A Peak Performance weblog

Plan by Turning Time Around

A version of this article appeared in Jossey-Pfeiffer Bass’s Annnual.

Linear time, the paradigm of time that is usually espoused by conventional time management, and which is typically presumed when Westerners plan things, inaccurately presumes that time only flows uncontrollably through past, present, and future. This paradigm produces serious, yet usually unnoticed side-effects: (1) our plans are strongly determined by the past, (2) the anxiety we feel about time passing becomes stronger, and (3) we confirm the perception that the time we have available is limited.

However, other examples of personal time, ways of experiencing time, are accessible. We can turn our habitual linear perspective of ‘going forward’ around. Then instead of fighting within the confines and pressure of linear time, trying to get to our goals, we can, even while thinking about the future, be here instead of effortfully striving to get there. And our plans can be freed from past, deterministic influences.

What’s the typical way we plan things? We’re in a kind of ‘room’ in our experience called ‘the present,’ looking off toward another ‘room’ called the future, imagining some vague, yet desirable changes. From a present point of view, we look toward a distant future time when we would like to see something completed, and we visualize what the situation could be. When we’re satisfied with the image visualized, i.e., when the image seems like it will fulfill our desires, needs, or aspirations, we inquire about the tasks necessary to complete the goal in the available time, then schedule the tasks, prioritize, etc.

So what’s wrong with this picture? How could this produce side-effects? WYSIWYG. What You See Is–or helps determine–What You Get. This way of planning unnecessarily includes a paradigm of time called the linear view, a perspective with built-in effort, confusion, and pressure.

To discuss clearly what’s happening with our typical planning, we can distinguish different facets of time. This is very helpful, but almost never done in time management writings, causing us a lot of confusion, as well as limiting our productivity and sense of well-being. First, event time is the continual occurrence of physical and experiential events. The word event is used to describe something that happened, or is happening ‘now’, like getting up in the morning, feeding a pet, or noticing that you’re hungry.

A second facet of time uses different tools for measuring ‘event time’. Most cultures use clocks and watches, and subtract a ‘start time’ from a ‘stop time’ to figure out ‘how long’ something takes. ‘Telling time’ is knowing how to measure time in your culture, knowing what measured ‘clock time’ corresponds to the events that are happening ‘now’.

The third facet of time is the one that is probably most important for our productivity and fulfillment, though it’s probably also the facet that is least understood and most undervalued. Here we will call it psychological time; it might also be called personal time. Psychological time includes all the different ways we feel or experience time. Just as we have a personal space, we have a personal or psychological time. We may feel time move quickly when we’re having ‘a great time’. During some of the best moments of our lives, things seem timeless, with little or no feeling of time passing. We feel time ‘drag’ or pass slowly when we’re bored, or having ‘a bad time’. We feel anxious about time when we’re reading an article like this, and it seems we don’t have enough time. All these examples of psychological time are ‘laid on top of,’ or based on what can be called linear time, that fundamental aspect of psychological time common to many people in Western countries.

Linear time is the simple, yet foundational feeling of time passing from one moment to another, upon which many other feelings–like overwhelm, pressure, anxiety, hurry, time poverty, and boredom—are based. Most of us have learned to think that this feeling of time flowing is built into event time, but it’s not: physical time doesn’t have a “flow” feeling. Scientists have never discovered anything like a standard flow of time in nature. Psychiatrist Hartocollis says: “The experience or sense of time, and later the perception of time as an attribute of objective reality, is a function of consciousness.” (Hartocollis, 1983)

Anthropologist Edward Hall described our sense of linear time as “a horizontal conveyor belt that moves from past to present to future at the same unchangeable speed for all of us.” (Hall, 1983) We now know from anthropologists, psychologists, physicists, and meditation masters that the flow of time, along with the past, present, and future ‘rooms’ in our experience, develops within an individual’s consciousness, and results from trying to suppress or repress negative feelings and emotions. (See “How Our Sense of Time Flow Is Created,” http://www.manage-time.com/crttime.html)

Although time’s flow is a function of consciousness, Westerners teach each other that it is an external reality, independent of consciousness, beyond our control. We come to think we can only adapt to this ‘reality’. And despite this view of event time as external and objective, we somehow learn to feel a flow of time within ourselves. This internal mirroring of the ‘real’ external flow is considered normal. Then the attendant time pressure and anxiety, as well as the feeling that what we can accomplish in a given period of time is limited are presumed to be ‘facts of life’.

To clarify the effects of the linear view on us, we can look at four aspects of work done with this type of psychological time as a backdrop. Think about the qualities of your typical experience of working, and compare to the following, a distillation from thousands of participants in my workshops:

Experience of time. Time is felt to flow among three rooms in experience, from past to present to future at a constant and uncontrollable rate, no matter what you do or think. There’s anxiety and pressure as time constantly slips away. You may struggle or race against time, but nothing that you do can slow time down. Occasionally you look toward a distant future time when you want to complete something. Every time you plan or think about the future, especially if there’s a deadline, there’s anxiety and pressure, because you ‘realistically’ might not have enough time to get the work done on time.

