Sitting down to write on this topic feels a bit daunting – it is like trying to compress a lifetime’s inquiry into one piece of writing, and yet I am going to do it today. Inquiring into the nature of time itself – why should I make the notion of a ‘lifetime’ more significant than the ‘today’ that I am choosing to write it in? Also learning from my past experience in academic writing (which almost nobody has read and even fewer have connected with), I will write this like I write my blogs – simple storytelling that even my ten year old can understand.
I want you to imagine a triangle with the three vertices representing Work, Time and Money. We are going to explore the sides of this triangle one by one where each side represents the relationship between the two vertices that it connects. My motive in doing this is to invite you see how this triangle is present for you in your own mind and the extent to which it is holding you captive with regard to how, why and what you work on.
1) Work and Money
You have probably at some point in your life worked on some tasks where you did not want money in exchange for them, some tasks in which you would have liked money in exchange but you were too shy to ask for it, some tasks where you were offered money in exchange but you refused to take it, and also some tasks where you had a pre-set amount agreed upon as payment for the task. Some of you might also have experiences where you worked on tasks just because you wanted to and then received payment as a surprise. Some of you might have also paid for an opportunity to work on something that you would not otherwise have got a chance to experience – like paying to go and work in an organic farm over the weekend or paying for an opportunity to spend a holiday working with animals.
Before you continue reading further I want you to think of one example from each category in your own life and reflect on how you felt while doing the tasks. Do you think there might be some connection between how you feel when you are engaged in the task and the money-exchange that is expected, received, or has been agreed upon for the task? What is the nature of this connection? If our goal in life is to ultimately be happy (and through extension of that we also want to experience happiness at work) then might it be useful to pay attention to this connection between work and money and its influence on the way we feel about our work.
When I discuss this topic in my workshops and classes I usually tell a story (not mine) that jolts the participants and gets them to start seriously reflecting on the connection between work and money. Once upon a time there lived a strange looking hunchback who had to cross a particular street everyday on his way to work. It so happened that a gang of street kids found it amusing to chase him, make fun of him and call him names – and they used to do this everyday when he walked through their street. Fed up with being teased every morning the hunchback decided to confront the children. The next morning, he talked to them but instead of asking them to stop he told them that he really enjoyed all the attention they were giving him. He said that because he looked weird most people ignored him and so the attention they were giving him was rare and valuable to him. He told them he was so happy with them that he wanted to reward them by paying them rupees ten each. The children were surprised but delighted to get some extra pocket money and so they took it from the man.
The next day the man crossed their street again, and the children did their act of chasing him through the street and calling him names. At the end of the street he rewarded them each with ten rupees. This continued for a few days and the children started waiting for the man to come each morning so that they could earn their ten rupees for the day. After about a week the man called them together and said that he was very pleased with their efforts and that they were doing a great job. However, he had been inaccurate in his budgeting and he now realized that he could not afford to pay them rupees ten per head anymore. He said that he would be able to pay only rupees five to each child. Some of the children felt betrayed to hear this and they huffed off announcing that five was not good enough for them. The others reasoned that five was better than nothing and they continued to do their act. About a week later the hunchback talked to the children once again. He praised their efforts and assured them that there was nothing wrong in the way they were running behind him and shouting out aloud. He told them that he was really enjoying their act but that he had run into further money problems and could spare only rupees two per head. This time more kids withdrew from the contract – hurt that their efforts were now only fetching rupees two when earlier it was worth rupees ten. After some more days the hunchback confessed to not having any money to be able to pay them and the children stopped their act completely.
Of course this is just a fictional story but when I heard the story for the first time it hit me in a really big way. It made me realize how my own mapping of work-money had shifted over the years. Before joining academia I had a series of ‘failings’ and ‘breakdowns’ in the corporate world. I had tried working in well known banks and IT organizations and none of these ‘work-exchanges’ had worked for me. I had sort of built up a reputation of the girl who runs away from jobs and organizations and so when I started my academic job my parents and friends were watching with curious eyes – is Ramya really going to stick to her job?
