It’s Not About Time

February 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

Anyone who has lived and worked in a boarding school will be familiar with this refrain: “We don’t have enough time.”  Some variant of this mantra animates my daily rounds at school —

“We need more time”
“If only we could devote time to [name the lapsed priority]”
“This is a waste of time”
“If you want me to do that, you’ll need to create some time”

Teachers know the wonders that we can work each day, but are well aware that they are miracles in minature– frustrating, incremental steps towards progress in our students and our systems that we will mark in years, not days.  Who better to deeply understand the longer time scales of institutional change?  Who better to reckon with the boundaries that precious few minutes can create in our work?

So why are we so bound and determined to make time our master?  Instead of waiting for someone else to create the space in which to do our best work, what if we looked within?

Let’s start by accepting the proposition that there just isn’t enough time.  Especially in the boarding school world, we live with the constant tension of home and work, our families and our students, our grading and our restorative intellectual (or decidedly non-intellectual) pursuits.  The challenge of living is to make peace with the fact that our time is finite — that in devoting time to one enterprise, we ultimately end up shortchanging another.  We never have enough time.  So it goes with mortality.

I created time to sit and write this morning.  The space to sit is not an outgrowth of my mastery of the quantum bounds of the universe, but rather a conscious decision to marshal my morning pool of creative energy into reflection, rather than my email inbox.  In reality, this reflective act is not a decision of how to use my time, but rather, how to distribute my attention.  I’d argue that taking 15 minutes to write reflectively each day is actually one of the best uses of our attention on behalf of ourselves and others.  I’m not the first person to articulate the powerful difference between time and attention, but I’m struck by how often I hear time cited incorrectly as the obstacle to being our best selves. 

In a real way, adopting the lens of time leads to a kind of willing powerlessness.  “I don’t have enough time” is a statement that implies that we have ceded control over the distribution of our efforts to someone else.  Sure, for those of us who have to get up each morning and go to work, this is true to some extent.   If we looked deeply at the ways in which we distributed our attention while at work, however, we might find that opportunities do exist to use it in more productive and fulfilling ways.  By focusing on our investments of attention, rather than our allocation of time, we make an empowering declaration of control in a world that seems all too out of control otherwise.  To get there, we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and keep a more careful accounting of our attention. 

School leaders (and I don’t mean “administrators” when I use this term … about this topic more later) can empower others by adopting the paradigm of attention in their decision making, asking:

How does this project I’m working on make use of my colleagues’ attention?
Is there some other way to harness or consolidate attention on this project and others?
Are my behaviors unintentionally draining attention that could be better directed elsewhere?  [see: our broad misuse of email]

Creating time for someone, or for oneself, is no guarantee that it will be time spent wisely.

Choosing a different way to distribute our attention may actually be the solution we’ve been searching for the whole time. 

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