Well-being. There’s dissatisfaction or a lack of fulfillment here as you work in the present. It might feel like you are being squeezed or confined, or overwhelmed. Since the feelings are so unpleasant, there’s a tendency to look forward to a better time after completing things.

Effort. The work feels stressful and seems to require effort. You might fear that it’s gradually wearing you down to the point where you could get sick.

Clock time estimation. The dividers between the past, present, and future rooms have hazy windows in them. Even though we can’t go into the future room, we can look into it through its window. Planning an activity is similar to peering through the hazy window to see how the fuzzy future forms might shape up. We then get a vague idea of what’s ‘coming down the pike’ toward us on the conveyor.

The river of time seems to carry containers for our activities. These containers are all the same size, so in the present we can put only so many activities in a given container, then that time is used up, and the container moves into the past. Every box on the month’s calendar is the same size; each day usually has the same size box; every hour on the to-do list has the same size space next to it. Since each container has the same size, what we can accomplish in any time period appears to be limited by the structure of time itself. Racing against the conveyor of time and trying to overfill containers can lead to overwhelm and burnout.

To estimate how much time we’ll need to finish something, we guess how many of the conveyor’s containers the activity will fill up. The inflexible aspect of this estimation process is related to the perceived fixed and ‘real’ capacity of units of linear time. It’s also determined by past experiences of how long it took to accomplish similar things. Thus your work capacity—how much you can accomplish in a given period of clock time—seems fixed.

Clearly, working with the linear view in the background is stressful, and planning is the difficult guesswork we’re familiar with. And the effects may be worse than we realize. Physician Larry Dossey says, “Many illnesses—perhaps most—may be caused either wholly or in part by our misperception of time. . . . I am convinced that we can destroy ourselves through the creation of illness by perceiving time in a linear, one-way flow.” (Dossey, 1982, italics mine)

Fortunately, we’re not stuck with the linear view. With a little recollection, most of us confirm that the linear view is not our only available option for psychological time. Recall a few of those times in your life when your work was a peak experience. Think of some times when you were in what is now sometimes called ‘the zone’. Not just when you were very productive, but also when most aspects of experience were best.

When at your best, how did you experience time/timelessness? How was your sense of well-being? Was there effort involved in the work?

Now see whether the following description (from peak performance research) fits your recollection of optimal work:

Experience of time. Only during breaks do you feel time flowing from past to present to future. During peak work performance you’re so absorbed in what you’re doing there’s no awareness of time flowing (80% of adults, according to surveys I’ve conducted with about 2000 people). If you had to describe your experience of time, most likely you’d say it was timeless. On the other hand, you might (20% of adults) say that time was going very quickly, yet it wasn’t making you anxious with its passing. In either case, time doesn’t feel out of control, and you’re not trying to race against it.

In general you don’t feel a lack of time–you just concentrate on what you’re doing, which is going very well. You occasionally plan and might think about a deadline, but this thinking doesn’t cause much anxiety or pressure.

Well-being. There’s very little sense of dissatisfaction; in fact you probably feel invigorated, whole, and happy with the way things are going. As you work, you might occasionally think of the fact that the task isn’t done, but this is very inconsequential. You’re not worrying about not being done, nor are you looking forward to being done because that will be a better time than the present. The important thing is that you’re really involved in what you’re doing–you’re getting results and having a good time by being engrossed.

Effort. The work may be requiring mental or physical energy, but it doesn’t feel very stressful. In a sense the work might even seem to be effortless, flowing with a momentum of its own. You may not feel separate from the activity. Like being in the eye of a hurricane, there can be a sense of presence and peacefulness even in the midst of quick or physically demanding activity.

Clock time estimation. Instead of flowing in a fixed and relentless way, with equal-sized containers, time seems very flexible and changeable, even unpredictable. Occasionally you check your progress and estimate whether you’ll be able to finish on time. But you may not consider these estimates fixed in stone, partly because time feels very malleable during this peak experience, and partly because you know these estimates proved inaccurate so many times before. There’s a sense of everpresent opportunity and possibility: any second, you might get some insight on how the work process can be improved.

Again, fortunately, we’re not stuck with the limitations of the linear view. “It [our perception of linear time] has long been the dominant architecture in our lives. It has enabled us to create the walls and rooms of our existence. In our rush to build, however, we’ve forgotten that while we have the ability to construct these walls, we also have the power to tear them down.” (Hunt and Hait, 1990) Whenever we can, we should take the opportunity to move toward the ‘zone’ of peak experience, where event time isn’t accompanied by psychological pressure, and planning isn’t influenced by a relentless, anxiety-inducing flow of limited capacity containers.

How do we do this? We can consider future events and possibilities in a way that does not project them away from here, creating anxiety about time in the process. Many techniques are available—see htpp://www.manage-time.com for some of these. Following is one very powerful way of planning that isn’t so influenced by linear time. And Reversing Temporal Structure doesn’t reinforce the pressure and confusion we’re so familiar with—in fact, it dissolves a measure of these by turning our typical linear perspective around.

