Only people who have got nowhere have time.
This way, they got farer than everybody else.

Guareschi

Let’s pause for a moment. What does this quote trigger? Did we agree with the first part, in which having (too) much free time is equaled with a lack of success? Maybe we thought of our full schedules and of our desire for having more time for the beautiful things in life – which we never grant us because of the many obligations urging on us. Who wants to be successful has to perform!

What then triggers the second part of the quote?

Giovannino Guareschi, a journalist, caricaturist, and the author of the wonderfully trenchant narratives about “Don Camillo and Peppone” was masterly in revealing discrepancies and visualize them with a wink.

Humans as Factors

Performance is crucial. This precept has shaped us socially; for the most of us it has become their own view and an inner motivator. It urges us and causes us to consistently set ourselves new aims to be reached. Sometimes however, it lets us forget what really helps to shape our lives meaningfully: the people around us. In our pressure to perform humans are often regarded as obstacles on the road to success or as means helping to accomplish goals. If we cleave to this view however, we have already forgot, that all essential achievements, all outstanding performances, but also all joys in life in the first place are made possible by relationships. We are all changed by interaction with our fellow human beings, which in turn makes development happen. Entirely new aspects emerge. Never perceptible perspectives can only be adopted by these interdependent vigors. Someone who beholds humans as factors and thinks he/she is able to perform independently from others, is off the track. It’s not solitary decisions, but communication, empathy, and fascination, which help us on.

Competencies as key to Success?

Time management systems, which should help us to work more efficiently and to use our time even better, behold competency development as a prerequisite for effective time management and higher quality of life. But what exactly means competency? In management literature of the last decades this term has been used as a conglomeration of abilities, skills, and experiences, as preparedness to and results from actions, with a mingle of preconditions and consequences of behavior relevant for success. From an economic psychological point of view competencies are seen as holistic manifestations of practically relevant abilities. Thereby we are approaching the core of the meaning, which can also be found in ancient and timeless heritages of all cultures: Real personal effectiveness is not achieved by an endless perfection of one’s skills, but derives from a combination of prowess and disposition. Personal development and character building are the key to a meaningful life.

Success and Happiness

Does success make us happy? People who lead sober and simple lives often seem to us as exceptionally happy. This observation – together with Guareschi’s quote – could lead us to the assumption that true happiness can only be found in very ordinary circumstances. From close up however, this view is more often used as an excuse with which we, as members of highly developed meritocracies and prosperous societies, are justifying the fact that wealth is extremely disparately and injustly distributed. Contrary to this, findings of research on happiness indicate that material security and professional success are important factors for happiness. Why then are so few of us happy? Maybe we are much too often our own enemies. Before asking: “Am I doing it right?”, we should pose the question: “Am I doing the right thing?” Instead of getting lost in perfection we should lower our inflated expectations, see the big picture, and be flexible and willing to compromise. Timely relaxation and interesting discussions with others will allow us not only to work more effectively, but also to acknowledge important things.

Maybe then the achiever in us sometimes feels as if he/she has got nowhere. And still, we have got farer.

References:

Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1995). First things first. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hanisch, H. (2012). Soft Skills-Knigge 2100: Soziale Kompetenz, Persönlichkeit, Selbstmanagement. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH.

Meyer, A.-M. (2004). Die Macht der Kürze: das 1×1 der Realität. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH.

Schuler, H. (2006). Arbeits- und Anforderungsanalyse. Lehrbuch der Personalpsychologie, 2, 45-68. Göttingen: Hogrefe

Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.

France

“Everything was better in the old days…“

Know this saying? How often has it made our eyes roll, yet? – And how often have we caught ourselves in thinking it? Even if we suffered from peer pressure or some teacher’s despotism when we were children, as adults we long for the lightheartedness of our childhood and youth. Parents of adolescents think their present difficulties much more serious than their former, when problems were sleepless nights and stomach aches. Older people, even if they experienced hardship and privation, nostalgically remember the times when they were young and healthy.

The French author Anatole France lived in the 19th century; he couldn’t know of the findings of modern brain research. Still, he found the right words to describe this phenomenon.

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The Constructive Mind

Why do we transfigure our past into the “good old times”? In order to answer this question it is helpful to know something about of the function of episodic memory. Our ability to retrieve past experiences allows us a kind of “mental time travel”. However, memories aren’t filed as consistent and exact mental images of certain episodes, even though it seems to us our memories are stored like a kind of movie recording. Rather episode are retained in separate elements. When retrieved, memories are formed by a recombination of these discrete information units. This makes our brains exceedingly flexible and efficient, it gives rise to memory errors though. We don’t have to be police officers or prosecutors to be able to imagine the problems arising from different witnesses’ statements of people who witnessed the exact same incident and remember it differently.

