Thoughts on Time

The only real asset we have is time.

As we draw to the close of a very unusual year, many are in a reflective mood looking back at what we have lived through, what we have lost and what we may have gained.

Two quotes capture what many may feel looking back and looking ahead:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives wrote Anne Dillard.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? asked Mary Oliver

Life is a journey through reality and time in search of meaning.

Reality and time both seem to have bent and intertwined to refract into a spectrum of experiences that we never thought we would see or live through…

Time. Memory. Photography.

Photography’s power comes from the magic of its ability to freeze the intersection of light and time in ways that evoke, nourish and sustain memory.

Time adds its unique chemistry not just to fine whisky and wine but also to the meaning of everyday objects…

We mark our lives with artifacts. Citadels to memories. Encrusted with meaning. Their magic is unleashed when glimpsed. It may be a yellowing newspaper, a phrase, an aroma, a sound or a feeling

Time as a competitive advantage.

Successful firms and people use time as a weapon.

“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people, but if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We’re willing to plant seeds, let them grow—and we’re very stubborn. We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details” Jeff Bezos

Three behaviors/beliefs that are common to most successful individuals and firms:

The Power of Compound Interest/Compound Improvement: The most powerful concept in gaining wealth or knowledge is continuous growth over a sustained time period.

See early what others see late: Almost every successful person or company recognized a trend when it was a little stream rather than a gushing river and then committed to align with it.

Persistence: They just keep on going through adversity and setback and they remember Queen Elizabeth the First who said “Time dissolves more problems than man solves

Five ways to make the most of time.

1. Eliminate: Many people recognizing the limitations of time tend to try to do as much as possible. They multi-task and run around in a frenzy. Usually all they achieve is more multi-tasking and more frenzy. Doing more stuff is not the same as achievement. Activity is not productivity. Showing how busy you are does not indicate how important you are. Rather, it might indicate that you have lost control of time and are a slave to your mailbox and have a “Pavlovian” reaction to the chiming insistence of notifications.

2. Focus:  The key to doing less is to focus. Here are two filters to help you decide what you should focus on.

a) Comparative Advantage: You should spend your time doing things that you can do better than most people. Some focus areas are easy like being a spouse or a parent, since by definition you should be able to do this better than other folks. However, for many of the errands you run and the assignments you take on at work, it is important to ask if you can outsource or delegate or find a colleague who is better than you.

b) Positive Outcome: Where you can choose you should only do things which give you a positive outcome. Either you 1) earn a financial reward, 2) learn something new, 3) help someone else or the team get better or 4) experience in itself feels good. If it is not at least one or more ideally a combination of these four outcomes and it is avoidable why are you doing it?

3. Scale: You can scale yourself and your impact and therefore save time. Two ways to do this is to use "leverage" and "momentum".

Much of what we do as white-collar workers are the 4Cs: createcogitate, communicate and convince. Basically with a few exceptions our success is based in large part on how we are as sculptors of ideas and points of view.

a) Leverage: Today technology and scheduling allow people to leverage. You can use social media, good writing and speaking skills to reach many people that you need to communicate and convince. You are not limited to small meetings and groups. Today you can move between continents with the flick of a button.

b) Momentum: The trend is your friend. To not waste your time, you need to understand the underlying trend that is driving your firm or your business and, in most cases align with it. The world is going global. The world is going digital. Most countries are becoming multi-ethnic and mongrel. Similarly, every company has a built in DNA. If you are going to go against the flow prepare for much loss of time and grief. At times you should focus on changing the culture of your firm or correct a relationship but be alive to your chances and better have a superb strategy or you will be having nothing to show for it but bitterness.

4. Do new things. Tattoo the moment: While the first three behaviors of elimination, focus and scale are logic driven, this one is more emotion based.

In the movie "Into the Wild", there is a line about how the core of existence are new experiences. Often what we remember, and which gives time certain elongation and depth are new experiences. These do not just have to be travels or new relationships and new jobs but could be as simple as walking down a new street, eating at a new place and going to a new cultural event. If there is a way to tattoo the moment into your memory you should try too.

5. Give your time to others:  One of the best ways to use your time is to use it not on yourself but on others. Nothing is as rewarding as helping other people, mentoring younger people, paying attention to those who cannot help or give you much in material or career gain. Try to forget about yourself in your time equation. It is in the giving and not the getting, in the helping and nurturing, that many people find the deepest joy.

If you respect other people's time. If you give them your attention. If you think not of the lack of time but the beauty of time, you will find that the time you spend is magical.

And in the end, it is the time that you do not measure that is the most meaningful of all.

Time, Freedom and Success.

A definition of success is the ability to spend time the way you want to spend it.

To understand what is important before it is too late.

Or as the late David Foster Wallace said in his mind shifting talk This is Water:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Time and Life.

Franz Kafka wrote “The meaning of life is that it stops”

In the future the ritual of the ordinary day will be special, just as we have come to realize after months of a new way of living that the simple pleasures of free movement, meeting friends, sitting in a crowded bar and watching a sports game were so special.

Life does not have to be lived forward and understood backward if we decide to pay attention.

We can use the lessons of 2020 to be aware of the fading moments of now.

Look around you. Watch the special quality of light or listen to the hiss of the air duct. Treasure the conversations and even the repetition and lack of differentiation of day after day.

Because one day it will not be so…

All Photographs by Romano Loranc

Rishad Tobaccowala (@rishad) is the author of the bestselling “Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” published by HarperCollins globally in January 2020. It has been described as an “operating manual” for managing people, teams and careers in the age we live in and The Economist Magazine called it perhaps the best recent book on Stakeholder Capitalism. Business and Strategy named it among the best business books of the year and the best book on Marketing in 2020. Rishad is a sought-after speaker, teacher and advisor who helps people think, feel and see differently about how to grow their companies, their teams and themselves. More at

Rishad Tobaccowala