"Beat the Clock!” -- What you need to know and do to get rid of time pressure
This is Part I of a course initially delivered by weekly email. This part has six lessons, and the fifth is in the column to the right -->
You can use these links for navigation through the course:
Lesson 1 - What’s problematic about time?
Lesson 2 - What is time? Are there different 'faces' of time?
Lesson 3 - How do we normally experience time?
Lesson 4 - How do we experience time during peak performance?
Lesson 5 - How procrastination worsens the feeling of time flowing
Lesson 6 - Where does the feeling of time flow come from?
If you cannot answer the following, you probably need Part II of this course:
"Beat the Clock" Part II requires study and practice of Part I, has ten additional lessons, and is available from the store: "Beat the Clock" course
Lesson 5 - How Procrastination worsens the feeling of time flowing
Turning Procrastination Around
Judging from the people I've talked to, procrastination is one of the biggest problems we have with time. Most people procrastinate about something, whether it's putting off work or--in the case of workaholics--not taking time for themselves.
What does the word procrastination mean? The dictionary says to procrastinate is "to put off doing something until a future time." Although there is something we really want to do at a particular time, for one reason or another we don't do it. Since we are certain that we want to do it at that particular time, putting it off is not an innocent--or even creative act of rescheduling--not doing it then erodes confidence and wastes energy, as we discuss later.
How is procrastination counterproductive?
Suppose I have a speech I want to prepare. It's Monday, and the speech is to be delivered Thursday. Suppose I have a four-hour block of time today that I can use to prepare the speech, and no other open time before Thursday. This is definitely the best time to work on it, if I am to do a good job.
I begin working on the script for the talk. The work goes pretty well. Sentences flow; the work goes almost by itself, effortlessly. Before long, I am so engrossed in the writing that I’m not aware of any feeling of time passing. Nor am I aware of past, present, or future. There’s only timeless absorption in my work.
Eventually I get a little confused about the message I want to get across. Because I don't face the confusion head on, my mind starts to wander. I look at the clock and realize it's almost time for my favorite TV show. Pretty soon I'm thinking about how I might be able to finish my preparation right after the show is over, before I go to bed. Yes, it seems possible! I think I have enough time. So I put my work aside, and begin to watch the show.
After my procrastination, the quality of my experience suffers. Watching the show is not as enjoyable as I'd hoped it would be, because awareness is divided between watching the show and being aware that I have to do my work. Time is passing relentlessly, and it feels like the future is closing in on me. I am watching TV here in the present, feeling anxious and guilty about a job waiting for me in the future. In addition, I have missed an opportunity, and feel less confident and capable as a result.
So as a result of procrastination we miss opportunities; suffer feelings like anxiety, guilt, and pressure; end up with a stronger sense of time passing while trying to enjoy intervening activities; feel a greater separation between present and future within our experience; and diminish confidence.
The process of procrastination: separating present from future
In the example above, where did the stronger feeling of time passing come from? Procrastinating actually creates or intensifies our sense of time passing, and our feeling that the present is separate from the future.
Consider my example once again. When I started my work, I really concentrated. The experience was timeless. There was no awareness of the passing of time, and no sense of the future separate from the present. After procrastinating, the river of time began to flow. I anxiously watched time pass, and was subtly aware of my speech waiting for me off in the future. There was a "present time" where I hid from the work up ahead in the "future time." Clearly procrastination had the effect of changing my sense of time, either creating or adding energy to my previous feeling of time passing.
However, typically in Western cultures we think that time is simply a physical reality that is independent of our consciousness. It seems to flow at a constant speed, passing (apparently) quite unalterably from past to present to future no matter what we think, feel, or do, and no matter what perspective we take on time.
As Edward Hall noted in his book The Dance of Life (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983), time is like a conveyor belt moving a series of empty containers that can be filled with our activities. The conveyor passes through past, present, and future 'rooms' in our experience, and we’re always in the present room. With this view of time, we can fool ourselves into thinking that procrastination is simply rescheduling a task to a different container on the conveyor of time. Such rescheduling seems to produce no serious side-effects.
