Tempus fugit: time flies

In the dining room of my maternal grandparent’s house stood an old grandfather clock. Meals in that Burnley dining room were a time for three generations of our family to be one. The clock stood like a trusted old family friend, watching over the laughter and stories that were a part of our lives.

As a child, the old clock fascinated me. I watched and listened to it during meals. I marvelled at how at different times of the day, it would chime with the wonderful resonant Westminster Quarters sounds that echoed throughout the house. I found the presence of the clock comforting. Year after year, the clock chimed, a part of my childhood memories.

Even more wonderful to me was my grandfather’s ritual. He meticulously wound that clock with a special key each day. I remember watching as he took the key from his pocket and opened the hidden door in the side of the clock, inserted the key and wound – not too much, never over wind, he’d tell me solemnly – nor too little. He never let that clock wind down and stop. When I got older, he let me take a turn winding the key. I remember the first time. To be part of this family ritual was amazing

After my grandfather died, it was several days after the funeral before I remembered the clock. The clock! We’d let it wind down. It stood forlornly silent and still, marking the passing of time. The clock even seemed smaller, not quite as magnificent without my grandfather’s special touch. I couldn’t bear to look at it. I listened to the silence.

A month or so later, my grandmother gave me the key. The house was quiet. No swaying of the pendulum, no regular tick-tock nor chiming. All was still. The hands on the clock were frozen, a reminder of time slipping away, stopped at the precise moment when my grandfather hadn’t been around to wind it. I took the key and opened the clock door. All of a sudden, I was a child again, watching my grandfather.

I stood, silent and reflective in the moment. Slowly, I inserted the key. But I didn’t wind the clock. I couldn’t do it. I imagined the clock working again, the slow, resonant tick-tock, tick-tock as the pendulum swung, life and chimes breathed into the room, into the house. In the movement of the hands of the clock. But I didn’t wind the clock, we let it rest.

Of course, my grandmother did rewind the clock and for a number of years the cloud talked loudly to us again, but when she passed, the clock stopped again. Then the clock came to me, and now the clock is always alive, wound up once a week. There are times you don’t hear it, there are times you do.

But time – whether you are burning it up working, or spreading it out thinly in a dentist’s waiting room – is a commodity that cannot truly be measured by clocks. True, the hands of a clock are shears, trimming back the daylight hours as the hours move forward. Every time piece with a digital readout blinks to a new digit, it’s a warning that us tick (time is passing), tock (time has passed). Tempus Fugit – in Latin, time flies, so use it wisely.

Tempus fugit reminds us that our time is limited and continuously passing, both in general and when it comes to specific things such as pursuing your goals or being with the people you care about. For a startup, it’s a most precious commodity as you set about your venture

Tempus fugit can help guide your thoughts and actions in various ways, such as by prompting you to stop delaying, or by encouraging you to appreciate important moments as you’re experiencing them. There are many situations in which this reminder can be useful, both when guiding your own daily actions and those of your team: 

  • When you want to push yourself to make a decision or take action quickly. 
  • When you want to prompt someone to stop procrastinating on something. 
  • When you want to stop focusing on unimportant problems. 
  • When you want to encourage someone to appreciate important moments as they’re happening. 

In such situations, the simple reminder tempus fugit can help you focus your thoughts and guide your actions, or it can help you remind someone else to do the same.

Of course, you could show off your Latin process by citing Carpe Diem – ‘seize the day’ – to encourage people to focus on the present, appreciate the value of every moment in life, and avoid postponing things unnecessarily, because every life eventually comes to an end – then maybe Memento mori, a Latin phrase that means ‘remember that you will die’ – a reminder of our own mortality, and of the brevity and fragility of human life, so get stuff done!

You and I both know that we’ve all got just 24 hours in a day. Which is why I’m not here to get you feeling all melancholy about time slipping through your fingers. You’re in ‘back-to-back’ zoom meetings and also expected to be responsive via email. (Seriously?) Our ‘task’ culture prioritises the urgent (ugh!), and you’re trapped in a vortex of time, unable to do any deep, meaningful work on a regular basis.

