It’s About Time


by John Zielinski

I’ve been thinking about time quite a bit lately. It’s the result of a question that someone named Joe asked me not long ago and whose answer was, “Time.” Some of that thought has been on the physics of time. I’ll not bore you with those musings at least for now. Most of my thoughts, though, have been consideration of 3 specific aspects of time as they relate to human beings and human behavior.

Given an infinite amount of time, no project is ever completed.

I don’t remember where or when I first heard this. It may have been in an advanced composition class in high school as an admonition to not procrastinate on writing the major paper. Regardless, the statement is spot on.

Think about the various projects in which you’ve been involved during your life. Consider projects done as part of your job or your school work and projects done for personal reasons outside of your job or school. Consider projects that have been given to you to complete, projects for which you volunteered and projects that have been of your own undertaking. Consider the projects where you were a member of a team and the projects where you were on your own. Consider the epic projects and the little ones as well. Now, get ready to place each project in one of two categories. The first category is Completed Projects. The second category is (unsurprisingly) Not Completed Projects. While what goes into the first category is obvious, what goes into the second may be less so.

When deciding what to put into Not Completed Projects be sure to consider at least each of the following. There are the projects that are still in progress. These may or may not get completed. There are the projects that have been abandoned. These will clearly never get completed. Finally, and most insidiously, there are the projects that never really got started.

Now that you’ve got your projects separated, look at each one in each category. Of the projects that were completed, was any of them given an infinite amount of time to get done? In other words, did you have a deadline that had to be met or was “whenever” good enough? Even if all that you had to deal with was a small part of a bigger picture, were you free to complete your part at your leisure or did it need to fit into some sort of larger schedule? My guess is that there was some external factor driving completion.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey presents a 4-quadrant graph where 1 axis represents importance and the other is urgency. It looks something like this.

Urgent & Important Not Urgent & Important
Urgent & Not Important Not Urgent & Not Important

The key thing to keep in mind is that the importance and urgency are relative to you and not to someone else. That explains how something can be both urgent and not important. The things that end up in that quadrant are typically urgent and important to someone else.

Urgency implicitly means that there’s a time boundary. There is not an infinite amount of time to get the thing done. As a result, the thing does get done.

What’s unfortunate is that importance alone doesn’t seem to be enough to drive something to completion. As a matter of fact, in my conversations with people about the projects that they consider important it seems that the importance itself keeps the work from getting done if there’s not a time box. Because the thing is important and there’s nothing forcing it to get done it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of tweaking, rehashing, rewriting or otherwise iterating infinitely in an attempt to make the thing absolutely perfect. This, of course, ignores the fact that there’s no such thing as perfect. It also ignores the fact that one’s idea of perfection evolves over time so that things previously considered perfect later come to be considered not only not perfect, but not even good enough. Suddenly there’s even more work to get done than before.

If you’ve got a project that’s not been completed, ask yourself into which quadrant it falls. You can and should forget about the things that are Not Urgent & Not Important. You can trust that the things that are Urgent & Important will get done. For those that are Not Urgent & Important maybe it’s time to create a deadline for yourself to force urgency and turn them into Urgent & Important. The result may not be perfect, but nothing ever is. As you’ve surely heard, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Time is not a river. It is a collection of independent rivers.

The image of time as a powerful river flowing inexorably from the past to the future is well entrenched in our society. On reflection, however, I don’t think that it’s quite accurate. Rather than a single river that’s carrying us all forward, time seems to be many rivers – one for each entity in the universe. This applies to living things and to non-living things as well. Each river follows its own course and each river – even the one for the universe itself – ultimately comes to an end and dries up.

You’re riding on your own river as it flows where it will. Sometimes that course meanders and sometimes it rages in a direct line. The problem is that you can’t see far enough ahead to know for sure which is going to happen or when. You may believe that you control its direction and perhaps you do for short stretches. On the other hand, your control overall is limited. Perhaps more importantly, your river sometimes connects with others and each changes all. You meet someone and fall in love. Your rivers merge, but there’s no guarantee that they won’t diverge again. You take a job and your river is suddenly affected by the rivers of your co-workers, your company, your industry, macroeconomic conditions and many others. The combined flow leads you to places that you may not have imagined and once there you can’t swim back upstream. Where you find yourself ends up dictating where your river can flow next. Ultimately the flow stops.