But in procrastinating we delude ourselves. Time is not simply a fixed physical reality independent of our consciousness. By procrastinating we actually create the conveyor with its containers as a structure in our experience, and then we include the feeling of being out of control of time’s flow. (See "How Experience Shapes Up" in Part II of this series)
What is procrastination?
A redefinition of procrastination is warranted by this deeper understanding of the process. Procrastination is essentially the repression or suppression of an unpleasant feeling that results in temporally separating oneself from a task.
We’re all familiar with spatial separations, where we can build walls or just walk away from something. But we can also temporally separate ourselves from things we don’t like. What seems to happen is that the energy of the feeling that we don’t like (confusion in my example) is pushed away, and it is transformed into the experience of the conveyor belt of time passing between past, present, and future compartments, with the somewhat dim recollection of our postponed task off in the future somewhere. The energy of the situation--especially the confusion--isn’t lost, it’s just changed to a different form.
So our sense of time passing is a result of transforming the negative energy; time is not just an external reality that is ‘real’ or predetermined or constant. Time is more flexible than our Western cultures teach.
Since time is this flexible, perhaps we can take the characteristic orientation of procrastination, where we look from the present toward the future, and reverse it—look from the future back towards the present and past. If we reverse this view of time, we might be able to loosen the energy fixed by procrastinating.
Turning procrastination around
The presumé exercise reverses this perspective, loosening the fixed energy of procrastination and allowing clarity and insight to arise. A resumé reviews past accomplishments from the present; a presumé looks at what has been done on a project from a point of view in the future. For this exercise, adapted from the exercise with the same name in Get It All Done and Still Be Human by Tony and Robbie Fanning (Ballantine Books, 1979), we're going to assume that six months work on a project has already been done, and then we're going to write down what happened. We'll write in past tense whatever comes to mind about completion of the project during the last six months.
To do the exercise, first identify the project that will be most important in your life during the next six months.
Got it? Now set up your environment so you'll be undisturbed for twenty minutes. At the top of a piece of paper, write the date as if it were six months from today. Then write down a few words generally describing the project you've selected. Everything else on the paper will be written in past tense, since you are recording what already happened.
When you begin to write what happened during the past six months, you may tend to reject certain ideas that come to mind because they don't fit the expectations you have when you look from the present toward the future. However, just be open, take whatever comes to you without censoring, and write down what happened in the order that it comes to mind. Write whatever you remember was accomplished, as well as any insights you had, or personal changes you went through. Take fifteen minutes or so for this process, and write everything in past tense.
After you feel that the exercise is complete, take a few more minutes and write down how you experienced the presumé. Did it flow better as you continued? Did you get any insights or creative ideas? Did you enjoy doing the exercise? Did you get a sense of completion, peace, or satisfaction? Was it different from your typical way of planning or thinking about projects?
This exercise may be done with other time periods—like a week, a month, a year—or you may simply assume it's a given date and look back from there. Some people, instead of making a daily "to-do list," effectively use a presumé to write a "done list" for the day.
You may get a sense of relief, peace, presence, or rest, even if the project didn't appear to be completed. Why? Most of our lives seem to be spent trying to get satisfaction from objects, events, or relationships outside ourselves. Very often we expect that we’ll be happier later on, after we complete our goals and projects. But our experience is continually depreciated by the habitual perspective of looking forward to things. We’re always trying to get there, rather than allowing ourselves to be here.
When we change our perspective on time with an exercise like the presumé, we can break through this temporal structure of seeking happiness up ahead along with its feelings of and about time. Then instead of fighting against time, trying to get to our goals somewhere up ahead, we can just be here in peace and presence. We can—if only for a moment—be here instead of trying to get there. We can end up in timelessness.
*An earlier version of this article was published in the San Jose Mercury News.
Next week: Where does the feeling of time flow come from?