A Peak Performance weblog

Can We Beat the Clock?

Like a personal space, we all seem to have a personal time, the time it typically takes us to process a bit of information. We’re used to this processing speed, and may not notice it unless we’re affected by emotions, heat/cold, or drugs like caffeine, which can speed us up or slow us down, affecting the rate at which we do everything. Is there a way to ‘control’ personal speed other than by external manipulation? What if we were able to function at twice our ‘normal’ speed without getting anxious or feeling pressured? Would we be better able to ‘keep up’ with increasing work demands?

Personal time is like a frequency of awareness, a cycle time that we can learn to speed up and slow down, opening up new levels of performance and well-being. The ordinary ego is incapable of keeping up with the accelerating changes presented by time. However, awareness need not be subject to limitations of ego: “By learning to be sensitive to the infinity of ‘time’ available within any clock-time period, we can begin to appreciate more fully the value and possibilities life presents.” (Tarthang Tulku)

This “infinity of ‘time'” cannot be discovered by hurrying, conventional time management, corporate ‘best practices’, or habits or values of peak performers–these usually show up within the same inflexible time flow. But there are numerous proven ways to challenge the apparently constant and purely external momentum of time. And these ways provide a self-actualizing means of continuous improvement no matter what we’re doing.

Is This is Your Life? — Beat the Clock?

“Beat the Clock” was the name of a TV show that was popular years ago. To win prizes, contestants had to complete certain tasks within ‘short’ periods of time. It was fun to watch the people race around, make mistakes, and get frazzled.

Unfortunately, for many of us “Beat the Clock” would be a good title for our lives, where we’re the frazzled contestants racing against time. Is there any way to play this game and ‘win’ without getting bent out of shape? Let’s speculate. What if we could expand time somehow? Really. Wouldn’t we be able to get more done without getting so stressed out? Perhaps this speculation isn’t so far-fetched: Tarthang Tulku says, “By learning to be sensitive to the infinity of ‘time’ available within any clock-time period, we can begin to appreciate more fully the value and possibilities life presents.” (p. 43, Dimensions of Thought)

What in the world does he mean by an “infinity of ‘time’ available within any clock-time period?” Isn’t every clock-time period finite and fixed unless you’re travelling near the speed of light? Or does “infinity of time” refer to a type of time different from clock time?

It seems like there are different kinds of time. There’s what we could call physical or objective time, the simple occurring of physical and mental events. And there’s clock time, which measures physical time so we can coordinate our activities and compare our PC processor speeds and marathon run times. And like a personal space, we all seem to have a personal time, a personal way of experiencing time that pervades and restricts experience and performance. “A characteristic rhythm flows within human experience, organizing that experience in the same way that the beat of a drum organizes music.” (p. 68, Knowledge of Time and Space, Tarthang Tulku) We learn that personal time should reflect the supposedly constant ‘passage’ of physical time, even though personal time varies depending at least on whether we’re sitting on hot stoves or lounging with beautiful people.

Perhaps an “infinity” of personal time is available within any clock-time period. This is confirmed by statements like this from Tom Seaver: “As Rod Gaspar’s front foot stretched out and touched home plate, in the fraction of a second before I leaped out of the dugout . . . my whole baseball life flashed in front of me . . . .” (p. 47, In The Zone, Murphy and White) And this: “Time seems to slow way down . . . . It seems as if I had all the time in the world . . . I know perfectly well how hard and fast those guys are coming and yet the whole thing seems like a movie or a dance in slow motion.” (John Brodie, p. 42, In The Zone) Although we think our personal sense of time should mirror external physical time (lest we ‘lose track’ of time), sometimes they seem very different.

What’s your ‘normal’ experience of time? Doesn’t it seem to flow among past, present, and future at a fairly constant rate? And how do you experience time during peak performance? Of the thousands of people I’ve asked this question, three-quarters say, “I wasn’t aware of time.” The rest say, “Time flew, but not in a way that bothered me.” Time seems to vary considerably for most of us.

What is it that produces these radically different perceptions of time? How are these different personal time experiences related? These questions might help discover their relationship: Have you ever awakened from sleep and seen nothing but a blank ceiling or wall, without a clue where you were or what day it was? Then after a short (clock) time you realized what room you were in? Then gradually figured out what day it was and what was on your agenda?

Consider this: Have you ever been so absorbed in something that you were unaware of objects and people nearby and unaware of time passing? And then ‘come out’ of the absorption to a ‘normal’ feeling of space and time?

If you had experiences like these, do they give clues about how our ‘normal’ experience of personal time, space, and self can be quickly constructed from nothing in just a few seconds of clock time? Perhaps a kind of instantaneous structuring and restructuring of experience is occurring ‘all the time’, and it’s so fast that we aren’t normally aware of it. Could our ‘normal’ sense of continuous time be set up similar to the way that a movie projector is used to create the perception of a continuous flow of images?

Suppose we have a movie projector that shows frames at a typical rate of 30 frames per second (fps). We might speculate that, like the projector, our awareness has a frequency, somewhat like the frequency of a strobe light. To be convinced of the ‘reality’ of the projected story, awareness must function in a certain way. When the frequency of awareness is around 10cps (cycles/sec), we can identify with the apparently continuous story line.

