Using Time Wisely: Kairos Versus Chronos

By: John Coyle , CEO and Founder – Speaking Design Thinking

Time can be a funny thing: even as we pretend that clocks rule our lives, and that seconds add directly to minutes add to hours, the reality is that the way we often experience time is anything but linear. Time speeds up, it slows down, sometimes “time stops.”

The Greeks, in their wisdom, had two words for time, “chronos” defined as linear, sequential and quantitative time and “kairos” defined as qualitative, in-the-moment time signifying the opportune moment for action. I like to think of chronos as clock time and kairos as human time. Throughout Greek writings in history, kairos was the word more often used to describe how events unfolded. As we consider our businesses, practices and interactions with leaders and employees, which kind of time is more important today?

The etymology of kairos brings even more clarity to the meaning ascribed to the word. Kairos’ roots are to the moment when an archer releases an arrow at a target, where everything happens at once and the trajectory is set. From Wikipedia, kairos is “a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved.”

Consider the interactions we have daily in our businesses and relationships: even as hours and months of chronos time elapse, big shifts often take place in moments not minutes, hours or months. The passing praise of a coworker, feedback shared in the hallway after the meeting, the hug of a tear-stained toddler, the breakthrough “a-ha” ideas – all these meaningful exchanges rest on the mantle of chronos but are ultimately kairos moments of human time and connection.

So, how can we all wrangle kairos time to benefit our lives, relationships and companies? One of the most powerful ways is simply to recognize that small moments can really matter, more specifically that the value of an increment of time is not related to its duration. If we raise our awareness to the untapped potential found in the small moments we can expand our influence and leadership in ways that matter in the broader context.

A smile, a nod, a kind word, a quick course-correct, listening attentively, applauding loudly – all these simple aspects of everyday life are, as it turns out, incredibly important. Cast back for a moment to remember “one of those days” where everything was going off the rails and you wanted to crawl under your desk. Then, just when you wanted to call it a day and go home early, someone dropped by your office, and with just a few kind words re-energized the rest of your week. That is kairos at work – a special form of time magic where trajectories can be re-set in seconds, and months of momentum can be released in moments. It is time: It is time to bring your kairos watch to work.

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