Monday, 21 October 2013

Time Gentlemen Please

I’ve had a very busy fortnight and at times wished I owned a Time-Turner, like the one used by the character Hermione Granger in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, it would have enabled me to be in two places at once.  As it was, between Thursday and Monday last weekend, I drove over 1,000 miles, went to an uplifting concert, escorted my mother to hospital for a significant operation, produced meals for my sisters and aunt, drove across England, (collecting my father en route) to attend a splendid dinner in Cambridge in celebration of 30 years since my matriculation, chatted with precious friends until 3.00 am, breakfasted with old Hong Kong hands who remembered my father from when he was Attorney General, dashed to London for lunch with my in-laws and then drove my youngest son back to his school, before continuing on to Somerset to resume my nursing duties.  At every stage I was reminded of how precious time is and the importance of relishing each moment.

Dinner for the Matriculants of '83
Queens' College Cambridge
Certain seconds stand out like gems on a tiara:

Cambridge Lovers' Knot Tiara
owned by UK Royal Family
  • the look in my mother’s eye as she waited, afraid, on the trolley before being given anaesthetic and wheeled into theatre; 
  • the feisty glint that returned when, back in the ward, her consultant came to tell her how pleased he was with the operation’s outcome; 
  • sitting beside her bed, each of us using an ear bud, listening to the illicit recording of The Sixteen that I had made while we heard them perform in Wells Cathedral the night before she was admitted to hospital (I also bought the CD but had insufficient time to upload it, so I am sure I’ll be excused - their sublime singing kept two women calm) - her grandsons would have been proud of her - not only was she listening to music, but also she was embracing technology (a first for her), reading the first chapter of Wolf Hall on a screen;
  • my father’s laughter as he and I struggled to close his case before commencing our drive;
  • tying his bow tie for him as it was proving troublesome - it was the tie he had worn at Cambridge when he was a student, a symbolic item in so many ways - my father lived abroad when I was a student and my parents’ marriage was becoming irreparably broken at the time, so he did not share my student days with me and, although he has memories of attending a graduation ceremony which he believes was mine, it was that of my step sister Jemima - “tying the knot”, so to speak, forged a symbolic bond between us;
  • thirty years late, it was magical to share something with a very special man.  We had lunch at Fitzbillies (just a cake shop when each of us were students), walked together to Queens’  - my college is a coffer full of architectural gems including a true Tudor long gallery, where we had drinks with the President and members of the college; we crossed the Mathematical Bridge hand-in-hand and we both enjoyed chatting with my contemporaries over dinner in the William Morris restored Medieval Hall;
  • seeing Daddy, his face alight with pleasure, sharing memories with people who knew and love Hong Kong;
  • the glow of love in my mother-in-law’s face as she watched the four men she adores most in the world having lunch with her; 
  • seeing the same look on my mother’s face the following day when surrounded by her daughters and sister; and
  • the lip-licking anticipation and sighs of satisfaction when my bottomless-pit-of-a-hungry-schoolboy son shared a delectable Chinese meal with me and the grin he gave when we finished. 

The above list are all personal moments special to me.  I have no doubt that you too have memorable instances that stand out from the past week or year.  The thing that struck me most was how important it is to appreciate the “now” when we have it, rather than worrying about what is to come or fretting about the past.  That brings me to the kernel of this post - the value of effective time management - both at work and at home.

Research has shown that the average person at work gets one interruption every eight minutes, which is circa seven an hour, equalling 50-60 per day.  Most interruptions last five minutes, so it follows that a typical person spends half their working day responding to interruptions.  It is also worth noting that 44% of interruptions are claimed to be self-created by the person whose work is being interrupted.  When asked people have admitted that 3/4 of the interruptions they respond to are of little significance, so most of us waste three hours each working day on stuff that is of little value (  In addition, it usually takes a person on average 23 minutes to become as immersed in a matter as they were prior to the interruption.  That’s a lot of wasted time every day.  There are no simple solutions, other than being more self disciplined and removing distractions when you really need to focus (time to turn off Twitter, email, texts and the phone with all its addictive apps - I wonder how many human hours have been spent on Candy Crush).

One trick that might help free up some time is enhancing your reading rate.  The average reading speed is circa 200 words per minute.  The typical working person reads for two hours per day.  Speed reading courses can improve an individual’s reading rate to 400 words per minute - that could find you an extra hour per day.  However, we don’t make things easy for ourselves - research has demonstrated that 100 characters per line is the ideal length for on-line speed reading, but that is not what people like to have on their screen.  Despite reading longer lines lengths (100 characters per line) faster, people prefer short or medium line lengths (45 to 72 characters per line).

Perhaps the best approach is simply to ensure that we enjoy what we are doing and hence  are less likely to look for ways to distract ourselves from the task in hand.  When an action is meaningful (such as putting surgical stockings on elderly legs prior to an operation) it is no longer a trial nor a chore; the reasons behind doing something menial or tedious give that task value and purpose and there is a huge sense of satisfaction when it is achieved.  As I know from some of the occurrences in my eventful week, there is little better than having a good laugh - the surgical stockings reduced both my mother and I to tears as we struggled to get them on to her frail legs - fitting a camel through the eye of a needle seemed like an easy job compared to getting teal blue compression stockings over her ankles and up to her knees.  Laughter is proven to lower levels of stress hormones and strengthen the immune system.  Perhaps that’s why compression socks are tricky...its hard not to laugh when struggling with them.  Six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day.  Adults only laugh 15 to 100 times a day.  How sad that the majority of us lose a habit that clearly is beneficial.  By openly enjoying what we do and sharing that pleasure with others, we could make work and our broader lives an even better experience.  Treasure what you have, while you have it, as Van Morrison sings in the following song, “Precious Time is slipping away.”

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