A few weeks ago, I was on vacation. We started the day going out for brunch at one of our favorite breakfast nooks, spent the day seeing the sights, took the kids swimming, and finished up by meeting some friends for dinner as the sun set over the mountains.
I checked the time twice, all day. Both times, it was to know how much time we had before we met up with someone.
No parade of meetings. No strict schedule. No deadlines. Just being. Living. Enjoying the day as it unfolded.
It. Was. Sublime.
On days like this, the clock takes a back seat.
Time is Relative
The ancient Greeks had two concepts of time: chronos and kairos.
Chronos is the mechanical, absolute passage of time. It’s easily measured. It’s a fixed resource—we have 168 hours every week to do with as we will.
Kairos is relative. It’s how we perceive the passing of time. It’s the moment we live in. It’s when everything clicks, the obstacles in our path fade like wisps of fog, and we can achieve any outcome we set ourselves to.
We still have this concept. “Time flies when you’re having fun.” “A watched pot never boils.” “Love can make the summer fly, or a night seem like a lifetime.”
Chronos measures a year at 525,600 minutes. Kairos measures the daylights, the sunsets, the midnights, and cups of coffee.
When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.
Why We Need Kairos
We spend so much of our time paying attention to time. We plan it. We schedule it. We put it in spreadsheets and write it out on paper. We give it bright colors to give it meaning.
And no matter what we do, chronos marches on. Like it’s not even paying attention to us.
You know the days where you’re so busy, rushing from fire to fire, that before you knew it, it was mid-afternoon and you haven’t had lunch yet? You got trapped in chronos.
Or the vacations where you’ve packed too much in? You flit from activity to activity like a hummingbird on Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. When you get home, you need a vacation from the vacation because you spent too much time traveling through chronos.
Step back from all the productivity to enjoy the fruits of your labors. You’re doing all this for a reason. What is it?
Be mindful. Pay attention to the people you’re with. Make real, human connections. You’ll be happier.
Balancing Chronos with Kairos
If kairos is the moments we enjoy in life, chronos is how we work to get there.
We measure tasks in chronos time. We report our actions using chronos time. We forecast projects and plan our goals using chronos time.
When we want to measure efficiency (whether we’re performing a task with as few resources as possible, including the resource of time), we need an absolute reference. That’s a chronos concept.
The common trap among managers is to focus only on efficiency. When we also consider our effectiveness (how well we’re reaching our desired outcomes), we see that we need more than the cold logic of chronos.
We were leaving Costco one day and my daughter handed the person standing at the exit the receipt, barely able to contain her anticipation of the goofy face which would soon be sketched on the back.
Except no face came. Sensing my daughter’s disappointment, the clerk apologetically explained that they had been told they could no longer draw faces for kids on the back of receipts. When you multiply the seven seconds it takes to sketch a face by the number of customers that walk through the door every day, someone saw an easy way to increase their employees’ efficiency and get customers on their way faster.
I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to enumerate the flaws in thinking that banning goofy receipt faces would improve the customer experience.
Fortunately, the ban was short-lived. A few months later, my kids were again able to run inside and show their mother the face they got at Costco.
Life is more than the literal passage of time—it’s what you do with the time you have. It’s what you make of every moment.
Kairos is the opportune time for critical action. It’s the moment when the window of opportunity is open. When the years of preparation pay off.
It’s the moment of truth.
The time is going to pass no matter what you do. You decide what you’re going to do with it and who you’ll be when it’s passed.