Bending Time

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

– William Blake

There’s an old joke about a very clever man who somehow manages to get himself up to heaven on a day pass and sits down to have a conversation with God.

He asks “God, can you explain how eternity looks to you?”

God replies “To me, all of eternity is like a blink of an eye – less than one second in your limited perception of time.”

Next the man asks “God, can you explain what wealth is like for you?”

And God says “Wealth is so much more infinite than you can imagine. A billion dollars in the infinite realm is like a penny in your limited perception of wealth.”

The man thinks for a moment.

“God – can I borrow a penny?”

“Sure,” says God. “Just a second…”

Nearly all time management systems are based on the idea that time is a fixed quantity and we all get access to roughly the same amount of it. There are sixty seconds in an hour, twenty four hours in a day, seven days in a week, etc. But you can’t put time in a wheelbarrow, which means that time is less subject to the laws of physics than it is the principles of Mind, Thought, and Consciousness.

In other words, time is a concept we’ve made up to help us coordinate action and make sense of things in the world. And since it’s all made up, our experience of time is 100% an experience of thought.

I’ve never quite been able to find out if it’s true, but there’s a story that Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas, began to have to shield him from an ever more inquisitive public. So she found herself in the position of having to answer questions about his work to the general public. In order to help her explain relativity, Einstein gave her this simple analogy:

“An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.”

So what if instead of simply learning to manage linear time, you could learn to “bend it” – to stretch it out and shrink it down?

Now, I’m not really sure this can be done sustainably as an act of will, but we’ve all got experiences where time “bent” on its own – where something either took much longer than clock or calendar time would have suggested, or something took considerably less time. And we’ve all been startled on occasion at how much we were able to get done in the days or hours leading up to a vacation or a real-world deadline.

What happens when time bends?

1. Life becomes more black and white

When we take a deadline to heart, we simplify our priorities down to the bare minimum. The answer to questions become “yes”, “no”, or “I can’t think about that right now”. Our standards temporarily lower and getting it done becomes more important than how well it gets done. Good enough, at least for the moment, becomes a good enough standard for our work.

2. We’re less inclined to indulge our thinking

I don’t come off very well in this story, but not long after we moved to America, I sat down to prepare a  log of how much time I was spending on all my work projects so that I could persuade my wife I really didn’t have “extra time” to help out with the house and kids. To my dismay, I found I was spending less than two hours a day actually working and ten to twelve hours thinking about what there was to be done.

While I was aware that giving yourself time for reflection opens us up to creativity, I was equally aware that obsessively thinking about the same things for days on end was a great way of closing down creative flow. I never did show my wife my time log, but I did start volunteering to help out with a lot more tasks around the house. As soon as I had less time or inclination to overthink everything, I started to get considerably more done in considerably less time.

3. We let the small stuff take care of itself along the way

A popular analogy for priority management is the story of a professor who places a large jar on the table.

By the side of the jar he places a bucket of gravel, a bucket of sand, a bucket of water, and three big rocks. He then challenges his participants to  find a way to fit everything on the table into the jar.

After numerous attempts, it became clear that the only way to fit everything in is to start with the big rocks first.  The gravel fills the space between the big rocks, the sand fills the gaps in the gravel, and the water fills the gaps between the sand.

In the same way, when we put our attention on the big rocks in our life and don’t let ourselves get caught up in the daily gravel, ground down by the sand, or swept away by the water, it’s amazing how much of what we thought we had to do “just happens” while we’re busy with what matters most.

So here are some questions to reflect on that may lead to time bending in your favor and will certainly give you the experience of time being less fixed and more fluid going forward:

  • What’s the longest hour you’ve ever spent? How about the shortest day or week? Why?
  • The next time you have a deadline, notice what happens to your thinking. Does it get easier or harder to ignore? What do you make of that?
  • What are your biggest “rocks” right now? What are the one, two, or three things you would focus on if you knew the rest of your life would fit itself in around them?

Have fun, learn heaps, and happy exploring!

With all my love,