Try On A New Relationship With Time
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Try On A New Relationship With Time

Try On A New Relationship With Time

by Ginny Whitelaw. Originally published on

When Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz came out with their book, The Power of Full Engagement twenty years ago, they gave it a rather unwieldy but truth-telling subtitle: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. They were reacting against decades of time management books, seminars, and daily planners that had pervaded the process-oriented quality movement, the rise of globalization, and early efforts to keep up with the accelerating pace of technology. Loehr, a sport psychologist who had worked with elite athletes, knew that the quality of energy brought to bear in a moment had much more to do with performance than did the rote management of time.

Fast forward to now, and it’s as if the “fast forward” button has been stuck “On”. The rate at which memes can spread on social media, or deep learning machines can detect value gaps for investing, or new products can be taken up in the market is faster than anything leaders have ever faced. This year, for example, The Economist reports that ChatGPT was being used by more than 100 million people within two months of launching. They further cite UBS in calling this the “fastest-growing consumer application in history.” Moreover, it will most assuredly speed up a lot of other activities. As we lean into all this speeding up, our own tendency is to speed up—you may have noticed even your own pulse picking up reading this paragraph. While that strategy may work in bursts, it fails in the long run. A much more promising leadership strategy is to change our relationship to time altogether and use our energy to penetrate the present moment to the point of stillness, bringing our full self to bear.

To understand how we might do this, a good place to start is with the physics of time. No physics experiment has ever detected the flow of time. Time does not flow. It’s always now—perhaps you’ve noticed that. We humans perceive time as flowing because we have memory and imagination. Because everything arises in relationship (i.e., in resonance with something else), we see movement and change at all different rates. In order to have a concept of “rate” we need a concept of “time.” In other words, time is a convention for talking about change, and every form—from subatomic particles to mountains to galaxies—changes according to its nature and relationships.

Einstein radically advanced our understanding of time by dethroning it as some kind of fundamental substrate of the universe (which was the Newtonian view) and showing that it’s a relative frame of reference. It’s an important and convenient frame of reference, to be sure, because it’s the one we’ve been birthed in. But it’s a convention, not an absolute. In the world Einstein revealed, riding on a light beam, time would be infinite. Quantum physics has further shown us examples of cooperating change across space that takes no time at all, as in quantum entanglement.

Despite the fact that time is a convention, not a “thing,” we each have a habitual, psychological relationship to it. From my informal surveying of groups—getting a show of hands around statements about time that ring true for them—here are eight winning entries. How many of them do you find yourself saying?

All of these are examples of a psychological relationship to time that consciously and unconsciously governs how we live and lead. If we think of time as scarce, for example, and we have great goals or intentions, we might spend our days stuffing as much activity into each unit of time as possible. Or maybe we try multitasking—that insidious two-step in our attention that gives us the false impression of parallel efficiency—dividing our energy and draining a bit off with every step.

All of which brings us back to the wisdom of managing energy, which we have control over, not time, which we have no control over because it’s not a thing and it’s always now. In their book, Loehr and Schwartz lay out valuable tips for managing energy, such as developing daily rituals that stretch and renew us and alternating between drive and recovery. These are is a good start, for sure, and we can do much more.

While we conventionally think of ourselves as a relatively fixed entity moving through time, we can flip that around and feel ourselves as time itself, pulsing in now, ever-changing and being changed as we co-create a world around us. Rather than use our memory and imagination (with their habitual relationship to time) to spin ourselves up with everything we have to do or all that might happen, we rest in exactly this moment and pour our full energy into it. Now this. Now this. In penetrating this moment, we find stillness. A phrase from the Zen classic, Fudochi Shimmyo Roku captures it well: “Cut the before and after and set the present moment free.”

Of course, habits don’t change overnight and, in my experience, it takes a deep meditative practice such as Zen, to see through our habitual relationship to time. After all, we’ve had those habits since childhood and they’re rigorously reinforced in the culture. But such meditative practice also cracks open a felt sense of connectedness (i.e., samadhi) that confers confidence in facing each moment as a kind of adventure to engage with, rather than a risk to control. Having lived both ways, I can say that engaging adventure is incomparably more joyful and energizing.

Our felt sense of energy animates the leadership instrument we get to work with, which is our physical body. The body is amazing in its capacity to metabolize energy and turn it into meaning and matter in our everyday world. We do this not only through our senses—taking in light energy and creating images, taking in vibrating airwaves and interpreting sounds, and so forth—but in limitless ways, such as turning the energy of ideas into actual products, turning the energy of vision into new organizations and companies, or turning the energy of relationships into thriving communities and ecosystems. The extent to which our leadership instrument is able to pour energy into the moment is regulated by two factors:

The more relaxed the body, the more energy flows through it, rather than getting balled up in tension. You can get a felt sense of this by making a fist and tensing your arm, and you’ll likely feel a stuckness or density. Contrast this feeling with shaking out your arm out and extending through your little finger as if reaching for someone you love. You’ll likely feel more expansive and lighter.

This connection between energy flow and relaxation is well recognized in sports and martial arts. For example, in Aikido, which literally translates as the “Way of Harmonizing Energy,” relaxation is taught as a basic principle. Awkward stumbling characterizes early movements, but once a student has mastered a technique and can relax into it, a seemingly effortless flow emerges. The same is true in sports. An awkward, amateur golfer with tense shoulders and a tight lower back whacks at the ball, while a professional golfer makes it look seamless and easy.

Likewise in leadership. For energy to move into action, it has to flow through the entire body. Better yet if the entire body is aligned or “wholehearted” in making that action, which is where clarity of intent matters. This is also a principle in Aikido: to always know where you’re going and be aligned in extending your energy in that direction. It’s harder than you might think. Countless time I corrected Aikido students who were trying to lead to the left while their fingers were pointed to the right. Many times I’ve coached leaders on their inconsistencies, for example, wanting to foster engagement on their teams but reserving all decision-making for themselves. From simple physical movements to complex human interactions, if our intent is not clear, we send mixed signals into the present moment.

Clarity of intent comes with an important caveat also well-expressed in Fudochi Shimmyo Roku: “Establish the mind of intention with no dwelling place.” In other words, don’t get attached to outcomes. Don’t get attached to the way things have been. To attach is to drop out of pulsing with the present moment and fall into memory or imagination with all its habits of regret, worry, desire, or whatever. We cannot direct our optimal energy into a present moment that we’re not present in. Moreover, the body gets tense or depressed when flooded with negative emotions like regret and worry, which cuts our usable energy further.

If you’re starting to sense a cycle to this process of managing time and energy, you’d be correct. On the one hand, it can be a vicious cycle of looking at all we have to do and worrying that we don’t have enough time, which causes inner tension that cuts the flow energy, so that as we start one thing, we’re semi-occupied with another, which further reduces our effectiveness. On the other hand, we could build a virtuous cycle that challenges our habitual relationship to time, relaxing into now with the bigness of feeling a part of it all. As inspiration strikes us, it becomes a clear intent that seamlessly directs our actions without tension getting in the way. Now this. Now this. The vicious cycle is easy to fall into but is a treadmill you can never keep up with. The virtuous cycle takes practice and is a joyful adventure of making your greatest difference. Your choice.

Ginny Whitelaw is the Founder and CEO of the Institute for Zen Leadership.

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