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Max Weber wrote that wasting time is a capital sin. Personally I believe that wasting someone else’s time is the primary sin. Anyway, time is an essential part of our lives. We measure it, we cherish it, we waste it, we chase after it. Our sense of time gives us stress. There is so much to do, and so little time. Have you ever had that feeling that you are in your first day of a two week’s vacation and you already regret that you do not have more time to visit places, do things, … ? The feeling spoils the experience. We live a life that is so time oriented that it is sickening.
A couple of years ago I was in Senegal and our guide told me that people in Senegal do not run after the time, but that the time stays behind the people. And indeed, I have met people in that country who seem to have a quiet flow of life, selling fruit, preparing fish, … every day seems to be following the same, predictable course. People there concentrate on what is at hand at the moment itself. The next day resembles the current day.
How horrible, you might think. Of course people in Senegal live in totally other conditions than people in the West. They have less. And yet, they seem to be happier, more in sync with their environment. They have less posessions to worry about and more time at their hands. However, some of them want something else. Armand told me that many youngsters risk their lives to sail with a Pirogue (the local boat) to Tenerife hoping to find a better life in Europe. A better life to them is a better material life. They end up dead, or in camps for asylum seekers, or in some kind of illegal circuit. Because they think that having things equals being more happy. But their current happiness lies in how they deal with time and the way they lead their lives.
Next to a different sense of time, life of people in Senegal is characterised by the fact that they are very close to the concrete nature of life. There is not much abstraction. The fishermen in Saint-Louis follow the rhythm of the sea, and so does their family. The Imam of the village of Bagbo follows the rhythm of the sun. The farmers of the village at the Mauretanian border (I have forgotten the name) follow the rhythm of the seasons, or the rhythm of the animals they have. The family follows the rhythm of preparing the meals, which they do in group. People are very close with what they do. They eat what they grow, they eat the fish that they catch.
The sociologist Richard Sennet explains how we have lost this connection with the concrete nature of work. We have created abstract jobs that are not in touch with the concrete origins of craftmanship. The architect does not have to draw the plans for the building he wants to erect. It’s the computer that does it (CAD). However by drawing and redrawing, the architect would get a physical touch for the construction. The fisherman in Senegal who mends his nets – which are very expensive by the way – feels the fibers, the knots, the threads of the net. The farmer feels the land.
We have lost that. Because there is no time. Buying prepared food in the supermarket that you only have to warm up in the mico-wave oven is an example of how we are losing touch with the concreteness of life under the pressure of time. The distance between us and the origin of things becomes greater and more abstract.
triggerfinger21Alain de Botton explained during a lecture that people are striving to restore their contact with the concrete nature of life. If you ask people what they would do if they could change jobs completely. Many answer that they would start some kind of business that is much more concrete and less time-dependent : a bar, a B&B, a biological farm, a band, … Many people have hobbies that respond to just that. How many people do not take on some creative side-job? We need concreteness and we need a sense of control of time.
Work and Time
In the workplace we are trying to introduce flexible working hours. We are giving people the possibility to manage their time and to adapt work patterns to their personal needs.
People are in command of their time as long as they bring the contribution that is necessary. Time or presence should not be the criterion any longer. People are in command of how they organize their lives and their (working) time. I believe this is the right way forward.
There’s a caveat though. Never before in modern history people were so much in command of their time. But never before people had so much trouble managing it. And never before we had to face issues of stress and burn-out like today. Burn-out is one of most critical threats to health in the modern work place.
This is a paradox. One could state very easily that people who suffer from burn-out are at fault as they are more in control of their time. It is of course not that easy. People who suffer from burnout do not get it because they measure time. They enter burn-out when they feel a discrepancy between the effort and the result or its appreciation. It’s the teacher that invests hours in preparing classes but finds himself in front of a bunch of ungrateful and disinterested kids, or harrassing parents for that matter. It’s the leader that goes a long way to inspire people to go beyond their limitations, but finds that they are more interested in their payslip and are only prepared to give a minimal contribution (just enough) for a maximum result. It’s the worker that asks himself if what he does has any meaning and finds that there is not enough to make him continue.
Life Education
So what do we need to do? We need to educate people. It’s not about time management, it’s about life management. This is something we do not learn in school (there we still have the Pavlovian bells). It’s life that teaches you life management. But if we keep on telling our kids that they cannot waste their or someone else’s time. If we condemn il dolce far niente as a shame. If we do not allow children to be bored, … we are sowing the seeds of disorders and burn-out.
I am told that Generation Y has understood this better. I am told that Generation Y is able to balance work life and personal life better. I am not sure about this. Generations Y and Z also want to have luxury (the newest Ipad). Well they are going to have to work for it. No one is going to give it to them. People need to set priorities and define what is important to them. And we need to explain how the relationship between concreteness and time might affect them.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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