My name is Tom O’Leary and this is the Time Academy podcast. Today we are thinking about timescales.
To illustrate what I mean by timescales, let me ask you two very similar but starkly different questions:
- Firstly, what would you like to accomplish today?
- Secondly, what would you like to accomplish this year?
These are “big” questions so If a pause feels appropriate please hit that button!
For most people, the second question may feel a little more uncomfortable. Whilst, in fact we do have annual “what do I want to accomplish this year moments?”– we call them New Year’s resolutions – research points to relatively few people seeing them through. Some of this may be because the resolutions aren’t realistic or not truly close to our hearts but it is also partly due to a failure to truly play with timescales.
So let’s cycle through a couple of timescales.
- Let’s start with today: If I’m solely focused on today I am more likely to have loads of little things I want to achieve – in a way to productively fill up my hours – this can be highly tactical around getting stuff ticked off the to-do list or keeping email under control. And there is no doubt that some days this is where we need to be.
- That said, now zoom out and look at the coming month: Ask yourself, what would I like to have accomplished this month? I’m going to wager that the list may be somewhat more strategic and likely shorter.
- Now imagine looking a year or decade ahead: What might be on your list?
So hopefully this illustrates that by switching timescales we get to see how we might be making our world too small, too tactical. You might get a sense of this by looking back at yesterday, last week, last month and asking yourself what you accomplished. What feels significant? What most impacted where you are at this moment?
Deciding on the timescale you’re playing at can thus have a major impact on the scope and depth of what you will accomplish on this planet. This brings us back to an earlier question we explored – namely ‘What represents a good life for you?’ This question primarily focuses on your life experience and your memory of that life experience – a mix of what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls our Experiencing and Remembering Selves – our Experiencing and Remembering Selves. But we could look at the question from the perspective of timescales and ask How do you want to be remembered? Or even, in your later years, how would you like to remember yourself? Your accomplishments?
In some spheres, much can be accomplished without the need for a bigger plan and just a strong process. Van Gogh is a perfect example, producing over 900 pieces of art between the ages of 27 and 37. Each piece of art could be executed in a reasonably short amount of time so, provided he turned up to work day after day, his talent did the rest. He was the bigger picture in a sense.
In many other spheres, producing something of value takes much longer. There are so many examples from the literary sphere but one that always comes to mind for me is Henry David Thoreau. His masterpiece Walden has had a lasting impression on modern philosophy and is rated as one the 100 most influential books of all time on Goodreads. And yet, in addition to the 2 years 2 months he spent at Walden Pond running his lifestyle experiment he spent 10 years writing and revising the book. For anyone who might be curious, that works out at around one and a half pages a month. Hemingway was similarly said to have written about 500 words a day patiently building up masterpieces like For Whom the Bell Tolls (a personal favourite, weighing in at almost 175,000 words). In such cases, we are clearly not thinking in terms of daily productivity and more about the overall accomplishments in a larger timeframe and even legacy perhaps.
Quite apart from their obvious talent, neither Van Gogh, Thoreau nor Hemingway could rely on brilliance alone. They had to turn up every day to deliver on their visions. And so do we. So take a longstanding dream you might have – a dream you would truly love to see fulfilled. Instead of starting from today, visualize yourself as having already accomplished it. Make it a whole body experience – soak in the feeling, take note of all the details. In fact, how will you know you have accomplished it? What will be different? Also, how long does it feel it has taken?
Once again, if you feel the need to pause please do so.
Now start working back the timeframes. What will you need to have accomplished and who will you need to have become at each shorter timeframe? Ultimately, the only place we accomplish anything is today so it is about bringing it back into this week and then to today and almost asking in the past tense “What did I do today to bring me closer to my vision?” Adding in reflection sessions where you look back and forward at different timeframes can also be helpful to stay on track or revise your vision.
Here you can see that playing with timescales allows you to create a vision (set a goal if you like) in one timescale and then focus on process in the shorter ones (habits, routines, rituals). This can reduce the decisions you have to make on a daily basis while ensuring you make progress on what is important for you. One of the greatest gifts in my daily life is the ability to reduce unnecessary decision-making by just executing on a plan in a bigger timeframe.
So in closing – a question to take with you through the day – At what timescales am I playing?
Thanks for listening to the Time Academy podcast. I hope this has offered you a slightly different perspective. If you find it helpful please share! I’d also love to get your feedback and hear your stories so please feel free to email me.