We often feel a bit pressured and anxious when we plan or just think about a future time. This pressure and anxiety occur because over years we have developed a habitual way of looking at the future, a way that can be called the pressure perspective: we occupy a point in time we call ‘the present’, and we look from this point to a somewhat distant segment of time called ‘the future’, which contains the time that is relentlessly closing in on us here in the present with a speed that seems unchangeable. In other words, “First we pick out a point situated ‘up ahead’ in time, then we measure the distance to that point, then we react to this situated point.” (Tulku, 1994) (Thus using the phrase “going forward” instead of saying “in the future” is more likely to throw us off balance and add intensity to the feeling of time passing.)

What if we tried to loosen up this rigid way of looking forward to things by viewing from the future back? Would that relieve some of the pressure and anxiety? Try it and find out!

Setting Up the Exercise. First, set up your environment so you’ll be undisturbed for twenty minutes. Then choose some future date when you’d like to see some specific goal or goals completed. Or choose a specific future date you’d like to plan toward. Write this date at the top of a piece of paper.

Checking Emotional Momentum. Since we sometimes look forward to things largely to avoid what’s here in the present, and since planning is a way of looking forward to things, there’s a good chance that our planning will also partly be an attempt to avoid some feelings. Avoiding feelings will add to the intensity of the pressure and anxiety we feel with time’s flow. (See “How Our Sense of Time Flow Is Created,” http://www.manage-time.com/crttime.html) By becoming aware of our feelings we can free our plans from their fixed, determining directions.

Make notes as you respond to the following questions: How do you feel? Are there one or more feelings that you’re aware of? Why are you motivated? What feelings are involved? Would some of your feelings like to push things away or get rid of something? Is there some feeling that makes up some of the momentum that is moving you to plan now? How are these feelings moving you to plan? In which directions are these feelings moving you?

Looking Back. Now, don’t just pretend, but as much as you can, get into the sense that it is that day. Now from this date, look back over ‘the past’ and make a few notes about what happened on the project up till this day. Write your notes in the past tense, as if whatever comes to mind (no effort or special intuition is necessary) really did happen in the past, and you’re just remembering it. (Fanning, 1979) Keep an open mind, don’t expect, hope, fear, or assume anything. Don’t be optimistic or pessimistic.

Just relax and see whether you can ‘remember’ what happened on your goals during the period. You may not ‘remember’ right away–but we don’t always remember things immediately when we try, do we? Write whatever you remember was accomplished, as well as any insight you realized and any personal changes you see that you went through.

About Doing the Exercise. After you feel that the exercise is complete, take a few more minutes and write down how you experienced doing it. Did anything interesting happen? Did you get any insights or creative ideas? Did you enjoy doing the exercise? Did you get a sense of completion and satisfaction? How was it different from your typical way of planning or thinking about doing things?

Other Ways To Do the Exercise. Instead of making a daily “to-do list,” you can effectively use this exercise to write a “done list” for the day. Assume that the workday is over, and write down in past tense what happened.

How about a different approach to New Year’s resolutions? Making resolutions is often a matter of will power and guilt, an exercise in strongly intending to do what we think we should. You can cut through hazards of wishful thinking by reviewing accomplishments from a future time. Assume the year is over, and it’s the morning of January 1st! Then write down what happened during the ‘previous’ year.

Explore a more creative and insightful alternative to consensus building and five-year plans for a group. You can effortlessly and intuitively plan projects by doing a presumé, reviewing accomplishments from a future time. Then compare individuals’ views of the group’s progress to determine alignment and get insight for new directions.

Rather than have to switch back and forth between writing and remembering what happened, you may prefer to use a tape recorder or dictate to a friend.

When doing the exercise you may get images or scenes which can be sketched and included with your writing.

And finally, if after doing the exercise you do not get the results you want, you can do it again from a point of view further in the future.

During this exercise, you may get a sense of relief, peace, presence, or rest–even if the goal didn’t appear to be completed. Why? A lot of our lives is spent trying to get to goals up ahead, in the future, “going forward,” as business and news people often say these days. We often expect that we’ll be happier later on, after we complete a goal. But the quality of our experience–the natural fulfillment that is available no matter what we’re doing–is depreciated by a habitual perspective of looking forward to things.

When we turn our habitual perspective of ‘going forward’ around, we break through this temporal structure of seeking happiness somewhere else. Then instead of fighting within the confines and pressure of linear time, trying to get to our goals, we can visualize and plan here in peace and presence. We can, even while thinking about the future, be here instead of trying to get there. And our plans can be freed from past, deterministic influences of linear time.

Dossey, L. (1982). Space, Time, and Medicine. Boston & London: Shambhala, p. 21.
Fanning, T. and R. (1979). Get It All Done and Still Be Human. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 20.
Hall, E. T. (1983). The Dance of Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, pp. 78-9.
Hartocollis, P. (1983). Time and Timelessness. New York: International Universities Press, Inc., p. 6.
Hunt, D., and P. Hait (1990). The Tao of Time. New York: Henry Holt, p. 13.
Tulku, T. (1994). Dynamics of Time and Space. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing, p. 93.


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