What Einstein Can Teach Us About Time Management
Nearly all time management systems are based on the idea that time is a fixed quantity and we all get access to roughly the same amount of it. There are sixty seconds in an hour, twenty four hours in a day, seven days in a week, etc. But you can’t put time in a wheelbarrow, which means that time is less subject to the laws of Newtonian physics than it is the principles behind Einsteinian relativity.
In case that sounds a bit daunting, there’s a story that Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas, found herself in the position of having to answer questions about his work to the general public. In order to help her explain relativity, Einstein shared this simple analogy:
“An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.”
In other words, our individual experience of time is highly subjective and tends to expand and contract throughout the day.
Which raises an interesting question…
What if instead of trying to get better at managing linear time, you could learn to “bend it” — to stretch it out and shrink it down more or less on purpose?
We’ve all had the experience of time “bending” on its own — where something either took much more or less time than the clock or calendar would have predicted. And we’ve all been startled on occasion at how much we were able to get done in the days or hours leading up to a vacation or a real-world deadline. But can we bend time deliberately?
In my experience working with thousands of people from all walks of life, the answer is an unequivocal yes. But unlike in Newtonian physics, where “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” and pushing button “A” will always get you result “B”, the how to is more something you need to get a feel for over time (like driving a car or driving a golf ball).
Here are three keys to getting a feel for “bending time” in your favor:
1. Stop trying to get things over with and get into them instead.
The reason time passes quickly when we’re with our equivalent of Einstein’s “pretty girl on a park bench” is that we allow ourselves to be totally absorbed in who we’re with or what we’re doing. While extraneous thoughts might come up, we dismiss them easily as we’re more interested in the task at hand (or person or video game or TV show) than we are in what we happen to be thinking in the moment. By deliberately bringing your full attention to what you’re doing with energy, enthusiasm, and like it was the most important thing in the world, you create a completely different experience of it and time seemingly expands to make room for whatever needs to get done.
2. Stop confusing thinking about something with doing it.
I don’t come off very well in this story, but not long after we moved to America, I sat down to prepare a log of how much time I was spending on all my work projects so that I could persuade my wife I really didn’t have “extra time” to help out with the house and kids. To my dismay, I found I was spending less than two hours a day actually working and ten to twelve hours thinking about what there was to be done.
While I was aware that giving yourself time for reflection opens us up to creativity, I was equally aware that obsessively thinking about the same things for days on end was a great way of closing down creative flow. I never did show my wife my time log, but I did start volunteering to help out with a lot more tasks around the house. As soon as I had less time or inclination to overthink everything, time “bent” and I started to get considerably more done in considerably less time.
3. Let the small stuff take care of itself along the way.
A popular analogy in time management literature is the story of a professor who places a large jar on the table.
By the side of the jar he places a bucket of gravel, a bucket of sand, a bucket of water, and three big rocks. He then challenges his participants to find a way to fit everything on the table into the jar.
After numerous attempts, it became clear that the only way to fit everything in is to start with the big rocks first. The gravel fills the space between the big rocks, the sand fills the gaps in the gravel, and the water fills the gaps between the sand.
In the same way, when we put our attention on the big rocks in our life and don’t let ourselves get caught up in the daily gravel, ground down by the sand, or swept away by the water, it’s amazing how much of what we thought we had to do “just happens” while we’re busy with what matters most.
Because most of us are in the habit of thinking about time as a fixed quantity, it can take a bit more time than you think to get a feel for “bending time” deliberately. Here are a few questions to reflect on may give you more insight into the process:
- What’s the longest hour you’ve ever spent? How about the shortest day or week? Why?
- The next time you have a real-world deadline (like a meeting with an important client or a presentation for your boss), notice what happens to your thinking. Does it get easier or harder to ignore? What do you make of that?
- What are your biggest “rocks” right now? What are the one, two, or three things you would focus on today if you knew the rest of your life would fit itself in around them?
Michael Neill is an international thought leader and master coach, challenging the cultural mythology that stress and struggle are a prerequisite to creativity, happiness, and success. As the founder and CEO of Genius Catalyst Inc., Michael’s mission is to unleash the human potential with intelligence, humor, and heart.
To learn more about Michael and his work, visit www.michaelneill.org or join the nearly two million people who have enjoyed his TEDx talks Why Aren’t We Awesomer? and Can a TEDx Talk Really Change the World?