Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.
Once, an Australian psychologist who conducted a management training program asked from the audience, “What would you do differently in life, if you are given a second chance?” As an attendee, I did not reply to him straight away, as I had many answers, not being a high achiever. Obviously, many personal failures came to my mind. However, the more I thought, the better I realised that I could put all my under-achievements into a single basket and name it ‘time wasters’. So I replied to him that I may try to use the limited lifetime given to me more wisely.
In retrospect, I believe that most of my achievements could have been realised much earlier, if I had been more conscious about the value of time. Nevertheless, it begs the question: could I achieve those alone, only being efficient and effective myself? It is true that some were my own decisions and choices. However, on the majority of occasions, I depended on the efficiency of others who enabled me to make those decisions. At other times, I was socially and family-bound to select certain alternatives. So, it was not entirely my fault, except being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Living and working environment
I spent my professional career in both Sri Lanka and Australia. In Australia, I lived and worked initially in a country town, which was360 km away from Sydney. Now I live and work in the Sydney metropolitan area.
The prevailing vibes in both environments were and are quite different. In general, the country town was a quiet and unobtrusive location, and the people who lived there even walked slowly.
A country town resident had ample time to have a chat with a stranger while minding their simple routines. Sydney is at the contrasting opposite end.
The brisk walk of people, minds very focused on their own business, and the open uneasiness of socialising with others, can be witnessed everywhere. Some could call it a “city rat race” in progress.
So, where do I put Sri Lanka (where I lived the majority of my life) on this scale? Definitely it is somewhere in the middle, but very close to the country town. Why is it so? When people live in a particular environment, they get used to the pace and character of the environment. Only after they move out of this environment and live in a new location could they recognise or feel the difference between the two locations. Hence, my comments here are based on my personal experience, and Sri Lankans who have not undergone such an experience might not agree with me that there is a difference in vibes. Some people judge vibes of cities and countries after visiting for a holiday, studies or short business activity. Those judgements do not necessarily reflect the actual situation as living and surviving in an environment is a completely different scenario. Only those who live in an environment would understand the real character of the location.
Time as a commodity
Time is a commodity, and it is a limited commodity. So, it should be used wisely to get the intended quality of life. We prioritise our actions and carry out those actions, expecting the best output. However, at different environments, we may change the order of the same list of priorities. The reason for the different behaviours at each environment is the “opportunity cost” one could assign to the alternative action, to borrow a term from economics. It is the cost measured in the value of the alternatives forgone. As this article is not an economics lesson, I express it as simply as “what one is potentially missing out on by doing something else”. So, this is not just an issue of behaviour, it is a matter of productivity and efficiency.
If the number of alternatives is limited, or the benefits generated from the alternatives are not very different benefit-wise, one would not bother analysing alternatives and adopt the most comfortable one.
However, retrospectively, he or she would realise that the results could have been better, if the attention had been paid to analyse the alternatives thoroughly, especially considering long-term life impacts. Only this kind of individual action by the nation would lead to better productivity and efficiency for the country and improvement to the quality of life of individuals.
Sri Lanka is a developing country. So, poverty exists in Sri Lanka. Australia is a developed country. However, poverty exists in Australia as well. One may seek justification of this statement.
My personal view is that poverty in Sri Lanka is due to not using the time available effectively by doing the correct tasks, in correct ways, at the correct times, individually and also collectively as a nation.
The form of poverty which exists in developed countries like Australia is due to the scarcity of time to do numerous alternatives of high opportunity-cost, resulting in a community who are mentally stressed, less happy, constantly anxious, practising unhealthy life styles and obese.
This means that some people in developed countries also do not use time properly, but it is a case of juggling with too many dangling carrots, at the expense of personal health and capacity. Whatever the form of poverty in existence, the result would be poor quality of life. Hence, a balance must be struck on how to utilise the limited time given to us by selecting the best alternative within our mental and physical capacity.
‘Time’ for Sri Lankans
I dare say that Sri Lankans as a nation assign almost no value for the time at their disposal. Because of this, we don’t care about wasting others’ time as well. When I lived in Sri Lanka, I was guilty of wasting my precious time, being aimless, lethargic, unmotivated, and fearful to leave my comfort zone. I saw others who were my role models had done the same. Even as our life-guiding beacons, some of the teachers openly wasted time without teaching efficiently and it prompted children to seek private coaching to complete the contents of syllabuses. So, we all went down collectively, as the nation.