About three months into my job, my mother asked me gently if I liked my job and if I was feeling ‘settled’ and was planning to ‘keep’ this job. I told her that I felt like I had won the lottery! Quite literally! All my life I have loved speaking, I have loved being on stage, and I have been immensely curious and devoted to the topics of happiness, productivity, achievement and how all of these come together in work. Indeed I had embarked upon a PhD, leaving all my technical education and expertise behind only to understand the ‘person-work-relationship’ better. Teaching for me was a golden opportunity to combine all of this, especially because IIM Bangalore had given me the liberty to design and offer my own elective course as soon I joined. The money they were paying me was like an add-on bonus, and indeed in my first few months I was not even mentally registering how much was being transferred into my bank account. I was delighted to have found a chance to do something I love, which also (as it appeared) was making a positive contribution in other people’s lives. I jokingly told my mother that I would be willing to pay IIMB if need be to get this chance to do my life’s work in a way that also made me so happy.
During my first year, I got invited to a few different places (local colleges or companies in Bangalore) to come and address their students or staff. Each time, I jumped at the opportunity and the thought did not even come to my mind to ask if there would be any money exchange involved. My work had no connection to money in my mind. Eventually though, over time something changed with respect to the work-money mapping in my own mind and I have reached a place where I am very aware of when I am doing paid work versus pro-bono work.
Now I do not want to make money ‘bad or wrong’ and neither am I saying that asking for money in exchange for one’s work is ‘bad or wrong’. What I am trying to draw our attention to through the hunchback story (as well as my own example) is how the mapping in the brain can subtly shift (as a result of experiencing rewards) without us even being consciously aware of how and when it happens. For the children in the hunchback story, the mapping in the head originally must have been something like ‘We do this because it is fun and how lucky we also get a reward for it’. The hunchback (through his clever design of stepping down of the rewards) changed this mapping to ‘We will only do this activity if we get paid enough to justify our effort and great performance’.
The nature of the activity the children were engaged in – helpful or harmful, whether they should be doing it or not etc. is quite immaterial here. We are just exploring how a mapping in the mind of ‘effort for the fun of it’ subtly changed into ‘effort leads to reward’ and then subtly changed further into ‘effort will only be exerted if the reward is in place’. I think these shifts in mapping are very very important because in the first mapping the individual is free while the last mapping acts like chains. The shift has decreased the number of degrees of freedom that the individual had with respect to his or her action because now the action is dependent on the assurance of commensurate reward.
In my own example the mapping originally was something like, ‘Oh this work is so exhilarating and meaningful that I am grateful I have a chance to do it’. Now it reads something like, ‘I love doing this but I will only do it if I am paid appropriately for it’. Which mapping in the brain do you think gives me more degrees of freedom to engage in work that I like and want to do? The former or latter? In which one am I independent in choosing my work, and in which one have I become dependent?
2) Work and Time
I am going to divide this section into two sub-sections. In the first sub-section I treat time as an ‘external construct’ – something absolute and measurable that exists outside of us and which helps us organize our life and interactions with one another. Indeed this is how most of us think and talk about time and when we do that, time actually shows up for us like an unalterable and fixed reality. In the second sub-section I treat time like an ‘internal and subjective construct’ because I believe that at the heart of our experience, time is just that. My own experience has led me to believe that time is a creation of my mind, mostly sitting snug and unchallenged but once in awhile morphing and melting to reveal glimpses beyond its apparent fixedness.
