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Making Time Work for You

February 19, 2020

As an addiction counselor, do you often find yourself struggling with time’s ceaseless flow, or do you generally regard time as an ally?

Because clients’ needs and problems typically spill beyond neat hourly slots, it’s likely that many workdays seem too short to accommodate everything you’d like to accomplish. When time pressure becomes chronic, the unfortunate result is emotional exhaustion—and ultimately, burnout.

The good news? Emerging from positive psychology today are strategies by which you can enhance your experience of time’s availability. By doing so, you’ll be more relaxed and productive.

This approach is rather new, for when psychology was founded as a science in the late 19th century, researchers typically studied people in laboratory settings. Little recognition was given to the fact that we experience time very differently during moments of great delight versus boredom—until Abraham Maslow’s discovery of time expansion (as the phenomenon is now called) during peak-experiences. In these moments of joy and self-fulfillment, time seems to slow down noticeably. However, Maslow insisted that peak-experiences occurred spontaneously and couldn’t be created at will.

Later investigators, notably Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, PhD, found that time expansion most frequently happens when people feel challenged (but not overwhelmed) while immersed in interesting tasks, such as painting or performing music. He termed these “flow” experiences.

Still later, psychological evidence uncovered by Michael Murphy of California’s Esalen Institute revealed that time expansion was a common experience of professional athletes. For example, the late basketball superstar Kobe Bryant once recounted, “It’s as if everything is happening in slow motion, and you just really want to stay in the moment. You don’t want to step outside of yourself, because then you’re going to lose that rhythm.” Murphy’s influential work helped to make the expression “to be in the zone” part of contemporary English usage.

Based on such research, my colleague Steve Taylor, PhD, of Leeds Beckett University in England recently commented, “When my book Making Time was published in 2007, I hadn’t sufficiently explored how time often passes slowly, or stops altogether, in unusual states of consciousness. From my research on time expansion experiences, it has become clear that human beings’ 'normal' experience of time is artificial and can be transcended in a variety of ways.”

Expanding your time

How can you increase your sense of time’s availability to get “in the zone” at work? One way is to cultivate peak-experiences, and to do that you have to know what gives you the greatest fulfillment as a counselor.

Keeping a daily journal in which you record such moments, such as those involving a satisfying client session or a productive staff meeting, will provide self-insight. It is also helpful to note specifically those situations in which time seemed to expand most enjoyably for you—and to analyze why, so you can increase their likelihood.

Another strategy comes from the new branch of positive psychology known as “savoring,” led by Fred Bryant, PhD, of Loyola University. While growing up, Bryant was influenced by his mother’s “natural gift” for cherishing little joyful moments. Decades later, in a series of studies, he and his colleagues found that when people deliberately focus on their sensory experience in the moment—such as pleasurable seeing, listening or tasting—their sense of time’s availability is enlarged.

In their 2006 book Savoring, Bryant and his mentor Joseph Veroff, PhD, argue that savoring isn’t limited to sensory delight, but also includes reflecting enjoyably on one’s life accomplishments—whether in work, friendship or family matters. “Just as the domains of pleasure are infinite, so too are the domains of savoring,” they wrote.

To enhance your savoring, choose two activities that you do daily—one indoors and the other outside your home. These can involve, for example, showering, eating dinner, cycling, or strolling around your neighborhood. At least initially, make these solo endeavors and minimize distractions—so, no cell phone! Now slow yourself down.

For each activity, concentrate fully on what you’re experiencing. Open yourself to all five senses, then pick one sense to guide your awareness (for instance, your sense of touch as you stand beneath the water spray). What do you notice? What seems new, different or intriguing? Now try to savor an outdoor activity, such as walking in a park, and use a different sense, such as listening.

Feel time expanding, and boosting your well-being.

Edward Hoffman, PhD, is an adjunct psychology professor at Yeshiva University and a licensed psychologist based in New York City. His books include biographies of Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow, and he most recently co-authored, with William C. Compton, PhD, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (Sage Publications).


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