I’ve finished this fascinating book “When Cultures Collide” by business author and polyglot, Richard D. Lewis. It’s a fascinating and insightful book which has given me some important insights into myself.  One key idea is on time management between cultures with different value systems.

I’ve always seen myself as atypical of my ethnic background, and did not think it shaped much of how I was in the world. After reading this book, I didn’t think so anymore. It’s a sort of Myers-Briggs for culture. What’s even more awesome is that it has a chapter for Singapore, and it’s pretty accurate.

In most, if not all, guides to goal setting, good time management is one of the first things you have to tackle. Most of these guides are written by Americans, who have a strongly linear active view of time.

Linear Active Flow of Time, cultural time management, linear-active flow,

How Americans view time

So this is how most guides are written. I find this linear-active way of getting things done helpful, but unhealthy (at least for me). According to the book, Singaporeans (and also the Hong Kongese) straddle east and west firmly, and our approach to time is a cross between the two ways of understanding and managing time.

The East-Asian way of handing time is thus:

Asians, who, instead of tackling problems immediately in sequential fashion, circle around them for a few days or weeks before committing themselves. After a suitable period of reflection, tasks A, D and F may indeed seem worthy of pursuing (refer to Figure 4.6). Tasks B, C and E may be quietly dropped. Contemplation of the whole scene has indicated, however, that task G, perhaps not even envisaged at all earlier on, might be the most significant of all.

Cyclic Time, East Asians, cultural time management

Strangely, this simple idea, in a book unrelated to personal time management, has changed the way I handle my to-do list in a deep and profound way, for the better. I don’t know if it’s because this cyclic way of viewing time is closer to my cultural roots and the way my parents managed their time, and therefore feels more natural to me, or whether it is actually better overall. I’m going to say I think it’s actually qualitatively better. Perhaps it’s because it’s a Buddhist way of viewing time; and there’s a lot to be said for a stress free way to time management.

Sometime after I turned 25, my attitude on life switched from ‘can-do’ to ‘must-do’. Dani accuses me of being very binary in my emotions and the way I handle things. It’s true. Even for something like partying, I normally don’t party, but when I do, I do it really hard. Full blown sex orgy tripping balls hard; but let’s get back on topic… When I get started on something, a combination of passion, curiosity and a fear of failure drive me to pursue it to the neglect of all else. This causes me a lot of stress although I’ve become more relaxed about it last year. Despite this, the guilt of not finishing something on time, or giving up on something I said I’d do still drove me nuts.

But I’ve learned the power and clarity of cyclic time. Not everything that seems worth doing, is worth doing, and not everything that seems so important when we start out on it, will continue to be important. Other things may come up which we think more worthy of our energy, and I’ve learned to grasp the enthusiasm and passion of the moment to pursue these new tasks.

Instead of putting off new interests until all the tasks on the list are done, everything that remains important is kept in the pool of things to be done, and are completed in their own time. In the meanwhile, I get better doing things I feel that form the core of my personality (like painting) while picking up new skills with that initial passion that comes from being interested in  a new thing. With the passage of time, some things I had said I would do might suddenly be irrelevant to the person I want to be in the future, and the time would most certainly have been better spent on the newfound interest.