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Key messages:
We all build mental models of how time ‘works’.
– These models are key to how we live our lives and experience the world!

We don’t often talk about how we see time. It is sort of assumed that we all see it in the same way like the sun and the stars. And yet time cannot be directly observed by our senses. We have to construct it from what is going on inside and outside us. This sense of time, called subjective time or psychological time, is not only impacted by what we’re doing in the moment but also evolves over our lives. It sometimes coincides with clock time but often runs faster or slower (“time files when….”). And yet, were our relationship with time just about measurement it would be relatively simple. Alas, it is not.

As we engage with time we do so through a series of mental models. These can change in different contexts. For starters, many people measure their work more quantitatively and their leisure more qualitatively. That said, some seem to find it easier to switch than others. For example, when on holidays with family and friends some people are happy to sit around the pool, reading and being and letting the day happen. Others want to script their days and get loads “done”. They have a real sense of needing to be productive, and fail to see any ROI from sitting around the pool.

I don’t wish to imply that there is a right or wrong or better or worse. There absolutely isn’t! Nevertheless, how you choose to perceive time and your expectations for that time dramatically impact how you experience sitting around that pool. It is thus worth pondering because, as Rory Sutherland noted in his insightful book Alchemy:

“The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience”.

Developing models of time perception is challenging as, although we are all products of our own cultures to some extent, we ultimately build our own models over our lives. Here, I merely offer some non-academic models I have commonly encountered that may help you reflect on what models you employ. Anyone looking for a more academic exploration of this topic through the lens of philosophical models of time might be interested in Experimental Philosophy on Time by James Norton.

  • Time as an Asset (Time as Object Model)
    This is clearly the dominant mental model in the English-speaking world at least, sometimes also referred to as Time as a Resource. I prefer Asset because time is increasingly infused with money-like properties. Under this view, time is something you were given at birth. It can be gained, saved, kept, invested, budgeted, spared, spent, lost, taken, wasted, needed, given, bought, lead to jealousy and much more. Just think of the effort that has been put in over the last century to “save time” – all the devices and techniques that have been invented. And yet people seem and feel busier than ever.

    Perhaps more importantly is the fact that, under this model, time is something that can be managed. And yet, the more you focus on time and create expectations the more stress is generated merely from noticing it and all that could have been done and remains to do. Sit in front of a clock and watch the second hand move around for a minute.

    Now compare how long that felt compared with checking and responding to messages on your phone this morning. The speed at which you experience time is thus relative, pointing to the fact that there is more to time than is permitted in the Asset Model. And as an asset, where does time get its value? Money gets its value from the future (store of value) but what about time?

  • Time as a River (Time as Agent Model)
    In this view, time is something outside us. It passes and in doing so slowly devours everything in front of it. In what is referred to as temporal passage, the future becomes the present, which then becomes the past. There is the sense of some form of eternal movement like a river flowing (hence the flow of time). Some people feel like they are float along with the river, through time as it were, whilst others stand still as time moves around them. Rivers also only flow in one direction. That in any case is how most of us experience time, allowing us to place events in what we call the past, present or future or at least before and after something else.

    The river will flow no matter what you do. Any attempt to manage the river’s flow will be met with failure. Indeed, as you live more in the moment the river may even fade into the background and move out of awareness. Unless you step into the river (say by checking the clock) you may not have a sense of its passage until you notice the sun rising or setting.

    For some, this is the dominant way in which they view the world but for many it is a secondary model that can be pulled out from time to time, although primarily in the private sphere. And yet, it is more conducive to states of being or when undertaking creative tasks – not subject to usual productivity metrics – and in this respect has echoes in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s flow state.

  • Time as a Train
    Like the river model, time is very much going in one direction and is out of our control. Nevertheless, aside from that, the lived experience couldn’t be more different. The image here is of an old steam train with us running in its wake trying to keep up as the train’s speed varies over its journey.

    Life is thus a constant struggle as we spend our days rushing in its wake. Sometimes we fall behind as the train runs away from us. Under this model time is perceived more in terms of scarcity and deficit. We rarely get to catch up with the train and walk gingerly alongside it. This is the realm of endless and growing to-do lists that dictate our days by having us run after them.

  • Deep Time
    The name is inspired by Australian Aboriginal culture but there are echoes of it all around us. My memories of my grandparents’ kitchen in my childhood are of days punctuated by cups of tea rather than clock time. The future and past, dead and living all floated together around the kitchen with no real tense, i.e., no sense of was, is or will be. In a way, time stopped in that kitchen.

Cronos and Kairos
Humans have likely always had different ways of seeing time. The ancient Greeks even had two gods of time: Cronos and Kairos. Cronos (akin to Father Time) saw time more in terms of quantity, and thus something that could be measured and divided up.

Kairos would probably be more at home with the concept of deep time or at the very least with the idea that time is something outside us. What matters for Kairos are those special moments in life where we are so engrossed in where we are and what we are doing that Cronos loses his power. A moment can echo for a lifetime and an hour can feel like an instant.

Cronos is thus about sequence – one thing happens after another – whereas for Kairos it is all more of a blur. Cronos and Kairos are thus arguably mutually exclusive, meaning that when in Kairos time, Cronos and his clocks have no relevance. Or, in the words of McKinley Valentine:

‘Chronos’ is measured and counted, while “kairos” is lived and experienced.

Our work and in particular our interaction with people using the dominant Asset Model require us to pay attention to the clock, which is without doubt an incredible organising mechanism. Clock time is thus at the frontier of our time and other people’s time and without it how would we hold meetings or the ever-present Zoom calls with people on the other side of the planet?

Nevertheless, my invitation is that, when away from such environments, we become aware of the opportunity to step outside of clock time and just be. There will be time enough for clocks!