making it harder for us to recognize that our attention is being misused. Once we’re distracted it’s hard to see that we’re distracted and to do something about it.

We are distracted from distraction by distraction.

The things we call distraction aren’t the root of our distraction, rather just the places we go to have distraction. The reason we get distracted is that we can’t be with the discomfort that often comes with spending time on things that matter. When we focus on important things, like the tough, much needed conversation in a relationship or pitching a courageous business idea, we can experience unpleasant emotions – anxiety, anger, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, vulnerability – which can unconsciously push us to find a distraction. We then turn our attention to something easier, that we don’t care as much about, like social media.

The solution is not blocking distractions, rather it’s being with the discomfort that comes with spending time on meaningful things.

Suggestion – Accept that discomfort is part of doing meaningful things. Recognise discomfort and hang out with it, allowing it to move through, rather than falling for a distraction. 

#4 Focus on your top five goals that matter in life

Our suffering comes from thinking we can do everything. To acknowledge that we are limited, and mortal, is a release from this belief. Instead make time for the big things that are important in your life, the things that matter. 

Identify the top 25 things for your time on the planet and then focus on the top five, avoiding the mid-range goals (e.g. friendships that you sort of value, tv shows that don’t really do it for you) which are attractive yet not so important that you focus on them.

Every time you say no to something you say yes to what you really want. Missing out on things is baked into life so there is no point fearing it, it’s unavoidable. Be okay with missing out on endless opportunities and take responsibility for the choices you do make.

Suggestion – Focus on your top five only and take responsibility for these choices.

#5 Beware the efficiency trap and carve out time for important things

Many of us carry the belief that if we become more efficient then all will be okay (based on Industrial Revolution efficiency). The thing is that the more efficient we become, the busier we get. For example, when we respond to emails we get more emails back and more work passed on to us. More efficiency is not the answer to overwhelm, there is always too much to do and in that constant gap is where our distress sits. 

When we’re focused on efficiency, we are focused on quantity not quality. We often spend more time on the least important things – like clearing the decks – and never get to the more important things we want full attention on. Efficiency drains our life of meaning.

We also multi-task, thinking it will be time efficient or more interesting. We try to escape the pain of our finite hours so we have lots of irons in the fire. Multi-tasking doesn’t work; when we shift attention between tasks it uses a lot of energy and we don’t do any of it as well as we could if we brought full attention to it. 

Suggestion – 

  • Acknowledge that we have finite hours and rather do one thing at a time, which brings more attention to one thing and through this more pleasure. Try it, it works!
  • In terms of hours in your day:
    • Allocate fixed time in the day to ‘clear the decks’, do the admin, the things that can drain your time. Then, be okay with not getting it all done. 
    • Carve out full attention time – 3-4 hours per day – for the things that really matter. 
    • Embrace the chaos and disruption that make up the rest of the day’s time and invite in spontaneous, serendipitous encounters that often lead to magical things. 
  • Run three or four lists that limit having too much work in progress so you can focus on the important things and move them forward:
    • A closed list of maximum 10 things that you’re currently working on, towards your top five.
    • An open list of everything you’re interested in. As you complete things on your closed list move things across from your open list.
    • An ‘on hold’ list of things that you’re waiting on others for. 
    • A ‘done’ list to reinforce your sense of agency and to feel less pressure to be productive, which can lead to going for audacious goals just for fun (not for productivity).

#6 Hold plans lightly

Much of our worry comes from trying to generate a feeling of security and control about the future and trying again and again to secure this. We plan endlessly for what might happen. We can’t control the future. The invitation is to rethink what a plan is – just a present moment statement of intentions that might guide actions – and to hold it lightly. 

The secret to more peace of mind, as Krishnamurti puts it, “is not minding what happens”. We don’t stop caring or bringing intent through a plan. We drop the need to live with a grasping, striving and worried stance towards time where we have limited control, and instead step lightly and curiously, “not minding” if things didn’t happen as expected. 

Suggestion – Build plans around intent not trying to control the future, hold them lightly and bend nimbly rather than breaking when nasty surprises occur.

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