One of the things that fuels the unhelpful stress we experience is the feeling of never having enough time. Our relationship to time, and how we experience time moving, is fundamental to our mental wellbeing, and our sense of self.

Time during Covid-19

Lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic are clearly having an uneven impact on people. One expression of this is how differently people are experiencing time. Many are experiencing time moving more slowly; they have found time to do more or the same at a less frenetic pace. Others are seeing the opposite, as huge and exceptional demands are being placed on them. I have clients with young children and trying to work from home too having to get up at ridiculous o’clock trying to maintain everything on their plate.

So far, so obvious but then this: a radio interview with Professor Carlo Rovelli about the nature of time during the Covid-19 crisis, which literally stopped me in my tracks.

The nature of time

Professor Rovelli, as well as a philosopher of science, is an Italian theoretical physicist who works mainly in the field of quantum gravity and is a founder of loop quantum gravity theory… I confess I don’t know what any of those words mean! I do know, though, that he is the author of a highly acclaimed book, The Order of Time, about the physics and philosophy of time. In the radio interview he talked about what time is, and why our relationship with time is so altered during the pandemic:

“Time is a far more complex thing than just reading what a clock measures; it has many layers. So, there is a physical time, the time that is studied in physics, which is complicated and very different to our intuition, because of relativity, because of quantum mechanics. But then there is another time, which is something else, which is the time of our experience. And this again is very different than the reading of a clock because the time of our experience is built by our memory, our desire, our emotions, our grasp of the past and the future. And therefore, is very flexible depending on what is going on in our life…we live in the reality that we perceive, so it is not an illusion, the flexibility of time, it is just what time is for us. The mistake we often make is to think that time is just one single thing; time is a variety of things…and these are all real…all connected, but they are all different from one another.”

What does this mean for our daily lives?

I once heard a journalist ask Professor Rovelli what the practical use of his theory about the nature of time was. I paraphrase his wry reply, that he still has to be on time for appointments on earth but understanding that time is a flexible thing is important for how humans perceive themselves. He likened it to the impact of the Copernican revolution – the knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth – which Rovelli says fundamentally altered how humans viewed their relationship to the universe.

Small changes, big impacts

I found the interview fascinating – and liberating. It raised a really important question: if time is a flexible multi-layered thing, and the sum of our experiences helps shape it, how influential can we be in changing those, so time runs differently and our mental wellbeing is lifted? I was reminded of an example from my coaching practice, a senior employee, fearing burn-out, with a to-do list of unfinished projects the length of his arm. His GANTT charts weren’t cutting it. His Burndown charts weren’t helping either. However, he re-learnt how to really connect with chunking a project down and that success in his role was to move each chunk along, a little bit every few days. Changing his measure of success fundamentally altered how he experienced time. The impact on him? It was as though someone using bellows pumped time and oxygen back into his life.

As this example illustrates, in many cases a small shift in perspective can have a profound impact.  And we are more impactful than we can imagine.

If you’re struggling with your relationship to time, contact us for a chat to find out how we can help you.