What happens if we slow the projector down, or equivalently, speed awareness up to 30cps? Wouldn’t it become more evident that individual images were being projected serially in the same ‘spot’? Then what if we slow it down even more, or equivalently, speed awareness up to 300cps (presuming that we can do that)? We might notice very little movement, perhaps even stillness. This might be similar to increasing the frequency of a strobe light illuminating a spinning wheel until the wheel seems to stand still.

Is this all just speculation, or is there something to back it up? Actually, my varied explorations of time over the past twenty-one years validate these stages of our thought-experiment. Slowing down the projector of personal time–or speeding awareness up to 30cps–seems to lead to experience described like this: “all going from place to place, experience to experience, which validates the picture of a spread out world, actually occurs as a succession of ‘timed out’ experiences in the same ‘spot’ .” (p. 151, Time, Space, and Knowledge) And further slowing down the projector of personal time–or speeding awareness up to 300cps–might lead to this: “Different times . . . are not linked, in a way that irrevocably separates them, by their respective positions in a temporal series. The ‘series’ is a fiction.” (p. 106, Time, Space, and Knowledge) Tarthang Tulku’s descriptions of different ‘levels’ of time are a good match for the different stages of our thought experiment.

My research also shows that these stages represent ways of experiencing time that can become quite stable. If everyone’s personal time could vary this way–which goes far beyond typically acknowledged subjective variations–what would be the significance in terms of the quality of experience and the possibilities for improving human performance (the bottom line)?

Here’s what I’ve found. At a ‘normal’ rate of projection, time seems like a continuous series of moments:
. . . . . .

Time is always moving and causing us pressure and anxiety. We don’t feel we have enough time, and what we can accomplish in a given period of time seems limited. We’re usually going somewhere, seeking satisfaction ‘up ahead’, in the future. Conventional time management doesn’t stop the flow of time, but works within it; in fact, sometimes time management contributes to “hurry sickness.” Time can feel like a tornado whose fury is inescapable.

By speeding up our awareness, it’s as though we are able to perceive additional moments between moments that we noticed before.

‘More’ time is available for indefinitely prolonged enjoyment and productivity, and our energy can increase. Time is no longer oppressive, but more malleable and creative. Awareness is no longer restricted to the self’s point of view, and shows that the self we ordinarily try to improve is simply a generalization of many instantaneous projections of ‘time’. Because awareness can see how the perception of continuity is ‘projected’, we’re not so convinced by the story line, and it is much easier to initiate change and improvement. No state of affairs is irrevocably ‘bad’, or a ‘trap’. Now time is like a tornado with an on-and-off button; we know how to transform time pressures.

By speeding up awareness even more, the perception of motion gradually drops off. Even though physical events may be happening, and even greater opportunity for productivity opens up, personal time doesn’t move or flow. It is as though all the friction in the world were removed, and time pressure cannot even start to get set up in experience. This is like being within the peaceful eye at the center of our whirlwind of activities.

How can we bring about these changes? A proven methodology does exist. Our ‘normal’ sense of linear time in Western cultures stems from an imbalance of energy flow among head, heart, and throat, which is the area most closely associated with our experience of time and communication. By balancing our breathing we can gradually but directly transform anxiety and time pressures. We also need to consistently recognize the tendency to see time as a linear sequence of discrete, yet connected ‘atomic’ moments. This can be implemented by exercises that look for ever more subtle and ‘frequent’ moments between moments. We need to see how the self is driven to seek goals and fulfillment in a future positioned away from ‘here’. This can be fostered by an exercise that experiments with reversing the ‘normal’ temporal structure, looking from points in the future back toward the past (we don’t need to stop thinking about the future). We need to see how clock time is independent of personal time, which can be done by watching the second hand of a clock while observing fluctuations in the feelings of time passing. We need to quickly see through the positioning of self and mental events, which can be practiced by simple card sorting exercises.

Perhaps changing personal time has obvious benefits for well-being and productivity. Are there other benefits? Optimizing personal time is a means of truly continuous improvement: our experience of time is always available, no matter what the task, and my research shows that time-flow actually measures our degree of involvement in whatever is at hand. The more involved we are, the less intensely time seems to flow. Peak performance always involves an ‘alternative’ sense of time flow. So by fostering the changing of personal time as a way to drive progress, managers are fostering use of a self-actualization motivator that is never extinguished.

But doesn’t this promote a kind of self-absorption that takes away from getting the job done? To the contrary: according to Maslow, “The person in the peak-experiences feels more integrated, more efficiently organized, with less internal friction. He is at his best. This is not only felt subjectively but can be seen by the observer.” (pp. 105-6, Toward a Psychology of Being)

Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Randall


Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

McKenna, R. (1997). Real Time. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Meyer, C. (1993). Fast Cycle Time. New York: The Free Press.

Moon, R.H., & Randall, S. (Eds.). (1980). Dimensions of thought: Current explorations in time, space, and knowledge (2 vols.). Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.
Murphy, M.H., & White, R.A. (1995). In the zone: Transcendent experience in sports. New York: Penguin.

Rechtschaffen, S. (1996). Time Shifting. New York: Doubleday.

Tulku, T. (1990). Knowledge of Time and Space. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Tulku, T. (1977). Time, Space, and Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.


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