Every leader I work with–and every colleague too–is time poor. We talk about losing time, wasting time, prioritizing how we spend our time. I have been thinking about time quite a lot this last month. We look at the calendars on our computers and time looks like a linear and orderly phenomenon, ticking along in an obvious way. But then we have a fabulous holiday and time races faster than a time-lapse movie or we wait for the doctor to call with test results and time slows torturously. And this happens every day. Some meetings are alive with energy and they fly; other meetings are deadly dull and they crawl. Time might keep ticking away in a linear way, but our experience of it is anything but linear.
There is excellent news for us in this strange paradox of time. In a world where so many of us feel so time-poor in a linear way, we also too often feel time drag in an experiential way. This is a challenge we can do something about, and the exciting bit is that the solution to both being linearly time-poor and experientially time-rich is the same: Presence.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researches “flow,” the experience of time that passes without our notice because we are so deeply engaged in what we are doing. In Finding Flow, he tells us, “It is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.” It is our deep attention and curiosity to what is happening just now that creates the experience of flow, that makes our lives into an art form.
Similarly, many leadership theorists talk about the particular form of presence that best allows leadership to emerge—a full-bodied attention, a balcony perspective on what’s going on, a careful attentiveness to the present system and its behavior out of which a new and better future can be cultivated.
I spend a lot of my time teaching deep listening, the form of listening that focuses on the sense the other person is making and challenging our own assumptions about what we think the person could or should do next. I, and the leaders I work with, notice that our listening tends to be geared to solutions, to quickly moving out of the present and into whatever comes next. We talk about that as “listening to win” or “listening to fix.” And sometimes that’s exactly the right way to go.
But much much more often then we notice, deep listening shifts our experience and availability of time. The act of listening pulls us into the present moment, and our curiosity becomes the fuel that powers us to flow smoothly through time.
If we approach the small problem a colleague brings to us as a fractal of the way she makes sense of the world, the problem becomes the doorway into the landscape of her thinking, and suddenly we’re engaged in an inquiry that often changes her experience of the problem and in so doing, often changes us. In this way, our deep listening also often leads to solutions we’d never have imagined, solutions that save time long into the future, as a fire we had been putting out again and again simply stays out.
At Cultivating Leadership, we call that “listening to learn,” and we have been surprised again and again by the transformative power of listening—to shape relationships and solve problems—and to change our experience of time.
Deep listening is only one example of the way being present and alive in the moment creates both a sense of time speeding by and, simultaneously, solves the problems that crowd our calendars.
Csikszentmihalyi writes, “I mean, we’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” So my resolution, here from a vantage point of the small linear time we get to be on the planet, is to scour my own calendar with a careful question: Is this an appointment that I would like to be fully present for? If so, it stays, and I will try to turn to it with all of my attention. If it’s a meeting I dread, or that I think I would rather be absent for, I cancel it.
And when that’s simply not possible, I am working to make sense of my own presence in my life in a new way. Poets and psychologists can write all they want about how life is short and we have to seize the day, but it is up to each of us to shift our relationship to our own time on the planet. Wouldn’t it be better not to wait until the doctor calls with some terrible diagnosis to actually feel the miracle of each day that we get to live on the surface of this beautiful planet? Each of us, each day, could feel the vibrancy that would come with the diagnosis that foretells our death in the next one or five or ten years—without the testing, without the terror. Too often, though, we take our months and years as we take the hours of our days, as blocks of time to schedule and check off and move on from, as moments to accomplish or endure or race through.
This month I am working to breathe in the non-linear aspects of time. To slow down and pay attention, which paradoxically makes time speed up. And to notice the slow periods and try to live in them, even when I might wish the ticking speed to increase. I am trying to listen deeply to my colleagues and my children and my clients and my friends, and to listen deeply to myself. I am trying to be present to my whole life and to be mindful of the time that slips away, evenly and unevenly. I will fail at this, of course, in big and small ways each day, but I will be grateful nonetheless for the opportunity each dawn gives me to start again to be increasingly present in my life, so that it is not a rushed blur but an ever-changing painting of colorful moments of deep connection, each point on the page giving form and depth to the pointillist landscape of my life.