In praise of pause

by Kate on August 15, 2012

I need to pause more. To draw breath before I work out how to spend the 1,440 minutes in each day. To be in less of a rush to fill those minutes with as much as I can.

It’s not that I have suddenly uncovered the desire to spend my life sitting on a beach. More a sense that it is worthwhile pondering how to use my time well, to ask “what should I be working on?”, “Where are my time and energy best spent, today?”

This is a theme that draws me back quite often.

For example, earlier this year, in what was a fairly practical article on making the most of our time, I wrote this:

For most of us, our time, our health and our personal skills and talents are our most important asset. These are what enable us to work and earn an income and build wealth to provide for our needs when we can no longer work. They are also what enable us to support our families and raise children.

And now I’m back thinking about this topic again.

Clearly I’m not alone in being tempted by “the undisciplined pursuit of more” (a phenomenon identified by Jim Collins). There are worthwhile insights in this article, which looks at why this happens, and suggests we intentionally cut out terrific opportunities in order to avoid success leading to failure. Despite solid, practical advice on how to clarify and focus, in practice, many of us struggle.

It is not surprising that one of the most popular articles on the Harvard Business Review web site is entitled “How will you measure your life?”. A clever title, which might draw in those looking for life KPIs, as well as those searching for answers their personal productivity systems don’t provide as to how to spend their time. In it, Clayton M Christensen explains

When people who have a high need for achievement—and that includes all Harvard Business School graduates—have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. You ship a product, finish a design, complete a presentation, close a sale, teach a class, publish a paper, get paid, get promoted. In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids misbehave every day. It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, “I raised a good son or a good daughter.” You can neglect your relationship with your spouse, and on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t seem as if things are deteriorating. People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.

Christensen’s article has some good advice – again deceptively simple, but not so easy.

Thinking about focus and priorities recently, I’ve found myself liking a lot the simple form of priority and time management which I learned about from my business partner, Peter. It goes like this: write a list of six things you’re going to do in the day. Do them. Cross them off the list with highlighter. Repeat daily. Add ‘second six things’ if needed. The six things relate back to items on a master list.

The system works, as do all personal productivity systems (Getting things Done/ Priority Manager etc) – assuming we follow them reasonably diligently. Still we must choose what goes on the lists. Certainly I have much more on my ‘desired to do’ list than can get done.

Which brings me back to the need to pause, and reflect. To ask the difficult questions about what matters at work, and in life. To sit, occasionally, for long enough to renew my clarity.

Last week, a good friend sent me a link to transcripts of a speech by Rowan Williams. In it is this reflection, which I found helpful.

What if time were a gift?  What if time is not just a large empty space waiting to be filled up with useful and productive activity?  What if time is an open door to God?  ‘I will give God thanks and perhaps I will live until morning’ changes the way you spend the night.  If (this) what thanksgiving imposes on me is the need for, what that great French philosopher Simone Weil called‘hesitation’.  Pause, draw breath before you work out how to fill your time…”

A gift is a sign people care. Perhaps we don’t always value gifts the way we should. Of all the gifts, our time is one of the most valuable. Willpower, time management systems and money can’t buy more minutes in the day.

I will pause more. You?

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