Sri Lankan culture promotes calm and well-mannered behaviour. There is nothing wrong with that as discipline is of utmost importance for a nation. However, we don’t behave in an orderly manner. It is because what really matters is the inner calmness. We can take quick decisions and act quickly while maintaining the inner calmness. The nation perceives external calmness as a desirable behaviour instead of the inner. This is why we see many preachers but fewer followers.
This is where our community got this wrong. We are proud of our national attire, religion and social norms. When someone, especially young women, break this and try to don alien attires and follow modern practices, we scorn them accusing them of trying to become coconuts (externally brown and internally white).
Even questioning of adults, teachers, religious leaders, talking aloud or running fast (especially for girls) are frowned upon as ill-mannered. It should be noted that European social practices and their attire have contributed to make those countries what they are now.
We conveniently raise no arguments whatsoever on Europeans’ technical and economic development achievements because we know we are only ‘also ran’ distant competitors.
However, we always openly argue on social norms of developed countries, professing the golden history, traditional attire, great religions and external calmness as the symbol of healthy social development. The active life style, independent decision makings and actions in the developed countries (opposed to the promoted collective decision makings and actions in Sri Lanka) and the innovative minds (opposed to the promotion of adopting traditional proven paths in Sri Lanka) made them economically and technically prosperous. This is not to say everything in developed countries are good and should be followed. However, there are many good practices prevail in the developed countries and a few very bad. Sri Lankans are educated enough to select the best from the lot.
The starting point for Sri Lankans is to value their own time and also others’ time. To make this happen, one should plan before acting by assessing long-term impacts of possible alternatives, and then select the best option with an efficient and effective procedure.
This is how a productive nation is evolved. This transformation should start from public sector organisations.
A few Sri Lankan examples
I worked for the public sector in Sri Lanka. I have seen the pain the public goes thorough to get their work done from government institutions, for e.g. how many times a resident has to visit a government office to get a minor issue resolved.
The government officials simply do not value others’ time and give conflicting instructions and excuses, such as the need of more documentation, inability to trace the official file, non-availability of the subject clerk, current heavy workload preventing them to act quickly, the need to stick to the standard timeframes set up based on outdated rules and procedures etc. On the other hand, the people also do not complain and accept it as a fact of life.
The whole nation is resigned to a situation where whatever time frames and procedures are followed by government officers cannot be questioned and must be acceptable. Day by day, public officers work slowly and the nation goes down with that pace. It is high time for leaders in the public sector to start valuing others’ time and to develop standard efficient and effective processes and procedures.
Sri Lankan secondary school students sit for the GCE (Advanced Level) exam yearly. How much time would it take the results released and their university education started? More than three decades ago, I waited more than a year.
There might have been an improvement, but I doubt it is as quick as developed countries. Have parents ever complained about this waste of precious time? In Australia, after sitting for the Higher School Certificate examination, the eligible students start university education within four months.
How slow is the Sri Lankan government to fulfil their international and national promises and obligations? I understand that there are strategic aspects of responding to the international promises.
However, one can easily understand which fulfilments are delayed due to the poor planning and time management. The typical request for ‘time and space’ would not work any longer unless an action plan is produced.
I have my own classic example. I vividly remember my extended family clan dealt with a legal court case on the subdivision of a large ancestral land, which took twenty years to be decided. I painfully watched numerous adjournments of the court case, only making the solicitors rich. During this process, a few of the plaintiffs, defendants, solicitors and land surveyors passed away. By the time the decision was made, some of the lawful land owners had passed their prime time in life. What a waste of precious time and resources by all, including the government.
During my university education, I travelled pass Kahathuduwa town daily on the Horana-Colombo route. The government road authorities had been constructing a small bridge (a big culvert) for four years and the construction was still in progress when I finished my entire degree course.
As an engineering student, it was a pain for me to watch a project progressing that slowly. This was how the public road authorities wasted their own time and commuters’ time. Have the people protested on this situation, except for school children cheekily questioning the lethargic workers whether they would be given to build the long-span Kalutara Bridge also?
So, could anyone argue with me on my assertion that we as Sri Lankans don’t give a damn about time? One may merrily say “Ohomayamu … Ohomayamu” (“No worries… just ride on the wave”)
I can predict where we would end up.
(Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer and a Fellow of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia. He is contactable via email@example.com)