How times and time in 2020 have impacted our present and future plans
By Graham Bruce
“This is time ... We are taken by it ... Its solemn music nurtures us, opens the world to us, troubles us, frightens and lulls us. The universe unfolds into the future, dragged by time, and exists according to the order of time.”
(Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time)
One of the curious “victims” of the Covid 19 pandemic is Time. Today, many conversations begin with “before the lockdown”, “before confinement”, or “before Covid 19” in reference to a time or state so completely different from the current state. Descriptions of “now” are fluid, as with many people working from home and/or staying at home more, days meld into one another so confusion arises as to what day of the week it actually is.
When one of the characters of the award winning series “Downton Abbey” explains that he will have plenty of spare time at the weekend, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham, played regally by Dame Maggie Smith, bewilderingly asks “what is a weekend?”, the implication being evident. Currently, every day is seemingly the weekend, the working week extended indefinitely as employees and employers adapt to changing circumstances and the day’s routine being more or less the same. This, of course, is a continuation of the extension of the working “day” that smartphones have helped propagate, which, in more than one European country, pressure groups are seeking to legitimize the right to disconnect.
With WhatsApp, Zoom, Messenger, etc. there has never been more pressure to be continually available, little thought given to time zones, mealtimes, or societal time norms. In the UK a call after 10pm in the evening could only herald bad news. Now, more than ever, time is fluid, and the greatest fluidity comes when talking of the future. It almost seems that the future has changed tense and become the conditional.
It is increasingly difficult to make any plans for the future, with almost everything being in a state of flux. Will the plane fly? Will I be allowed to enter the country? Will I have to self-isolate? Will the conditions change while I am away? Will I be allowed to return? Will I return healthy? The days of concrete plans and crammed agendas have vanished and become a thing of the past.
We are comfortable looking backwards and have the vocabulary to describe the past, just as we can explain what is happening now, but any reference to the future has to be prefaced with a whole series of conditions, and most conversations about the future begin with the word “If”. There has never been a time when humanity is compelled to live more in the moment, since the only certainty we have is what is happening right now. “The meeting of two eternities, the past and future… is precisely the present moment.” (Henry David Thoreau). The future is a different world.
The word “time” derives from an Indo-European root – di or dai – meaning “to divide”. We are, of course, used to such divisions, hours and minutes, night and day, early and late, then and now, past and future. In Indonesia time is rubber or elastic. The Aborigines have two times – normal time and dream time, both equally valid. For most of us though, time exists physically on our wrists, but largely in our body clocks and our brains. It is a matter of our perception. Alice, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland asks the White Rabbit “How long is forever?”, to which the White Rabbit replies “Sometimes, just one second”. Friends have commented on this phenomenon recently.
Days since the pandemic began seem to last eternally, yet they cannot believe that we are already moving into Autumn. Where did the time go? they lament after having just complained about the endless days of routine. What are we doing with all this time? For many, we are using it to acquire new skills, develop ourselves, start new projects, read more, listen to more music. For some, unfortunately, it is a heavy burden that they may be ill equipped to bear and cases of depression and mental illness are on the increase. Does Time flow like a fast flowing river or like treacle? Both are fluid.
So is this the new “normality” – we are to become time fluid? The future is conditional? There seems to be little option to be anything other at the moment.
There is a general hankering to return to the “normal” state of affairs pre pandemic. Do we really want to go back in time to the delayed commuter train, to rushing for planes or buses, running to meetings, ten factory visits in three days in various parts of the world? We have more free time than ever now, yet we seem unable to cope with it.
We constantly need to fill time, to be “busy”, to kill time before time kills. We are incapable, it seems, of listening to the time. Does it really matter if we arrive a little later? Or if we can only plan short term for the time being? Or even if we put off that visit until the situation has improved?
Successful people are often held up as examples of people who manage their time wisely. Time management courses are popular and always in demand, but normally only have a business focus. A definition found on the internet reads thus: “Time management is the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity.” Little mention is made of wellness or mental health. From a holistic point of view, these should be included. When discussing wellbeing, much is made of the recommendation that we make time for ourselves. However busy we may be, however many tasks need finishing, we need to learn “to stop and do nothing”… to certain people this would be to waste time. Time wasted on activities that you enjoy doing is never time wasted, it is time invested in yourself. The common cliché is that we must stop and smell the roses. At present, given the circumstances, we have all the time in the world.
Graham Bruce is a senior global executive consultant with extensive international manufacturing/consulting experience orchestrating establishment, turnaround, expansion, consolidation, and restructuring of diverse manufacturing operations while improving Key Performance Indicator (KPI) delivery. Graham has worked in Europe, the US and the Middle East in the aluminium, steel, paper and plastics sectors.