Again and again terminally ill people told me: "If I only had earlier..."
Interview: Mathias Morgenthaler on Saturday January 6th 2018. Moment.
As a child Anna Jelen asked straight forward during joyful birthday parties when her life will eventually end. Later she worked as a product manager for breast prosthesis and experienced how people facing certain death wanted to change their lives in the last minutes. So with 24 Years of age she decided to rearrange her life.
Anna Jelen became an expert in time through experiences in her childhood and through her first job.
Ms. Jelen, did you have a dream job as a child?
ANNA JELEN: My biggest childhood wish was to become 30 years old. Even at a very young age I had have a special relation to time. While others suppress the thought of their mortality up until a very old age I for myself from very early on lived so much for the moment that I couldn’t imagine for a long period to reach a high age. When I was standing at the sea in Sweden, where I partially grew up, I was awestruck and lived that moment so intense that I forgot everything around me. Once, as a small child on a birthday party I asked straight forward right into the joyful crowd: “I wonder which date may be my final day?” The people around me looked at me in shock but for myself it was unbelievable interesting that all of us know our date of birth but no one knows the day of his death. For me this undefined limitation created a positive tension and early on I had the feeling that this limitation results into a duty to create life intensively.
And than you almost died very young indeed.
Yes, I was 17 years old and I lost orientation during a walk with my dog in the Swiss mountains. We stumbled through the snow storm for a very long time and once it began to dusk I laid down in the snow, freezing and without any power left. After a while I saw my life passing by in front of my inner eye and I thought to myself: “That’s like in the films but this is not a good sign – apparently my body surrendered.” I don’t remember much more. My dog saved my life in this moment. First he laid down on me and warmed me and later as he realized that it began to become critical he found the way back to the village and brought help. Therefore I was rescued in the very last moment on the next morning.
What were the pictures that you saw in those moment between life and death?
I was astound about the banality of those everyday pictures: for example the time when I was eating with my father in an Italian restaurant. It took a while until I realized that this moment may not have been spectacular but emotional meaningful: because on this evening I had my father for myself and I didn’t have to share him with my siblings. I was as proud as a peacock what made the moment so special for me. Afterwards I realized that time consists out of moments and at the end of our lives we remember the emotional ones. From this point on my life was centered around the question how we can create intense moments on a daily basis.
So consequently you decided to work as a time expert?
I needed a few more detours until I came to this point. After the general qualification for university entrance I worked for a company that produces prosthesis. As a product manager for breast prosthesis I was permanently travelling together with a small case containing twelve different breast forms to patients, which shortly before received their cancer diagnosis and therefore wanted to change their lives for the better. This affected me very much and I thought over and over again: humans are strange, they first start changing up when they know how little time they have left. Again and again permanently ill people told me: “If I only had earlier…”. I listened to that a dozen times until I was 24 years old and visited a woman in the Bernese Oberland who suffered from cancer and wanted to see me one last time and she told me: “After my retirement I wanted to do so much together with my husband and now I am awaiting death and I have to admit to myself, that I worked way too much and always wanted to make it right, especially for the others.”
What did this trigger inside you?
It was a surreal situation. The woman sat in a kind of glass cube in her deckchair surrounded by tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies. To me it seemed as if time stood still – again one of those moments that burned into my memory. I drove back to Lucerne stirred up, stopped at the Sempacher Lake and wrote into my diary: “And I will not wait for a diagnosis!” The next day I approached my boss and told him: “I don’t want to sell prosthesis any more, instead I want to offer seminars in which our clients learn how to use their time better.” My boss took a little time to think and eventually gave me green light to develop such a workshop for our mother company in Germany and for offering it company-wide. So I could explore the phenomenon of time from a philosophical, psychological and sociological perspective and immerse deeper into this compelling matter.
And later you became self-employed on this topic?
Yes, at the beginning I received a lot of freedom from my supervisors but after a few years the corset became too narrow for me. I decided to quit and to dare the step into independence – and for the next four years I pretty much made everything wrong that one could do wrong. I had no idea of accounting, I didn’t show any entrepreneurial thinking at all, I worked for one year in my office on the perfect flip chart-presentation, I read an uncountable amount of books and I lived from my savings while I hold endless brainstormings with myself because of the fear of calling someone and selling myself out. My trustee almost dropped dead on the spot when he constituted the accounting of the first year and even after that my situation only got better very slowly. I took many advises from marketing experts, produced flyers and sent mails without getting a great feedback. The situation changed, after my husband found me four years ago on an evening crying in front of a stack of invoices. He took me to dinner and asked: “How would you do it if you would not follow any advises and only listen to yourself?”
"The 40 ticking clocks remind me of my responsibility"
A handstand in the morning, an ice bath at the early evening and a gaze to the stars before bedtime: through such rituals Anna Jelen structures her days. The time expert recommends only checking the mails twice and to concentrate on three important tasks per day. And she swears by hourglasses because those remind her of the value from the passing time.
Anna Jelen plans time with hourglasses and remembers transience through 40 ticking clocks.
Ms. Jelen as a child you already recognized that you had a special relation to time. How does this express itself nowadays in the age of nearly forty?
ANNA JELEN: For a long time I couldn’t imagine reaching such an age. Today for once I think that it may be possible to become 60- or 65 years old but I am still much more focused on the moment than others are. Seneca warned us not to live as if we would have another 1000 years to live. That sounds banal but I see so many people that almost work themselves to death in hope for an uncertain future. Many of them never reach this future – because they die before or because they always postpone the essential things.