In this article, I do not want to get into proving anything about time or arguing about which is a better representation of time (external or internal). However, I will explain what I mean by each representation of time so that we can then explore each one’s relationship to work and money separately. In my life I experience and ‘deal with’ time as both external and internal and I do believe we can let the two representations co-exist without driving ourselves crazy. I choose to buy into and play along with the external notion of time because this is what helps me create agreements with external parties (think school buses, scheduling classes, meetings and visits). I am really grateful that we have developed instruments that can help us peg our experiences within the time-space reality to the same touchpoints (like the movement of earth around the sun), and then use that as a reference to converge and meet. I would literally have to live by myself if I did not agree to treat time as an ‘external construct’.
However, if you have ever lost yourself in meditation or experienced the state of ‘flow’ in any task or activity you would have realized how fluid time can be. If your own experience is what you want to peg your understanding of ‘reality’ to then you have to admit that there is also a subjective element associated with your personal experience of time. Your own subjective experience of time can literally expand or contract when viewed in relation to the ‘external time’ and this is what I am referring to as internal time.
The way I reconcile accepting both descriptions of time as meaningful constructs is to think of time itself as having more than one dimension. To explain this more easily I will first use an example of ‘space’ or ‘length’ as experienced in one versus two dimensions. Think of a two dimensional chart paper. Draw two parallel lines on it with a red felt pen about six inches apart. Let the lines stain the edges of the chart paper so the mark is visible from the side as well. Now hold the paper up at the level of your eyes (parallel to the ground) so that you are viewing it from one edge. What you see now is a straight line (corresponding to the length of the chart paper) with two red marks. Now what is the distance (or space) between these two lines? You might say something like six inches. Is that true? Yes it is. Now if I ask you how many marks of 1 cm each you can fit within those two red marks you will come up with a certain number. You will claim that the space between the two red spots is ‘finite’ and will divide that finite space by the length of the smaller mark. However if you suddenly tilt the sheet and see the expanse of it in two dimensions you will see that you actually have far more space between what appeared to be the two red dots. You can suddenly fit in a whole lot more of smaller marks or even designs in the same space. This is how time often behaves in my mind. I cannot say I have mastered the ability to tilt that sheet and create more time for myself at will, but I can definitely say that I have experienced states of sudden expansion of time – similar to what I am describing with the metaphor of tilting the chart paper. I have ‘known’ my personal time to expand and contract in ways that appear unexplainable when viewed only from the edge of the sheet, but which make complete sense if I allow for a multidimensional existence of time.
So now let’s look at the relationship of work and time looking at time first as an ‘external construct’ and then as a ‘subjective reality’.
2a) Work and External Time
Think of the last time when you ‘budgeted’ or set aside a certain amount of time for a particular task and you finished way ahead of time. Now think of a time when you thought you would do it in x hours but it did not get over. The truth is that most of us find it very difficult to estimate how long it will take to do a particular work. This is not because work does not take time but because work output is a complex variable that is the result of several inputs – like motivation, energy, inspiration, mental focus, emotional state, external distractions etc. etc. Time is only one of the variables that determines how much we can create or produce but somehow it has landed up hogging all the attention.
I see it over and over again that people make ‘time’ into the reason why they cannot do something when the actual reason is possibly a combination of other things. I also see people frequently stretching the time that they spend on a task in order to justify externally (to a boss or onlookers) or internally (to themselves) that they have done lots of work. I also see that in many places work is actually evaluated and tracked on the basis of time spent on it rather than the output or effect achieved. One reason for this perhaps is that amidst all the input variables that influence the work-output, time is the easiest to measure. For example, it is almost impossible to measure energy or mental focus. Another possible reason is that time is probably the one thing that we can safely demand of others. It is the one thing that we believe is within people’s capacity to give no matter what. Imagine trying to tell someone that they have to be in a positive emotional state while working, or that they have to be motivated and inspired. Because we believe that time is something that people own, we find it easier to hold them accountable for how they spend it.
