Do we really manage time?

”The trouble is, you think you have time”   -Jack Kornfield

It is curious when we use the phrase ‘time management’, as if the passage of minutes and hours in a day can be controlled or manipulated. Time passes at the same speed no matter who keeps track of it. There is no difference in actual value for one block of time versus another, the minutes are all the same. So, why do we say ‘time management’?

The roots of all time management are in business. The industrial revolution of the 19th century and the rise of factories created a need to fabricate a new relationship with time. Factory work, unlike agrarian labor, demanded punctuality. People had to learn to live by the clock rather than by the sun. (A brief history of time management)

Even so, various regions of the world have developed unique points of view in relation to how they practice time management. The underlying belief systems around the concept of time drives these differences. Understanding how time underpins the working of a society is quite fascinating.

I’ll start with what I understand best – linear active time. The past, present and future follow a straight line and people march along that continuum each day. Meetings, appointments or anything else requiring more than one person in attendance, occur on-time. There is an agreed upon starting and ending time. The overall basic expectation is to be in the place your are supposed to be at the correct time. It is expected that time will not be wasted by meetings with other people, therefore an agenda is usually followed in a linear fashion throughout the time spent together. When following this type of time arrangement, it is not uncommon to observe the agreed upon ending time of a meeting, even if the agenda has not been completed.

After spending a good chunk of my career working with an international and multi-cultural company, I found it difficult to readjust to linear active time keeping. To end a meeting before the goal had been accomplished seemed so strange. In this case, another meeting needs to be arranged as everyone’s schedule does not allow for time over runs. The result is that decisions are often delayed. It somehow feels a little too abrupt to remind people that the end time for the meeting is approaching, as if the clock is more important than the discussion.

Multi-actives — those lively, loquacious peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. (The Lewis Model Explains Every Culture In The World).

There is something nice about being given the time to fully explore a topic with other people until everyone agrees they are finished, no matter how long it takes. This means meetings can run much longer than initially expected. There is also a social component to a multi-active view of time, even in a business setting. Dinner meetings with alcohol would not be uncommon. Evening meals starting around 8pm and lasting until the wee hours of the morning are considered an acceptable way to socialize in a business context for multi-active countries.

For an Italian, time considerations will usually be subjected to human feelings. “Why are you so angry because I came at 9:30?” he asks his German colleague. “Because it says 9:00 in my diary,” says the German. “Then why don’t you write 9:30 and then we’ll both be happy?” is a logical Italian response. (How Different Cultures Understand Time).

On the third point of the triad, the reactive view of time presents as polite behaviour and habits, even a deference to others. But the underlying reason for that seems to be a more cyclical view of time. Possibly there is a greater degree of big picture thinking because time does not run out, it comes around again like the seasons. This comes to light in personal interactions where it is important to meet someone, (plant a seed), spend the right amount of time to become acquainted, (care for the seedling) and only conclude a meeting after mutual understanding has been achieved, (plant is well established). This cycle might be completed in a limited time slot by luck, but not by design.

”Time is a created thing. To say, ‘I don’t have time’ is to say, ‘I don’t want to.”   -Lao Tzu

If some countries view the passage of time in a certain way, it is not to say that is a strict observance by every person living within those borders. Particularly when a nation is comprised of people coming from many different cultural backgrounds. For example, Canada is the Northern neighbour to the USA and considered by many to be the same culture, yet in many subtle ways that is not the case. Views of time in Canada have been influenced by Asia, as is reflected in immigration patterns.

”There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.”   -Mahatma Gandhi

All of this information on history and culture is interesting, but does not provide guidance on how time should be managed. I think it is safe to say there is no right answer here. Each person needs to understand what works for them and their circumstances. Plus, in an era of increased digital mobility, being sensitive to the needs of others will provide personal guidance as well. There is no benefit to have your co-workers In Asia mad at you because of the way you schedule and conduct meetings.

For some linear-active time management advice, check out:


Post a Comment