Marking Time or Making Time

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“Don’t just do something!  Stand there!”

–  Dick Heston (1933 – 2002) in one of the Daily Difference’s most-repeated Dick Hestonisms

Marking time is marching without going anywhere.  It looks cool when the platoon or the drumline or the marching band is doing it.  In our workaday lives, it’s not so cool.

Making time is Dad’s admonishment.

Here it comes.  The “sorting cattle” example…  On the farm, there came a time every year to wean the calves.  To separate them from their mothers.  Those of you with wives or mothers know that this is, in nature’s order, a very unnatural occurrence.  Taking junior away from mama rarely goes well.

My Grandpa Stark helped out a lot on the farm, and he was always there on “weaning day.”  “Starky” was, shall we say, “excitable.”  He believed the best technique for sorting cattle was to clap his hands and wave his arms, chanting, “Hai yai yai yai” in an agitated way that tended to freak the heck out of cows that were hell-bent on staying with their calves.  Gates were broken.  Hours were wasted.  Once, a ten-year-old kid named Steve was trampled by a half dozen or so of the aforementioned agitated cows.

Dad would get fed up with his father-in-law, and holler, “Dammit, Starky!  This is no time for arm waving and hand clapping!”  (There was that one time where Dad added, “And holy cow, you damn near got Steve killed.”  (Dad always had my back…and I’m pretty sure the pun was unintended…but I digress…)  (Wait, I gotta digress a little more.  Every year!  “…no time for hand clapping…oh, well, you get the point…but in case you don’t…)

The point was, meaningless action was an inferior choice compared to intentional inaction.

Dad believed that if you just stood there and waited, letting the cows mill around the pen, occasionally stepping in front of a cow or her calf to gently get them going in different directions, that the sorting would go well, no gates would be busted and the whole process would play itself out rather nicely.  No ten-year-old need perish.  Cattle it turns out, aren’t the brightest beasts — and usually, only the last cow would figure it out:  “Hey!  Waaaaaaaait a minute…” she would seem to think, while the others were out in the pasture mooing, “Has anyone seen junior?”

It took less time.  It damaged less fence. It endangered fewer children.  It worked better.  That last one is really important.  It worked better.  The same can be true in our white-collar pursuits.

Too often, we’re wired for activity for the sake of activity.  “If I get up thirty minutes earlier and get two more plans written and attend three more meetings and then stay a little later at the end of the day, and call four more clients on the way home…”

Or, we could pause.  Get some oxygen.  Think.  Most importantly, breathe.

Marking time, unless we’re in the platoon or the drumline, is meaningless action.   Making time leaves room for intentional inaction — thinking, breathing, assessing — the kind of inaction that leads to compelling outcomes.

We get to choose.


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