If the complex combination of inputs is difficult to measure, why don’t we measure the work-output instead? Indeed some groups and organizations are moving towards directly measuring the quality and quantity of work-output but for many kinds of work, the output cannot be measured tangibly. This is when there is an increased tendency to measure the ‘time spent’ and assume that somehow we are measuring work. The point I am trying to make is that as a society, we have taken time as a close proxy for work because it is easily measurable as well as something that people can be held accountable for. The fact that we do this for organizational ease is one thing but it becomes a deeper problem when we start using the amount of ‘time spent’ as proxy for ‘work’ in our own heads as well.
I will narrate my own example here. I have known right since kindergarten that at least for me ‘time spent’ is mostly uncorrelated with what I learn or create as output. Fortunately for me my parents never tried to enforce timed ‘sit-down-rituals’ to make me study. They left me free to study as and how I wanted to and if playing ‘pretend teacher’ with my dolls was how I preferred to study they encouraged me to do that. They never tried to separate what I did into buckets of work and studies so that they could then measure the time I spent studying.
School and college was a mixed experience but most teachers and coaches stopped measuring ‘effort’ in terms of time put in and started looking at the results instead. As long as I did not create trouble and could show results I was left to choose how I spent my time. So actually, I had not created any strong associations in my head with regard to ‘time spent’ as being equivalent to ‘work done’. This however led to a rude shock in my first job post my MBA. I started work in a very well known job and within days it was made clear to me that unless I came at a certain time, left at a certain time, and sat at my desk for a certain time I was not ‘working’. This regimen was so counterproductive to my style of working that my productivity tanked, my wellbeing tanked, and I landed up feeling trapped and captive. Ironically, even though I would sit at my desk longer I landed up creating lesser output.
I believe that this is not just my story and that a lot of work that could actually get done is not getting done because we unnecessarily map ‘time spent on work’ with the ‘work impact’ or ‘output achieved’. Perhaps the external world will always measure us to some extent using a surrogate of time. However, It is up to make sure that this surrogate that is used by the external world does not mess up our internal world.
Even in my current job teaching productivity is actually measured by my institute according to the number of hours I teach. In fact people also sign up for programs with an assumption that the more time that is spent in a classroom the more one learns. My own experience (both as a student and a teacher) tells me this is not at all true. However, I do understand that most systems cannot measure the more nuanced nature of our work output and will therefore measure ‘time spent’ as ‘work’. The question I want to raise is that if we leave aside how others measure our work but turn inwards to see how we ourselves are measuring or gauging our work what do we see there?
Early in my academic career I would feel guilty if I sat and wrote a poem at my work desk. I would feel guilty if I spent too much time in the coffee lounge. I would feel guilty if I chose to walk or play at five in the evening when other colleagues were in the office instead. In short, unless I was sitting at my computer with files directly related to my ‘work’ open my brain was not counting it as work. One night however I got up in the middle of the night the day before a class and typed furiously only to realize that I had redesigned my entire teaching plan by creating exercises for the next day’s class. This was soon to become a regular feature for me. Increasingly I would get insights for class and course design and answers to the questions sent in by students during my meditations. I would often get my best ideas while walking around campus or when doing some other non work related activities. Without even consciously making a plan to one day I realized that I had started praying and sending blessings to my students during my own ‘sadhana time’.
Most of the examples I use in class come from my ‘non-work’ experience, from interactions with my son, from my ‘non-work’ readings, from my travels, and from my own personal grapplings and reflection. If you have ever been a teacher you will know how critical an apt example or story can be to get a nuanced point across. Time spent in agendaless chatting with a student gave birth to a most stimulating theatre activity I now regularly use in class. I have now finally decided that my life is my work – plain and simple. It is illogical to try and separate the two! I cannot and will not measure my work by time spent on the computer or inside classes or by any specific activity. This decision has freed up my inner world of work immensely.
