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Simon Tay on how to spend time away from the office

These days, staying connected 24/7 may be cool. But even cooler is to find time to kick back and chill.

In this world of too much, many people have more things than time. So it is the moments we have – rather than possessions – that are truly scarce. Taking time out from work and all the myriad demands that are scheduled has become a luxury that should be savoured.

Yet, too many treat time away from work as just another appointment in the diary. Their assistants book holidays more or less like business trips, replete with the hotel chain and restaurant reservations. Some pack their itineraries so tight that they might qualify for a productivity certificate under some government incentive scheme.

Effective perhaps. But once a checklist dictates, there’s a been-there-done-that sense about your time. Our lives are in danger, as T.S. Eliot versified, of being measured out in coffee spoons – whether at Starbucks, a 3-in-1 mix or extracted by artisans in some hipster cafe.

Try instead to allow special moments to arise. Allow serendipity and spontaneity (and do not consider scheduling “time to be spontaneous”). Think pontang.

This can mean, in a rapper’s dictionary, using a woman as a sexual object. In Singapore-speak, pontang means to cheat, run away or – and perhaps most commonly – play truant from class or work.

The parent and authority figure may bristle, but the child within us would be wistful.

I can write this, and you read it, in the first hour of the first day of the week, while the rest of the world is in a traffic jam or already at their first meeting. What a secret and special treat then – when there is no MC or real reason, other than that you feel like it. That’s pontang.

There may be returns – perhaps a eureka moment of insight or you return to the office recharged. But it’s wrong to measure in such utilitarian terms. The real question about time like this – out, away, stolen – is not why but how and with whom.

How to steal time? How to spend it, and with whom? In the spirit of pontang, here are suggestions that are not without mischief.

First, get lost. Rebecca Solnit’s book of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is not about blundering around forests or frozen wastelands – unlike, say, an expedition with Bear Grylls. The journey Solnit believes necessary is metaphysical and metaphorical – only by getting lost can we discover new things that might matter in our lives.

Whenever I’m in Bali, my sunrise habit is to wander along the beach for a bit and for no particular purpose. Sometimes, there is an upachara, or ceremony with a family and priest dressed in traditional finery.

One time, I struck up a conversation with an Aussie-Italian cook-turned-restaurant owner who was documenting the history of lesser-known eastern Bali. He once played rugby for Indonesia and set up a sports foundation for disadvantaged local kids. Who knows what you might see and whom you might meet outside your usual routine?

Second, get cancelled on. Say, you’ve scheduled a business trip abroad, but that vital meeting falls through. Don’t fight but embrace that, and cancel the trip. Then, when your PA dutifully tries to slot in other meetings at home, decline. Don’t feel guilty about it – you didn’t conspire for the cancellation, and a later visit can be arranged.

For now, days will open up – perhaps two or more, depending on where you were supposed to go – with little or nothing scheduled. Treat this time as a windfall, an unexpected gift. Don’t spend those hours as if normal rules apply. Instead, spoil yourself with something you have been meaning to do if there was only more time.

For me, I was recovering from a bug caught from my son at the tail end of a long year, and I was no longer hacking but still too woozy for a full day’s work. So I indulged in an afternoon of tea. Not the Devonshire cream and buffet experience but a visit to a place I know, always enjoy and mean to go to more often – Tea Bone Zen Mind on Emerald Hill.

You enter an unmarked door, don comfy slippers and then cross a pond of ornamental fish to seat yourself on an elegant, updated tatami – or, if your old bones can’t take that, a comfy and firm sofa. Even before you are served the tea selected by Carrie Chen, the tea master and owner, your perception of time has shifted.

So, too, your expectations. This teahouse does not mimic 19th-century China or Kyoto. While trained in both Japan and Taiwan, Carrie playfully reinvents from her own sensibility. Cold tea, for instance, is served spiked with a thin slice of apple and a trickle of golden rum. When more traditional tea comes later, there are tantalising side dishes of thick smoked pork and plummy preserves, dusted with French sea salt.

Tastes are piqued, not satiated. Servings also appeal visually. Yet, the tea and food do not dominate. Nor does Zen Mind impose stern emptiness. You and your guest may instead talk convivially and laugh (or gripe) about whatever you want. Time will find its cadence – neither frenzied nor stultified – until your stolen afternoon is completely and very well spent.

A third way to steal time is to use the moments in between. No matter how packed your schedule, there are such minutes. When one meeting is over and before another begins, send a funny emoticon- embedded message to someone you are close to and who may be far away.

After a trip abroad and before the next, tend to plants in your garden with the hope that they gestate in your absence and bloom upon your return. One friend, after completing evening conference calls with his HQ in the United States and before sleep, unwinds by drawing up playlists of his fave songs on Spotify.

Find your interest, and you will find time.

We dream of escaping time’s arrow. That desire to control time is one reason for our fascination with movies where the temporal dimension is malleable, like Interstellar by Christopher Nolan (and also his previous Inception). Yet, we don’t need science fiction and intergalactic travel to control our time.

We do, however, need to feel the necessity of time away from our work and what passes for normal, and then either demand the hours are given back or else steal what was always ours.