Protective Function of Memory Errors

Even if our memory is fragmentary and defective: The constructive functionality of our memories accomplishes an important task. It protects us against bitterness and depression. A mental excursion into the “good old days” typically is emotional, intense, and lively. We play the lead ourselves, and negative situations become better and better the longer we dwell on them. That way, our brains shelter us from bad mood.

Create Memories

Now, should we just wait in the confidence of the automatic transformation of all our negative experiences into positive ones? We can surely depend on the universal functioning of our brains; nevertheless, we can contribute to our experience of the here and now as good days: meeting friends and splitting ours sides laughing, dancing our hearts out, coming together with others and having wonderful times…

This way, today will become “good old times” even without memory errors.

References:

Bartsch, T. (Ed.). (2013). Gedächtnisstörungen: Diagnostik und Rehabilitation. Berlin: Springer.

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2008). Nostalgia past, present, and future. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(5), 304-307.

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Einstein

Remember those sheer endless seeming math or English lessons? This virtually limitless treasure of free days lying ahead of us at the beginning of summer holidays which, looking back seemed much too short? When watching children dividing the waiting time until a special event into “only x more sleeps”, while for adults the time until the same event slips like sand through their fingers – do we ever wonder why time perception can be so much different?

The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein summarized his observation of time perception in his “alternative” theory of relativity, but he neither could give us a satisfactory explanation.

The Internal Clock

One thing is certain: We don’t have a sensory organ which is responsible for time measurement. Nevertheless, many of our perceptions and the reactions to them are strongly dependent on us estimating time correctly. How could we dare to cross a street without being able to anticipate, if we will make it before the next car arrives? How could we plan any activities without knowing at least roughly how long they will take? Although researching for years, scientists still don’t agree on how exactly we perceive time periods. Some assume that our perception of time periods results from an assigned clockwork-like neuronal mechanism; others hypothesize that time periods are coded in easily accessible form as a specific and ubiquitous feature of neuronal activity. In one thing they agree though: time perception requires attention to a certain degree. This could explain why some activities seem to us particularly long, others exceptionally short.

Factors Influencing Time Perception

Time perception is a cognitive process. Our brains have to allocate attention to it, even if we aren’t aware of it. Time perception therefore is dependent on how much attention can be assigned to it and on how much additional information has to be processed simultaneously. The more other information processing procedures are performed, the less attention is available for time perception, so that we finally estimate time incorrectly. If we are busy with things we are much interested in, our brains can only process few time units, and we underestimate time intervals. The time flies.

Additionally, time perception is – as well as all other cognitive processes – influenced by our emotions: by our arousal and the fact, if we feel good or bad at present. In low arousal, positive emotions will cause an overestimation of time periods, while negative emotions will make us feel like time is flying. If we are highly aroused however, positive emotions will effect in an underestimation of time periods. Hence, we possess two different “time systems”, of which one is responsible for situations of low arousal, the other becomes relevant in situations of high arousal. This is explained by the fact, that for our ancestors already time perception in situations with low arousal and negative emotions loomed large. In such incidents they had to decide, whether to fight or flight. A differential processing of time units hence was vital.

Making Time Fly

Even if we don’t yet exactly know how our brain measures time, we normally have a very good instinct for what to do to have a good time. If our professional life is full of never ending meetings and long-winded reports, we should at least plan activities for our leisure time which we will enjoy, which will fascinate and inspire us.

This only has one drawback: Time will go by in a flash.

References:

Angrilli, A., Cherubini, P., Pavese, A., & Manfredini, S. (1997). The influence of affective factors on time perception. Perception & psychophysics, 59(6), 972-982.

Ivry, R. B., & Schlerf, J. E. (2008). Dedicated and intrinsic models of time perception. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(7), 273-280.

Life is short. Not because of its short duration, but rather because of this short period there is not enough left to enjoy it.

J.-J. Rousseau

“When was the last time I felt really happy?“ – When wondering about this question most of us think of a certain experience: the day we met our partner for the first time, the last pay raise, the moment we drove our brand-new car. It is the same for many, if we ask ourselves when we expect to be happy again. For children this may be this one and special birthday present they long for, for adults it may be the next promotion they have been aiming at for so long. Most of us are chasing after certain events hoping to be happy again. But what’s with the time between? How is our answer, if asked: “Am I happy now?”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author and philosopher, not only was an important pioneer for the French Revolution, but with his ethical basic position revealed ways still took up by behavioral scientists and psychologists when investigating the question what can make us truly and permanently happy: Instead of establishing general rules, he showed what interest an individual has in acting in the sense of community.

The phenomenon of Hedonic Adaptation

Most people have a certain objective in mind and are working hard to achieve it finally. When we reach this goal, this leads to an increase in our perception of satisfaction. We feel happy – unfortunately however, only temporary. Ultimately we find ourselves back in the initial situation and are as happy (or unhappy) as before. This quickly leads us to aim for the next goal: Again, we spend a lot of time and energy to reach it in the hope to experience a new moment of happiness.