So my question to you is this – your organization or boss might use ‘time’ as a proxy for your work, but are you doing it as well? Your boss might need to use it to be able to hold you accountable for something but do you need an external system like that to account to yourself? Your boss might need to measure your work by time so he can compare it with some external standard but do you need an external standard or can you set your own standards? If you are assessing your own work, do you not have far more information regarding your effectiveness than your boss (or someone outside) to use as better estimates of your work? Your boss might be afraid that you will lie to him or her but can you actually lie to yourself? Can you trust that you have access to enough subjective cues and indicators to help you gauge your work and aim for improvement and expansion if and when you want to?
Since you have access to better ways of knowing and gauging your own effectiveness at work would you be willing to stop using time as a proxy (at least within the private confines of your own head). Using time as a proxy will only add an extra box of internal accountability based on time when there is no real proof that your effectiveness is measured by the time that you consciously spend on your work. Further if your brain is anything like mine (and several others I know) it often works in secret ways when our bodies (and even some other parts of the brain) are engaged in seemingly unrelated activities. Why then would we undermine our performance by boxing our multifaceted brains into a linear external time schedule? Why also would we add to our own unhappiness by feeling unnecessary guilt when we fail to ‘produce output’ during that particular allocated time?
2b) Work and Internal Time
Can you remember a time when you were so lost in work that in a way external time did not exist for you? Csikszentmihalyi calls this experience ‘Flow’. Some people report experiencing time as passing very slowly (for example if you are engaged in a 100m dash, or some other short activity where a minute can feel like a lifetime) while others report experiencing time pass very quickly (like writers or surgeons performing long surgeries), where they are so immersed in what they are doing that when they come out of the state hours went by without their noticing. Some people also report experiencing a state of timelessness at work. In the context of internal and external time what is happening here is that the internal time (subjective experience of time) is either contracting or expanding in a way that it no longer matches the external time.
Given that the internal time is something that only the individual is privy to, there is usually very less judgement associated with it. Therefore most of us do not judge ourselves or feel guilty that our sense of time either expanded or contracted when we experience the state of flow. Further since flow is also most of the time a state of peak performance, we usually experience a surge in creativity and productivity. So getting immersed in our work can actually alter our subjective experience of time in a way that leaves us performing better and feeling better.
As far as my own experience is concerned I think that our internal time almost always adjusts itself better to accommodate the needs of the work being performed. The only catch is that sometimes when our work has led us to be immersed in the flow state (and we are only aware of our internal time) then we might lose track of tasks or appointments that have been set in external time. To avoid this from happening I find it useful then to set reminders firmly grounded in external time (for example alarm clocks), that can snap me out of the flow state when it is time to attend to another commitment that hinges on external time.
3 Money and Time (external time only)
Money has no existence in our inner worlds and experiences. It is clearly an external construct that comes into significance only when we are interacting with other people. It is something we have created in order to exchange goods and services with other human beings. Money therefore only has a connection with external time since external time is the construct of time that is used when interacting with other people. Our internal time is our own private experience of time, it is something that is not even observable by other people and so it has no meaning for others or our interactions with them, or our exchanges with them – including money.
In the earlier section we saw the relationship between work and external time and discussed why external time is often used in society and organizations as a surrogate for work. When work needs to be ‘rewarded’ or ‘compensated’ it first needs to be measured and when time is used to measure work then we come up with a formula to equate our time with money. Again organizations and bosses might have to do this because they can’t find a better way as of now. My question to you though is to what extent have you internalized this external evaluation (or formula) that is being used to value your time and made that your internal valuation of your own time.
I used to read jokes about lawyers and doctors who would charge their loved ones to go on dates based on their ‘hourly billing rates’. I thought these were jokes and had no significance to my own life until sometime back I caught myself actually telling someone I would not do something because if instead I taught an extra session I would earn an extra ‘xyz’ amount. I made this statement half in jest but I do know that if I said something (even in half jest) then it is there somewhere in my brain. If it is present somewhere in my brain then it is definitely influencing my choices (if not consciously then unconsciously).
