The Paradox Of Doing More

How to truly get the most out of your time.

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.”

Henri Bergson

Between trying to survive, lead, and create with multiple simultaneous projects, it’s been a busy year. I am often asked how I manage to keep it together.

While penning my upcoming book Everything Connects: How to Transform and Lead in the Age of Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability (McGraw-Hill, February 2014) with my friend and Fast Company writer Drake Baer, Drake and I would often talk about managing our time. Many of our conversational themes ended up in the book.

Below is an excerpt from the book that you may find useful in thinking about, managing, and doing meaningful work with your own time.

Managing Consciousness

About a hundred years ago, a French Nobel laureate philosopher was the toast of the English-speaking world: Henri-Louis Bergson. His thoughts reached, affected--and reflected--all corners of Parisian culture of that time, from the stream-of-consciousness novel to impressionist painting. He was a pithy fellow, once quipping that the duty of the philosopher is to make the implicit into the explicit--an emphasis on articulation that we aspire to ourselves.

And as the wise often do, Bergson reevaluated the most fundamental of things--like time itself. For beyond being a great aphorist--his line that the duty of the philosopher is to make the implicit explicit is one of our favorites--he had a profound and unique understanding of the nature of time. He criticizes “clock time” as being tyrannical and imprecise. It might be useful, perhaps, for scientific research, he said, but not for living. Rather, a more precise notion of time is what is best left un-translated as he thought of time as dureé-réelle, which could be translated as, though you may clumsily translate it, as "duration."

Instead of time being this thing on the wall or on the watch, time is your ongoing, fluid experience, your consciousness.

If we use Bergson’s lens to understand these things, we can then make the conclusion that management of tasks is actually management of time--which is actually management of consciousness.

That is to say that when you’re trying to get people on the same schedule (or not), you’re actually talking about managing their consciousness, their experience of life. Which is really quite the thing, isn’t it?

Saying No

But revolting against the tyranny of clock time is not just for impressionist-era philosophers. It’s also for modern-day ultra-doers like Bob Pozen, who once simultaneously served as president of Fidelity Investments, taught a full course load at Harvard Business School, and penned articles for the Harvard Business Review.

In one such piece, he contends that a bias toward valuing workers by the hours they put in--which studies have shown managers do--is exceptionally misguided. To Pozen, professionals aren’t valuable to a company for the hours that they put in--which engenders a culture of privileging “face time”--but for the “value they create through their knowledge.” And since the measure of quality is hours rather than result, Pozen says, managers distract their workers from what he says is the most critical question, “Am I currently using my time in the best possible way?” and so use their time inefficiently.

Let’s expand his argument to a philosophical level: By privileging hours over results, we distract ourselves from asking if we’re using our minds in the best possible way, resulting in a culture that is only accidentally mindful, if at all.

Orienting our working lives around the hours we put in is a way of avoiding the responsibility of using our consciousness and our energy in the best possible way.

Orienting around the end product (and process) helps us be more rigorous with the way we align our experiences with our outcomes.

One of the foundational steps, then, to working in a prosocial, commitment-oriented, mammalian way is to recognize that the people that we’re working with have also had long experiences with life--experiences that you haven’t had--that will yield insights that you can’t have.

As Pozen suggests, a lot of guarding your time comes down to being able to say no and express priorities--which means that you need to have a culture that’s comfortable with open conversation and saying, No, actually, I can’t do that.

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[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch

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5 Comments

  • maneeshk

    Every idea in it own looks great when viewed from certain angle. But the fact is we require balance and harmony in what ever approach we take. With compelling idea like this a lot of implicit assumptions are made regarding capability, motivation, desire etc. A balance of traditional idea with freedom to explore new dimension may be some thing to look for.

  • Cedricj

    This article reminds me of the ditty

    There was a man my grandfather knew
    Who had so many things he wanted to do
    That whenever he thought it was time to begin
    He couldn't
    Because of the state that he was in

    cedricj.wordpress.com
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Andrew

    As a CEO, I agree that saying no is an important element in protecting your own time and priorities. However there have been times on the way up when my manager would ignore the fact I had said no and insist I did something anyway - and sometimes they were right. They had seen in me a capability or strength I hadn't seen in myself and helped me to realise my potential. Now I try to strike that balance between allowing people to say no when it seems that they are genuinely unable or overburdened but sometimes pushing them to exceed their own expectations of themselves. 

  • Doug Morneau

    Great article - love the paradigm shift -> "management of time--which is actually management of consciousness"

    So sad but true - the lie of the 40 hour work week. -> "a bias toward valuing workers by the hours they put in--which studies have shown managers do--is exceptionally misguided"   Many people whom I’ve worked with can do way more in less time, like your example of Bob Pozen.  

    Maybe another consideration is understanding when each of us is most productive - early morning? late at night?  Some days when I hit the creative wall, going for a hike or run clears the brain, removes distractions, and most often resolves the issue I was struggling with.

    Thanks for sharing!