Behavioral scientists call this phenomenon „hedonic adaptation“ and it actually has its advantages. On the one hand, it encourages us to set ever new targets, to make progress and to explore new things. On the other, with negative experiences it works as self-healing mechanism. Because after setbacks and disappointments, we sooner or later find ourselves in the initial situation as well and learn to get over negative events.

This explains why alas, we accustom to positive experiences, too; why after a short period in which we perceive it so intensely, happiness disappears.

The Struggle against habituation

If “hedonic adaptation“ is a fully natural and party beneficial mechanism, does this mean we are helplessly exposed to it? Can’t we ever raise our satisfaction lastingly?

Yes and no.

Natural processes will always have their effects on us, will influence our thought, actions, and feelings. If we don’t actively oppose them, we are exposed to them, indeed. However, they can impose their greatest impact when they work in completely unconscious minds. This in turn gives us a chance to oppose them: The first step is to live more consciously.

If we take positive events or twists of fate for granted, we won’t be able to appreciate them. If we let others determine our goals, e.g. if we strive for more income or recognition instead of being led by our own curiosity or self-respect, neither the achievement nor the way to it will make us happy. Heading for the next goal leads us to miss the many daily opportunities to act in the sense of community, as Rousseau proposed. Put simply: We miss the options to give small moments of happiness to others. When was the last time we gave our seat to someone else in the subway? When did we offer help without being asked? When did we provide our partners with a bit of happiness without there being a special occasion?

In all action and striving it is the little things which make a difference. They don’t cost any money, however, mindfulness, rethinking, and change of behavior patterns often cost a lot of effort. The reward though is priceless: We will enjoy our time.

References:

Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. in: Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. D. Kahneman, E. Diener, N. Schwarz (Eds.). New York, NY, US: Russell Sage Foundation, xii, 593 pp.

Papies, E. K., Barsalou, L. W., & Custers, R. (2012). Mindful attention prevents mindless impulses. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(3), 291-299.

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well.

Twain

“But tomorrow I’m really getting started!“

Dealing with disagreeable duties, starting a new diet, finally going in for sports … Time and again we are postponing countless things without ever getting started. Postponing annoying or inconvenient duties has become an illness treated by psychotherapists using cognitive-behavioral interventions including modules to learn timely starting and planning.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the US-American author better known under his pseudonym Mark Twain, told us wonderful stories which became so very lively through his exact observation of social conduct. He however, bore another form of postponement in mind, since procrastination can also be beneficial.

Time Pressure and Loss of Control

Why are so many time management-workshops and seminars so very seldom of practical use? Even if we follow the advice of time management-experts by delegating less important tasks, by applying Occam ‘s razor, by reserving time periods in which we are not available for others – still, many of us feel as if they have less and less time. From an objective point of view we have more leisure time than ever before – however, we feel overworked. Where does this felt time pressure come from?

Neurobiologists examined the brains of test persons while they were set under stress. The scientists found that in stressful situations the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which is located directly behind the forehead and is (inter alia) responsible for action control, planning, and problem solving, loses its ability to discriminate between important and unimportant information. Therefore, we lose track and take wrong decisions. Quickly, there will be the feeling of losing control over situations and own actions.

Moreover, the same neuro-chemical processes responsible for paralyzing the prefrontal cortex stimulate the amygdala. This neuronal complex is located in the anterior part of the temporal lobe and plays an essential role in the emergence, recognition, and activation of physical reactions to anxiety. In other words, the amygdala is responsible, when we have our hearts in our mouths, if faced with a dangerous situation. In association with stress this means, we react more emotional; we develop a feeling of fear – and this will in turn lead to even more stress.

Suspending, Postponing, saying: “No“

Studies investigating workload show that employees on average are occupied with twelve tasks simultaneously. This leads to high pressure no one can stand permanently. The word “permanently” represents the problem and at the same time presents a possible solution: For short interruptions of work bring about a great difference. Scientific research conducted by information scientists and psychologists show, that people who break in on their work are able to carry out their tasks without any loss of quality and even faster than people who work continuously. Short postponements are therefore doing more good than harm.

Time cannot be multiplied. Thus, there is only a limited number of activities fitting in one single day. Sometimes the very simple solution for time problems is therefore the most challenging one for the most of us: We have to learn to say: “No”. For this as well our brains have to be able to distinguish between important and unimportant matters.

Unimportant things which we could do tomorrow or the day after anyway, we could then cancel completely and instead start with the important things which we have postponed for so long.

Links, helping to postpone:

http://t3n.de/news/prokrastination-webseiten-zeit-totschlagen-552629/

References:

Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.

Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008, April). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 107-110). ACM.

