Andrew Crosby, 1981

It’s About Time

The way our conception of time shapes our world has become increasingly appreciated by those advocating for flourishing and synergistic human and natural systems.

We live in a ticking-clock world that is increasingly overshadowed by climate change and related crises that are pre-built into our futures. It will take us decades to halt and reverse these trends, if ever. Business logic, market movers, and frenetic work lives nourish a negative synergy tied to a relentless future. We’re on a train we can’t get off.

Part of getting off this train and balancing future demands with the more immediate ones requires that we shift our relationships with time as societies and individuals.

Cyril E. Power, 1934, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

We can talk about it in theory, but the practical challenges of reshaping these dynamics — and the implications of not doing so — are substantial. Our potential action or inaction are both choices that will deliver a better, or worse, future for ourselves and following generations.

With purpose, passion, commitment, wouldn’t you work all day?

Action, or inaction, will both be uncomfortable, even painful. The results of inaction are increasingly evident as climate and economic events are leaving people in existential distress. The action needed to disrupt this state of dysfunctional inertia will also require us to think and behave differently. Inaction is easier.

Keynes famously thought that we could all be working 15 hours per week. The fact that we are not doing so is not a negative reflection on Keynes, it is a problem with our choices.

Not that the 15-hour work week is ideal either. With purpose, passion, commitment, wouldn’t you work all day? What kinds of lives do we envision in which we only devote 15 hours a week to work? Such work could not be a passion, that’s for sure.

We should continue to appreciate how the concept, and use, of time has also been behind our greatest discoveries

It’s hard to imagine such questions from the beginning, so to speak. The evolution of our relationships with mechanization and time has been hitched to human lives and purpose since the machine age. We have built elaborate social structures and entire systems around these concepts of squeezing more out of every minute, but for whom? This is why some critics speak about the need to decolonize these systems and even time itself.

Contemporary critiques of mainstream economic and social systems — and the recognition of the importance of time in the interpretation of values, construction of systems, and the expectation of outcomes — have been the subject of commentaries in recent books such as The Making of a Democratic Economy: How to Build Prosperity for the Many, Not the Few, by Marjorie Kelley and Ted Howard or The Good Ancestor, A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking, by Roman Krznaric.

While the critiques clearly demonstrate where we have fallen short, we should continue to appreciate how the concept, and use, of time has also been behind our greatest discoveries as chronicled in books such as The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin. For example, the discovery of longitude was due to the tireless perfection of the clock. Decolonization is not enough.

How do we balance our needs to re-orient society, our incentives, political systems, and personal values in ways that take the long view without negating what we have achieved so far? How can we do so without precluding the potential benefits of fuller dimensions of time incorporated in a quantum economy view of the future that is powered by endless and renewable human ingenuity?

A new Luddite movement is not a productive response while we are on the verge of such transformation. Surely we need to reclaim territory, but we also need to evolve to an inclusive view of time as both fast and slow, to paraphrase Daniel Kahneman.

Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Until now our efforts to do this have come, broadly, from two places: efforts to check our use and behavior around time in a personal sense, and those that seek to shift our patterns in a societal sense.

Efforts at societal and business system change are gaining pace as evidenced by the many case studies referenced by Krznaric, Kelley and Howard in the books mentioned earlier.

Although incipient, some of these innovations are gaining adherents who are seeking to cultivate different, non-linear, futures. This includes the establishment of new corporate forms, such as B corps, employee ownership, or trust ownership of companies that enables owners and managers to build in human wellbeing and longer-term time horizons to their calculations.

Our good and bad uses of time are much more ingrained and harder to root out at the personal level.

Governments are also getting in on the action with programs such as the Green New Deal or the concept of government issued “just transition” bonds.

Private financial markets are currently the Wild West territory, with new indices and instruments coming to market nearly daily. These will be responsible for a great deal of innovation, although it is hard to see whether they will take us in new directions or simply change trains while staying on the same track. (An earlier piece I co-authored with Hugo Araujo explored this transition).

Where we face a much greater challenge, and perhaps the key to unleashing some of these innovative structures, is in our personal understanding and management of time.

Our good and bad uses of time are much more ingrained and harder to root out at the personal level. Are you a procrastinator or do you schedule and prioritize to make every second count? Could you live in a frame of time that doesn’t fall into either of these traps? On the personal side, we know our lives are out of control because the faster we run, the more the demand grows to run faster. For many people work drives such changes leaving the personal space as the remaining option to regain control.

The emergence of “quality time”, in which people clawed back bits of their out-of-control lives to set aside time for more valued activities, rightfully became a meme that grew with time. As people crammed more and more into their “quality time” experiences, the futility of the effort became more evident.

