Playing the Zero-Sum Game

I haven’t been around here much lately. I’m sorry about that.

But I’ve been living one of the eternal truths of life:
that time is a zero-sum game.

I’m a systems thinker, which means I tend to think about how all the pieces and parts of things fit, and work, together. That also means I’m a big fan of patterns—recognizing them, observing them, creating them.

But life, the biggest system, isn’t as simple as even the most complex pattern. Sometimes the systems, the patterns, we create and put in place have to flex to fit the life we lead… the life that, despite all our best efforts, is never entirely within our control. Sometimes there just isn’t more time to have, or more us to give.

I forget that sometimes. I forget that it just isn’t possible to out-system time, nor to add more hours to the day. (Then again, time is my red herring.)

But it’s not possible to make time. We can only spend it. And time spent on one thing is time not spent on another.

It’s our choice, and very revealing.

Time is the most precious currency of all. How we spend it indicates, whether we like it or not, a different kind of pattern: what we value most.

Maybe that’s navigating office politics to make sure the next paycheck comes in. Maybe it’s helping your toddler son get through this particular phase of separation anxiety and your infant son learn (at your expense) to sleep through the night. Maybe it’s drawing a map, and setting a course, for the next phase of becoming who you are. Maybe it’s stopping, and taking a break, before your mind and body make sure you do.

Maybe it’s checking your patterns, to make sure they’re doing what you want them to. That you’re playing the game you want to play.

I wasn’t. I’m fixing that.

Are you?

Image credit: orvalrochefort

About Tamsen McMahon

Tamsen McMahon helps people get from where they are to where they're going. She's also the Vice President of Digital Strategy at Allen & Gerritsen, and a Weight Watchers leader. She writes on individual change at

  • Beth Schillaci

    Such a great and timely post. I just tweeted earlier that in thinking about the phrase “keeping your eye on the prize” I think I forgot what the prize even was. I am going to follow your lead and take time to define the game I want to play. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

      You’re so welcome! We can get so stuck in patterns that we can, as you say, forget what the pattern is even there to do. We just start noticing that things don’t feel quite right, and feel more and more dissatisfied. The trick is to notice that and hit “reset”…

  • iamkhayyam

    My pattern needed a bit of a shock or short circuiting. Twitter had become a means to pay bills, not directly, but through constant upkeep of the the indirect and direct connections. I snapped. Couldn’t take any more of it. Something had to give and so I set my intention to #takepause and do more of less. Well, that less was definitely more because I no longer checked statuses or rss feeds. I began sitting within my racing thoughts and just slowing them down. Began taking notice of the small things and my awareness blossomed.

    Three weeks without the twitter. Yup.

    My practice began almost a year and a half ago when I would refrain from the twitter every Friday. Great practice to begin with. Take one day to take the online, offline.

    During this #takepause moment I also conducted a non-influence and a reverse clout experiment. My findings were quite astounding. No one really gives a shit about you unless you stay on your soapbox and yell :)

    Thanks Tamsen for sharing your thoughts. You ladies continue to rock great articles… thank you for sharing!


    • Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

      I love the intention you brought to your #takepause moment, Khayyam–the realization of, “this isn’t working, at least not for me” and then, most importantly, ,doing something about it.

      I fail to see the meaning behind connecting simply for connections’ sake, especially if the time spent doing it pulls time from things we ultimately value far more.

  • Tom Webster

    I reckon I’m about due for this.

    • Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

      I know someone who can help with that… ;)

      • Tom Webster

        Well, get moving, McMahon.

  • Khürt Williams

    “I’m a systems thinker, which means I tend to think about how all the pieces and parts of things fit, and work, together. That also means I’m a big fan of patterns—recognizing them, observing them, creating them.”

    Wow! I love those two sentences. Describes me well.I’ve not been motivated at work recently. I don’t see any potential upside to a company in a constant spiral of “reducing”. That got me thinking about time and what I want to do with it. Timely (pun intended) post.

    • Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

      I’m glad it was, Khürt. They’re scary, those moments we realize that things aren’t working…or simply aren’t worth it. But they’re the moments we realize that our patterns are broken, or at the very least are serving the wrong master.

      I’ve learned those fear-inducing moments are the ones I need to pay attention to the most, because they’re the ones that present the opportunity for greatest change.

  • Christa M. Miller

    You know, it’s funny — I’ve been thinking lately about how I seem to be starting my “next year’s planning” a few months early. I wonder how many of us are in this reflective frame of mind, preparing to make the most of 2011 *before* the stress of the holiday season? But yes, I too have been sorting and rearranging how I spend my time.

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    Most of the times the hardest task of all is understanding what is really worth our time. Ironically, I can spend a lot of time figuring that out. Right now I thought it was important to give my 2 cents on this ;)

    • Tamsen McMahon (@tamadear)

      And that’s where it can be so helpful, if we’re willing, to ask for the help and insight of someone else. We tend to look at ourselves like we do a magnifying mirror: we get a super-close view of what’s going on, but if we were to step back, the image distorts. People outside of ourselves often hold up a truer mirror–because they give us the opportunity to see ourselves as they do, and note where that does and doesn’t match up with our own perspectives.

      • Gabriele Maidecchi

        That’s also the reason why I wouldn’t, ever, start a company on my own. I think it’s essential to have at least one person looking over you, and you looking over him/her.
        I like my team because we can all trust each other and fill each other’s gap with our respective knowledge and experience. In the worse-case scenarios, we all screw up, at least it’s easier to have a laugh and move on. Laughing alone can get quite insane.

  • ArtseyC

    “Maybe it’s drawing a map, and setting a course, for the next phase of becoming…”

    After taking a quality improvement course last week, this is what I’ve been trying to do for my company. But like Gabriele said, that’s sometimes the hardest thing to take time to do. It’s a balance between making time for family & friends, community online and off, and making money to support all of that; a balance this is harder than an elephant in a one-legged handstand on a beach ball.
    Thanks for the post, a helpful reminder.

  • Natalie Sisson

    Yep I wrote a post on this yesterday that was all about simplification of your business through systems so that you could unwind more. Very timely indeed!

  • Pingback: 20 Truths | Social Butterfly Guy

  • Pingback: Starting November 15. | Social Butterfly Guy

  • Pingback: The best thing I saw on Twitter today. | Khürt/blog