“Ours is the hour only. And an hour, if happy, is much.“

Fontane

Don’t we know these moments in which we feel totally off balance, in which we desperately long for more free time, time for ourselves – and still, we don’t take time off because of fear that our jobs could be negatively affected or our families will come off badly? Do we enjoy happy hours now and then or are our days so full of urgencies, thus we cannot enjoy life anymore?

Theodor Fontane was working as a pharmacist, private teacher, journalist, theatre critic, editor, press correspondent; not least he was one of the most important German authors. Surely, his life must have been exhausting sometimes, his days must have been full of work, and he didn’t find fulfillment in all of his jobs. However, he obviously accomplished to spend happy hours.

Chronos vs. Kairos

In antiquity already, people knew that time can be perceived differently. Hence, Greek mythology tells the story of two gods being responsible for time: Chronos as a personification of lifetime ensures that time passes in an exact and linear sequence of moments. His treasures are experiences. However, anyone who doesn’t use his/her time and who doesn’t learn and mature from it will be devoured by Chronos. In contrast, there is Kairos, the god of the right moment and of favorable opportunities. Whereas Chronos represents the quantity of time and the experiences derived from it, Kairos stands for the Now, for the present moment which can only be considered subjectively. This dimension of time, its quality, is much too often ignored.

Importance vs. Urgency

How on earth could we wait for favorable opportunities, if we are constantly rushed and if we submit our daily routines to the strict dictation of clocks?

In order to recognize the right moment we need peace of mind and awareness. We have to know exactly what we want, for in our complex world with infinite possibilities there are millions of opportunities – but not all of them are favorable for us.

Naturally, we want to be engaged, we want to feel indispensable, important, useful, we want to sense the ecstasy of adrenaline driving us to more and more performance. Every day, every minute is filled with urgencies to survive in our meritocracy. Urgency however, only simulates importance. If we never pause to listen to our own needs and to meet them, we will never experience quality of time. Important things don’t force on us; we have to see them for ourselves and to allow for them.

Allow for Importance

Human needs are of psychical, social, mental, and spiritual nature. This also includes long-term planning and constant enhancement of our skills as well as real regeneration and maintenance of worthwhile relations. Seeing and doing what is truly important to us, and managing to integrate these essentials into our daily lives, brings us a huge step closer to quality of life.

Even if we can spare only little time for it: this one happy hour will be much.

References:

Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1995). First things first. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Weinelt, H. (2005). Die zwei Gesichter der Zeit. Abenteuer Philosophie 4, 18-21.

It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much.

Seneca

“I need more time! I’m always stressed, and I can never find enough time for myself!”

Haven’t all of us had thoughts like these sometimes? In a world of growing complexity which is full of competitive necessities we frequently feel overstrained trying to meet all our requirements. We are suffering from stress, feeling obliged to fulfill comprehensive needs –and thereby forgetting ourselves.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher and natural scientist lived over 2,000 years ago. Is it possible that he had an idea of our time? Did he have a presentiment of the drastic changes the last decades brought about and of the technical means that are of our disposal today?

The essential things

Still, Seneca’s words are just as valid today as they were in his time. We are not able to produce more time, even with all technical tools available. What we can do however, is to obtain clarity – clarity about our values, about what seems most important to us – and to set priorities accordingly. We need a compass showing us the way through this barely penetrable jungle full of challenges, enabling us to change course.

More control?

“Greater efficiency and control“, these were the principles of conventional time management. An even more seamless planning of our available time should help us to use our time more effectively. However, can efficiency and control lead to a meaningful life?

Surely, they can’t. On the one hand, not every detail is controllable: The consequences following our decisions can never be predicted exactly. Solely our decisions can be affected by us. On the other hand, doing things efficiently, i.e. “more in less time” is not always the best way. Isn’t it much more important to do things effectively, i.e. using adequate means and producing the intended results?

Quality of life is surely not a question of velocity.

Which values?

Determining our decisions and actions values like love, security, status, recognition, fame etc. are of highest importance to our lives. If they contradict to reality though, they won’t increase our lives’ quality. On the contrary, we will feel even more rushed, unsuccessful, and futile. It is therefore vitally important to critically scrutinize the social and private values we submit to. How else can we recognize, if the aims we strive for actually meet our own needs or if they had been extraneously imposed on us until we internalized them?

Time – use, don’t lose it

The answers to three questions can contribute significantly to our using time instead of losing it:

Which activity, if I would do it excellently and consequently, will have a considerably positive impact on my private life?

Which activity, if I would do it excellently and consequently, will have a considerably positive impact on my professional life?

And if I know that these activities could be that much effective, why am I not doing them already?

Seneca surely didn’t imagine how life will look like in 2,000 years into his future. He is proven right anyway.

References:

Covey, S. R., Merrill, A. R., & Merrill, R. R. (1995). First things first. New York: Simon and Schuster.