The Shape of Time

Very early on in my career during my first graduate job, everyone in the team was sent on your basic ‘Time Management’ course. It was more than ten years ago, yet the lessons I learned on that course have stayed with me ever since, but perhaps not in the way senior managers might have hoped.

The first exercise involved the trainer giving everyone ten index cards, telling us we had to write down ten things that were important to us in life. This might be our friends and family, a special relationship, a beloved hobby – it could be anything. Ten things. Once everyone had the ten things written down, the trainer told us to ‘remove’ five of the cards. Decide which five things were the least important out of the ten. That was reasonably easy – and within about ten minutes, everyone had discarded five of their cards.

Then the trainer asked us to remove a further card, leaving us with four. Trickier. We were all mostly down to our most valued things in life – family, children, friends, a partner, money. The things we need to keep going. I don’t subscribe to the ‘money doesn’t make you happy’ school of thought, by the way. It doesn’t necessarily make you happy, but at least you can be miserable in style.

We sat there with our four cards. Would we be asked to remove any more? Yes, another card had to be removed. This took everyone a good fifteen minutes of decision making and now my colleague’s faces were wrinkled up in hard thought. Eventually we were left with three cards.

People became fairly nervous, and a little unsure what this was teaching us. Surely we couldn’t remove any more cards? But yes, again we had to remove another. And another. We had to be left with one card and one card only. The card showing the most important thing in our life. When we had chosen, the trainer asked us all to show our card to everyone with the number one important thing in our lives.

Only one person had ‘work’ written on his card, and the trainer laughed heartlily, telling them, ‘that’s the wrong answer.’

Everyone else had either their partner, their children, or family/friends. All people, rather than things. And then the trainer asked us all, ‘tell me – are you happy with the amount of time you currently spend with or on that person or people?’

Silence in the room. No reaction from anyone, until people started shaking their heads while looking at the card in their hands.

The trainer summed up. “I wanted you to do this exercise first, because it is the most important lesson. Work is NOT the most important thing in your life, and it never should be. Even if you’re doing a job you love, it should never cause you to exclude the people who mean something in your life. I want you to resolve to spend more time with those you love, and less time on work.’

Then, he continued, “now, here’s the schedule for the rest of the day…”

I have never forgotten that training course. Nobody is perfect, but I’ve since always tried to ensure there is a balance between work and everything else.

The question is, are you happy with your work/life balance? Try and shape your own time, rather than allow others to do it for you.


6 thoughts on “The Shape of Time

  1. Can anybody ever be happy with it? It’s a tricky one. I’d class myself as a workaholic. I love my day job and I have quite a few side projects, OxGadgets and PakTherapy being two major ones. So I do end up spending a big bulk of my time on them everyday.
    I would say though that it’s a balance that is my own doing, and while I’m always chasing more time, I’m also quite thankful for every single moment I do get to spend with my family and every holiday we take.

  2. Personally, I agree with the training exercise. For many years work came first. It very nearly broke my marriage. Flying to taiwan at 3hrs notice for a two day trip that became over two weeks, missing a family party at my own house, that I had organised, was almost the last straw. It was also a wake up call. Lesson learned. It wasn’t about what I felt, it was what others did that mattered. It is thinks to social media that I am back in touch with the many who fell by the wayside.

  3. Money itself does not make you happy, but it does give you some choices and options, that would otherwise not be open to you.

  4. Is it just me, or is that a nasty little exercise to subject people to? Not everyone is a consummate “sharer”, especially amongst co-workers. Surely a professional trainer can come up with a less intrusive, less invasive, but equally memorable way of bringing a room to the conclusion that work shouldn’t be the single most important thing in life.

    Not everyone would wish to put all that they hold dearest into a ranked list. A list that they suspect is going to be populating that flipchart. A list that they then have to carefully pare-down. Folks may be uncomfortable at having to deny/lie-about about something that is /truly/ important to them but that would hurt their image, or betray a confidence, or reveal something deeply personal, or get them fired. Some people would find it extremely unpleasant to confront in their own minds whether their dying dad currently outranks their children.

    And is having “work” at the top deserving of actual derision? It may not be optimal to throw oneself into one’s work, but there are surely far less beneficial ways of dealing with circumstances elsewhere in one’s life. And maybe work’s at the top because the relationships forged there are the closest ones one has.

    I know I’m overthinking this, and fair play to everyone who’d be fine with it, but I would /really/ loathe being put on the spot like that just for the sake of making a point.

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