So seize the day, enjoy the moment as Horaz challenged us to do?
I don’t recommend only living in the moment – if we would only focus on that, we wouldn’t have any motivation to build something and to work towards something in medium term. We can’t live permanently as if we would be dead tomorrow but we also shouldn’t cherish the illusion that through good time management we could manage our time problem. If we don’t learn to say “no” more often and focus on a few important things, writing our own book of life, we eventually will burn out and miss our life.
So you don’t think much of classic time management techniques?
In such ways we will become more efficient but this is no escape from the deeper dilemma. Together with the sociologist Hartmut Rosa I am convinced that there is no individual time management problem but a structural social challenge that forces us to rethink. The acceleration of social change, rhythm of life and technology is creating a worldwide time crisis. In addition there’s the explosion of possibilities which makes us more free but also increase the time pressure. We can’t handle all of this through classic time management. Because this doesn’t change anything from the oppressive feeling of not having enough time and that our time would run out. As long as we hear the clock ticking we are alive and have time at free disposal. The essential question is how do we handle this time and for what are we using it. We are living in a global time crisis and nobody is talking about it.
What are you doing in detail to prevent the useless passing of time and a too tight schedule?
Everyday I focus on creating moments which I remember with gratitude at the end of the day. This requires a clear structure and discipline in developing and following some rules. For example: I almost never start my day without my morning ritual. In the first one to two hours I activate my body and align myself. Starting with exhausting exercises like the handstand; later on I enjoy my tea ritual, lose myself in vitalizing readings and afterwards I start my visualization walk which centers alone around one question: “How do I want to feel at the end of this day?” Everything else derives from this. The secret is limitation – we should make “not to do”-lists instead of way too long “to do “- lists which frustrate us. I never intend to manage more than three important topics per day, so I say “no” to the majority of possibilities. I also calculate many time buffers for the case of unexpected events. Because of this morning alignment I start the day with vigour and eagle eyes and prevent myself from loosing myself in work or scattering.
You spread your message via videos, you are active on social media – how do you keep the focus?
The videos are a story on their own. At the beginning of my self-employment I had a hard time bringing in personal experiences next to my expertise. Sometimes during the first break participants of my seminars asked me what my name was and why I am so much concerned with the time. For me this was unimportant, I wanted to stay in the background – although that didn’t go in accordance to my family values at all: my parents are bon vivants that encouraged me to be proud of myself. One day a coach told me: “Be careful that your modesty won’t cost you your head one day.” After the difficult start into self-employment I slowly learned to communicate on a personal and for myself coherent level. And because my husband dreamed of being a director in his earlier days we add up pretty well as a film crew. Social media can be a good tool for communication with clients and interested people but I also had to become very disciplined in this field.
How does this work?
Regarding my intentions there is no reason to check the mails more than twice a day. My mail assistant informs everybody that there is no direct answer to be expected and that it will take two or three days time to answer. I know from many clients that they check their mails and social media accounts already a dozen times between 6 and 7 a.m. and even keep on checking them between 11 and 12 p.m. .Today you can protect yourself with the help of programs from such nonsense. By seeing how teenagers are non-stop active on half a dozen channels I start to worry. We shouldn’t believe that they can handle this without any problems just because they grew up like this. A little while ago a girl told me: “I know that I would be a good painter.” She felt her talent and the desire but because of all the Instagram, Netflix and Facebook she didn’t find the time to make something out of this. I hear such things in many talks. If you let yourself constantly seduce and distract you will lose the ability of concentration and dedication. And at the end of your life you will think: “Oh, would I just had have…”
You protect yourself with numerous clocks from too much distraction or from losing yourself in work.
Yes, at the beginning of my self-employment it sometimes happened to me that after hours of working in the office I fell asleep on the floor in a mixture of euphoria and exhaustion. Now I use numerous hourglasses with running times between 3 and 30 minutes to visualize the passing time and to protect myself from self exploitation. I posses more than 40 other clocks that are all ticking in a different rhythm and from which none of them shows the correct time. They remind me of my vividness and my responsibility.
What’s your evening ritual?
I take many breaks during the day. Closing the eyes for 30 seconds, breathing consciously, drinking a tea, going for a walk, such things – it keeps me fresh. Since two years I have an evening ritual which I watched older people do in Sweden: I take an ice bath – that’s good for the body and marks the transition between work and spared free time. We like to cook together, exchange views, listen to music. Considering social contacts my slogan is also: less is more. And at the end of the day I drink a tea on the balcony and gaze with a telescope to the stars – if the weather allows it. That allows me to gain a view for the whole picture and it lets me fall asleep peacefully.
In the next time you won’t be able to sit on your own balcony so often. What’s the intention of your world tour “Let’s talk about time”?
Last year my husband and I started visiting different countries, therefore we learned to know different time cultures and I could share my experiences. We have been to Stockholm, Bangkok, Zurich and Berlin – now we continue our journey in Vienna, Hamburg, Gothenburg, Munich, San Francisco, Portland and New York. I receive many mails from all over the world because of this project. People from every continent share their time stories and tell me about their stress but also about magical moments. Maybe this will become a book project. On top of the thematic interest, for us this has also been a decision for more spared life time. My husband took the risk of quitting his job and going on adventure trips with me.