Monday, January 02, 2006

Consider your sense of time and timing

When someone asks you what you want, where do your thoughts go? Would you think about something you want immediately, something you want this year, something you want ultimately? Try it. Allow any answer to come to mind to the question: "What do you want?" Then notice when you want it. How does the question change when you are asked: "What do you want now?"

There is no right or wrong: all perspectives are useful in some contexts. A cliche reminds us "Even a clock that has stopped is right twice a day." When we have trouble knowing what we want, often we are really having trouble wanting things within a time frame that does not come naturally to us. If our time frames are short, we will be accused of being "short-sighted" of selling our futures for immediate gratification. If our time frames are quite long, we may seem to be unambitious and unproductive to people with shorter time frames.

Optimal time frames change with different activities. In raising children, we can afford to plan fifteen or twenty years in advance: our kids will still be our kids then. In developing business, we might want to plan fifteen years in advance and settle for a long term plan that covers five years. Without a crystal ball, it is hard to be sure what any business will be like fifteen years in advance.

New Year's implies a time frame: it implies that we will think about a year at a time, the year that has ended and the year that is beginning. Young people will find that a year is long-term thinking: it represents a significant portion of the time they have lived. Older people will find a year much shorter: they may have an acute sense that time is a limited and dwindling resource. We all make resolutions some years and ignore them other years. Perhaps this corresponds to our changing sense of how long a year is and how much it can hold. It is not that we sometimes see the glass as half empty or half full: the size of the glass is always changing.

I know of one organizational theory that supposes people can be categorized by their time sense in the same way they can be seen as representing various personality types. Customer service reps need to focus on what is in front of them; CEOs need long-term focus and should see most clearly the things that won't come into being for several years. Think what this means for the entrepreneur who begins by being both customer service rep and CEO. Think what it means to the parent who understands university preparation and yet must also notice that diapers require changing.

Fortunately, we hold within us the experience of all the different people we have been at different stages in our lives. We can not always jump ahead, but we can always jump back into earlier perceptions, so that time slows down as it did when we were very little and we find we have time to make long term plans that will unfold almost immediately.

How will you know that what you want is unfolding at exactly the pace you have determined?

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