You’re good at establishing a routine but struggling to keep interruptions from throwing your plans out the window. While you’re good at planning things, when something unexpected shows up it can easily derail you, and it’s a struggle to get back on track. What if you could take back all the lost time? Time that was lost to the tyranny of the urgent, to procrastination, to being interrupted, or just an habitual lack of diligence?

Here are some thoughts I’ve had, sat listening to my grandfather clock, about how to manage your time better. For me it’s not about tips so much as timelines

1.        Work in Sprints

You can generate momentum and manage your time by prioritising a weekly Sprint. When we talk about time management, we often talk about it in the context of the daily ‘to do’ task list, but really our focus should be on priorities and productivity, making sure we’re making progress toward key deliverables and deadlines (which are, more often than not, closer than they appear).

It’s critical to find the right increment of time when planning out tasks to cover the field but not spread yourself too thin, to hit a balance of breadth and depth efficiently. So, I keep a rolling two-week and one-month timelines to help me gut-check progress, and pivot when needed:

I also like the ‘Eyes on, Hands on, Horizon’ framework following this philosophy from Alex Shleifer, Airbnb’s Head of Design:

  • Eyes on: This is work that I don’t need to do currently, but must not forget.
  • Hands on: These are actions that I need to work on with focus.
  • Horizon: This is a category of issues and developments that are about to get on my radar.

I run through the Sprint approach and this framework at the start of every week to ensure timely prioritisation, the act of choosing to work on the right thing at the right time, over and over again, makes me more diligent about what I spend my time on, and the cost and ROI of those choices.

2.        Work on the rocks, not the sand.

If all of the big impactful things you need to do are rocks, then all the constant granular stuff is the sand, from email and less important meetings to one-off questions and messages on Slack. Imagine your day is a bucket. If you pour sand into it continuously by responding to inbound stuff all day, it’s going to fill up fast and there won’t be any room for the rocks. You won’t feel fulfilled, because your impact is limited.

But let’s say you commit to focusing on one or two rocks. If you put a rock in a bucket, you can still pour sand in and it’ll flow around it. One of the best strategies for managing the sand, is letting go of our addiction to smartphones and emails. I have now developed a habit to work in 90-minute blocks (see below) in which time I focus on doing my own work, and don’t answer my phone or check email.

I don’t always have to have an empty inbox or no voice messages. The expectation to always be responding immediately 100% of the time is unrealistic. Focus on what’s critical, you’ll process what’s left over much more efficiently when it’s time.

3. First things first

When you’ve got a to-do list as long as your arm, it’s tempting to get the urgent-but-trivial tasks out the way first, just so you can begin checking things off. It feels good to have knocked off six things on your list of twenty. Progress! But in terms of effective time management, this isn’t smart. One of the best ways to manage time is to figure out what’s actually important, work on the vial stuff, until your working day is done. Once again, the focus is on not getting distracted and remove those pesky distractions.

I’m also an advocate of the Eisenhower Principle, named after the US President who used a method to organise his day. The Eisenhower Principle maintains you should always highlight what’s important over what’s urgent. Many of us are guilty of prioritising tasks with looming deadlines, even when the outcome isn’t really that important. By isolating the tasks that are truly meaningful to us, we can focus on completing them instead.

You only have so much time and energy, and chances are you’ll never have enough of both to accomplish everything you think you need to do every day. What you really need to do is focus on the most important tasks first. Not everything on your list is urgent.

4. The 90-minute approach

I’m a fan of ‘deep work’, which means working in a state of intense concentration for short but extended periods of time. How long is up to the individual, and many of us fluctuate when it comes to how long we can maintain such concerted focus. Around 90 minutes is my peak extent of deep work.

Research has shown that our brain works at optimal performance for about 90 minutes before dropping off, and that a twenty-minute break can restore our focus. It’s known as the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle, a physiological arousal system identified by Nathaniel Kleitman. The idea is to tap into this natural frequency at work to try and maximise our cognitive performance.

Time is the unique currency of your life, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you. Each of us has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day, and no matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow. As French poet Paul Valery said Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you will not do anything with it.

Make sure you wind up your personal clock every day, and make the best use of your time, because as Benjamin Franklin once said Dost though love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.

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