It seems that lately I devote a great deal of time to trying to understand how I use time. That sometimes seems a little crazy, which leads me to look a little more deeply into the meaning of time. Some of this impetus came from a story that one of the students in a course I teach on Stories and Creative Leadership shared recently. This student identified a core value of leadership as taking the time out to listen to the insights, messages, or other words that people who approached her wanted to say.
The idea that stopping to listen, that slowing the pace of the day could be a core value of leadership stood out for me. I thought about how so very often the people upon whom we rely the most for important advice that could alter the course of our daily behaviors -- doctors, for instance, but also teachers, repair specialists, and even maybe farmers -- come across as too busy and as in too much of a rush to listen to our concerns. I also found myself training the spotlight back onto the self: What does it mean for me to stop, to take the time out to listen? I realize the importance of this action, and still it is a difficult action for me to adapt.
Today, in morning pages, I completed an exercise that I had not tried for several years. It is entitled "What do you want?" Here's how it works: Ideally, you start with a blank page in a notebook and you draw a line down the middle, creating two columns. You write the question in the left column, and the very first -- immediate, knee-jerk, no thinking -- response that comes first. Like a lot of free-writing and other stream of consciousness exercises, the idea is to tap what's in the heart, not so much what's in the head. The response might be as simple as "I want a green sweater" or as complex as mine was this morning: "I want to be more organized and systematic in how I work so that I'll be more productive as a writer and scholar and more on top of things as a teacher."
After "What do you want?", you answer the question, "Why do you want it?" Then, "How are you going to feel when you get what you want?" And then, "What are you going to give up to get what you want?" And, "What will you have lost as a result of gaining what you want?" And, then, once again, "What do you want?"
Through the exercise, I came to answer the second "What do you want?" as follows: "I want more energizing relationships with people. I think I have a lot of good friends who sometimes drag me down and whom I sometimes drag down. I would like to bring out the best in these relationships so that we are always rejuvenating each other."
The idea of the exercise is to work through the six questions repeatedly until you reach some sort of a reasonable stopping point. For some people, that point is reached before the six questions are even answered. The first time I did the exercise -- some thirteen years ago -- I went through the cycle of six questions a half-dozen times before the first "what do you want?" (a condo on Diamond Head beach in Honolulu) had evolved into a work plan for sorting through the forty or so tasks, projects, needs, and desires that had comprised my to do and finding a way to get them all done before leaving Honolulu for a week's vacation in the Canadian Rockies. This time, it came mid-way through the second cycle in response to the question "How are you going to get what you want?" -- which I realize is not exactly the question I was supposed to be asking myself, but who's looking? My answer: "I am going to be positive and upbeat myself. I'm going to approach all of my work and all of my play with a sense of good healthy living in mind: How is what I'm going to do today creative? How is it providing a healthy use of my brain and my body? How is it contributing to a greater good?"
I felt as if that series of litmus test questions could provide a healthy guiding principle for shaping a busy life. Knowing that priorities shift, one might regard one's actions in terms of building relationships that are based on creativity, healthy uses of brain and body, and support for a greater good. Taking the time to listen seems like a viable step in that direction.
A friend proved the value of such advice just a few hours later. I had brought a self-monitoring blood pressure kit into my office in hopes of finding someone familiar with the kits who could help me understanding how to use it. I had e-mailed a couple of colleagues who work in health care and then thought of another colleague who tends to know quite a bit about self-care. She happened to walk by my office so I asked her if she could help. She had four minutes, so I quickly unpacked the kit and kept my eye on my cell phone clock so as to not make her late. She devoted the full four minutes to showing me how to wrap the cuff properly, where to position it on my arm, and how to do a series of test readings at home -- three at a time was her advice -- to gauge whether I was getting consistent readings. She also encouraged me to do it without a shirt on and at the same time of day every day for a couple of weeks until I was comfortable. Her time was limited, but she helped me a lot, which was something that meant a great deal. So actions built on stopping to listen, stopping help? What might this mean for a life of creativity, good health, and a good society? I suspect that it might mean a lot.