Every river has a source and an end. Your river began when you came into being. Someday it will slow to a trickle and even that trickle will diminish until it is no more. This is true for you and for everyone else. It’s true for the earth, the solar system, the galaxy and the universe itself. This has implications for the rivers that interact with yours and with which yours interacts. There are many people who don’t want to think about this. “If I don’t look at it then it doesn’t exist.” Besides being a rather infantile point of view, this closes one off from a critically important perspective.

When you run out of river what are you going to do? If you’ve been clever you probably developed a plan. If you refused to accept that your river would ever end then you may find yourself regretting that.

What’s going to happen to all of those Not Urgent & Important projects that never got finished? What’s going to happen to those other rivers – the rivers of the people you love – that have been depending on the flow from yours for the sustenance of their flows? Suddenly there are people and things whose futures are uncertain because you chose to believe that your river out of all others would never run dry and you were wrong.

I’ve never met anyone who wouldn’t change what they’d done in the past if they’d been able to see the future.

Fiction about time travel or time manipulation has been around for a long time. For most of us the first of which we heard was The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. It was published in 1895. Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ve likely seen a movie version or at least know the basic premise. Stories about attempting to manipulate the flow of time are even older. Oedipus Rex is, essentially, about a man attempting to change the future – a future about which he’s learned through a prophecy. It’s from about 429 BCE. Why do these stories grab our attention?

When we’re children, adolescents and young adults we seem to have the entire universe ahead of us. We see possibilities that we’ll grab and wrangle. We’ll make those possibilities submit to our will. We will make our own future. Then a funny thing – not funny “ha-ha,” but funny “difficult to explain or understand” – happens. It’s generally known as “life.”

We find that a river of time other than our own has impinged on ours and caused the direction or the speed of the flow to change. Gradually or suddenly the possibilities change. That should come as no surprise, but somehow it always does. Every single event and every single decision changes the options that are available for movement into the future. Decide even a microsecond later to make a left turn rather than waiting to turn and your river of time or someone else’s suddenly comes to an end. The end of that river ripples outward making a number of additional changes far beyond our ability to calculate or comprehend. Your decisions affect so much more than just your life.

Not long ago I was having a drink with an acquaintance. During last year’s primary season he was a vigorous supporter of a candidate who did not get the party’s nomination for president. This upset my acquaintance greatly. He decided that he simply could not tolerate what he considered an unfair situation and decided that while he would vote he would write in his preferred candidate rather than vote for the candidate against whom his preference had run. (I’m pretty sure that you can figure out who the actual candidates were.) Why take this tack? He was absolutely certain that there was no way in hell that Donald Trump would get enough votes to become president of the United States. Surprise! Surpise! On November 9, 2016 it turned out that Donald Trump would, indeed, be the next president. My acquaintance admitted that if he’d known that this would have happened he would have voted differently. 20-20 hindsight.

When I was at university as a music major nearly everyone that I knew said that if they’d seen that they’d be at university as a music major they would have practiced more over the years. Some of these people were amazing musicians as it was. Still, had they known they would have practiced more. 20-20 hindsight.

A guy with whom I attended high school and with whom I was a “friend” on Facebook was complaining that America had changed and that his choice of career was no longer relevant. Even when we were in high school it was pretty clear that there wasn’t much of a future for his career of choice. Regardless, he charged forward, took up the reins of that line of work and hung on until no one was interested in hiring people in that discipline. 20-20 hindsight although it was America’s fault rather than his.

I believe that every single one of us has at least one thing in our past that we would change if we had known how that would have affected our future. What no one seems to consider is how that change would have affected the futures of so many others. Ah, the “George Bailey” effect.

All that we can control is the now.

We all travel in time, but that travel – at least for now – is limited to moving into the future. None of us can see where our personal river leads. None of us can see all of the other rivers that will intersect with ours or how that intersection will affect the other rivers or our own. The best that we can do is to look at those things that we consider important and make sure that we also consider them urgent so that they don’t languish by the roadside. Important & Urgent things get done. Each of us needs to ensure that the things we consider important are also considered urgent.

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