There are also apps that make us more aware of our time. Apple has a nice self-discipline mode, my friends tell me. It gives you feedback on how much time you spent on their device and presumes that you are able to balance this with everything else. Such solutions seem a bit disingenuous considering how many apps and devices are designed to encourage maximization of time spent with them.

Tim Urban has a wonderful graphic that helps us visualize time in a linear fashion. He calculates the number of days of our lives, on average, and how many more weekends, days with our parents, vacations, or winters we are likely to experience before death. It’s useful to have the perspective, but following its logic feels like we have missed something by putting each day in a box, in advance!

How Many Winters the author may have left. Courtesy of Tim Urban, WaitButWhy.Com

Some cultures are more adept at claiming time that fits with our earlier human and social rhythms, such as many of those in Europe. But even where working hours are more tame and lunch fixed at a regular time and duration, these customs feel like the equivalent of putting on the brakes without changing the train.

Others, with a fully different sense of time, are simply marginal to most of the rest of society. John Lennon expressed this perspective elegantly in his posthumously released, 1981, song Watching the Wheels.

When I tell them that I’m doin’ fine
Watchin’ shadows on the wall
Don’t you miss the big time, boy?
You’re no longer on the ball

I’m just sittin’ here watchin’ the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer ridin’ on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

Jahobr, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lennon’s song gives us a feeling for the dramatic difference in perspective that follows a changed experience of time at the personal level.

There are growing efforts to see time in all its complexity and bring this to our human existence. A fascinating area of research is around psychedelic drugs and their use in personal transformation, in what could be thought of as a quantum time effect. Often a changed perception of time is one of the things reported when people have transformative experiences with these drugs.

In resetting their time equation, people may shift to focus more on “what matters” or receive the wisdom of ages in a matter of hours, or connect with a tree, a lake, or animals — both real and spiritual. People report being changed over the long term with just one or a few experiences with these substances, and they have proven to be powerful treatments for trauma, as described in a growing body of literature and research, and beautifully explored in Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind.

Of course, inner space-time can also be explored in many other ways. Meditation, yoga, and the connection with heart-beat time or Earth time are ways to reconnect with time apart from our relentless schedules.

Screen capture from https://heliostera.com

There are also some creative people who are trying to help us to connect our inner, constructed, and natural worlds together. The Helio Compass is one such effort.

As a universal mapping calendar, the Helio Compass celebrates festivities and seasonality of all peoples and cultures in all eras and regions (thus works as an exquisite party organizer!)

The process starts off with a blank, solar-centric template, which is sometimes referred to by its founder, Kaichi Sugiyama, as a “plain pizza”. At once simple and intuitive, yet sophisticated and adaptive, the Helio Compass facilitates the integration of time and movement, enabling people and organizations to reorient their lives from linear to circular and from disconnected to integral, in the process discovering what Kaichi refers to as “emergence.” The power of this tool is its ability to re-orient personal and relational time, space, and actions into patterns that ebb and flow as natural rhythms, like planetary cycles, tides, or growth patterns

The Helio Compass tracks and maps out our time and space on Earth in the solar system. We can locate our inter-planetary position by observing the one-year revolution of Earth. As a universal mapping calendar, the Helio Compass celebrates festivities and seasonality of all peoples and cultures in all eras and regions (thus works as an exquisite party organizer!). This multidimensional device is an invitation to expand our sense of home encompassing the entire heliosphere where we coexist and co-create as humanity.

https://heliostera.com

You have to see it, and try it, to believe it. The sheer number of applications for which the tool has been used (mostly across Japan and Asia so far) demonstrate its appeal, as well as its adaptability.

Tools like the Helio Compass that help to realign our inner and outer selves, and our communities, are elusive but also potentially highly disruptive, in a good way. They are elusive in the sense that it is easy to mistake the Helio Compass for just a circle, or a pizza. “Serious” people will dismiss such tools as wishful thinking, but for the rest of us, such tools are riding with a rising tide. If we choose to apply them as they are designed, they can help us to unlock the potential for personal and group transformation. The impact is potentially profound.

Much like the inability of Lennon’s peers to comprehend his departure from the “big time,” our understanding of time and values that flow from such an understanding — in cycles that match nature as well as those that match the long-term thriving of humanity — are a part of a human development cycle that most of us can’t fully appreciate from where we stand.

The opportunities for us to manage time in a new way are multiplying just as we are working ourselves into some corners that will not be easy to escape without a new logic. We should follow some of these paths, even those that perhaps feel like a divergence now, if we think they may lead to choices for a better future. Time is of the essence.

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