In 2003 I started my own business, and for 10 years while raising two children I grew it until it was profitable enough to be acquired. People often ask me how I found the time to do it all, to which I respond, “I didn’t.” To me, “finding time” is a myth. Instead of thinking about time as a quantitative measure, I judge my time by quality—a strange way of looking at it, perhaps, from a person who built a career around quantitative validations. But measuring time in this way helps me prioritize tasks, give value to my clients and employees, and strike a work-life balance—all while taking myself less seriously along the way.
The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens. While chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative in nature.
Think about the last time you were in a 30 minute meeting that you didn’t feel added value to your day. Did it really feel like 30 minutes or did it seem like the meeting lasted for two days? Or what about the last time you were about to go away on vacation. Did the days leading up to your departure drag on for an eternity? There’s a reason time slows down when your present reality lacks meaning, but accelerates when you’re busy or engaged. Time may be quantitative, but as humans we feel through our experiences that all time is not created equal.
During the early days of growing my business I felt overwhelmed by everything I had to do in 24 hours. Meetings became an opportunity to multitask (I could respond to an email during a presentation and schedule another meeting that needed to happen before the one I was in even finished). The problem is that I wasted more energy trying to decipher what I missed, and it sent a message to the other people in the room that their time was not as valuable as mine.
After I wasted enough time trying to catch up on what I missed, I changed my approach entirely and stopped multitasking. I realized that giving an employee 30 minutes of undivided attention is far more valuable than giving them an hour that includes distractions and interruptions.
When you’re fully present and engaged in the moment, your brain processes information more efficiently. Several studies have found that practicing mindfulness improves focus, memory, and cognitive flexibility and reduces emotional reactivity. The underlying advantage of mindfulness, of being present, is using time more efficiently. On the flip side of this, multitasking only reduces inefficiency. In our world today where everyone has a smartphone within reach and the world at their fingertips, it’s far easier to multitask or seek a short-term stimulus response when we’re stuck in a boring meeting, than it is to be present. But being present allows you to appreciate the opportunity to add value to your day. Even a meeting that feels useless has the potential to teach you something—but you’ll only realize what that something is if you’re present enough to recognize it.
I recently met with two women who work in a frenetic work environment and they’re having trouble coping. They feel overwhelmed and unable to prioritize tasks and, to a certain extent, maintain their sanity. The best piece of advice I gave them was that frenetic energy is contagious but they don’t have to catch it—or pass it on. What I mean by this is that they shouldn’t approach the work day as an opportunity to get caught up in the race to do as much as possible. Instead, they should focus on the qualitative nature of their time and be wholly present in the tasks, meetings, and conversations that add the most value to both themselves and the firm.
One technique you can use to evaluate your time is the quadrant approach:
IMPORTANT AND URGENT
IMPORTANT AND NOT URGENT
NOT IMPORTANT BUT URGENT
NOT IMPORTANT AND NOT URGENT
Your goal should be to maximize the amount of time you spend in Quadrant II. In order to do this, it means assessing your priorities and paring down what William Oncken, Jr. refers to as monkeys (his essay is one of the best-selling Harvard Business Review articles of all time).
Begin by determining which way of setting priorities works best for you. Should you tackle the hardest and least appealing task of the day first? Or should you list your three most important tasks of the day the night before so you know what needs to be completed immediately when you wake up the next morning? Using these frameworks aren’t about managing time, instead they’re about recognizing how to use time as a resource that energizes, rather than depletes you.
We know that time bends based on our experience and we also know time is out of our hands. Despite this, we try to manage time anyway because time is our most valuable asset. We fear wasting time. And we should.
For the most part we focus on chronological time (time measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, and years). But in that chronological continuum of past, present, and future, if you can every once in a while think about time as kairos, each moment holding infinite possibility to be a meaningful event in your life, maybe it will help you realize that the time you’ve been looking for has been there all along.