Harnessing the duality of time

I check the time. 9:03am. 27 minutes until the morning check-in meeting. Enough time to boil water, make oatmeal and tea, and walk around the block so that I see some trees before I sit down in front of my computer.

One minute is not the same as the next. My minutes are not the same as yours. I might sit through a meeting that is endless, and you might watch that same meeting fly by. The fact that we sat at the same table does not mean we shared the same time.Like light, which in some circumstances

behaves like a particle and in others behaves like a wave, time can behave differently depending on how we treat it. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos, which refers to quantitative, numerical time, and kairos, which refers to the perfect moment or qualitative time.

Chronos is usually what we think of when we hear the word time. In our daily experience, it is the frequency of a vibrating crystal of quartz, translated by electronics into a display of hours, minutes and seconds on your wall clock, wristwatch, or computer screen.

Kairos, on the other hand, can be thought of as the moment between, when opportunity is ripe and you’re able to transcend what you thought was possible. It is one of the qualities of Flow – a period in which our experience of time is altered.

We’re used to thinking about time in terms of chronos — seconds, minutes, hours and days marching along in strict order. But in moments of intense focus, we sometimes disconnect from chronos time. We feel as if we’ve been working for hours but notice that the clock has recorded only a few minutes passing. Or, we lose track of time, looking up to find that the sun has set while we were lost in a book.

The interesting thing, to me, about kairos and chronos is that they’re not opposed to one another. In fact, we’ve found that using one can help bring about the other in certain situations. Chronos is useful for setting boundaries, and boundaries are useful for creating emergence.

Think of games, for example. Basketball is a set of simple rules that results in a highly complex and, when played well, beautiful set of behaviors. We sometimes think that the beauty of a well-played game is the result of talent, but that is only half the story. Talent is meaningless without restrictions. A basketball game is nothing without the court. Allow a team to move anywhere they like without bouncing the ball and the game isn’t just boring; it ceases to exist. Without the court, no one would be interested. With the court, millions play just for the fun of it, and excellent players draw huge crowds to watch what magic they can create inside the lines.

The same can be true in our everyday lives. When we encounter elegant rules we don’t just play by them, we thrive inside them. Agile Development makes use of this game dynamic by creating time boxes. Time boxes turn the traditional concept of “planning for scope” on its head. Rather than decide that you’re team is going to complete a project based on a complete set of requirements, you decide exactly how long you’re going to build for, and then create the best thing you can inside that limit.

This might seem counter intuitive — why let a time restriction make decisions about what we can build? — but in fact it fits our actual experience of work and time. Deadlines on projects with very specific sets of requirements create unhelpful stress, which causes waste. We tend to work to rule — building to the letter of the requirements instead of the spirit. We spend time preparing to deflect blame in case the deadline is missed or a requirement is incomplete. We work strictly in chronos time — watching the minutes tick by rather than focusing on the work at hand.

But on projects where the challenge is to create something great before time is up, deadlines become boundaries for us to play in. They cause us to redefine problems, leap to creative solutions, and pull together to overcome obstacles. We use chronos to produce kairos — to transcend what we think is possible by setting up a game and committing to play.

We have timers, clocks, an hourglass, watches, and calendars all over our office. We put time restrictions on all sorts of activities — from meetings to checking email to entire projects. We make boundaries out of chronos time and then look back and evaluate how they affected what we did and how we felt. Sometimes, we wind up invigorated by the challenge, producing results we couldn’t have predicted. Other times, we just feel like there’s a clock-shaped weight on our backs. And sometimes, different people experience the same minutes differently than each other. We abandon or alter the time boxes that cause us stress, and embrace the ones that make our days flow. Then we start another experiment and try find just a little more kairos.

For more on our experiments with boundaries and time, check out our Workplace Lab page. 

Nick Jehlen's picture
Nick Jehlen is a partner at The Action Mill