I think it is really risky to start valuing our own time at any particular rate. It does not matter whether the rate is hundred rupees an hour or whether it is one lakh an hour. The truth is that our external time (like anything else) is a resource that we can use and we should be free to use it as a resource of choice, moment by moment, based on the activity and options that present themselves to us. That is true freedom, that is true choice. If I have equated my time to a certain ‘valuation’, then no matter what that valuation is I am a prisoner to that valuation in each subsequent moment. When I choose to do paid work there will be a continuous program running in my head checking if I am getting more than my current valuation of time or less. Worse, when I am doing non-paid work or during my leisure hours I will be acutely aware of the opportunity cost of using my time to do ‘something else’. Does this make me more happy or less happy?
Breaking Down The Triangle
Work is something that most of us naturally engage in. In fact if you adopt a broad definition of work (to mean engaged in some form of activity) then it is practically impossible to exist in human form without working. Even a so called beggar does the work of ‘begging’. The choice that we have on this planet is not about whether to work or not but rather how and what to work on? We know that work can be a most enjoyable and uplifting experience and it can also be gruelling and draining. I have myself experienced both ends of this work spectrum, and my guess is that you have too at some point in your life.
Unlike, work which is a natural and inevitable part of human existence, time (external time) and money are more of social constructs. They are constructs that we have created to ease our interaction and exchanges with one another. While our experience of work can have a direct impact on our happiness, both external time and money are at most resources that can then be used in ways that can increase our happiness in life. I do not mean that time (external time) or money are not important, rather I am just making the case that they do not translate automatically into happiness. They can be utilized or leveraged to create circumstances and opportunities that can then lead to happiness.
The central thesis of this article is that our inner experience of work (which is directly linked to our happiness) is dependent on how these three constructs (work, time, and money) are connected in our own minds. Further the number of degrees of freedom that we have in terms of choosing our work (in terms of content and involvement) depends on how closely these constructs are tied together in our own heads. The stronger the link between work and money, the more we will constrain ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) to work in order to get money in exchange. When we don’t get money in exchange for our work we will see that as a loss or sacrifice. The stronger the link between work and time the more likely we will be to measure our own work according to the time we spend on it whether or not that is actually productive and joyful for us. This can get us into an unconscious habit of stretching time spent at work to make ourselves feel that we are being productive when actually we are just boring ourselves to death. It can also prevent us from working in ways that are not easily mapped onto the linear scale of external time – even when working like that can actually be joyful and productive. Finally, the stronger the link between money and time the more likely we will be to use one as a surrogate of the others value and let that influence the way we spend each of these two actually independent resources.
If happiness be the ultimate aim that we want to achieve (be it through doing work, spending time or earning money), then we are actually constraining ourselves in the attainment of this happiness by creating unnecessarily associations between work, time and money in our heads. Out of these three, work is the only one which is directly related to happiness because if you feel happy when you are working you are happy and if you don’t feel happy when you are working you are not happy. Money and external time are only resources and it is best to treat them just as that – simple resources that can be utilized to contribute towards our own happiness. However, if we tie up the notion of work with either time or money then we limit our own freedom in how and where we want to engage in work. Instead of utilizing resources, we have now created mappings in our brain that function like constraints. Also the more we keep the constructs of money and time independent in our heads, the more freedom we have to treat them as separate resources (which they actually are). If we tie them together with a mental formula then we actually make ourselves more prone to the risk of decreasing our own freedom (and happiness) by mixing one with the other even in situations where the two cannot be interchanged.
So my final question to you is, if you could have more freedom and joy in the way you live and work then why would you choose less?
Ps: For the record, I did actually finish writing this article in one day (about seven hours in external time) – and it was a most joyous work! But see how misleading this time count is for I have counted only the time my fingers took to type. The idea came to me during my morning walk and I mulled it over while cooking breakfast. In fact even that is not a fair counting of time for in truth this article is actually the output of several years of inquiry, reflection and research.